Brighton-born Robert Whitfield is general manager of the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai in Hawaii. He tells Janet Harmer how a well executed plan got the hotel through the Japanese tsunami
Can you give me an insight into your current position?
As general manager I look after the 243-bedroom Four Seasons Resort Hualalai which is set within 800 acres on the slopes of the dormant Hualalai volcano on the Kohala coast. We have two golf courses, a spa, health club, four restaurants and bar, and six swimming pools. I’ve just received promotion to regional vice-president of Four Seasons, which means that I now also oversee the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles and Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora.
What encouraged you to work overseas?
It was something I had always want to do. The hotel industry in London in the early 1990s was in a slump as a result of the first Gulf War and a lack of American visitors. My wife was expecting our first child, so we sold up and moved to St Lucia for a change of scene and a sun tan.
How have you found your jobs abroad?
That first job in St Lucia was found in the job pages of Caterer and Hotelkeeper. When I was ready to leave St Lucia, I contacted a friend who had just joined Four Seasons. He suggested I apply as they needed someone in Nevis and I took a step down from my general manager post to join as resort manager. However, I eventually got the GM spot 18 months later. Since then, all my moves have been initiated by Four Seasons.
How easy has it been to arrange visas in the United States?
Initially I was on a limited L1 visa, but applied for my green card a few years ago. Four Seasons has helped to facilitate the necessary work visas at every stage.
The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai was badly damaged by the tsunami following the Japanese earthquake of 11 March. How did the event impact business?
The wave that hit Hawaii resulted in our resort having to close for six weeks to undergo repairs. While I was in the Caribbean I experienced three hurricanes and a tropical storm, which proved to be good preparation for the tsunami. There really is no substitute for a well rehearsed plan and we had one in place.
When the chips are down your staff generally rise to the challenge in remarkable ways. The experience taught me a great deal about major recovery efforts for luxury coastal resorts and insurance claim negotiations.
How has working abroad enhanced your career?
Working overseas opens you to new cultures and ways of doing things which strengthens your management skills. Being willing to move to locations that others may not want to go can sometimes allow you to leapfrog others.
What do you like about working in Hawaii?
It is an incredible and pristine place with a wonderful rich culture and amazing people, as well as being safe, clean and friendly.
I enjoy the outdoor life, so do a lot of hiking, swimming, exploring and paddling – that’s outrigger canoe paddling, not standing in the sea with your trouser legs rolled up.
What do you dislike about working in Hawaii?
It is a long way from everything.
Do you plan to return to work in the UK?
I have always felt that I would love to return to a great hotel in the UK, probably in London. I would enjoy putting all my various experiences and using the contacts I have built up abroad to create a great hotel.
CV: robert whitfield
● Studied hotel, catering and institutional management at Brighton College of Technology
● Worked in several London hotels including Dukes, Athenaeum, Grosvenor House and InterContinental at Hyde Park Corner
● First overseas position was at the Royal St Lucian hotel, in 1993
● Joined Four Seasons as resort manager at the Four Seasons Resort Nevis in 1998
● Moved to California in 2004 to open the new Four Seasons Silicon Valley at East Palo Alto, before transferring to current post in Hawaii