Exclusive Interview with Nelson Hilton:
Living and Working Abroad with Four Seasons
Nelson Hilton, Regional Director of Marketing for Four Seasons in Malaysia
Nelson Hilton, Regional Director of Marketing for Four Seasons in Malaysia, dives into many topics, such as working for Four Seasons, how COVID-19 has impacted the hotel industry, working abroad around the globe, and the benefits of living in Southeast Asia. Read on to find out more.
Tell me about yourself and working for the Four Seasons.
Four Seasons is a Canadian company, now with nearly 120 hotels around the world. This year on March 21st, we celebrated 60 years as a company. I have been with the company for 26 years, and it has given me many opportunities to see the world. I am originally from Michigan, and it probably would not have been possible for me to see nearly as many places as I have if I had stayed living there with a regular job. By joining the Four Seasons, I've been able to transfer around the world and see many places.
Four Seasons was mainly in North America for a long time, but now we have more hotels outside of North America than we do in. Four Seasons first hotel outside North America was Tokyo at Chinzan-so, a partnership with the Japanese hotel company. Shortly after, Four Seasons acquired the Regent Hotel Company, and that immediately added about twenty-five hotels to our portfolio, primarily in the Asia region. Through the years since the acquisition, many of the Regent hotels were rebranded as Four Seasons. Some of our most iconic hotels in Asia, came to us as part of the Regent sale. There has been a lot of growth moments in the company such as this that have helped us develop our brand further. Some people think we are a massive company, like Hilton or Marriott, but by comparison with our 120 properties, they have 4000. The great thing is we're a family and we all know it—you could pick up the phone and call any counterpart to get help because we help each other tremendously. It's a fantastic company to work for.
I originally started my career with Four Seasons in Palm Beach, Florida, before then transferring to Aviara, North San Diego, Austin, Texas, Miami, Florida, Tokyo, Thailand, Hawaii, and finally Kuala Lumpur, where I am today. Since I am in sales and marketing, I have been fortunate to meet clients, host dinners, and hold events everywhere, including the Middle East, Australia, South America, Europe, even places most people have never been too such as Baku, Azerbaijan. It's really been a tremendous opportunity.
What makes Four Seasons unique?
Four Seasons was founded by Isadore Sharp in Toronto, Canada, with the first hotel just outside Toronto's downtown. After trying many different things, including teaming up with Sheraton, Mr. Sharp decided he wanted the hotel’s concentration to focus on small-to-medium sized hotels that provide highly personalized service, and over the next 60 years, Four Seasons has developed and refined into just that. There are a lot of competitors that do very well and try to replicate a lot of what we do at Four Seasons, and it seems that some get close, but ultimately our culture at Four Seasons is just so incredibly unique.
At Four Seasons, it really is about how we treat each other internally; we are comfortable within our own skin. We are comfortable with our guests, we treat them well, and we anticipate their needs. A lot of hotel companies will wait until asked— example is checking in and getting a room key for most is very transactional; here's your key and off you go. At Four Seasons, we take it that next step: What else can we get you? Why are you here?
If you are here for a business meeting and you did not bring all the chargers and cords you need, we could send one up to your room. If it is late at night and a family with two little kids arrives at the front desk after 24 hours of travelling from North America, the whole family is exhausted, the last thing they need is chit chat at the front desk, so we anticipate that. We will make sure the kids’ beds are made and we might send up a little snack, so they have something to eat before bed. If it is someone we know very well, like a VIP, we might send them up something very personalized. Anticipating what our clients want and need, even if they don't want or need anything which is also fine, is what we do at Four Seasons, and that is what really differentiates us.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected business?
Of our 120 hotels around the world, at one point during the pandemic we had about 80% of them closed.. In Malaysia, our borders have been closed since the pandemic hit , so nobody can get out or in; in the capital of Kuala Lampur, where I am, the state borders are also closed currently so nobody from outside of the capital city can come in. We have had pockets of interstate travel but as number fluctuate so too does the border. Business has gone from international and global to a majority of stay-cationers who just want a break from their home for a weekend.
In some of our remote locations it has been very hard, and lots of hotels are closing. All over the world hotels and their owners don't have the money to pay their staff and there's no business coming in, so they are forced to close and sell the property which is very unfortunate. Many of our hotels have had to evaluate staffing levels, whether it's a hiring freeze or it's job elimination, or streamlining. The pandemic has hit this industry tremendously hard… harder than any other industry, and it has impacted our people in a big way.
