Rooms for growth
Updated: 2013-03-08 07:39
By Rebecca Lo (China Daily)
Kathleen Taylor helms one of the world's fastest expanding luxury hospitality brands. Provided to China Daily
Having risen through the ranks of the male-dominated hotel industry, Kathleen Taylor is now steering a course for expansion in Asia
Kathleen Taylor paused to greet me and a couple of fellow Hong Kong-based journalists with a warm smile during a whirlwind cocktail event held in the Pearl ballroom at Four Seasons Guangzhou.
The president and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is smack in the middle of a multi-city Asian tour that includes the grand opening of Four Seasons Beijing. Guangzhou occupies less than 48 hours of her time. Yet being a consummate hotel professional, Taylor wanted to clarify her response to one of my earlier questions.
"I thought about what I said: that the part I hate most about my job is the packing and unpacking between trips," Taylor explains. "That makes me sound like such a princess. What I mean is that although I travel all the time, I could never have another person pack or unpack for me. I would never be able to find anything."
Taylor remains refreshingly approachable despite running one of the world's most rapidly expanding and respected luxury hospitality brands. She exudes a down to earth confidence that underscores what she is: a smart lady from Toronto, where she and her husband make their home. Toronto is also the head office for Four Seasons, a brand founded there by astute businessman Isadore Sharp more than 50 years ago.
"We became empty nesters this year," Taylor notes, referring to their 21-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter. "My husband Neil will join me in Beijing and we'll spend a long weekend there together. We're adventurous travelers: for me, the most exciting part is going somewhere that I've never been before. If we go with the kids, often the holiday will involve a lawn chair. With just the two of us, we'd go see the terracotta warriors in Xi'an or walk on the Great Wall. Last year, we went cycling in Sicily. Most of our vacations involve biking and skiing. And our accommodations are as luxurious as where a bike will take us."
Originally legal counsel to Four Seasons when she joined almost a quarter of a century ago, Taylor rose through the ranks to become chief operating officer. She held that position for three years before her appointment to the top post in 2010. During the past decade, she has been instrumental in steering the company's ambitious surge in growth, with much of the development in Asia.
"The most significant change has been Four Seasons' approach to growth," she says. "My point of view is strongly biased toward the fact that we're living in dynamic times. Technology has played a huge part in accelerating change. A variety of things have crept up in the past 20 years: globalization, accessibility of travel and lower cost of airfares. I'm focused on interpreting the meaning of all that change for our company and how we can evolve more quickly.
"I'm comfortable now with making a few more mistakes. We're ramping up our ability to shift in response to global, regional and local changes. We're moving toward decentralizing the decision-making process. We're trying to get people closest to our customers empowered. We're trying to give all 40,000 of our people the tools and mindset to speak up. A lot of those changes have happened locally by hotels doing things in response to their specific markets. The game is won and lost at the employee and guest level."
Taylor was the first woman to be appointed to the Four Seasons' executive committee and she is still one of only a few women in the top echelon of the hotel industry. However, she plays down being a pioneer for her gender.
"I looked around the boardroom table and thought about who each man was married to: all extremely strong-willed women who were equal partners in their relationships," Taylor says. "I figured they can spend a few hours a day with me."
When Four Seasons began doing deals in the Middle East, Taylor was the company's chief negotiator.
"Izzy (Sharp) said that it had to be me - there was no one else," she recalls. "I had no preconceived notions about expanding the company in a traditionally male dominated region and never doubted that it was acceptable. It was a good growing experience."
Four Seasons currently operates seven hotels in China, with nine more in the pipeline for cities such as Shenzhen, Qingdao, Wuhan and Chongqing as well as additional properties in Beijing and Hangzhou. "It doesn't matter where in China you go - you feel this optimistic energy everywhere," Taylor says. "There is a huge sense of expectation about what the future will bring."
She believes that Chinese travelers are just like everyone else: "Like the rest of us, they are looking for comfort, genuine hospitality, something done specifically for them. We started adding Chinese amenities in all of our hotels outside China; things like tea, slippers and familiar food to make stays more enjoyable. We all want our trips to include adventure, but we all like the taste of home."
(China Daily 03/08/2013 page21)