In Search of Hotel Excellence: Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong with William MacKay

It’s not everyday that you get an opportunity to speak to the general manager of one of the world’s finest hotels. The Four Seasons Hong Kong is one such property, and William MacKay is not only the General Manager, but as well, the Regional Vice President for several Four Seasons properties.

I had the opportunity to spend some time on property last fall and the best I can describe it is a “jewel box,” as everything was gem-perfect. The property has received accolades from pretty much every critical source. In my conversation with William, I wanted to discover how this property maintains this incredibly high level of excellence

Can you give a brief description on the history of Four Seasons Hong Kong?  What’s its relationship with other Four Seasons properties in Asia?  Is it the flagship hotel of the region?

Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong opened in September 2005 as a new and purpose-built hotel in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district as part of the IFC Complex. It opened as the second property Four Seasons would manage in the Hong Kong, with the original Regent Hotel Hong Kong managed by Four Seasons until 2003, on the Kowloon Peninsula.

While we don’t designate any single Four Seasons hotel as a “flagship”, we certainly believe that, as a Forbes five-star hotel with a five-star spa, ideally located in a major gateway city, the Four Seasons, Hong Kong enjoys a high profile, and is representative of Four Seasons’ commitment to excellence.  In 2010, the hotel became the only hotel in the world to house two Michelin three-star restaurants, with the Cantonese restaurant Lung King Heen being awarded three stars in Michelin’s inaugural guide the previous year, and Caprice, the French restaurant was honored with two Michelin stars that same year.

What’s your background with Four Seasons and what has your career path been with them?

I actually started my career in the kitchen of the Connaught Hotel in London in 1973, as a management trainee, but I’ve been with Four Seasons since 1982, when I was employed at the Four Seasons Clift Hotel in San Francisco. I had the good fortune (although I didn’t quite see it that way at the time) to work as Director of Food and Beverage with an extraordinarily intense and hands-on General Manager, Stan Bromley, who was a relentless taskmaster but a remarkable hotelier who possessed an unusual combination of creativity and attention to detail.

Since then I have been fortunate to travel all over the world with the company and work in a wide variety of different properties in Toronto, Seattle, Tokyo, London, Milan and Palm Beach before my last posting in Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. Quality companies attract quality people, and the caliber of the colleagues with whom I have been able to work, and our shared commitment to excellence, is the main reason that I am still with Four Seasons after so many years.

I moved to Hong Kong to open our new hotel in 2003 and have been here ever since.  As a Regional Vice President, I now oversee three other operating properties in the region in addition to Hong Kong, as well as three properties in Mainland China that are under construction and in pre-opening – Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Suzhou.

Most of us are well acquainted with the superior quality of the Four Seasons brand.  Can you elaborate on how the brand has been translated to Hong Kong and an Asian setting?  

Four Seasons was already well established in Asia before our Hong Kong property opened, and people sometimes forget that Four Seasons used to manage the Regent, Hong Kong in its heyday. Any brand only comes to life through the experience of the guest, which is a combination of location, product, atmosphere, and, above all, service, which obviously depends more on people than anything else.  Today’s guests are less homogenous than ever, with widely differing tastes and preferences. The same guests may also be looking for different experiences depending on their situation; a businessperson who cares most about quick and accurate service during the week may be looking for a more indulgent or memorable experience of the destination at the weekend.

Our job is to be sensitive to the individual situation and expectations of each guest, at the same time as we reflect the authentic character of Hong Kong in the experience that our guests enjoy. Hotels are becoming increasingly about lifestyle, and the whole area of design is becoming increasingly important. However, the most significant elements of the guest experience – and the hardest to get right – are still delivered by our people and we continue to believe that it is the individual resourcefulness, skill and sensitivity of each member of our staff that is our greatest point of difference.

As in every destination where Four Seasons has opened, we try to combine the best of Four Seasons technical knowledge and with the talent and personality of our local staff, who are hired primarily based on attitude. In Hong Kong, we were very lucky that over forty veterans of the old Regent (including our Chinese Executive Chef, Chan Yan Tak) rejoined us for the opening of the Four Seasons. By nature Hong Kongers are extraordinarily hard working and responsible, with great pride and integrity, which makes them an ideal fit for a demanding values-based organization like Four Seasons. The team we have here in Hong Kong is second to none.

Were there any physical modifications integral to this process?  What distinguishes FSHK from other Four Seasons properties?

There are always some trade-offs in the construction of any building, but very few compromises had to be made in the construction of the Four Seasons in Hong Kong. Isadore Sharp always said that every new hotel should be the best yet, incorporating what we learned from all the projects that went before. In Hong Kong, the law stipulates that only 5% of the available floor area can be used for the back of house. In order to provide adequate employee facilities, this was insufficient and we were able to have this adjusted on appeal to 8.5%. We are very fortunate in Hong Kong to be in a vibrant market, where the owners (Sun Hung Kai properties and Henderson Land) built the hotel to a very high level of quality throughout. The hotel has a sense of space and airiness that is highly unusual in Hong Kong.

