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4 Seasons

SAUDI ARABIA - Tourism

Guenter Gebhard

Regional Vice President & General Manager, Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh

Bio

A veteran hospitality executive, Guenter Gebhard, Regional Vice President & General Manager at Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh has an extensive 35-year international career, taking him from Europe to the United States, Asia to Australia 20 years in the GCC, Turkey and Morocco. In his current tenure, he is overlooking Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, the Four Seasons expansion in Saudi Arabia, Four Seasons Hotel Doha, Four Seasons Resort and Residences at The Pearl-Qatar & Four Seasons Hotel Kuwait.

"Saudi Arabia is set to host one of the largest concentrations of Four Seasons hotels globally, second only to the United States."
Saudi Arabia is set to host one of the largest concentrations of Four Seasons hotels globally, second only to the US. This expansion is being fueled by social and cultural changes happening in Saudi Arabia.
Could you introduce our readers to the Four Seasons’ journey since inception in 2003? What are the milestones and highlights of the past year?

Since its opening in 2003, Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh has been an integral part of the city’s landscape, situated within the iconic Kingdom Centre—an architectural gem often locally referred to as “Burj Al-Mamlakah.” This strategic location was a visionary move by His Royal Highness Prince Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud, aligning the brand with the epitome of hospitality luxury in the Kingdom. From the outset, Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh has been the preferred destination in the city, embodying the essence of personalized service. It has become synonymous with exceptional hospitality, thanks to our commitment to treating each guest with individual care and attention. Over the years, the hotel has undergone several renovations, with a recent multi-million-dollar project marking the beginning of a comprehensive 5-6-year transformation plan encompassing our rooms and suites, lobby, lounge and the introduction of new international culinary experiences such as Café Boulud by Daniel Boulud and Pierre Hermé Patisserie. The renovation will also include our Spa & Wellness Centre and ballroom and meeting spaces scheduled for completion by early 2026. This ambitious revitalization project seeks to redefine the landscape of luxury hospitality, ensuring that Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh continues to set the standard for unparalleled guest experiences.

How would you assess the Luxury Hospitality sector in Saudi Arabia and how is the landscape evolving?

The luxury hospitality sector in Saudi Arabia resembles a dry sponge needing to be fed, watered, raised and introduced. There is a different travel behaviour among domestic and international travellers, yet the well-travelled Saudi nationals, having experienced luxury abroad, bring elevated expectations to establishments like Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh in terms of service quality and personalized experiences.

Upon assessing the luxury hospitality sector in Saudi Arabia, a latent demand is evident, ready to be nurtured. A pivotal shift occurred approximately 4-5 years ago, marked by the introduction of tourism visas and instant approvals. This ignited a surge in luxury demand, exemplified by events such as Riyadh Season, Boulevard World and MDLBEAST Soundstorm. The entertainment sector, now the second-largest segment after travel, attracts not only leisure seekers but also corporate travellers seeking local elevated experiences.

Examining the Four Seasons development pipeline, with over 8 active projects in negotiation or construction phases, Saudi Arabia is set to host one of the largest concentrations of Four Seasons hotels globally, second only to the United States. This underscores the untapped potential of the current market.

As Saudi Arabia strives to become a hub for luxury hotels, the country’s ambitious urban expansion, envisioning Riyadh as a metropolis of 14-15 million residents by 2030, anticipates a substantial surge in demand. This growth aligns with ongoing and upcoming projects, propelling the Kingdom into a prominent position in the luxury hospitality landscape. The growth in tourism, an integral part of Vision 2030, serves as natural advertisement, showcasing real-life experiences that often surpass initial perceptions, leading to repeat visits and establishing Saudi cities among the top travel destinations, solidifying the country’s role as a key player in the global luxury hospitality arena.

What makes Four Seasons a more iconic hotel and the top choice of business and tourism travelers?

I wish I could reveal the recipe for success, but what truly sets Four Seasons apart is our personalized approach. While the hospitality industry often speaks of surpassing guest expectations, our unique perspective challenges our colleagues to delve deeper into what exceeding expectations truly entails. It’s not merely an action; it commences with active listening—an art we hold in high esteem.

To master this art, we emphasize engaging and intuitively understanding our guests. This skill is crucial, requiring a profound comprehension of each guest before we strive to exceed their expectations. This principle underlies the core of our service philosophy. This is why we have established a dedicated team of butlers, currently numbering 19 and anticipated to grow to 23-25 by year-end. Their primary task is to understand precisely what each guest desires. 

