Exclusive: Simon Casson of Four Seasons reveals his golden rules

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Dubai-based Simon Casson, 50, is the President of Hotel Operations for Four Seasons in Europe, Middle East and Africa: not bad for a man who was told by his school career advisor that his only realistic job path was to join the army, and whose hotel career started by washing dishes aged 13
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President of Hotel Operations, Four Seasons - EMEA

How do I sum up my role?

I joined Four Seasons in 1989 and look after 40 hotels in 34 different countries. I’ve been in my current position for two years and I think I’m still creating my own job definition. A lot of it is deciding where my impact will be most meaningful and useful for the organisation. It’s about delivering leadership and vision across all areas of people, product, profit and new development. We employ almost 14,000 people in my region.

My typical working day is 8am to 10pm

What I do depends on whether I’m travelling or not, which is 50% of my time. If I’m in one of our hotels I’ll have breakfast with the general manager, a tour of the property, lunch with the owning partners, and a “town hall” meeting with staff, which can be up to three or four hundred people. I’ll catch up with key executives and try to get away for an hour to see what our competitors are doing, and then dinner with the executive team in the evening. After that I deal with emails.

If I’m in Dubai I’m on the phone a lot – yesterday for example I was on the phone 16 times on calls that lasted up to an hour and a half. Or I’ll be looking at business models for new hotels we’re considering, to explore their commercial viability, and also at design work for existing hotels or new ones in development. I also have various set calls during the week when I catch up with my counterparts in the Asia Pacific region and the Americas, and my with my HR colleagues too.

There’s a difference between managing and leading

Managing is very functional and it’s a job title, whereas leadership is reputational and it’s something you earn through what you do, not through what your business card is. Hotels should focus on leading versus managing, by inspiring, communicating and lifting staff up. Part of leadership is challenging and disrupting, being unreasonable in your expectations because excellence is not easily achieved, to be the best means there has to be someone at the head who is driving expectations and driving you to be better than your competition.

Be authentically you

Develop that sense of self and purpose of who you are, why you’re here, celebrate what you’re great at and have a healthy awareness of what you’re not so good at. Work on developing yourself but just as importantly have people who are good at the things you’re not good at. Too often I see managers trying very hard to be what they think a manager ought to be rather than just being gloriously themselves. People are drawn to authentic leadership.

No meeting should last more than an hour

If you’re chairing a meeting you need to pre-communicate and pre-brief what the agenda is and what the expected outcome is. People need to know in advance what outcomes are expected of them. Cut waffle and drifting, both for you and others. Once you’ve come to expected outcomes be clear about who is responsible for them and have clear follow-up dates.

As technology in hotels develops, what remains the same is more important than what changes

Human interaction continues to be extremely high on how luxury travellers rate their choice of hotels. But technology can facilitate that, sharing guest preferences for example, so when they visit different hotels we know they like this, this way and that, that way. A room attendant via their smartphone can know if a guest likes their slippers on the left side of the bed or the right.

We launched an instant chat function last year with capability in more than one hundred different languages and I find myself using that a lot: if I’m running out of the room, rather than phoning housekeeping I’ll just message that my laundry is by the door, please collect.

What will a hotel look like in ten years time? I have no idea!

Certain elements of our business are timeless, and those elements are human. Things that make a hotel great today are experiential and are delivered by people. You can’t pay for someone to genuinely care and to go out of their way to create a magical moment that is meaningful. The human part will continue to define what separates a great hotel from a good hotel and that won’t change.

A good hotel is like a Swiss watch

Guests just see the beautiful face, but underneath that there are dozens of intricate cogs and wheels that allow it to function that they never witness.

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The world according to Simon…

No meeting should ever last longer than an hour and there should be no waffle or drifting
You should always be authentically yourself and know your strengths and weaknesses
Technology and human interaction should go hand in hand to create the ultimate guest experience