Q&A: Susan Helstab, Four Seasons



Susan Helstab
Executive vice-president of marketing at Four Seasons hotels and resorts

Marketing Week (MW)/ What changes in the luxury market have you noticed?
Susan Helstab (SH): Until the economy took a downward turn, it was like an arms race as to who could get the latest thing; you had to be on a treadmill, and nobody looked at the value of things. People are now more focused on what’s important and it affects what they want to pay a lot of money for. People are looking at what justifies a price as opposed to a brand just charging a certain price. The price value equation has changed.

What then started to change is that people were looking at not just the price point to define if something was exclusive, but what is really intrinsic about a product. In fashion, for example, the craftsmanship and the heritage has lasting value that you pass on to the next generation in the way that watchmaker Patek Philip has been doing for a long time.

Another trend is around personalisation, the bespoke “just for me” element. If something can be made to be truly one of a kind, like that special handbag in the leather that you picked, then it’s worth having.

MW: How does that sentiment translate to the hotel sector?
SH: In the case of hotel experiences, how much can a hotel personalise the experience to the guest? Everything is now about getting as much information about the guest that we possibly can to be able to create that personal experience.

Consumers have more choices than ever. They are enticed by new offerings all the time. To keep them brand loyal you need to deliver on experience, service and have that love and affection. This means it’s difficult for an unknown brand to work its way in. You have to make guests feel like it’s about a relationship. Social media can be a big asset in reinforcing that relationship.

MW: Explain your social media strategy
SH: Our biggest initiative is our family travel blog. We are engaging with bloggers and Facebook advertising on this, encouraging guests to produce photo galleries of their time at the hotel. We’re building out more content that is peripheral to the hotel, which the customer can tailor to their own experience.

We have made digital our priority – it is now 50% of our marketing budget and combines PR with social media. Two years ago we launched a corporate Twitter account when no one else in the luxury hotel market was doing that. We encouraged hotels to have individual voices to engage with guests.

MW: Would Four Seasons consider developing a lower-priced hotel brand?
SH: We specialise in an affluent traveller, so we have unique insights into our guests. Commitment to that guest gives us the strength to do a number of different things in our business. If we opened a property that wasn’t purely a Four Seasons hotel it would not be successful because we would have to be a different organisation.

But we can stretch our own existing brand. Not in terms of taking it from five-star properties to three star, but in terms of design, from hotels to resorts, whether they are large or small, private islands for couples or residential.



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