Are there any significant differences in customer expectations between guests arriving at FSHK and properties in other parts of the world?  How have you adapted to exceed guest expectations?  

Without a doubt! Asia has a deserved reputation for having the best service in the world; guests, who are resigned to a weary acceptance of poor service in many parts of the world, come to Asia with much higher expectations. Although basic service steps and accuracy in execution are important, great service is about an added level of sensitivity and intuition, not only adapting us to the individual needs and situation of the guests, but also being one step ahead of them.

A guest coming to Hong Kong on business will have very different expectations compared with a family going on vacation in Bali. Hong Kong is a fast-paced, dynamic city, with the majority of the transient population travelling through the city on business. Their wants are different to a honeymoon couple in the Seychelles, whose priority is more likely to be relaxation and romance. Having said that, we also have a significant mix of leisure guests who might be in town on a layover and do have time on their hands and a mind to explore the cultural depth of the city. We have to be able to recognize each guest independently of the next and anticipate and prepare for every need.

One of the recent introductions, in fact by Four Seasons around the world, is a 15-minute room service menu – implemented in various hotels that feel the need may be there – Hong Kong is one of those places and we’ve recognized that need and placed a menu in every room to accommodate guests who are time-poor. Teamwork and communication are a crucial element of exceeding expectations – without this, we would not be able meet or anticipate guests’ needs.

What’s your style of management?  How do you feel that it has positively affected your staff and the guest experience?

I am a great believer in the importance of alignment, and put a lot of emphasis on collaboratively establishing clear goals that are a reasonable stretch, and then giving everyone all the means, encouragement and help (as well as the space) possible to help ensure that goals are achieved. I strongly believe that nobody comes to work wanting to do a bad job, and that the job of managers is to nurture the passion that lives in people. I am not so naïve as to believe that people do not occasionally need an extra push, but sadly, many managers are unintentional passion-killers who deprive their people of the autonomy they need to feel responsible for the achievement of agreed results. Management is ultimately about getting things done, and woe betides any manager who forgets it.

I am frankly relentless in my own mind about giving first priority to employees and guests; I am continually involved with our associates on an individual basis, celebrating successes and trying to nurture a positive atmosphere of good humor and openness in which every colleague feels free to act in the best interest of the guests, and understands the critical importance of their individual contribution. At the same time, I am pushing, nudging and cajoling for excellence all the time in every aspect of the guest’s experience, and frankly sniffing around looking for areas where we may have an opportunity to improve!

Many of our guests, especially in this part of the world, also expect a very high level of recognition. I also spend a great deal of time involved in the individual coaching and mentoring of our young managers; besides giving me great personal satisfaction, the quick and constant improvement of their personal management performance is critical to our success as well as theirs.

This involvement with guests and employees takes a lot of time, and involves a significant trade-off; it means consciously keeping my “bureaucratic involvement” in administrative process to a minimum, which sounds easy, but is not. Every administrative function is ‘owned’ by someone seeking validation for their work through the visible and direct involvement of the general manager, which can make me a challenge for other stakeholders to deal with!

No matter how many hours one works, it’s just not possible to please everyone all of the time.  I am sometimes complimented on how quickly I react to guest or employee-related issues, or issues of strategic direction, but also criticized for my slower responsiveness to some administrative issues that I see as ancillary to driving guest satisfaction or contributing to our business success, even if they are important to other stakeholders! I like to think that I do a good job flying at high and low altitudes, but try not to spend too much time at 15,000 feet!

Our hotel in Hong Kong is also a larger hotel than most Four Seasons properties, so I need to be sure that processes are working and communication is extensive, organized and clear so that nothing falls between the cracks because information wasn’t shared. The role of any manager evolves as one becomes responsible for more, and the job becomes less about technical skill than it becomes about leading and coaching a team, connecting to the outside world, and striking a balance between the needs of multiple stakeholders, both direct and indirect.

Isadore Sharp always said that you have to focus on doing the things that only you can do, but multiple stakeholders increasingly feel entitled to first call on a general manager’s time. The immediate access that technology affords is in many ways a fabulous gift, but it also makes it harder to focus thoughtfully on the strategic side of the business and manage one’s time, when so many stakeholders expect immediate personal attention from a general manager – often to issues that our structure is frankly designed to handle by specialists elsewhere in the organization.

By definition, a general manager directly taking a reservation from a travel partner (important though it may be) or responding to a guest complaint personally is involved at a very tactical level, that many management gurus would think inappropriate (if not fatal) in a business of our size and complexity; and yet this level of attention is one of our greatest points of difference. In the end, one has to delegate a lot, but there is a real art to “handing people off” to the appropriate people without offending them…. and it is one that I have yet to master! Nobody wants to feel they are “being delegated” – yet effective delegation lies at the heart of effective time management for any manager of a significant number of people. It’s a conundrum for the leader of any “high-touch” service business that can never be resolved! In the end, I am reconciled to the fact that this is a “life” more than a “job”. And technology has made it increasingly so.

