Simon P. Casson, president, hotel operations, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts tells Sophia Soltani about his remarkable rise through the ranks of the hospitality industry – earning his stripes as a 13-year-old dishwasher to the dutiful president of an enormous portfolio of world class hotels.
You’ve had a remarkable journey throughout your career – from pot-washer to night porter to president, can you elaborate on some of your earliest moments in the hospitality industry?
From dishwasher to president! I started washing dishes in a local restaurant when I was 13 years old and something in those early moments of youthful endeavors spoke to me, planted a seed and set my future path. Average in academics, I went to a local technical college to learn the basics and then at 17 left home and set out into my career. I was a management trainee within a group of country house hotels in southern England doing jobs such as Commis chef, cocktail barman and night porter. Winning their ‘best trainee of the year accolade took me to The Castle at Taunton as assistant manager and there began my first real experiences of luxury, gastronomy and service.
Starting with Four Seasons in London in 1989 was a clear inflection point in my journey; joining an international luxury hotel company with a defining culture that would shape how I thought about leadership and became a leader myself. My Four Seasons journey has taken me through rooms and F&B, in several hotels from Europe to America and the Middle East. Before taking on the role as president for EMEA I was regional vice president and general manager for Four Seasons Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, opening this and our two other UAE hotels as well as looking after our Russian properties. In my current role, I oversee our impressive 36 hotel portfolio (with another 15 under active development) operating in 23 countries and with around 12,000 staff members.
From a personal perspective, what would you consider to be the greatest achievement in your career and why?
Being appointed president for EMEA has given me pause for thought on my career journey and the path that led me here. To answer the question succinctly, it is quite simply ‘people and humanity’ that I consider to be my greatest achievement and all that can and has been achieved through and with this. My own human development, growth, learning and personal evolution is a never-ending part of the journey. It is perhaps easier to be static and so true personal and professional growth is the road less travelled. Growing takes real self-reflection, an honest analysis and one must be prepared to confront issues and so the process of self-growth can be painful but is of course essential to success, both professionally and personally. I also take great pride in the development of others, and the part I might have played in this. To see people who I have hired, guided, mentored and coached is a source of enormous satisfaction. Hospitality is a people business and while many factors combine to make a good hotel, location, architecture, physical product and so on – the only thing that takes the experience from good to great is the people. To have been able to put teams together, often incredibly diverse, and then provide the leadership that equips and inspires them to deliver world class, above market, memorable service experiences is a wonderful achievement that I will always be proud of.
Looking back at your career, what would you say are some of the essential skills required to succeed in the hospitality industry?
Find your passion, what you love, enjoy and are totally in to. Starting from this will set you on the right path. I was fortunate to decide very early on that I would have a career in hospitality and to this day I truly enjoy what I do and continue to be inspired by the industry and people within. Next, do not underestimate the value of hard work and dedication. Early in anyone’s career there will be a lot of people doing the same job as you. To stand out in the hope of advancement you must be prepared to work that bit harder and want the next step that bit more. Hospitality is not for the work shy! And then, never stop learning. Whether this is within an educational establishment or on the job, within a book or through human observation. Education is all around you and it is your own responsibility to avail yourself of this to grow and develop. Finally, be curious, always wondering how you can be better, what are you missing, who is progressing better than you and why? This discontent within, wondering and questioning, is a powerful element of forward momentum that will lead to success.
What tips would you give to the next generation of hospitality professionals looking to pursue a career within the industry?
Firstly, make sure your motivation is correctly placed. Too often I see young people going into hospitality because of family pressure or a misguided sense of what it will take. It is a hard business, particularly in the early years with modest pay, hard graft and long hours. If you are not totally solid in your motivation and conviction to become a hotelier, then it may be a struggle. I have spoken of education and if you can attend a great hotel school then you will benefit from a tremendous foundational knowledge set that will support your growth. But be sure to combine this with practical experience, working in a hotel or restaurant, as it will validate your choice of career and give you a head start once you work full time. Finally, join a company that is aligned with your values and aspirations. Worry less about location, pay or job title. Planting the seeds of your career in the right environment, where you can grow and flourish, is the best early investment in you, that you can make.
Given your experience in the industry, what are your thoughts on how the landscape of the hospitality sector has changed, and what future developments do you foresee in the coming years?
Although there has been vast change in hospitality over my 35-year career, and mostly in the form of combinations and technology, it is remarkable how the fundamentals have stayed timelessly constant. The concept of hospitality, the innkeeper and what we do goes back a thousand years. I’m a great believer in the concept that true luxury is rooted in getting the basics consistently right. Hot coffee, a clean room, timely service, delivering on all the service promises every day – only if you can achieve this can you meet the expectations of the discerning, international traveller and then it is experiential moments delivered by people who make it human and real that elevate it to memorable level.
How we do all this has not changed all that much. The change of course that has been revolutionary is the internet and all related areas of technology, and I am sure that this will only continue to grow. Today’s guests will book online, check in via our mobile app using in limo wireless, order room service from the in-room iPad, check out via the TV and then let us know their feedback via a web link. It is in and around this area of technology that I think we will see continued change and, as long as it is aligned with the essence of service delivery and is enhancing it, then I am all for it!
What are the main factors driving revenue at Four Season properties across the Middle East and how do you strategise for its continued success?
With no apologies for banging on the same drum, revenue is driven by being the best in class, providing great experiences, creating a reputation for excellence and re-earning that reputation every day and with every guest. And all of this, in the hotel business, is driven by people and so the main strategy is to find, retain, develop and inspire the team in a hotel to be passionate deliverers of exceptional experiences! The hardware that supports this is of course the physical product and in revenue management, it is the technology that drives strategy, analytics and forecasting allowing for dynamic pricing and yield management to maximise revenue potential.