John Stauss, Regional Vice President of Four Seasons Hotel Group, knew his vocation would be in the hotel business at the age of fourteen. Twenty-nine years ago he joined Four Seasons Group and his natural enthusiasm is such that he finds his inspiration to strive forward as strong today as it was the day he joined. Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide conducted the interview which took place in one of the beautiful lounge areas of the new Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane.
Tell us some background about yourself?
Well, back in the late 60s, at the age of fourteen, my grandmother took me to see a blockbuster movie based on a best selling novel, called Hotel. In those days there was still an interval and at the break I told to my grandmother that I genuinely believed that my future was in the hotel business.
Within a year I was working in the trade, and enrolled in a hotel school that had a five years waiting list. For those years I continued working in hotels and restaurants and have done so ever since!
Twenty-nine years ago I joined Four Seasons. I strongly believe that this company is clearly aligned with the values ingrained in me from the early days, in particular how to treat people, be they employees or guests. Every day I get up in the morning with the same enthusiasm that captured me in the beginning. I’ve had the pleasure of working in various hotels in various locations – the last seventeen years of which as general manager of the Fours Seasons at London Park Lane.
In terms of my current roles and responsibilities, my first love is being general manager of this hotel (Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane) but my overall remit is as Regional Vice President, so I have additional operational responsibility of six other hotels: Budapest, Prague, Lisbon, Dublin, Canary Wharf and a country house hotel in Hampshire. The majority of my time is spent here (in London) although I do travel around the region visiting the other hotels. In terms of the Park Lane Hotel I currently have the full operational, financial and marketing responsibilities.
What is your philosophy of General Management?
Four Seasons is a Canadian Group in thirty-six countries. We have our 50th anniversary in March 2011, and the founder – Isadore Sharp – remains the Chairman today. It is his philosophy or vision that is the heart beat of the group. In any business, where you have that level of consistency of leadership then the values of the leader will naturally pulse through the veins of the company.
Mr Sharp, although he is 80 this year, is still highly active in the company – he knows the hotels and the teams. One key philosophy is to hire attitude and teach technical. Many businesses, not just hotels, hire technical and try to instil attitude. A corollary philosophy is to maintain dignity and respect. This encompasses the way we treat employees and the way employees treat our customers – the golden rule of treat others how you wish to be treated. These areas are fundamental and it’s important that we walk the talk every day.
A Four Seasons differentiator is perhaps the idea of providing service for our customers without excessive formality: to achieve excellence through technical quality of service rather than formality. In London, where there is an unmatched diversity of top end hotels, this proves something that makes our hotel stand out from the crowd.
Tell us about the ideas behind- and concepts of- the redevelopment Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane?
The Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane is the longest serving Four Seasons in the world. It opened forty-one years ago this week and became the model for how Mr Sharp saw Four Seasons Hotels: medium sized with a high level of personalized service without formality. The hotel has historically been very successful and also provided a benchmark for the group in terms of finding its way in the competitive market of top end luxury hotels.
Naturally, over the last forty years, there have been significant developments in innovation as well as in hotel concept and design. This led the Group, about five years ago, to consider what could be done to take this fabulous location over looking Hyde Park and transform it into something we would like to have today.
We are not talking about a refurbishment or a redevelopment but a complete transformation. After some years of planning, the site closed in September 2008 and on January 31st 2011 re-opens as this extraordinary new hotel.
The Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane is completely newly laid out and configured, a process that involved (literally) ripping out the entire interior to develop the new site. There were a few important core concepts – bring in the park, bring in the light and make use of the garden.
There is a spectacular 360 degrees view from the building (around London) – Buckingham Palace, The London Eye through to Canary Wharf to the east and Hyde Park and Knightsbridge to the west. Consequently there are large windows around the hotel: To bring in these views and bring in the light. We have considered the concepts down to details; part of bringing in the Park means that you will find plants, rather than cut flowers, all around the hotel.
We wanted to be uniquely Four Seasons at Park Lane and differentiate ourselves with a special identity. Designers call the resulting spaces classical contemporary: a stunning blend that bridges the styles from the 1920s and ‘30s moving forwards. There are a lot of very subtle British touches all around the hotel, giving a rich and sophisticated feel without being extravagant or opulent.
The hotel also contains thirty-two fireplaces, which can be found in the lobby, lounges, conference facilities and suites and provide a warm comforting feel for our guests.
An exciting feature is a new tenth floor, which is a glass attic, containing a world destination spa and a state-of-the-art fitness centre with panoramic views. This floor also has a lounge which serves three purposes: To accommodate guests waiting for rooms who have come in at 6am from Asia or the United States (an early arrivals suite with three showers): To provide a comfortable spa café lounge for guests using the facilities during the day: To offer a beautiful function space for private hire in the evenings that seats sixteen.
Tell us about the dining experience that will be on offer at the new Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane?
The bar, restaurant and lounge are designed as one venue, called Amaranto, with multiple experiences. There is a consistent, high-end, Italian inspired menu that is available across the three distinct spaces; the customer can choose where to dine according to their mood or the occasion. This concept extends through breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner or drinks.
Certainly a departure from the traditional hotel experience; for example take your dinner in the lounge by the piano, in the bar by the wine wall or in the restaurant beside the conservatory. We understand that today’s luxury hotel traveller or restaurant connoisseur does not need policing on where to sit or to be told what they want or how they feel.
To this end, the team is expected to give the customer what they want rather than what we think they should have, a kind of bespoke experience, that follows on from the value that service excellence is more about flexibility than formality.
Overall it is a venue that will serve the luxury hotel guest and fine dining enthusiast in equal measure; offering a new, unique and exciting destination in London.
Have you set any hard or soft targets for the re-opening?
London hotels historically do very well and run at nearly full capacity from Easter to Christmas. This hotel has always been strongly successful and after the re-opening we expect that to continue.
The bar, lounge and restaurant area is expected to do well in the new hotel. The garden will be a draw in summer and the unique venue attractive to non-resident diners, too.
Expanding on an area we’ve touched upon – Is Amaranto designed to be an outlet for hotel guests or as a destination restaurant for travelling diners?
The answer is both. This is not to suggest that the restaurant aims to be all things to all people but to specifically cater to those two groups. We are honour bound to serve our luxury hotel customers what they want, when they want and where they want – should a guest like to have an omelette at 8pm on a Saturday night in the restaurant then we must provide them with an omelette at 8pm on a Saturday night in the restaurant.
At the same time we have recruited some first class chefs, in a large brigade of fifty-eight in the kitchen, (many recruited from outside the company) to meet the needs of discerning visiting diners. The brief is clear in this respect. There is a separate entrance to the restaurant venue on Hamilton Place, which is the clearest demonstration that the restaurant is designed to attract non-residents and stand on it’s own as a destination.
What are your plans for the future?
The London Hotel and restaurant scene is so vibrant at the moment. I’d feel very lonely were I sitting on the sidelines and not a part of such an exciting time. I’m right where I want to be and hope to be long into the future.
And so it was time to leave, John’s enthusiasm for the project is unquestionable. One imagines his natural enthusiasm is inspirational to the staff and his focus on achieving the details of objectives the path to true and lasting success.