President interview: Christian Clerc

Hotelier Middle East talks to Four Seasons president Christian Clerc to find out why the brand is committed to this region, and how it plans to increase its footprint

Clerc says he is a hotelier at heart and will always continue to be one.
Clerc says he is a hotelier at heart and will always continue to be one.

Four Seasons completes 16 years in the region this year, a period during which the Canadian hotel operator has grown steadily. Or as Four Seasons president, hotel operations of Europe, Middle East and Africa Christian Clerc says: “The growth that we have had globally couldn’t have been [possible] without the Middle East.”

Clerc’s journey to the top in Four Seasons mirrors that of the operator in this market. “I joined in 2000 at a senior level, as hotel manager [at the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC]. The growth was natural thereafter; I enjoyed what I did and was very curious. I was willing to travel and worked in Latin America, North America, Europe and Middle East.”

Four Seasons has been associated with luxury since its inception, and Clerc, a Swiss native, says it was the prime reason he was drawn to the brand 16 years ago. “I never started thinking I would be in this job, as president of Europe, Middle East and Africa. I joined Four Seasons because of what it represented at the time to me: the best company. I was attracted to the level of service along with the quality of the hotel.”

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Aft the time of going to print, Four Seasons had 98 operating properties worldwide with the number set to change rather soon given the projects it has in the pipeline. “We are sitting at DIFC, which is an interesting new property for us, because [we have another one] at Jumeirah Beach, which is like a resort. And this is urban with a much smaller footprint. Hence, we have two properties in one market which are very different,” Clerc says.

“We have just opened in DIFC and Abu Dhabi will follow soon. We will also be opening in Kuwait [planned for December this year]. If you take the Middle East including North Africa we have 16 properties, four in Egypt and two in Morocco. That shows our commitment to this part of the world. It is an extremely important market for us and our hotels represent what this company is all about.”

Clerc mentions the term ‘gateway cities’ a few times while talking about the company’s growth strategy, and with the Bahrain property that went live last year, Four Seasons would be present in all GCC countries barring Oman by the end of this year.

Clerc hints that the company is looking at Oman’s leisure potential. He says: “If you think about Oman, it is definitely another country we would like to explore on the leisure side. We are exploring some desert experiences for the future. We are looking at all these dimensions and there is nothing off limits in terms of exploring.”

Clerc, however, does not reveal whether Four Seasons has concrete plans for Iran. “You have many locations that international brands could not do business in the past and they are starting to open — Cuba, Iran. So, being an international company we keep exploring new [locations]. There are no limitations to what we are exploring, as long as we can do business there.

“I don’t want to give a wrong sense of information because the truth is we look at so many different opportunities and we do very few, since the ones we do have to enhance the brand. Our approach is that our latest property has to be our greatest property. If you take our DIFC property, everything that we have learnt from our 20-plus years has been incorporated — some of it is hardware and some software,” he says, pointing out to the interiors of the new property which have been designed by Adam Tihany.

The DIFC property in Dubai has been described as a ‘boutique hotel’ since it offers about 100-odd rooms and “occupies a small footprint”. Clerc feels it’s not necessarily a model that Dubai will have to adopt even though finding prime space in the city is going to be challenging.

“For us it is all about interpreting the experience expected of us. We have everything from a tented camp to a lodge in Tanzania to the Four Seasons in New York which is this iconic tower to resorts like Jumeirah Beach. And, every one of our hotels is built to the location. Hence, we do not have a cookie cutter approach to our properties. We use different designers every time,” Clerc says.

In the MENA region, Four Seasons’ presence spans nine countries. And UAE will soon have three operating properties just behind Egypt with four. Clerc remains confident about the group’s aggressive presence in the region despite falling ADR, RevPAR and occupancy levels.

He says: “Anybody who is in the business knows that there are cycles. We are very aware of the fact that the hotel business and demand will go through cycles. You know — 2001, 2008. But 2015 was a great year for us, 2014 was good as well. In fact, since 2009 we have had an amazing ride, and because we are a global company we have a perspective that different regions go through different times. We also have the historical perspective.”

Clerc explains the company reacts to market fluctuations in a sensible manner. “During downturns, we do not cut on our service to the guest. We don’t reduce the service levels because that would be short -sighted. We will adjust cost structures but in areas that do not have direct impact on guest service and experience. Our commitment during a downturn is as strong as it is during the good times.”

Dropping room rates is not in Four Seasons’ style either. “We don’t believe in dropping rates to attract business because inevitably… there is a cost associated with the level and quality of services we provide. So, if you drop prices during downturn, in the luxury segment the connection between dropping price and increasing business, in our view, doesn’t exist. Unless you compromise on quality, because your customer remembers that.”

Clerc states that staying at a Four Seasons has insurance-like benefits. “In today’s world when you are travelling — we are so busy, travelling is stressful, airports and security issues. You stay at Four Seasons because it’s almost like buying insurance. You stay, not only because everything is going to go as planned, but because something might happen to your business or your family vacation that might not go by the book. And you know that in Four Seasons you will have a partner who will take care of you, and that is very powerful.”