How is Four Seasons preparing for recovery?
We call it “green shoots”—like a green shoot sticking its head up above the cold earth in the springtime that is what we are calling the moments of hope. We do a green shoot report every week, and I always share it with the leaders of the hotel. However, if the borders stay closed, it is hard. We don’t have a crystal ball, but the more people get vaccinated, the more trust goes back into the travel industry and the faster we can rebuild.
What do you love most about living and working abroad?
I love discovering different cultures that travelling provides, that's what I truly love about my job. Living all over the globe, I have been able to explore many different cultures and see how vastly different they are from one another.
Before lockdown, if the kids were on school break we would be travelling to a regional destination which from here in KL is quite easy. As an example, last Christmas before lockdown in 2019-2020, we went to a little island called Lombok, Indonesia, to go surfing for three days. From there we hopped over to the Komodo Islands in Indonesia, where we chartered a wooden schooner type of boat. We saw the Komodo Dragon, the very famous reptile from the Komodo Islands. We sailed from island to island for a week, and then we got on the plane and went to Bali for three days to surf. Then we came back to Kuala Lumpur, quickly switched bags, and the next day we went skiing in Japan. This kind of adventure is a dream trip in many people's minds, from snow to beaches to dragon escapades but when you look at the effort it was, you realize that this region has so much to offer for a fraction of the price of anywhere else. It was a 30-minute flight to the Komodo Islands from Lombok, a 30-minute flight to Bali, 2 hours back to Kuala Lampur, and then of course Japan was a bigger commitment, a 7 hour flight to Tokyo, but again an easy flight compared to reaching the destination from other parts of the world. It was an amazing trip, yet it was not expensive because of the regional airlines it is no big deal to jump on a plane and head somewhere beautiful for long weekends, and that is what we love about living in Southeast Asia.
What makes Southeast Asia different than other world regions?
Southeast Asia is so vastly different in their cultures. For example, countries that are right next to each other, such as Malaysia and Thailand, you might think would be extremely similar—but in reality, they are all very culturally distinct. Even Singapore, which used to be part of Malaysia until 1965, is extremely different from Malaysia. Each country in the region is so different in religion, language, culture, the way they think, their family dynamics, everything.
In Southeast Asia, each country is at a different pace in their development, and to a westerner or foreigner, particularly those from major western markets, they might think it is all third world countries. What they don't know, if they haven't travelled, is that some of the technological advances are actually far greater here—this is because each country is racing to not only catch up, but to beat the Western countries that have the biggest economies in the world. They are racing to succeed, and while their history and traditions are important to all of them, their need to outdo the western world is huge. When I was in Thailand, it was when portable Wi-Fi was just coming out, and no one in the US had even seen it or heard of it. At Four Seasons, we were promoting that you can connect immediately from the airport to the hotel in our limo service, because we have Wi-Fi. Everyone was confused how we could have Wi-Fi in the vehicle; it was the mindset of ‘this is just Bangkok, such a small Asian country… how are you so advanced?’ Well, it is because this part of the world is in a big hurry to outdo the rest of the world; we are racing. It is really fascinating to watch what some of the countries in the region are able to do.
How were you involved with CanCham Thailand?
I got involved to be on the CanCham Thailand board even though I am American to help build the Four Seasons brand, but also to work with and help build Canadian companies in Thailand, in particular Bangkok. If a hotel, a meeting room, or a place to take people to dinner was needed, we helped with that, from helping raise money through in-kind donations, to hosting events, and making these operations more affordable. It was good to be involved in, to help Canadians, and it was just good to give back to the community.
The Thai-Canadian Chamber is much bigger now than when I was there. When I was on the board, it was just the board and the executive director, and we sometimes scrambled financially.
Now I understand it is such a big organization, with many employees and even multiple interns; it has grown significantly in recent years.
Now that I am in Kuala Lampur, I am involved with the Malaysian Canadian Business Council (our version of Chamber). The MCBC is much smaller here, but it's good to be a part of it. We have just brought on another staff member in business development, and he is able to drive revenue, memberships, and sponsorships, so we will become like Thailand soon I hope.
Author: Samantha Rae Harriss