Qatar has reconfigured itself and its airline in the right way amid the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, moving heavily into cargo and developing further as a transit hub, Simon Casson, president of Hotel Operations ((Europe, Middle East, and Africa) at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, has said.
“If you look at decades past, cities that have developed themselves as major tourism centres have done it through airports and airlines,” he told Gulf Times during his recent visit to Doha. “Qatar stands on that podium with best-in-class nations who have been able to leverage the marketing and value of the country through its national carrier.”
Casson, who discussed the growing demand for post-pandemic luxury travel, lauded the efforts of the Qatar National Tourism Council (QNTC) and Qatar Airways in promoting Qatar as a leisure, business and sports tourism destination.
Qatar, he said, has always been a country with a long-term vision for tourism with all stakeholders making a massive effort to boost travel and tourism, “and the results are clear, together with the resilience of the country and its people”.
“When you look at Hamad International Airport, it’s among the best in the world,” Casson said. “It’s just a treat to be there, you are always happy to arrive early for a flight so you can enjoy the shopping and the restaurants and all the facilities they have there.”
He said that he admires the "extraordinary resilience" of QNTC secretary-general HE Akbar al-Baker, who is also the oneworld alliance Governing Board chairman and Qatar Airways Group chief executive, which has a "significant presence in global aviation".
“He is an optimist and a believer. He doesn’t just sit there and wait for things to happen, he goes out there and makes a difference,” Casson noted. “I’ve no doubt that all of Qatar can be very proud of what Akbar al-Baker and the team have done.”
Given all the developments in vaccinations and work to curb the spread of Covid-19, he expressed optimism that recovery of the hospitality sector in the country will be both gradual and strong.
He noted that hospitality is an industry that is thousands of years old – the concept of providing shelter, food, and water goes back to the beginning of time since humanity started to travel the world.
About preparing Four Seasons Hotel Doha for the prestigious football tournament in 2022, Casson said that the hotel has seen a significant financial investment, renovating every room and suite, and the lobby, and doubling the size of the banquets and catering area in the past two years – making it “a hotel which is right at the top of the local market”.
“When I was general manager here and the bid was awarded, I immediately signed the contract committing this hotel to be at the service of the country for the World Cup,” he recalled. “The hotel couldn’t be better prepared. It’s always been a building that’s been architecturally impressive and occupies a special place here in West Bay.”
“We didn’t come to Qatar as a brand in 2005 to be second or third, we came here to be the best,” Casson stated. “And I think we established that during those early days.”
“You can only do that in partnership with a great owner-partner who has the vision to invest in a world-class building,” he added. “If you look around now at the fabrics, the design by Pierre-Yves Rochon, this is one of the most famous hotel designers in the world.”
“And so, it’s the people of Four Seasons that ultimately make the difference, because the guests who come and stay in Doha are paying for the location, for the brand, for the security, for the interiors – all of that they are paying for,” Casson said.
“But those same guests – and I was telling the hotel team – know they cannot pay for someone to genuinely care about their experience,” he added. “They cannot pay for someone to go out of their way to create a special moment or a memorable experience.”
“That’s something that money can’t buy,” Casson said.
In the post-pandemic era, he said guests’ expectations will continue to be high, especially for a leading luxury hotel and resort company like Four Seasons.
“I think the ways they will change is that people will be looking at how seriously you take health and safety, and it’s something we moved very quickly on as a company at the beginning of the pandemic,” Casson said.
“We recognised very early that this was serious, and a lot of things were going to change,” he pointed out. “So, the senior leadership of the company realised it was important not just for us to say ‘we are safe’ or ‘these procedures are safe’, because at the end of the day we are hoteliers, not scientists – we are not medical professionals.”
Casson noted that they entered into a consulting agreement with Johns Hopkins Medicine International, the global division of healthcare and research leader Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“We have partnered with them for the past year and a half so they could advise us on our health and safety programme, Lead With Care. That’s been really important, and I think that guests sense it and see it,” he said. “Trust in the brand becomes even more important, because when people start to travel again, they have to adapt – no one is used to it.”
As part of its expansion, Casson said Four Seasons opened its first hotel in Spain – in Madrid – last year and it is set to inaugurate another hotel in Sicily.
“I look after Europe, Middle East and Africa, and we have 15 or 20 projects that are very active across the region, including here in the Middle East,” he said. “Africa is a continent where we are under-represented, as we have two hotels, so we are actively looking to progress with some new deals there as well.”
Asked what makes Doha special for the Four Seasons brand, Casson said that they created a hotel that was transformative for the Qatar hospitality market.
“We really set a benchmark and said this is where luxury really is,” he noted. “I think this benefited the country and other hotels to come in the market and believe they can do business in Qatar.”
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