From humble beginnings washing dishes at Colhugh Villa in Llantwit Major, Wales to President of Hotel Operations, Europe, Middle East and Africa for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts; Simon Casson has enjoyed a stellar career.
To anyone who speaks to Simon Casson for even a few minutes you will be immediately struck by his infectious charisma and personal ethos, which positively radiates Four Seasons from his very core; no surprise for someone who has spent more than a quarter of a century with one of the finest hotel chains in the world today. He believes that the simple desire to make people happy should be one of the most important attributes for of any Four Seasons employee. Food and Travel discussed his personal philosophy, career and what keeps Four Seasons as the leading iconic luxury brand it has undoubtedly become today.
Running a restaurant is hard work at the best of times, running a hotel more so; did you always want to work in the hospitality industry? And how did you fall upon a career in hospitality?
As a matter of fact, yes. My first exposure to hospitality happened as a teenager washing dishes in a busy kitchen in the Welsh village where I grew up. I remember seeing all the action happening in the dining area through the swinging door and telling myself that one day I was going to be on the other side – not as a customer, but as someone who is in charge of bringing these experiences to life for guests. I stayed true to that commitment to myself, and the result has been a wonderful journey from the kitchen to where I am today.
What led you to join Four Seasons hotels? And what has kept you with them for over a quarter of century?
My journey with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts began in 1989 as assistant manager at what we today know as Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane. What has kept me with this dynamic company for over 25 years is the amazing work culture we not only share across teams, properties and destinations, but also take great pride in. An extension of that is our strong focus on mentorship and the bonds that come when working with colleagues that over the years become friends. As a company we encourage our people to realise their full potential, and in our pursuit of achieving and sustaining a true people culture, we are constantly providing opportunities for talent development as a key focus of our growth strategy.
What kind of obstacles have you faced in your career? And how did you overcome them?
Getting out of your comfort zone and taking on new experiences are the hallmarks of successful hoteliers. Great hospitality is about understanding your guests, wherever they are from and wherever they are travelling to. Now, for some people this emphasis on changing your sphere of reference can be an obstacle to overcome, but I’ve always seen it as a rewarding challenge. My 27 years with Four Seasons have taken me from Washington D.C. to Doha and beyond – encountering new cultures and fresh perspectives along the way. These transition periods were not always easy and smooth, but they taught me how to see the full picture in this industry.
What has been the most rewarding moment in your business life?
When you are part of an industry in which one of your core duties is to ensure that your guests leave with memorable, meaningful experiences, every moment that goes beyond guest expectations is rewarding. We like to think about how we can ‘wow’ those who stay with us – from the personal service to the fine details that really make a difference. What I find most rewarding today is helping people to grow and reach their full potential through effective guidance, coaching, stretching and support.
Please share some leadership tips you feel are essential to your job.
A manager gets things done through position and title whereas a leader does this through reputation and inspiration. You become a true leader in the hospitality industry when you can bring out the best in people. Leadership is all about creating an environment within which the team can excel. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of investing in people and developing their talents for their personal growth, which in turn reflects positively on the encounters they have with our guests. A hospitality brand cannot have better ambassadors to represent and speak for its offerings than employees who are confident in the company and empowered to make the decisions based on their well-founded instinct of what is best for the guest.
What are the best and worst aspects of working in this industry?
Like any other industry, hospitality has its own share of opportunities and challenges. The hotel industry offers the chance to discover new cultures, meet great people from across the globe and be creative. On the flip side, this is one of the most competitive industries in the world – the need to act fast to stay ahead of guest expectation, while operating methodically to maintain a truly premium service offering, is certainly something that keeps senior executives like myself awake at night, sometimes. It is an industry that involves long hours and, in the early years, low pay and so you really have to have a true passion to make it through. Like any industry, this challenge acts as a motivator if you look upon it from this perspective – the constant drive to offer remarkable new experiences is one that my colleagues and I thrive upon.
In what ways has the hospitality industry changed since the time you stepped into it?
I have been a part of Four Seasons for almost three decades. During this time, let alone the full span of my experience in the hospitality industry, we have witnessed more change than perhaps any other period in history. From the advent of the internet and the arrival of social media revolutionising the way we communicate with our guests, to the opening of borders and the discovery of roads less travelled creating new tourist destinations, the extent of change is remarkable. When I started working at Four Seasons in London, I would not have dreamed we would launch a Four Seasons Private Jet to take our guests on extraordinary journeys around the world – and yet, I welcomed our fully-branded 52-seater Jet to Dubai for the first time this November. The breakneck speed at which this industry operates is at once fascinating and exciting. Every moment of change is an opportunity for us to pass on that excitement to our guests.