Four Seasons strategy is defined as “in for the long run” by Clerc, coupled with a focused owner-operator relationship. “We have always had a long term partnership approach [with the owners], based on shared values and vision. Hence as part of the process we go through to select new locations, and the partnerships we have with the owners is [most certainly] based on a common vision around quality, brand and values. Once you have that everything else aligns.”

He is not keen on sharing the ROI that investors enjoy simply because of the different markets he looks over. “It is unlike any other real estate investment. The parameters are very similar, however, the only difference you will look at, in this case, bringing a brand value to your real estate asset. I can’t comment on the specific numbers for any property. But, what you should know is that as an investor you would not make the investment if you would not meet these IRR, or ROIs are not in keeping with your investment expectations. This is not about an ego, this is about a business plan.”

He adds: “We have had incredible relations with all our owners.” Case in point — both Dubai hotels are owned by the same developer. “Which is the case for many of our properties in the world,” Clerc adds.

From an owner’s point of view, Clerc indicates it is almost aspirational to be associated with the brand, and a lot of it is down to the level of service the brand has built its reputation on.

He asserts that the experience will not be interpreted to create another brand. “We are not going to do a Three Seasons, or try to do something that is a little more mid-market. Not because there is anything wrong with that just because it’s not who we are. What is most important to us is our integrity of the brand. I don’t know about the future, but it’s definitely not something we are considering now,” he confirms.

He explores the reason behind this: “For us, and for me particularly, there is no snobbish way to approach what we do. You define quality at all levels, it’s a value proposition. Four Seasons is a luxury brand, which provides unique bespoke experiences to our guests. That’s a clear brand positioning for us, it’s a belief and at the core of everything that we do, and it’s not going to change.”

“If you think about luxury brands, the brand promise is what’s most valuable to your company and so if you start introducing new products which are not in keeping with the quality that your customer base is used to, you are creating confusion. And that’s something we would not do with Four Seasons. That was the vision from our founder Isadore Sharp, which has remained — that we only do hotels with exceptional quality.”

Four Seasons’ strategy is not similar to some of the larger hoteliers in the world. “Right now our strategy is that we have just one brand and want to execute it. Every time you are opening a new hotel you are exposing the local market to what a Four Seasons is [all about]. We are still a fairly small company, when you compare it to the Marriott and Starwoods of the world.”

He continues: “The advantage of a focused strategy, if you think about it from a messaging [point of view] to your leadership team and also your employees, [is that] the mission is very clear. It creates a stage and a framework for every one of our 45,000 employees around the world. The clarity of the messaging of ‘who we are’ translates all the way through the organisation. Everyone has the same focus and that is a powerful thing.”

The clarity of messaging also translates through to food & bevergae operations, which Clerc is passionate about. He gives his opinion about the region’s F&B trends and how Four Seasons has absorbed them within its hotels.

“If you see what Wolfgang [Puck] did in Bahrain, it is a steakhouse called Cut. Although he is a three-Michelin star chef, he has not created a fine dining experience. At DIFC, we created a modern diner that was designed by Adam Tihany, in partnership with Michael Mina but it’s an interpretation of a modern diner. But, you are not only restricted to a burger, you can have the tuna tartare or the lobster pot pie. You have very refined products but presented in a comfort food style.”

He continues to say that the younger generation has, to a large extent, changed the manner in which F&B concepts are looked at. “People today don’t want to be told how to dress and what to eat, they want to be in control of their experiences. There has been a revolution in the food and beverage world, [in this part of the region]”

According to Clerc, F&B outlets should contribute to 30%-50% of the hotel’s top line revenue, and he reports that Four Seasons hotels generally earn about 30%-40% from its F&B outlets.

Moving forward, Clerc says that Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts will keep on plugging away at what stands at the core of its DNA.

He concludes: “What will continue to define what we are in the future is — customised service; which is tailor-made and intuitive, where every guest is looked after in a unique way. We don’t have a cookie cutter approach to service either. This has been a key differentiator for us in the market and continues to be our most competitive advantage because I think we execute that better than anyone else.”

Current influences on hotel F&B

“Twenty years ago you went to a restaurant and put yourself in the hands of the chef and the maître d’hôtel, and they would almost tell you what to eat, it was a little intimidating. There has been a complete revolution, [with the] food networks, bloggers and social media platforms. Today kids have an opinion about food, and they know a lot more because food has become cool. Gordon Ramsay and all other celebrity chefs with their shows have made food exciting. Younger generations are interested and curious in food, but they want to break the rules. That has led to a more casual dining experience but that does not mean the quality is any less. Just because you wear jeans it does not mean you cannot have a phenomenal dinner experience,” Christian Clerc says, indicating that F&B needs to be more agile and less formal.

Quick fire with Christian Clerc

Favourite Four Seasons property? Why?

The Four Seasons George V (If I had to choose one). Because it’s magical on so many levels: From Jeff Leatham’s flowers to chef Christian Lesquer’s three-star Michelin food, it is quintessentially Paris.

Most different opening you ever experienced?

Four Seasons DIFC because it is a new and exciting urban model for us.

Favourite pastime activity?

Golf.

Favourite sports personalities?

Roger Federer.

Sports teams?

AS Roma Football Club and the Ferrari F1 Team.

To drive or be driven?

Drive.

People who inspire you and why?

Isadore Sharp for having built an amazing company based on excellence and the golden rule.

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