We took time out with Guenter Gebhard, regional vice president and GM of Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh at Kingdom Center, to get the lowdown on his management style and his role in ensuring the brand’s growth across the kingdom.
What can you tell us about your professional journey?
My hospitality journey began at an early age, as I worked in my parent’s restaurant business. It taught me a great deal; I learned how to bake goods, work in the butchery and serve guests, which led me to pursue an education in the field and become a trained hospitality professional.
During my apprenticeship, I flew to New York and handed out my resume at a few hotels because I initially thought it would be fantastic to work there. The Grand Hyatt wanted to hire me directly; however, I had to finish my apprenticeship first, and then I made the decision to travel to Asia and complete internships in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore and Tokyo before moving to the Big Apple, where I worked for eight years.
I later returned to Europe and worked in Berlin before moving on to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bangkok, Dubai, Morocco, Sydney, Bodrum and Saudi Arabia. I’ve always enjoyed discovering new things and getting to know new people and cultures.
What sets your management style apart from other hoteliers?
I don’t believe in hierarchy. In my opinion, hierarchy impedes understanding, growth and transparency. “Coffee with Colleagues” is a weekly ritual with line personnel because, unfortunately, it may be quite difficult to stay in touch with everyone on the ground, especially in big hotels that have over 700 employees. This weekly gathering includes line personnel from all departments, such as a steward, waiter and housekeeper. Because it happens every week, colleagues frequently look forward to it and even ask other members of their teams for suggestions on what to chat about. The advantage of that is if I learn there are issues here and there, they are extremely simple to fix.
I firmly believe that employees and supervisors who work directly with guests have more innovative ideas than senior management on how to make their lives simpler and provide visitors with a one-of-a-kind experience. To ensure that we continuously improve at all levels of the organization, this connectivity with line staff, supervisors and management is very important to me. It sends the message that any staff member can approach any senior leader in the company with whatever concerns they have.
What makes the Four Seasons brand unique in your eyes?
Four Seasons is a highly diverse group of hotels and resorts with a substantial presence, mainly in the Americas, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, followed by Asia Pacific. The drive for internal talent transfers and the desire of that talent to work globally is, therefore, one of the things that interests me.
We allow cross-transfers from other regions or other countries. It is crucial that the service profile of employees mirrors the diversity of the guests. This diversity should include both nationality and gender, with a healthy balance of male and female employees.
When your company’s growth profile depends on an influx of customers from a particular nationality, you may need to recruit individuals who are native speakers of that region and who are from that area.
A more dynamic workplace, in my opinion, is fostered by introducing workers to other cultures, as opposed to one that is purely directed in one way.
You believe Saudi Arabia to be “a big sponge right now.” What can you tell us about your 14 upcoming projects in the kingdom?
We currently have 10 projects in the pipeline, six to eight of which are just breaking ground. If all these projects are completed within the next four or five years, Saudi Arabia will actually have the highest concentration of hotels under the Four Seasons brand in one country outside of the United States. Saudi Arabia, with a population of over 33 million, has certain characteristics that set it apart from other countries in the Middle East. This vast market is frequently overlooked and misunderstood.
The sheer size of the nation, the dual cross exposure between the west and east coasts, and the drive for vacation tourism, particularly on the west coast with the new developments in NEOM, Amaala, the Red Sea and Jeddah projects, showcase the direction of Vision 2030, which is creating a tourism market and ensuring that hospitality and tourism is a much stronger component toward the nation’s GDP.
Four Seasons is a strong supporter of the kingdom’s 2030 Vision. As one of the leading providers of luxury hospitality worldwide, we want to highlight how these new hotel and resort openings will offer visitors unique and exceptional experiences.