Four Seasons hotels have expanded considerably around the globe, particularly in the Middle East. What is the secret to its success?
We have maintained leadership position for almost five decades now and throughout these years, we have remained singularly focused on 5-star luxury. The Four Seasons name has grown to become synonymous with intuitive service, attention to detail and thoughtful guest experiences, and we attribute these to our fantastic work culture. Our strategy for success in the Middle East, as it is anywhere else in the world, is an extension of our passion for creating luxury experiences for our discerning guests. Our recent openings in the UAE, including the boutique-sized Four Seasons Hotel Dubai International Financial Centre and the light-filled Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi at Al Maryah Island, speak of our commitment to this region, where we will also welcome our first property in Kuwait next year.
What are your future plans for the region?
We are excited about the opening of our first Four Seasons address in Kuwait, Four Seasons Hotel Kuwait at Burj Alshaya, scheduled for an early 2017 opening. This sleek, avant-garde luxury property will be the stylish new centrepiece of Kuwait City, with sophisticated interiors that would be cutting-edge anywhere in the world, yet belong distinctly in Kuwait.
Around the same time we will also open the doors of Four Seasons Hotel London at Ten Trinity Square – the heritage building, which is currently being restored and renewed as a Four Seasons experience, was once the home of the Port of London Authority and played host to the first meeting of the United Nations. This exclusive address will feature just 100 guest accommodations, as well as 41 Four Seasons Private Residences.
We will continue to explore expansion opportunities in destinations where our guests want to travel and where we can find right partners with whom we share a vision and commitment to delivering unparalleled luxury experiences.
Could you share with us the ethos that you feel personifies your unique approach to the industry?
We invest heavily in talent development and that is one of the distinguishing factors that sets apart our approach to business. Hospitality is a people industry, so it is only natural that we enhance the capabilities of our people who are the face of our brand, creating unforgettable luxury experiences that bring Four Seasons guests to our properties time and again.
Any hospitality trends you foresee that will be a rage in the coming years?
With guests increasingly wanting to share their travel experiences online, ‘design’ has emerged as a key trend enhancing the aesthetic value we deliver to our guests. Having identified this, we ensured that design remains a primary focus at our new Four Seasons Hotel Dubai International Financial Centre, which has been brought to life as an elegant boutique-style sanctuary, and the upcoming Four Seasons Hotel Kuwait at Burj Alshaya that stands as the stylish new centrepiece of Kuwait City.
What do you consider to be the essentials of exceptional customer service?
Exceeding the expectations of every guest – whatever those maybe – is the Four Seasons approach to exceptional customer service. Guests are placed at the heart of a hospitality business, so meeting their needs through intuitive service, attention to detail and an unmatched ability to deliver are essential components of our strategy.
There is stiff competition from other luxury properties in the area. What makes Four Seasons stand out?
If you are a local resident, what makes you come back to that restaurant time and again? If you are an international traveller, what makes you choose that hotel time and again? The answer is the same – the people. Of course, the product has to be first rate, but impeccable design, great food or spacious rooms are only the foundation of luxury hospitality – the guest experience truly comes to life through people. I think our success in creating an exceptional service culture, which sees our guests keep coming back to our properties, extends from the fact we empower our teams. As a company, we remain focused on the guest experience and our employees are ambassadors for that vision.
How do you create a good work-life balance?
I think that as one climbs the ladder to these senior jobs, you have to accept the reality that work, travel and personal time all merges into one. I travel extensively and often work through weekends. What I strive to do is make sure that the quality of my downtime is real and that I am fully ‘present’. My wife is able to join me on some trips, which helps, and I try to connect with my grown-up children as I travel to countries where they are.
Can you share with us some key moments from you career with Four Seasons.
I have indeed had the honour of meeting many heads of states, world leaders, celebrities and luminaries of our times. But it has really been an equal, if not a greater privilege to spend more time with the stewards, the housekeepers, the painters and the bellmen. I am often humbled by their wisdom and lifted by their humour. The heartbeat of every hotel lies here within and I’ve always received more than I have given and any success I might have achieved over the years, has really been from standing on the shoulders of these service giants in every hotel that I have been fortunate to work in. So, for me it was realising that I wanted to work in luxury hospitality and then finding a company like Four Seasons. Four Seasons provided for me the right environment, the fertile soil in which I was able to grow just like a seed.
If you take a sunflower seed, there is nothing to suggest that this small and unremarkable object could ever become a radiant, yellow sunflower. And it can only become so if it has the right soil and environment in terms of sun and rain to be able to grow. The same goes for your career…for your true potential to emerge and be maximised, you must plant your career in the fertile ground of an amazing company that welcomes you, nurtures you, challenges and stretches you to be the best you can be…for me that has been Four Seasons.