Five questions with: Four Seasons’ president of hotel operations Simon Casson
Casson speaks to Hotelier Middle East about overcoming challenges in the hospitality sector, as well encountering the British Royal Family, Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton during his career
What was your first job in the hospitality industry?
I grew up in a small village in South Wales, UK, and was washing dishes in a local restaurant, which for me was one of those early reflection points in my life where it crystallised to me that this is what I want to do. I have this vivid memory of being inside this hot, noisy kitchen, which was full of life and activity. There were two doors where the waiters came in and out. When they came in through these doors, I got these glimpses on the other side of another world. People pulling up in beautiful cars and coming in finely dressed. There was something of a contrast between that noisy kitchen and the elegant refined front of house that spoke to me and said this is the type of industry, and for me restaurants and service were the type of thing that I wanted to be involved with.
What is one piece of advice you would give to those aspiring to work in the hospitality sector?
I think my advice would be that no matter which industry that you are looking at, you need to know yourself and have a clear understanding of you. Who are you? What do you stand for? What are you interested in? What are you passionate about? Having a clear driver and passion that you are going to be spending the vast majority of your life doing is really an essential. If I look specifically for the hospitality industry, once you have that foundation and you believe that this is for me, then you have to work exceptionally hard. It is not an easy business, but you have to be prepared to climb that ladder and want it more than another person.
Describe your typical day?
If the word ‘typical’ existed, it was probably about 20 years ago. I look after a region that has 41 hotels in operation and is spread across 37 countries, with 16,000 employees. If you look at it from that scope, it’s unlikely that no day is going to be the same. I’ve just come back from visiting our hotels in Egypt, then I explored other hotel openings in other countries such as Dubrovnik, Croatia or Marbella, Spain. When I am back to the home office of Dubai, I sit down with other representatives to explore the financial outlook for the company or review marketing plans or ring business partners. Every day for me involves people. If there was one common thread that runs through it, I would say its engagement with people to work to get the right outcomes.
What is your most bizarre/stand-out experience during your career?
I would say hoteliers are always a discrete bunch and we always tend to live our lives with a ring-side view of what’s going on in the world, but we don’t really talk about it. It’s been bizarre meeting so many of the people that when I was growing up were perhaps iconic figures in my life. For example, meeting the Queen and Princess Diana back in the day or having the privilege to have afternoon tea with Prince Charles and Camilla the Duchess of Cornwall. I’ve also met iconic rock gods such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springteen or others I admire such as Nelson Mandela and spending time with Bill Clinton during my time in Washington DC. I never imagined meeting these kinds of people during my career.
What’s been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?
I think the journey into one’s self is always the greatest challenge. It’s the journey of the unknown. You have to think: What am I capable of? Where are my horizons going to be? How can I grow and develop myself to maximise the potential that I have? That growth is always not easy because you have to ask yourself some difficult questions. If growth is a necessity for you in terms of wanting to do bigger jobs, then you’ve got to be stretching and that can be a painful process of self-discovery.