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Some built at the real estate cycle's peak. They fell hard. Under significant financial pressure and with Four Seasons management determined not to budge, certain owners pushed back. In the most public incident, Broadreach Capital Partners, which owns the Aviara resort in Carlsbad, Calif., tried to cancel its contract and bring in new managers. Four Seasons refused to go quietly, blocking the new managers from entering the property. The matter was finally settled in arbitration, and the two companies parted ways.
Steering the firm through the downturn became the 79-year-old Sharp's finale. In 1961, Sharp, known as Issy, started with a single 125-room Toronto motor inn. Over the past five decades, he has expanded his domain to 84 properties in 35 countries. Three years ago, in a $3.7 billion deal, Sharp sold the company to billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment, though he remains chairman and owns 5% of the firm. "The founder of a company can never be replaced," Taylor acknowledges.
But the founder can become an impediment or, even worse, a threat to his successor. Both seem to understand the risk. "So my challenge is how to take the best that legacy has to offer and lay down my own vision for the next 50 years," she says.
It helps that luxury appears to be getting its nose up. In the U.S., the segment's revenue per available room revpar, as it is known has improved by 12.5% over the same period last year, according to Smith Travel Research. What's more, as demand returns, customers are finding a dearth of new hotel rooms. Result: higher room rates.
Credit, too, has begun to flow again, allowing hospitality firms to add locations. Four Seasons has more than 50 projects under way, including in Vail, Colo., and London. Among the properties to be completed next year are ones in Marrakech, Morocco, and St. Petersburg.
Four Seasons has set its sights on China and India as its most promising growth markets as have most of its rivals. Ritz-Carlton is expected to open in Bangalore early next year. Starwood Hotels & Resorts which owns Sheraton, Westin and W already has 62 hotels and a pipeline of 86 new properties in China. All will compete with a plethora of five-star Asian brands, including Peninsula, Taj and Mandarin Oriental. "Oversaturation is debated, discussed and analyzed in every boardroom in the hotel industry," says Scott Berman, a hospitality-industry consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "But there are certain markets everyone feels they have to take advantage of."
Consider Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan. Nearly every upscale hotel brand is building there, and Four Seasons plans to complete its hotel in late 2011. Overlooking the Caspian Sea, the grand building is designed to mimic 19th century French architecture, complete with a ballroom and porte cochere. "It's one of the crown jewels in our city's renaissance," says Javad Marandi, a managing partner of the Pasha Group, the project's local developer. "To have a Four Seasons is a sign you've arrived." Taylor's job is to make sure it stays.