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The Frenchman has just taken the helm of the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, with the aim of restoring the splendour of this hotel, while navigating between open-mindedness and performance objectives


The Frenchman has just taken the helm of the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, with the aim of restoring the splendour of this hotel, while navigating between open-mindedness and performance objectives

Category: North America & West Indies / Carribean islands - United States -
Article written by Vanessa Guerrier-Buisine on 2023-09-01

Stéphane Gras, new General Manager of Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco

Stéphane Gras, new General Manager of Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco
Photo credit © Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco / Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

With a career spanning several continents, mostly working for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, Stéphane Gras has just set foot in the ephemeral fog of San Francisco, to take over the reins of the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, on a mission to restore its splendour. A few weeks into his new role, the Liger native is already at work rallying and mobilising his teams. His ambition is to recreate a lively and distinctive atmosphere, and bring guests back to this iconic property.

His destiny was far from clear-cut for young Stéphane Gras, who came from a family active in the paramedical world and started out on the benches of medical school. He soon realised that his future lay not in medicine, but in the places he enjoyed - "beautiful places and good food”. What he remembers from his early years is that he liked to entertain and gather people around him. Swiss schools seemed the best way to satisfy his desire to understand the whole hotel business, from service to management. He chose the EHL Hospitality & Business School, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary at the time, for its training, which he felt was the most comprehensive, and for the incomparable openness to a diversity of cultures that the school already offered.

Soaring to New York

His career plan is already well-defined: he will be General Manager. And to do so, he wanted to start with a stopover in the United States, “to understand the American environment”. He flew to Washington DC for his third year internship and seized the opportunity to discover New York. “It was very clear in my mind that once I graduated, 6 months later, I had to come back. I wanted to start my career here”, he recalls.

With his military service behind him, he returned to New York without a work visa, but “knocked on doors, CV in hand”. If Four Seasons was his grail, he would need his first entry point into the world of New York luxury hotels. That was Waldorf Astoria, one of his only two experiences outside Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. “It was extraordinary, an iconic hotel,” he recalls. “It was a massive scale operation, a very impressive structure and of course many lessons learned,” he adds.

With his “eyes always on a hotel that is a little more humble in size, but just as ambitious, both in terms of refinement and level of service”, the young Frenchman applied to Four Seasons.

Restaurants as a springboard

After joining the Four Seasons Hotel New York as Room Service Manager, Stéphane Gras went on to gain experience in F&B in several of the group's properties, except for a two-year stint in France as F&B Director of the Château de Bagnols in 2003. Austin, Newport Beach, Hawaii, Prague, and even Cairo helped him forge his Four Seasons culture, before expanding to full hotel operations in 2011 in Baku.

“The restaurant business was my way of getting into the profession, it just naturally appealed to me, There was something magical about everything that goes on upstream and in the execution of the cooking and then the service. It leaves a lot of room for creativity, for creating events and places where customers can have a really good time,” he explains. “It's an apprenticeship; anticipation is the key to success, but at the same time you have to react very quickly to the unexpected - it's an excellent school”, he adds.

The man sees this change “as a natural evolution with the range of duties. We talk about accommodation, but as you move along the career path, you explore and discover new areas such as spa, but also the support functions that are essential to the smooth running of a property: engineering, human resources and finance,” he explains.

The Isadore Sharp Model

The founder of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, Isadore Sharp, is the man who shaped Stéphane Gras' vision of luxury hotels. A hospitality concept conceived from the outset and improved over time through feedback from his customers. “He redefined a certain model, which resonates with me. There is room for different types of operators, for very refined hotels, like the Parisian palaces. These are extraordinary, magnificent models, but they did not correspond to my life or career aspirations”, explains Stéphane Gras. After a 27-year career and 13 moves to different continents, his thirst for discovery and travel has been nurtured and continues to thrill the hotelier.

The modus operandi, the scale of the properties, the leadership style “where the human element really comes first” and the brand's reasoned growth have won the loyalty of Stéphane Gras, who has hardly left Four Seasons since he joined in 1999. “When I joined the brand, we had 39 hotels, and now we have a portfolio of 126 hotels”, he explains, “this growth is fairly gentle, but it is the strength of the brand, which has been able to develop a very strong bond between its properties and between its general managers. We know each other, and together we talk about problems, difficulties or good news about our customers or our teams”.
“Isadore Sharp has always been very careful to ensure that the brand preserves its identity and that its difference remains intact, without hindering its development,” he continues. “It's a marriage and the brand is extremely demanding, without being arrogant (…) We have the know-how to optimise a property in terms of performance and image. That requires investment and commitment,” he continues.

As General Manager, while he appreciates the agility afforded by hotel capacities of less than 400 rooms, he believes that this proximity plays a key role in the customer experience that is delivered. For him, delivering an emotional experience is the very essence of his profession.

