Four Seasons, Five Continents
Founder, chairman, and CEO Isadore Sharp has made luxury design his passport
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 3/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Perched on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm El Sheikh is where Asia meets Africa, where strains of nightclub disco waft over Bedouin herders, and where the gulfs of Aqaba and Suez mingle with the Red Sea. The Egyptian resort city is also one of dozens of places around the globe where Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is expanding its empire, creating hotels that "look as though they belong there," says Hill Glazier Architects partner John C. Hill, whose firm in Palo Alto, California, was commissioned to build the Four Seasons Sharm El Sheikh.
The resort, which opened last year, was four years in the making. On the day that Hill and partner Robert C. Glazier first visited the 36-acre property, they encountered a temperature of 115 degrees Fahrenheit and a steep hill sloping down to a craggy beach. "There was not one piece of green vegetation in sight. It was one of the most inhospitable places you've ever seen," Hill remembers.
Armed with what Glazier calls an "incredibly detailed design brief" outlining the project's concept and goals—from how the entry should feel to acoustical specs for walls and the kind of pipe to be used in bathrooms—the architects began designing a "village of hotel rooms, like a Mediterranean hill town in an Islamic vernacular." Deep overhangs on balconies keep interiors cool and private. The flashiest features are domes and a tower inspired by Islamic architecture, but even these say "indigenous" rather than "theme hotel."
Hill Glazier and San Francisco's Brayton + Hughes Design Studio, responsible for the interiors, were mindful of the target customers, affluent Arabs and Europeans. Thoughtful touches include a mosque, separate spa facilities for men and women (because coed spas would be off-limits to some Muslims), and a trolley between the beach and the hotel. A florist and full-service butcher are on-site for quality-control purposes.
Such attention to detail has helped make Toronto-based Four Seasons, founded by chairman and CEO Isadore Sharp, the leading luxury hotelier in the world. Besides the Four Seasons and Regent brands' 15,000 rooms in 26 countries, the company's network of branded vacation ownership properties and private residences is growing. In the past 21 years, the AAA has conferred more Five Diamond awards on the 57 Four Seasons properties than on any other international hotel chain, and the Zagat Survey recently crowned Four Seasons the top in the same category. Besides dominating the "best" lists of such lifestyle bibles as Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report, Condé Nast Traveler, and Gourmet, Four Seasons has made Fortune's list of 100 Best Companies to Work For.
Sharp's 25,664-employee business is typically less an owner than a management enterprise. (Small luxury hotels are sometimes acquired and rebranded.) Of late, however, the company has been on a construction binge. There are 24 properties in various stages of development around the world, necessitating a doubling of the in-house design team to 70 in the past two years.
Those same two years have hit the travel and hospitality industry particularly hard, given the recession and the aftermath of 9/11. Four Seasons's net earnings dropped to U.S. $14.4 million in 2002, from $58.7 million the year before, and the stock price has dropped 50 percent in the past nine months, for a 52-week low of $26.39 in January. Undaunted, Sharp is forging ahead with his expansion plans. He refuses to lower room rates, as some competitors have. He's bent on being poised to dominate when the economy rebounds, and that means sowing the seeds of growth now. "Our business arrangements are with long-term committed partners who have the wherewithal to see through these troughs," says Sharp, pointing out that the Four Seasons position remains favorable because it no longer owns much real estate and still has a strong balance sheet. One believer is Microsoft Corporation mogul Bill Gates, who recently picked up a 9 percent stake in the company.
Malaysia, Hong Kong, Budapest, Provence, Florence, Istanbul, Beirut, Damascus, Lebanon, Cairo, Exuma, Jackson Hole, Whistler—the 71-year-old Sharp rattles off the list of properties in the works, hardly pausing for breath. A dapper man, he is focused, reserved, and exceedingly humble considering how far he's come since 1960, the date of his first foray into hospitality. A builder in those days, he convinced his client to dress up a motor court in a run-down section of Toronto by adding a landscaped courtyard, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and an outdoor café. These amenities attracted guests, including celebrities from a neighboring TV station. And Sharp confirmed his theory on a hospitality-business essential: buzz.
He entered the big leagues in 1969, when he designed and built the Inn on the Park in London (now a Four Seasons). The property upped the hospitality ante as Sharp hired designer Tom Lee to make the guest rooms unmistakably residential, an alien premise at the time. One of Lee's innovations was to tuck the telly in an armoire, a trick that's been copied the world over. Three decades later, Toronto firm Yabu Pushelberg updated the solution at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi by installing plasma flat-screen sets in each of the guest rooms.
Sharp's intuition for making travelers feel at home might stem from his own itinerant childhood. His father, Max—who turns 101 this month—was a Polish Jew who immigrated to Toronto by way of Israel, where he'd learned how to tile and plaster. In Canada, he opened a construction business, moving his family in and then out of houses as soon as the next one was finished. Sharp lived 15 places in as many years.
In 1952, Issey—as he's known to his friends, family, and colleagues—earned a diploma in architecture from the Ryerson Institute of Technology (now Ryerson University). Four years later, he married Rosalie Wise, an interior designer who recently published Ceramics, Ethics & Scandal: The Rosalie and Isadore Sharp Collection. Sharp credits her with developing his eye, and she's had a hand in the look of many a Four Seasons.
Four Seasons senior vice president for design and construction, Stuart Fearnley, calls his boss the "true guardian of design." Two design departments divvy up the nuts and bolts of construction and procurement. Sharp, whom colleagues say is "hands-on" but no micromanager, weighs in at key junctures: to oversee the design brief, to OK a shortlist of prospective designers from which property owners choose, to view presentations, and to do a walk-through of model rooms.
"He's keen on making sure designers get a chance to design," Fearnley says. "At the same time, it's a service business. The key, besides great training, is to give the operations team the right tools: a good physical product. He'll say something won't work for operations reasons or that a sofa is great aesthetically but isn't comfortable, that kind of thing." Sharp also believes in materials. As he explains, "It's not to make a place look expensive but because good things—fabric, carpets, marble, wood paneling—endure the test of time."
The dossier of Four Seasons designers is constantly growing. Sharm El Sheikh's Hill Glazier came to Fearnley's attention via a developer who insisted on working with the firm on the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai in Hawaii. Hill Glazier brought interior designer Richard Brayton into the fold. Both, says Fearnley, "turned out to be great finds" and have since worked on half a dozen Four Seasons projects.
Even established names must sometimes audition by doing a small project such as a restaurant makeover. "That might not seem appropriate to firms that are beyond that, but it's more than the fact that they're good designers," Fearnley explains. "We need to make sure their work ethic and philosophy match ours."