In search of hotel excellence: Four Seasons Hotel Austin

Austin, Texas, is a boomtown. The capital of the second most populous state in America, the city is experiencing such substantial year-over-year growth from a mix of factors, namely the low taxes that are incentivizing many tech firms to relocate to the Silicon Plains and the diverse cultural landscape that is keeping Austin uniquely weird.

Having traveled to Austin periodically over the past two decades, I can personally attest to this ferocious pace of expansion, and indeed the most common complaint that I now hear from my friends living there is that there are no houses left to buy at anything near an affordable price. At the center of all this hustle and bustle is the Four Seasons Hotel Austin, and during my most recent visit I was honored to sit down with the general manager, Rob Hagelberg, for an in-depth interview about what attracts people to this city and how Four Seasons fits in.

Tell us a little bit about the property.

Four Seasons Hotel Austin has been in the heart of downtown and part of the community since 1986. Since then, Austin has grown up around the hotel, with new restaurants, high-rise condos and shopping, all mixed with iconic spots that help keep the city proverbially weird. There’s not a better-located property in all of Austin! Everything guests want to experience is right outside our doors, but what makes us truly unique is our backyard, where manicured lawns and landscaped gardens slope down to the city’s crown jewel – Lady Bird Lake.

Our recent renovations take our deep connection to the lake and to the city a step further. Much of the inspiration for the redesign came from the lake estates that dot the shores of Lake Austin and, further upstream, Lake Travis. There’s an elegance to them, but not so much that a guest wouldn’t kick off their shoes, curl up in an Adirondack chair and watch the sunset with a beer in hand. That’s the vibe we were going for – easy elegance. All 294 rooms, including 33 suites, were renovated, with new furnishings, carpeting, artwork and soft goods complemented by a soothing color palette that borrows from brushstrokes found throughout the Texas Hill Country. Our spa and main entryway were also revamped in 2017, with both mirroring a similar “lake house” aesthetic.

How do you position your property as unique in this marketplace?

The past few years have certainly brought in more competition, but we’re fortunate to offer our guests several unique advantages. Not to belabor the benefits of our location, but our guests love being directly off the lake and all of the recreational options that come with it, even if it’s just taking a nap in one of our hammocks. At the same time, they can still experience everything the city has to offer close at hand.

Our people also set us apart and are one of the biggest reasons for our success. Guests enjoy the same level of customer service for which Four Seasons is renowned, along with a genuine warmth that I can attest is unique to Texas and to Austin. I’ve personally heard hundreds of stories of long-time guests who won’t stay anywhere else because of the employees who’ve been a part of their memories over the years.

Last, and this too relates to customer service, our relatively small size gives us a boutique-like feel – at least compared to many of the newer luxury hotels coming into the market. We can be nimble when needed and personalize guest stays in a way that a convention-sized hotel will never be able to replicate.

General Manager Rob Hagelberg
General Manager Rob Hagelberg

How do you protect your staff from competitive employment offers?

This is something that is obviously top of mind for us given the growing supply in the city and the importance we place on the quality of our people and their ability to engage with our guests. We spend a great deal of time listening to our staff in order to understand what aspects of the employment experience are most meaningful to them, both individually and collectively.

We conduct this formally each year in the form of an opinion survey. Following the survey and, again at mid-year, our senior management meets with each department in the hotel using our Employee Voice Survey as the basis for the dialog. This has allowed us to understand broad property-wide trends as well as departmental trends. Our executive committee then collaborates on prioritizing the response to these matters with the intent of continually implementing positive change. We also work together to ensure we are cognizant of the environment our staff are experiencing in the daily operation, receptive to feedback so we can create a positive employee experience for our team members.

We try to lead the market in the compensation and benefits we offer wherever possible. As well, we have several ancillary benefits that are unique or best-in-class, and we develop an annual calendar of activities that, in their own small way, add value to the staff experience. Combined with striving to live up to our extraordinary Four Seasons culture, these efforts have served us well. As a result, we’ve had very minimal loss of staff to the other hotels entering the market.

How do you translate the Four Seasons service delivery to provide a Texan sense of place?

Luckily, there’s nothing rigid or formal about Four Seasons service, so it’s not a far stretch from the Texas hospitality I mentioned previously. Beyond that, though, it starts with our hiring. Almost anyone can be taught service standards, but we look for someone who exudes a genuine warmth, demonstrates an inherent desire to make others happy and generally has a positive outlook on life.

More than any other place I’ve lived and worked, Austinites want to share the things they love about our city. Our employees have a generosity of spirit that endears people immediately, and that’s why I think so many of our guests leave feeling like they experienced the real Austin. For many, there’s no greater feeling than having a guest come back the next morning to share how much they loved a restaurant or an activity we suggested.

Do you feel any pressure from alternate lodging providers?

The pressure is certainly there, although I feel it continues to be somewhat in the background. For one thing, in spite of the rather extraordinary supply growth in the Austin market, the demand has kept pace. This may have masked the Airbnb impact, although it may be more visible when the current cycle winds down or if the supply begins to substantially outpace demand in the coming years.

Four Seasons may be less affected than others given that our guests are typically choosing to stay with us for the elevated service experience we offer and that service in general largely doesn’t exist with vacation rentals today. Anecdotally, I see larger parties opting to stay in houses via Airbnb, provided they can be near restaurants and nightlife. There may be some insight to be gained by studying how we respond to servicing this group of travelers.

Going into the New Year, what is the most important lesson learned from 2017?

We continue to look for ways to combine high-tech and high-touch aspects of service in a way that can be tailored to the preferences of the individual guest. Our Four Seasons mobile app continues to mature and usage has increased. In 2017, we introduced a chat feature that has quickly become popular with our guests and given us an opportunity to improve connectivity and enhance speed of service.

I think it’s important to recognize that high-tech allows us to do high-touch service even better. It’s also comforting for some to know that the traditional ways we have interacted with guests have not gone away and remain available. We’ve added options but we have not taken any away. Our greatest opportunity for 2018 is to continue to enhance our ability to understand our guests’ preferences and needs. Doing so will allow us to have more meaningful opportunities to create exceptional experiences that meet or exceed the specific expectations of each guest.