A Week of Stimuli!

At the BA Lounge in JFK last week awaiting our flight to Heathrow. John Stauss, Area VP and General Manager of The Four Seasons Hotels in the UK ran across us. He was heading back for the much heralded relaunch of the once “Inn on the Park” that launched the entire Four Seasons luxury chain and brand.

Two years and a Croesus-level investment later, a re-imagined hotel is ready to be showcased. As they had prepared to close, John Stauss personally introduced us to a rival hotel to ensure we would be be comfortable in London while he was refitting his own hotel. We’ve stayed in touch, he is an enthusiastic entree to their other hotels and a friend. That level of personal care, attention and warmth are not only human assets, they are formidable business advantages. How do you compete against that?

We did a pre-opening walk through with him while in London and he showed us what he called “your suite”. We met with the Chefs and our preferences and favorite dishes were discussed as well as balcony and garden locations explored where I could have a postprandial puff.

Intimacy and high touch take over and take us across the finish line when the physical endowments and technological assets have laid the foundation. As I’ve said above, imagination and rapport are competitive advantages that are far harder to benchmark or to imitate.

While in London, at our current home of The Connaught, a jewel of hospitality overall, we were flummoxed by the staff turnover and found we were reintroducing ourselves to people in an hotel allegedly famed for intimacy and continuity. The former without the latter is very hard to realize.

The Connaught once had a “resident chauffeur”. So guests got to know Andy and were looked after by him. If you came out on a rainy night when cabs were scarce, and Andy didn’t have a job, he’d jauntily offer you a ride. That intervention on such a night would be a gesture you always remembered and which repaid the hotel in loyalty and positive word of mouth that is immeasurable.

Now the group that owns The Connaught, Claridges and The Berkeley has opted to have a “chauffeur pool” in some tilt towards “efficiency” no doubt. So having built rapport (all these properties had resident Chauffeurs), they now make it ludicrously difficult for guests to get the person they request — as it’s a common pool! Also the drivers now know less about the properties, the rhythms of life there, the people who entertain there, stay there and more. So emasculate insight, buffer service stars from those who want them, and have hacks allocating them in terms of some scheduling coefficient and call this “efficiency”!  This was the very opposite principle of what worked so well with John Stauss…and it took the intervention of the Head Concierge as well as Andy’s own diligence for us to get him over to us. A minor matter overall — but we know and like Andy and on the long rides we had to take for clients on drizzly English mornings, I preferred to pay the same tariff and have a “mate” behind the wheel. Why make that hard to do? Why not leverage it for the competitive edge it should be?

We had a working week-end with our clients, a Danish senior leadership team. They did a deep dive into relationships, priorities and behaviors. They moved from amiable pseudo-community to having successively more candid and trusting conversations and challenging and supporting each other in generating successively more pragmatic and yet visionary commitments to activate and be accountable for.

While doing so they competitively scoped out Windsor, did a very creditable Ice Sculpture, practiced archery and composed and executed a musical piece on African drums. Why? “Why not?” is the better question.

As in between these hefty dialogues they bonded by experiencing something new, flexing their paradigms, and gaining both new experiences and new skills while having fun. If anyone believes that judiciously threading such experiences through radical business engagement doesn’t loosen hangups, remove masks, foster warmth, liberate energy and help people take themselves less seriously, then they are operating in an alternate universe. It does and it did. They left with rich memories as well as with robust commitments.

We returned yesterday to New York and the same evening attended a wine auction and dinner at New York’s legendary Per Se restaurant to benefit the Perlman music program run by Itzhak Perlman to develop young musical talent.

Afflicted with polio at a young age, the violin virtuoso Perlman is a living embodiment of the passionate love of musical expression and of art truly vivified by artistry. Humble, affable, witty, compelling, with a prodigious love of life, talent and fine wine (his first question to me last night: “So what’s your one desert island wine?”), friends and admirers and supporters had come together to affirm the mission of this wonderful program. Over $300,000 was raised in small lots of wine and dining experiences among much jollity and camaraderie.

During the course of the evening, two lovely young ladies (students at Julliard, alumni of the Perlman music program) graced us with a breathtaking classical  rendition. These young musicians were passionately alive, as someone said “struggling with the thing they love, to express themselves, whether the effort lead to success or failure; as they would rather fail in something they love than succeed in something they don’t care about.” That transmuting of personal ego into fulsome dedication, a human being lit by the fire of possibility, is a beautiful thing to observe, and we were all blessed by it. We can understand the ardor for music, but few of us glimpse the arduousness that lets a life-time of devotion shine through the prism of application into high art.

Nothing strings all these experiences together really — they were a week’s worth of abundant stimuli. Well nothing except to say that success, business success or personal success, comes from being deeply and courageously personal — with others, with your craft, with yourself, inviting life to be your teacher, your conduit and your canvas. Connect with compassion and care with others, learn avidly and with humility, express passionately and with personality, and give yourself to that which you care about for all you’re worth. If that’s not success — nothing is!