The Events Experience

The Art of Hospitality with John O'Sullivan of Four Seasons

September 07, 2023 Bishop-McCann
The Art of Hospitality with John O'Sullivan of Four Seasons
The Events Experience
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The Events Experience
The Art of Hospitality with John O'Sullivan of Four Seasons
Sep 07, 2023
Bishop-McCann

In this episode, our VP of Client Development and Marketing, Justin Myers, interviews our special guest, John O’Sullivan, the Regional Vice President and General Manager of the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita. Tune in to hear Justin and John discuss how to master the art of hospitality and the importance it plays in the client experience. Topics include: 

  • How team morale impacts a guest’s experience
  • Why personalization is key to incentive programs
  • How to create memorable experiences and deliver high-quality hospitality 

Subscribe to The Events Experience, and create JOY wherever you go! 

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, our VP of Client Development and Marketing, Justin Myers, interviews our special guest, John O’Sullivan, the Regional Vice President and General Manager of the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita. Tune in to hear Justin and John discuss how to master the art of hospitality and the importance it plays in the client experience. Topics include: 

  • How team morale impacts a guest’s experience
  • Why personalization is key to incentive programs
  • How to create memorable experiences and deliver high-quality hospitality 

Subscribe to The Events Experience, and create JOY wherever you go! 

Hi, and welcome to The Events Experience, where we take a deep dive into everything event planning. I work for Bishop-McCann, an agency devoted to creating JOY through meetings, incentives, and events for big name brands. On this podcast, myself and our company's experts will discuss all things events, so keep listening to hear all about the latest tips and trends for virtual, live, and hybrid events. 

Hi everyone! For this episode of The Events Experience, I am joined by our Vice President of Client Development and Marketing, Justin Myers, and a special guest, John O'Sullivan, the Regional Vice President and General Manager of the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita. John's reputation as an unapologetic innovator and forward-thinking disruptor is well known in the industry. His hospitality career began in an Irish kitchen at age 12 and has seen him circumvent the globe, always learning and growing. John is a true Renaissance man with three published poetry books and hundreds of paintings, expressing his duality of purpose between art and the art of hospitality. We are so excited to have you joining us, John, and thank you both for recording with us today! 

Justin: Thanks so much, Brenna! 

John: Joy to be here. 

Justin: John, I just want to thank you again and echo Brenna's comments. We're super excited to have you. As we talked about this as a company, you know, we brainstorm ideas for podcasts, and something that we've been seeing in the industry as a theme is hospitality and a focus on hospitality. As an organization, it's incredibly important for Bishop-McCann that hospitality is at the forefront of everything that we do, how we interact with our clients, how we interact with our clients' attendees, how we interact with our clients' executives and stakeholders. It's at the core of what we do on a day-to-day basis and also how we interact with each other as a team. So we talked about, "Who could we get as an industry expert and a guest?" Somebody to talk about hospitality and why it's so important. Especially coming out of COVID, I think - in some ways - we've seen examples where the industry has lost itself. And your name actually came up by multiple people in our organization as somebody that truly embodies hospitality, so I really appreciate you being here with us today. 

John: Thank you - it's a privilege. And again, it just continues that wonderful, genuine relationship that exists between our two companies. And as an individual, it's just lovely to be turning up with you. 

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. So Brenna talked in your intro that you started your hospitality career when you were 12 years old in an Irish kitchen. So tell us a little bit about that. How did you get from there to the beautiful beaches in Punta Mita? 

John: Yeah, I went to boarding school in Ireland, and as much as I loved my parents, I just really wanted to earn some money. So the first job that I got when I was 12 was taking the eyes out of potatoes in a kitchen area in Ireland. So I suppose that would make me the original sort of Irish serial killer, so to speak, and that was the beginning of it. Then after that, I just found the passion for the industry and how it totally made me, how it totally made me feel. And that sort of idea of being able to serve, to be able to have fun, and then to be able to interact with people who had the purpose, the passion, and also realizing the possibilities that hospitality has. A lot of industries visually look like a tunnel. Hospitality looks like a funnel in the sense that it's really what you invest in it. What you sow is truly what you reap from a sincerity point of view, from a drive point of view. And always just trying to, you know, frame it through the optic of a genuine heart, just trying to do what's right for people. And people always talk about the difference between work and play. To me, it's a total blur, and I think hospitality is about that sort of authentic ability to deliver amazing things to people through the heart with a byproduct of it being profit, as opposed to the other way around as it is in a lot of other industries. 

