Transforming 2021

How Four Seasons balances tech with a luxury experience

A human-powered chat app is key to its ambitions.

How Four Seasons balances tech with a luxury experience

Making a cocktail that someone could well have ordered from their phone.

Photo: Four Seasons

While the robot revolution may be in full swing elsewhere, it might be a while before it upends the world of luxury hotels. Take Four Seasons: Its hotels are renowned for their huge number of attentive staff, global president of operations Christian Clerc told Protocol: "We don't see machines replacing people at Four Seasons anytime soon." But that doesn't mean technology is sidelined altogether.

Technology, Clerc said, "can never replace the human interaction," but it can "help us execute better [and be better." Four Seasons' chat product, initially launched in 2017, is the perfect example of that approach to technology. Like many brands, Four Seasons has a chat feature in its app, though that isn't some bot-powered feature. Four Seasons' employees are on the other end, personally responding to customers' messages.

"From the very beginning, we decided this was going to be employees," Clerc explained. Bots, he said, "can be very sterile." That conflicts with the Four Seasons' idea of "unscripted care" — the idea that you can respond to concerns without going through a long-winded, formal process. "What our guests appreciate is that our employees have the ability to just listen to what the guests want, and cut through the process to get to the answer right away," he said. A bot could just never do that.

The chat feature, then, is just another way for guests to talk to employees — a digital alternative to the concierge desk. But tech can help make it a better experience than face-to-face interaction. Messages, Clerc said, are automatically triaged by the app so that they go to the right person — a question about massages would go straight to the spa team, for instance, rather than needing to wait for the front desk to call the spa. A translate feature helps enable multilingual communication between staff and guests, too: If a Chinese guest were messaging Four Seasons' London hotel, Clerc explained, the guest could message in Mandarin, then the employee would get the message and reply in English, which would then be automatically translated back to Mandarin for the guest. On the back end, the company is considering using AI, "but not in terms of responding — in terms of serving up the different information that's required to respond."

Features like that epitomize Four Seasons' approach to tech. "We ask ourselves, 'Where can technology enhance the guest experience?'" Clerc said.

Amid the pandemic, more opportunities for that have arisen. "We've seen an exponential growth of usage of the app," Clerc said, as guests look for contact-free ways to get things done. Four Seasons is now running a pilot program for mobile room keys, with a plan to roll them out this year, and is exploring mobile ordering and payments in its restaurants, for guests who want that. The future, in Clerc's eyes, is all about giving people options. "I don't think that in the future people are going to want to live in a silo — I really don't subscribe to that," Clerc said. "But I want to give you control over the experience." In other words, if a guest wants to spend their entire stay without talking to anyone, they should be able to, even if few guests actually choose to do so.

"We are high tech and high touch — and the high touch is more important."

Again, then, Clerc's entirely focused on how tech can improve customer experience. At least for a high-end brand like Four Seasons, it seems that cost savings don't particularly enter the equation. Across the industry, Clerc said, there are a number of things that are "great in terms of cost efficiency, but don't add — maybe take away — from the guest experience." That, he said, is not the direction Four Seasons wants to go in. "We are high tech and high touch — and the high touch is more important."

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