The virtues of luxury and international hospitality

“There is a sensitivity to the art of living, present in the gastronomy, the architecture, and the animation of a place”, he enthuses when he talks about his conception of luxury hotels. “I appreciate elegance and refinement in all their different forms. Luxury hotels are evolving, but the foundations of precision and attention to detail remain essential,” he continues. This quest for detail drives him every day.

It's the quintessence of luxury that he finds at Four Seasons, and which he likes to combine with the dynamism of the American way of life. “The common denominator is the combative spirit, the ambition demonstrated daily, translated into a lot of positive energy. Success is celebrated here, nurturing dreams and motivating ambitions”, he describes when asked about his adopted country.

“Working abroad inevitably means leaving your comfort zone, and that's very stimulating. You learn a lot about different cultures, codes and so on… It's vital to integrate them, and to respect any differences. You are accepted and appreciated because you respect the country that welcomes you”, he likes to remind us when we talk about the benefits of an experience abroad. He concludes: “Success will come from your ability to optimise the skills of a team, to emulate efforts and to highlight the richness that each culture possesses”.

While the last 16 years have been marked by experiences in Europe and the Middle East, his most recent stopover was in the French Alps, where he managed the Four Seasons Hotel Megève Collection for the last three years. The summer of 2023 marks his return to the United States, at the helm of the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, and he is ready to roll up his sleeves and face the many challenges that lie ahead.

Multi-faceted challenges

The hotel is to be reborn in the heart of the Franciscan market. “The hotel was dominant and extremely well positioned in 2019, but as the hotel closed for longer than others, some customers turned to the properties that remained open. We need to attract them back to us. So there's obviously a commercial, positioning and financial performance challenge,” says Stéphane Gras.

To meet this challenge, the hotelier has surrounded himself with an experienced team that knows both the market and the hotel. “We were able to put a complete team back together, with the support of our investors and owners, to reopen fully at last,” he continues. “Differentiation has to be in the level of attention to detail, the recognition of guests - we need to work harder to regain our positioning. The property is magnificent and remains a benchmark in the San Francisco market”.

The hotel is located at the crossroads of Union Square, SoMa (South Market) and the Financial District, and is very close to the Embarcadero, with almost 1,500m² of space dedicated to MICE. Its clientele is naturally business-oriented, but also includes holidaymakers seeking authentic experiences.

San Francisco, an exceptionally open-minded city

In San Francisco, which he is learning to discover with his distinctive appetite, Stéphane Gras has discovered an open-mindedness rooted in the history of the city and its people. “Here, the richness comes from the populations, the people who have flocked here from all over the world, and who have influenced the identity of this destination, its culture, its architecture and the friendliness you find here,” he enthuses.

“We enjoy the simple things, like walking around the city off the main roads, taking the paths on the various hills, discovering its architectural wealth and its many private gardens and green spaces. I share my discoveries with the hotel's guests. Some of them are surprising, like the pavements with lightly chalked arrows guiding you to beautiful properties”, he says.

As for the images of insecurity broadcast lately, “these problems are being addressed by the authorities, but it takes time to resolve them completely. As hoteliers, we influence what our guests discover: we help them discover the best places, and they are the vast majority of the city”, he assures us.
“San Francisco is a magnificent destination and a 'must see' on any tour of the United States”, he adds. “To be in San Francisco is also to be able to get out of San Francisco very easily. It means crossing the bay, taking the ferry or the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. Just 5 minutes away, you have an extraordinary view of San Francisco, from a haven of peace, a non-city environment,” he adds.

Embracing his passion

To ensure that his teams follow him on these missions, Stéphane Gras uses his leadership qualities, based on active listening and, above all, precise and transparent communication. “I'm a great believer in these conversations, sometimes very informal, with the teams within the hotel, as the day progresses; it's a way of saying thank you for the incredible work that is done. Then it's crucial to unite the group around the solutions that need to be found, to keep a bit of altitude to free up talent and expose them to certain issues, and also to help them achieve their dreams”, he describes. He remains inspired and guided by the brand's golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

For the man who has remained aligned with his values of hospitality since a very young age, a career in the luxury hotel industry implies high standards. You have to “be in line with the key values of this profession: dedication, availability and precision in the execution of tasks”, he says. And he adds, “you have to be demanding of yourself because you can't ask of your team what you can't ask of yourself”.

The Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco has a new captain at the helm, whose high standards are matched only by his attention to others. With his empathy and sharp business sense, let's assume that it won't be long before the hotel is once again the centre of attention.

The Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco rises from the heart of Union Square

The Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco rises from the heart of Union Square
Photo credit © Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco / Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

One of the 46 suites at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco
Photo credit © Don Riddle / Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco

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About the author

As a journalist and luxury hotel expert inspired by the men and women who embody it, Vanessa aspires to enhance and sublimate the beauty and elegance of palaces through her writing. "In a palace, simplicity serves the quest for excellence" she admires.

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