Justin: So I love that you talk about authenticity and being genuine and intentional as we approach and think about hospitality. But as an industry in particular, I would love to know what it is about this industry that has kept you in it for so long. What is it about it that fills your cup and really drives your passions? 

John: You know, I know that what we talk about is JOY. And I have what I call my joy-ometer. And my joy-ometer is the fact that the more things that we can do in partnership with people, the more that we're able to attract the next generation into the industry and reinvent their process with the industry about how we have to speed up their development, how their expectations are so much faster. Being able to get the right people who have the right personality and then being able to sort of layer in the skills that are needed for hospitality. Allowing those people (and I don't have staff - I have warriors), unleash those warriors in relation to guests, whether it's the group incentive market, whether it's the leisure market, whether it is an individual diner in a restaurant or someone going to a spa. Figuring out in what I call cerebral hospitality, how can you find the best ways, authentically and from the heart, of being able to anticipate what people want and deliver it and exceed their expectations - not just from a product perspective, but from a relationship perspective? 

Because the other thing that I tell people is that we're not in the transaction business; we're in the relationship business. And if we're in a situation of where someone likes us and enjoys the authentic feel of what happens, you're generating a relationship for life, not just a sort of a one-off transaction. And we're in the relationship-building business regardless of what sector of the guest profile we're looking at. 

Justin: You know, you mentioned the incentive space, and that's obviously a big piece of our business. And as we think about the incentive space, we're trying to create unique, incredible, and memorable experiences for those attendees and for our clients. I've had the pleasure of executing an incentive program in Punta Mita with you at your property there. 

John: Indeed.  

Justin: And I think there are just some things that you do differently. I think you are unconventional in your approach. I think you're one of the most present general managers I've seen on site with a program. And so what separates kind of the standard take on hospitality to that take that is really about going above and beyond to create those unforgettable memories? 

John: It's a beautiful question. And, you know, everyone says after COVID, but I'd like to go to BC, which is also before COVID. I think that there was a tectonic shift in the industry of where things need to become an awful lot less transactional. And there used to be the two sectors of the individual guest who you could do anything for and the group incentive guests that you would just sort of do group things for. I think what's really happened and the way that I see it, is how do you make someone (an individual or a couple who are attending an incentive program) feel that they've had the most individual, integrated experience of their life? For example - this is the thing I feel the strongest about - how do you make sure that if someone is coming to Mexico and if they're coming to Punta Mita, that they have a Riviera Nayarit, Huichol-Indian-centric, food-centric experience rather than what I unfortunately see in other environments of where there's a much more generic model of giving people a good time. 

John: To me, it's truly about creating those authentic connections with people to space and place. It's ensuring that, as I mentioned, each individual who's part of that incentive group is having a wonderful bonding time together, especially in a post-COVID world. They're hanging out with their friends. Their partner, by the end of it, is saying, "You got to work hard for next year because I really want to be able to replicate this somewhere else around the world." And I think also what it is, it's just ensuring that, from your side is that you are investing in people. And it is our responsibility to create something that truly is, what I call, unlocking the childlike emotion that's activated through that creativity, through that connection, to allow people to be authentically themselves. Now, a lot of people will say, "Yeah, the inner child in Mexico is because of the amount of tequila you drink." I obviously being Irish have no comment on that. But you have loads of different ways in which you have the ability to unlock the individual whilst with a collection of people with the optic for that being a destination that is experientially centric. 

Justin: I think personalization, in particular with incentives, is so incredibly important. 

John: Totally. 

Justin: Because we each have unique motivators and drivers. While it is a group program, finding ways to make each individual attendee feel seen and feel like their experience is unique to everyone else's is really what drives that. 

