The people's president

Four Seasons' Jim FitzGibbon on the importance of good staff

FitzGibbon thinks it is important that all employees are properly trained, motivated and cared for by the hotel.
FitzGibbon thinks it is important that all employees are properly trained, motivated and cared for by the hotel.
Employees bring
Employees bring

Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts president of worldwide operations, Jim FitzGibbon, explains why creating an “extraordinary” experience is down to the staff and not the surroundings

For Jim FitzGibbon, luxury hotels at the top end of the market should be beautiful, and offer a plethora of facilities and state of the art amenities. These features are a given, however; standard requirements in the 83 Four Seasons hotels he manages cross the globe that FitzGibbon is “not too fussed” with. After all, these are not the elements that create an “extraordinary” hotel.

“What’s extraordinary to you and what’s extraordinary to me are very different,” says FitzGibbon.

“It isn’t just the building. You can think of places around the world that are nice, but they’re not extraordinary [in terms of the building], but they are extraordinary because of the tradition of service that they have established there.”

What FitzGibbon is concerned with, therefore, is simple: does the hotel really work?

“Does it provide the experience that guests and customers expect? Does it provide the experience for the employee? It’s really about the employee too, that’s the person who adds the heart and soul to the business,” says FitzGibbon.

And that’s the person FitzGibbon is most keen to talk about when we meet in Dubai during his recent visit to the Middle East.

Starting from the top, FitzGibbon is keen to emphasise the pivotal role of the general managers, who are “always” recruited from within. He recalls that it was probably 15 years ago when the last GMs were recruited externally.

“I think it’s the fact that they are steeped in what we do,” says FitzGibbon. “We don’t over manage them, there’s a very high level of trust, I personally know them all quite well.

“I go out of my way to communicate with them very actively and you have this personal connection and it’s interesting; when [your manager] trusts you, you work even harder. It’s different if someone keeps directing you. If someone keeps directing you, you wait for direction; if someone trusts you, you go and do it.

“We have hotels in the Maldives and Mauritius and Seychelles and Bali, all over the place, and it’s not like there’s a club of hotels in one city where people can lean on one another — everybody’s in their own place and they have to run their own business, therefore you have to know them,” says FitzGibbon.

The internal recruitment of GMs is not necessarily to do with the demands of the customer or the investor, however. FitzGibbon says: “it has to do with the employees”.

“Our view is that we want to make sure that the person understands that it’s about the employees, it’s about making sure that the employees are motivated and trained properly and cared for properly and we think that makes a huge difference,” says FitzGibbon.

Leading by example, as part of FitzGibbon’s Middle East trip, he says that on a visit to Four Seasons Riyadh his first port of call was the employee housing.

“I will go first to the employees to see that they’re looked after and then I’ll go and see the guests,” says FitzGibbon, emphasising that recruiting the best of the best depends on how well you look after staff, not just on how much you pay.

This approach, inspired by founder, chairman and CEO Isadore Sharp’s ‘Golden Rule’ of treating employees with the same level of respect that they in turn give to guests, has earned Four Seasons the accolade of being in Fortune magazine’s Top 100 Companies to Work for in America — a ranking determined by the opinions of randomly selected Four Seasons employees.

But was the focus on staff wellbeing, and inextricable link to superb service, compromised at all during the economic downturn?

FitzGibbon is upfront and says that of course, staff numbers were cut during the crisis.

“I think that was probably the toughest thing we’ve had to deal with for a long time —but it was interesting,” he says.

“I think it’s unfortunate but people are realists too, it’s very interesting how people realise that must happen. We had situations where we had to lay off employees, we had no choice, business was terrible, but actually the morale as we indicated went up.

“People said ‘everyone’s going to be insecure and annoyed and morale is going to be terrible’, but if you do it genuinely — bearing in mind people read the same newspapers you do, they know what’s going on — and if you go about it so they can see the difference, you can turn the situation into the best it can be, put it that way,” says FitzGibbon.

Of the service standards, he says that in the initial “panic” phase, there was discussion with investors as to whether the company needed to change how it operates and if it needed to cut back.

“But we said no,” says FitzGibbon. “We will continue with turndown and show shines and valet and all these services; we’ll try to do them as efficiently as we can but we will continue with it.

“It was very interesting, when we developed that point of view, most of our ownership said ‘you’re right, let’s keep focused on the fact that this is for a period of time and we’ve spent the last 40 years building [the standards], let’s make sure we don’t lose the trust of the employee and the customer’ — and I think it’s worked as well as it could in the environment we’re in,” says FitzGibbon.

“We didn’t do anything across the company that’s says ‘we’re now going to limit this’. In markets that were very extreme we may have to close a restaurant or do something because there wasn’t any business, but we didn’t do anything across the company relative to a standard that we had in place and that was very important,” he comments.

And now, more than 18 months on, FitzGibbon says business is starting to pick up, primarily in Asia, then in Middle East, North America, and finally Europe. Price continues to be an issue, he says, but people still want holidays and they still celebrate festive seasons — hotels at Christmas were full despite a 10-day minimum stay paid in advance.

“I think our customers have always been expecting value, and people will call it demanding, but I’d say that’s just what they pay for, they pay for that level of service,” says FitzGibbon.

This is not scripted service such as remembering a name, he is keen to add, but responsive and instinctive service whereby the employee thinks about the guest they are looking after as an individual.

And in turn, of course, Four Seasons must think about its 31,600 members of staff as individuals — all playing a role in creating that “extraordinary” experience.


Current locations:

  • Alexandria
  • Amman
  • Beirut
  • Cairo at The First Residence
  • Cairo at Nile Plaza
  • Damascus
  • Doha
  • Mauritius
  • Riyadh
  • Seychelles
  • Sharm El Sheikh
  • Under development:
  • Marrakech in early 2011
  • Oman: 2012-13
  • Luxor: 2013
  • Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi at Sowwah Island, 2013
  • Doha II: 2013-14
  • Bahrain: over the next five years
  • Kuwait City: over the next five years

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