The pianist is playing It Had To Be You as John Stauss and I take our seats in the handsomely appointed lounge at the Four Seasons hotel, off London's Park Lane.
Somehow, the choice of song seems appropriate. Stauss is a regional vice-president of Four Seasons Hotels and the general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel London. As of this week, he is also the latest Caterer and HotelkeeperHotelier of the Year. For Stauss himself, the award, presented at a lavish luncheon at Gleneagles hosted by outgoing Hotelier of the Year Patrick Elsmie, may have come as a "total surprise". But for many of his industry peers, it was always a question of when, rather than if, the accolade would come his way.
Stauss is only the third GM in the Four Seasons London's 36-year history. Under his calm steerage it has maintained its position in the vanguard of five-star London hotels. Of his split role, Stauss says he is "GM first: all Four Seasons are in groups so I have operational responsibility for other hotels as well. You're able to do that if you surround yourself with benchmark strength".
And so begins a thread that weaves throughout our conversation. Stauss is much too modest to dwell for long on his own qualities, preferring instead to deflect attention on to his staff, of whom he clearly thinks the world. His pride in his bedrooms, dining areas, bars and function rooms is plain to see, but this pride becomes almost tangible when we tour the kitchens, laundry, HR office and staff canteen, back of house.
"In the hotel business", he says, "you have to find the balance between technical skills and generic skills. In my job today I have specialist workers around me who are strong functionally. I rely on my generic leadership skills - planning, leading, motivating…"
So why does he think he was chosen by our judges? "Many managers manage well in good times. Others manage well in challenging years. They're not usually the same people. But a few seem able to manage good and bad times."
In the good times, Stauss explains, your skills set must extend to recruiting the best staff, keeping rooms perfect and motivating busy staff. In the bad, cost control and creativity in protecting the guest experience come to the fore.
"In the last 11 years I've had the opportunity to do both," he says. "London has had some great times in the last 11 or 12 years, but since 2001 every year has been challenging for different reasons. Now we're in a fourth-quarter turnaround, we're back to the other skills set".
Stauss puts this adaptability down to the blessing of good mentors. "Success comes from four things: natural, God-given talent and personality; technical skills acquired on the job; a pinch of luck; and the people who help you when you're setting out. Mentors are the industry's heroes. Not the captains of industry, but people like the lady who supervised the language lab in my secondary school, who encouraged a second language and so a move to Switzerland; or the professor who got me through a challenging course and steered me towards F&B."
Stauss is no mean mentor himself. In 11 years he has had three resident managers, all of whom have gone on to be opening managers elsewhere in the Four Seasons empire; and his four directors of rooms have all gone on to be resident managers. In all, he has transferred more than 50 managers from Park Lane to other Four Seasons hotels. "You need to help the next generation along - payback is what it's all about. I love trying to be as good as the people who helped me", he says.
For Stauss, mentoring staff extends to displaying a progressive approach to achieving a workable work-life balance. "I don't work excessive hours - as role models we should inspire mid-managers to want our jobs. Mid-managers don't find GMs working 80 hours a week inspiring or motivational. We owe it to them to demonstrate an attractive work-life balance."
So much for employees, but what about the customer? Stauss is proud of his company's refusal to compromise the guest experience with short termism. "Nothing's about now, everything's about the future," he says. "Our mission statement says if we take care of employees and guests we'll make a reasonable profit return. For instance, after 9/11, when most hotel groups were implementing contingency plans, we received a communiqu from our corporate office, which read: ‘Please remember you cannot change the employee or guest experience. Stick to our core values'."
Despite this emphasis on corporate values, Stauss is quick to stress that there's plenty of scope for localised innovation. "Our guests expect creativity and innovation," he says. "We have minimum service standards and the core standards are non-negotiable, but there's no maximum. Uniforms, training and menus are locally generated and it was a local decision to have five full-time florists - Mayfair guests expect creativity.
"Expectations of guests grow all the time. Around 70% of the guests checking in have stayed 20 or more times at this Four Seasons. This means that what you did to exceed expectations last time becomes the new benchmark. In future, the sense of us being a support team to our guests will intensify."
As for his own future, Stauss is clearly well settled in London. "I'm still planning to be here for the Olympics - of course," he enthuses. "I'm content where I am. Where do you go after London? The Olympic buzz is already here. Guests are already coming, and the volume of London 2012 business will only grow and grow.
"There's still a thrill every morning when I awake and think ‘today will be unlike any other day'."
John Stauss in a nutshell
- 1976 Graduated with honours from Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland.
- 1977 Posting in St Lucia with Commonwealth Holiday Inns of Canada.
- 1978 Appointed general manager of the Cotton House in Mustique.
- 1979 Joined Hyatt Hotels. Postings in Dallas, Texas (management trainee), Columbus Ohio (opening assistant director of F&B), Palm Beach Florida (opening director of F&B) and San Francisco California, (director of F&B, then hotel manager).
- 1982 Joined Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts as resident manager, Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco.
- 1985 Opening hotel manager at Four Seasons Hotel Newport Beach, California.
- 1988 Opening general manager at Four Seasons Resort Nevis, West Indies.
- 1994 Appointed general manager of Four Seasons Hotel London.
- 1996 Promoted to regional vice-president and general manager. Since then, has had regional responsibilities at Four Seasons hotels in Lisbon, Berlin, Paris, Nevis, Dublin, Canary Wharf and Hampshire.
Stauss is also involved with Four Seasons Hotels' global recruitment team, visiting top hotel schools in Switzerland and Holland to interview graduating classes.
Judging criteria - and comments
Judges of Hotelier of the Year were looking for a candidate who:
- Exhibits a strong attention to detail.
- Is willing to impart knowledge to staff.
- Has an exemplary business track record.
- Has the personal touch with guests.
- Is totally dedicated to the industry.
Patrick Elsmie, 2004 Hotelier of the Year and operations director at Gleneagles hotel "You can see that John is passionate about his job and has a great generosity of spirit. His hotel has consistently performed and is regarded as an industry benchmark."
Dominic Walsh, business reporter, the Times "Following in the footsteps of Ramón Pajares was surely no easy task - but John has done a great job at the Four Seasons."
Albert Hampson, business manager, the Automobile Association "A perfect Hotelier of the Year."
Ricci Obertelli, global development director, Dorchester Group "John is a great team player and a great sharer of information - I've only ever heard good things from those who work for him."
Gordon Campbell Gray, owner, Campbell Gray Hotels "The Four Seasons Park Lane has John's stamp on it. It's clear that he instinctively puts the customer and his staff first. In spite of his role within the Four Seasons empire, John has proved that to be successful and to be a gentle person is achievable in a manager."