John: Absolutely. And just building on that point, if I think of the older version of an incentive that's there for four days, and on the first night, you import into Mexico a Tiffany globe with the year of the event and the name of the company. On the second night, you get some other gift that's being imported into Mexico that then has to be taken back out. The customization part is that you get something that is made by someone locally in a village, and it's a bit like the concept of farm-to-table in food and beverage where you measure it in hundreds of miles from me. The most authentic connections that you're getting inside the incentive market is how close you get to the people who are in the area that you're visiting - whether it is you decide to give back to the local community or the local school, whether it is that you are supporting a local family who makes these amazing dream catchers - whatever it is, get as close to the local community. And that makes it profoundly authentic. Also, in most situations, sort of reflects or personifies the value system of what the organization is trying to create in the first place in that sort of shop window of the incentive market. 

Justin: So you talked earlier about, you know, hospitality being a mindset of building a relationship. 

John: Totally. 

Justin: So I mentioned that as an organization, Bishop-McCann has put hospitality at the forefront of how we approach every interaction. And we have trainings, we try to educate our team, we're looking for new trends, and we're always trying to ensure that it's at the core of what we do. So for you, how does team morale - attitude - impact a guest hospitality experience, and what is the approach that you take as a leader to develop your team to consistently uphold the high standards that the Four Seasons brand carries from a hospitality perspective? 

John: Right. You know, a hotel (even though it doesn't look like it) is a living organism. You have the scaffolding, which essentially is the support mechanism for the people to do their magic. We have it as the core of our company. It's why I've stayed as a general manager for 28 years. That's the golden rule. And that golden rule is, you know, treat others as they wish to be treated. It sort of permeates through absolutely everything that we do. And so for us, it's about providing luxury with that sort of genuine heart. You know, if you look at the NASA Space Project logo and you look at the Four Seasons logo, they are not the same. And there's a reason. We're not trying to put people on the moon or to Mars. We're trying to give people an amazing, luxury, authentic, genuine, heart-centric experience. And really what we do is that entire cycle of hiring for attitude and being able to layer in those skills, providing a runway for that person (or those persons) to be able to learn very quickly what the job is, getting out of the way of standards and procedures, blocking people authentically being themselves.  

John: My message to people is the fact that if there's a standard that is in the way of you providing an authentic experience, then get rid of the standard. I think of, you know, I opened the Four Seasons in Cairo, our first hotel in the Middle East, as general manager 26 years ago. And I remember going there and telling people who we were interviewing that we will all eat in the staff restaurant. They just laughed at me. I explained that once a month we'll be cooking food for you, that we will care for you. They didn't believe me because the culture that was there before that was incredibly bureaucratic, oppressive, and non-staff-centric. So one by one, we started to win people over. Our deal is we went in with one other person from Four Seasons, and then we slowly brought in culture carriers - they are people who've worked with Four Seasons before who understand what we're doing. So we hired 550 staff; I interviewed more than 4000 people personally. Fast forward 15 months, we already were exporting Egyptian culture carriers from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh and to other areas in the Middle East and eventually to Europe. So the beauty of it is that you have the ability, if you go in with heart, you're genuine, you live by your actions on a day-by-day basis, and you show people respect and dignity. What the boundary management is, what you're allowed to do and what you're not allowed to do. And for those to be applied with sort of judiciousness, fairness, and impartiality, you automatically (regardless of where you are in the world, and I've worked all over the world) create an environment where people trust. 

John: When you have the foundation of trust, people believe in you. They will take risks with you. And when you then create a sense of divergence culturally from what they've experienced in the past, they want to be part of it. The only reality with it, it's a nonreversible equation. It's again a bit like the analogy I used earlier of a funnel. So what we got to do all the time is to allow people to find the right people, nurture the right people, develop the right people, retain the right people. And then one of the questions - I know this may sound a bit strange - that I ask people and managers when they're joining me in Punta Mita is what music would they like for their farewell party? And they go, "What?" I go, "Yeah, you're going to be here for three years. Start thinking about all the things that you need to do, want to do, that we will copartner together. But in the realization, you're on the journey - an upward journey - of greater potential for yourself. This is a runway. This is a springboard. This is an opportunity and an area for you to accelerate without fear on an accelerated basis as part of your life journey." 

Justin: I truly love that you always come back to authenticity, and you said something pretty profound: if the process or the methodology is getting in the way of authenticity, then you've got to get out of the way and allow that authentic interaction and that genuine interaction from the heart. Otherwise, it's not real. That's incredibly, incredibly powerful. 