The manifestation of our personalized service is evident in our remarkable number of repeat guests—30-50 individuals at any given time, many of whom check in every Monday and check out every Thursday. These guests are associated with Head Offices in Dubai, but the landscape is changing as larger corporations now establish offices within the Kingdom. Our main focus is understanding the purpose behind their visits. Rather than imposing on their experience, our role is to facilitate them in making the most of their time here.

We have observed that numerous frequent travellers arrive in Riyadh without luggage, carrying only a laptop. Upon their arrival, their rooms are meticulously prepared to mirror their preferences—be it the side of the bed they favor, their scent preferences, or even featuring pictures of their families. This meticulous attention to detail creates an atmosphere akin to their own homes. When they depart, we carefully pack and store their belongings until their return, recreating the familiar setup exactly as they like it.

How is the Four Seasons contributing to the tourism sector and economic development within the country?

Four Seasons is more than just a brand; it is an embodiment of our commitment to local engagement and community integration wherever we operate. At the heart of our approach is the emphasis on hiring and training Saudi nationals, instilling a sense of pride in their rich cultural heritage. 

Within the hotel, we proudly showcase over 2,000 pieces created by local artists, echoing our support for initiatives like Al Waleed Philanthropies – a Saudi Arabian NGO with a mission to build the bridges necessary for cultural understanding, community development, female and youth empowerment and disaster relief in times of crisis – headed by HRH Princess Lamia bint Majid Al Saud. Our focus on Saudi female artists and crafts is a testament to our commitment to fostering diversity and inclusion.

Furthermore, our construction practices prioritize the use of local materials, serving as a tangible expression of our dedication to seamless integration within the local context. This intentional choice not only reflects sustainability but also strengthens our ties with the community.

Even the smallest details, such as our uniforms in Four Seasons Medina, are thoughtfully designed to evoke historical backgrounds, capturing the essence of the past.

How do you envision the luxury sector unfolding over the coming years and what is your ambition in the region in leading this development?

I believe that we as hoteliers are not defining what luxury means but recognizing its varying definitions across generations. Luxury might be perceived as material, quality style or personalized service. Personally, I consider time the highest form of luxury since it cannot be purchased, emphasizing the enrichment we derive from each day. Hoteliers aim to complement guests’ experiences positively, focusing on personalized service rather than material elements. We invest equally in colleagues training, education, and relationships as we do in hardware. I often refer to hospitality as the human trifecta, humans working with humans for humans. This intricate dynamic, with three human components, eliminates the possibility of attributing challenges to a machine. However, it also exponentially increases our ability to engage on a personal level, which is what everybody is ultimately looking for.

What are your strategic priorities set in your 2024 agenda?

Our strategic priorities for 2024 are meticulously designed to expand the Four Seasons brand footprint within the Kingdom. At the core of our strategy is the ability to seamlessly translate the Four Seasons experience into any entity we approach.

Recognizing that strategy begins with people, we place a paramount emphasis on human interaction as the cornerstone that sets our service apart. As we embark on an ambitious growth plan—four hotels in the next 24 months and an additional four in the subsequent 24 months in Saudi Arabia—we anticipate recruiting 5,000-8,000 individuals over the next 4-8 years. This growth poses challenges, making talent acquisition and retention strategic focal points. Our approach involves prioritizing education, training, and fostering an environment where employees feel deeply invested in the company’s growth.

With multiple hotels on the horizon, we envision significant growth opportunities for our people, offering a landscape for career advancement that goes beyond the limitations of a single property. Encouraging international contributions to Saudi Arabia necessitates a mindset shift. To alter perceptions, we’ve brought in task forces, attracting talent from other Four Seasons locations, and sharing positive experiences to elevate Riyadh’s image globally.

Our advertising strategy is also carefully crafted to showcase the Kingdom’s offerings, immersing visitors in the rich tapestry of Saudi culture before specifically promoting Four Seasons. This approach fosters a commitment to the Kingdom first, positioning us as the natural choice thereafter.

A key focus is on highlighting Riyadh’s diverse offerings, including unique events such as Mike Tyson opening his first gym in Riyadh. This aims not only to reshape global perceptions but also to showcase the welcoming nature of the Kingdom. Ultimately, everyone in the Kingdom plays a role in realizing this larger strategy.

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