From a single Toronto motel in 1961, Four Seasons has mushroomed into a global luxury portfolio with 121 hotels, 50 branded residences and at least 30 real estate projects in its pipeline.
With over-the-top amenities like IMAX-style screening rooms, in-unit pools, and private beaches, Four Seasons residences often set price records in their respective markets—no small feat, considering the category’s ever lofty prices. The $15.4 million sale of a Fort Lauderdale duplex penthouse smashed local records. In January, Four Seasons unveiled a $75 million penthouse in Los Angeles, possibly the city’s most expensive apartment.
Paul White, the San Diego-based president of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, talked to Mansion Global about changing definitions of luxury, why wellness and security are top of mind for wealthy buyers, and why Four Seasons’s “secret sauce” is not that easy to replicate in a brutally competitive category.
Mr. White, who oversees Four Seasons’s residential business, is not the only one who’s bullish on the company. In September, Bill Gates’s Cascade Investments LLC put $2.21 billion in Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, buying out half of a Saudi investor’s stake.
Mansion Global: What distinguishes the Four Seasons residential brand in a very crowded category?
Paul White: We’ve been doing this a long time. We have more than 60 years of hospitality to build on as a brand. And we’ve been in the residential space since the 1980s.
MG: How do you view non-hospitality brands that are entering the branded-residence space?
PW: Everyone’s looking for any competitive advantage. That’s why developers are seeking out the Bentleys or Aston Martins or Porsches. They will draw their affinity groups, the Bentley or Porsche-lovers. But with the service infrastructure and delivery, it’s harder to compare to what we do. Can they deliver great service? Who knows.
Our secret sauce isn’t necessarily in a list of services, but the way in which those services are delivered. It’s about consistency, continuity, thoughtfulness and intuitiveness. Mix that with our culture and our service mindset and it becomes very difficult to replicate. We could hand our service manual to others, but it’s not like you can just go out and copy it. That’s why people who know our brand are willing to pay a premium for that level of service.
MG: Have recent swings in the market lately affected your buyers or your forecasts?
PW: Our buyers are cash buyers. They’re not financing. Everyone’s anticipating another real estate cycle. But I haven’t heard anything about our segment. Maybe psychologically there are some echoes. But the aspirational, high-end, luxury lifestyle is not going to change. People are still flying private.
MG: For the ultra-high-net-worth buyer, has security become a bigger concern in urban markets?
PW: Security has always been important, but it’s now extremely important. It’s actually become a competitive advantage in urban areas. We’re focused on making sure buildings are as thoughtfully designed as possible. In London, for example, there are stanchions that come out of the ground so you can’t enter the driveway. There are advanced fob systems. In a few of our units, homeowners have added bulletproof glass. We have a lot of very high-profile owners who are especially conscious of this. And of course, in many residences, the elevator goes right to your unit.
MG: How have demands around design changed from ultra-high-net-worth buyers?
PW: Customers are much more sophisticated now versus 10 or 15 years ago. Designers matter. Architects matter. Furniture makers matter. You want to give people just enough choices to make it feel like a choice. But many of our homeowners also own multiple properties, and they don’t want to get too into the process. They’re happy to let the developers handle it. In Los Angeles, for example, [British designer, author and television personality] Martyn Lawrence Bullard did the building’s interiors. Most buyers are fine with that, because he’s a world-renowned, AD100 designer. Some people, of course, bring in their own personal designers—or they’re designers themselves.
MG: Where in the world do you still see growth potential? The segment’s been on such a fast track.
PW: We already have New York, Miami, L.A. and London. But where are the other pockets of wealth? Those are the new frontier for residential standalone. In those markets, you don’t think like a hotel brand, but like a luxury real-estate brand. I’m a big believer in following the customer. Where does our customer really want to live, work, shop, play and buy great trophy real estate? I always think of Wayne Gretzky’s quote about skating where the puck’s going, not where it’s at.
MG: What does ‘luxury’ mean to you?
PW: Luxury is changing. At one time, it was overabundance and opulence. That’s evolved into the importance of quality. Our brand has always been about understated elegance, so it aligns well. People just want to live better. Luxury also means access to experiences that other people won’t have. People will be willing to work harder to go places and have experiences that aren’t commercialized.
MG: What’s the Four Seasons approach to wellness, which seems to be a sought-after benefit these days?
PW: There is a wave of opportunity coming with wellness. Health is the new wealth. The Four Seasons brand has a whole wellness arm. How do we weave wellness through delivery and execution all the way to the buyer? How people breathe, sleep, rest and exercise become much more important. How the room is set up for sleep is important. And things like [sterile, hypoallergenic] ‘clean rooms’ will become more and more normalized. We’ve also brought in a top gym and fitness designer. Our customers have trainers—how do we design that component more thoughtfully?
MG: You’ve talked about the growth of branded residences in suburban areas. Why is that so promising?
PW: It’s a concept we call ‘surban’, meaning suburban and urban. People want an urban lifestyle—just not in the city, because of security and other reasons. At the same time, they don’t want to live in a bedroom community. We’re working on developments where that ‘surban’ concept—a live/work/play/shop environment in a suburban neighborhood that gives people an urban feel. It’s an evolving trend as people start migrating away from urban city centers for work. We’re taking our level of luxury and thoughtfulness into these markets, and continuing to push the envelope as far as how people want to live.