When I stayed at the hotel, I noticed that you have a Director of Guest Services and a whole department dedicated to this task.  What was the impetus for this?  What are this department’s responsibilities?

We have a team of five in guest relations, led by a manager. The team was established as the hotel opened and determined as a necessity for a big and busy hotel operation in a fast-paced environment, to ensure we are able to constantly personalize guests’ stays, especially for our most regular patrons, not only in Hong Kong, but also of Four Seasons worldwide. We now record guest preferences on a global basis, but the effort put into recording preferences is obviously meaningless if we don’t execute properly.

As much as every single one of us in the hotel needs to see ourselves as members of an integrated guest services team, the guest relations team are also particularly focused on the needs of our highest paying (and thus most profitable) guests. Their responsibilities can most broadly be defined as “making sure that the guest gets what the guest should get”. However, guests have widely differing needs and preferences, and it is the job of the guest relations team to proactively ensure that we are aware of specific needs and preferences, and then ensure that we deliver on these needs one hundred percent of the time. As much as this may be about creating individualized experiences, and “surprising and delighting” people, it is just as much about making sure that we deliver one hundred percent execution on delivery of the basics.

Putting Champagne in a room for an anniversary couple will have a lot less impact if they are mistakenly assigned a twin bedded room!  With two Michelin three-starred restaurants, for example, that are almost invariably full, it is the job of the guest relations team to ‘go the extra mile’ by finding out ahead of time whether rack-paying and suite guests need reservations for Lung King Heen or Caprice, so as to avoid hassles over wait-listing or non-availability of a table, after they have arrived. Ultimately, this all takes time and translates into a need for proper staffing. The more senior the executive, the more last minute their schedule is likely to be. These people are often our most profitable guests, with the lowest threshold of tolerance for any shortcoming in service delivery.

How has your Guest Relations Team improved the hotel operations thus far?  How do you quantify the work that they do?

The Guest Relations Team plays a fundamental role in ensuring that guests feel well looked after. Their work is quantifiable, as is the entire staff body’s work, by seeing contented guests willing to pay a premium to stay here, and longing to return! More now than ever, guests want to write about their stay, whether to me, via our website or on social media platforms to share with the world – there is no greater feeling of pride for the staff, than when they see their names mentioned in thanks, so this equally helps us to know they are doing a great job.

How does the Guest Services Department integrate with other services such as the front desk and F&B?  Where does it fit into the chain of command?

Any successful team needs a strong sense of accountability to each other, and any business needs a structure of some sort, but the idea of a “chain of command” within a hotel is simplistic and frankly outmoded. John Wayne would have made an awful hotelier! Great service demands a team approach, where everyone is focused on a seamless experience for individual guests, more than on “jobs”.

The Guests Relations Team technically fall within the Rooms Division and report directly to the Director of Rooms, but they are continually interacting with every area of the hotel, initiating and following-up on detailed guest requirements. They are physically adjacent to the front office, so have a very close relationship with the front desk. However, it is important that we be well enough staffed at the front desk that the guest relations team does not become routinely sucked into the routine work of the front desk.

To end, could you comment on where you feel the hotel industry is headed?  What advice would you give to other hoteliers?

With the explosive growth of outbound travel from the developing World, especially Mainland China, hotels that continue to deliver a warm welcome, quality service and distinctive experiences in desirable locations have a great future. A company like Four Seasons, specializing in only one premium segment of the market has a great advantage over companies trying to juggle multiple brands at multiple price-points.

However, there is another dilemma that we need to reconcile, around the idea of what guests want to be consistent across a brand, and what they expect to be locally authentic. Clients are better educated and better travelled all the time. At the same time as guests want to identify with – and be rewarded by – brands that offer them the assurance of consistently excellent quality of product and service, hotels will need to offer diversified and authentic local experiences. This trick of combining authenticity and a sense of place with the brand consistency that guests demand is something I believe Four Seasons has become extraordinarily good at over many years; it’s part of our DNA.

The way in which people incorporate technology into their everyday life is also changing rapidly, and hoteliers will need to react to the technological innovation that becomes expected by the guest, without over-complicating things beyond what guests want. In particular, the way in which consumers acquire information and choose to buy travel is also evolving all the time, and hoteliers will need to stay closely attuned to changes in consumer buying behavior and continually innovate around the needs of customers if they are to prosper.

In other words, work hard (very), but stand back occasionally and keep your ear to the ground!

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published in HotelExecutive on April 24, 2012)

Larry MogelonskyIn Search of Hotel Excellence: Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong with William MacKay