Justin: So for anybody that's listening to this podcast (maybe working in the hospitality space, maybe new to the hospitality space, maybe thinking about getting into hospitality - whether that be the meetings, events, and incentives industry or the hotel space), what advice would you give when it comes to creating positive, memorable experiences from a hospitality perspective? 

John: You know, lead from the heart. Work for a company that recognizes and values you. If you're working for an organization whose value system is opposite to your own, there's only a very short runway you've got before there's a conflict between your values and theirs. And I think if an organization represents who you are and what you are, work with them and create those memorable experiences authentically with them. But if you're in an organization that does not resonate or does not in any way mirror the values of who you are, leave them - go somewhere else. And I think the joy of the various generations that have come after me is that they're not going to put up with nonsense. They're not going to put up with an employer who does not value them, who does not look at rewarding them correctly, and does not look at providing them the opportunities to grow and to develop. I see a total blur and a convergence rather than divergence between someone like a Bishop-McCann, a Four Seasons - a hotel company, or other hospitality providers. 

John: And my advice is (which is absolutely, totally opposite to me), work for lots of people at the early stage of your career. Find out what it is that really excites you. So many times, we're asked at the most vulnerable stage of our life to make the longest decisions about what we're going to do career wise. Don't. Break the mold. Break it up into smaller pieces. Find the organization or organizations that actually mirror or shimmer the value system that you have. Try them out. Be honest. Be real. Give your best. But you don't have to give your life. And I think when you do that, you're going to find the situation of finding an organization that's right for you at that moment in time. I think that that's really important for anyone coming into the industry now. No, you won't get promoted every month. You can't ask for a pay rise every month, but you can get a lot closer to that than the older, traditional model. And it's important that you feel valued, validated, and vindicated for everything that you do. 

Justin: That's such great advice. Just a couple more quick questions, and we'll wrap up here with you, John. So you are a storyteller, and at Bishop-McCann, our mission is that we create JOY. And as JOY creators, we know how much JOY (and I've seen it firsthand personally) that you create for your guests at Four Seasons. Do you have a favorite story of creating JOY for a guest or a client? And what would that be? 

John: Yes, there's one that really sticks to mind. I looked after the two Four Seasons in Bali for 10 years, and we used to do a concept called "Beds on the Beach." That was where we would put 15 beds on the beach. I would put 500 candles, I would put mirrors, I would put art pieces, I would put a guy in a boat with three light funnels coming out in the ocean. You would lie in the bed, and people would serve you dinner. So it would almost be like this, almost Rothko-ite immersion of art, nature, and food. And I had a good friend of mine who ran a motivation company who at about the age of 50 decided he wanted to get married (time will tell whether that's a good or a less good thing). They're still very happily married. And he said, "I want to do something amazing. What can you do for me?" So I set up a mini "Beds on the Beach" for him in Bali. So put about 100 candles, a beautiful bed, lovely champagne. Then he was able to propose. They got married in Bali, and they had their honeymoon in Bali as well. It was a byproduct of the intention, and I think that that's really sort of the way that life is to be able to create those memorable stories. 

Justin: That's fantastic. So I want to give you an opportunity to talk about, you were talking about the incredible view out your window right now. So you just recently opened up a new concept in Punta Mita called Naviva. When we talk about hospitality and we talk about being unconventional and about personalization, tell us a little bit about that concept and what you're doing with it. 

John: Yeah, thank you. You know, we have 48 acres of land in the bay next door. I wanted to do something different. When I lived in Asia, I loved the original concept of Aman Resorts, that sort of 30-bedroom item. My favorite resort in North America is the Post Ranch in Big Sur. I think it's memorable. I remember going there, and Mike Post when he created didn't knock down any trees. I wanted to create something that was future-focused, environmentally-centric but real. And so we built 15 tents in 48 acres of land. There is no transaction. We have removed all the transaction. You don't check in. You don't check out. There's no televisions in the room. There's no children. There's no menus. There's no signing. We have a shaman on the management team. We haven't knocked down one tree when we built it. There is no plastic. There is no chemicals. We have our own organic farm. We work with a company called Source Water out of California that have these panels - a bit like solar panels. They extract the humidity from the air, so the entire water drinking program is exclusively 100% from the air - 90% solar panels. And having about 35 experiences that you can do when you're actually there, so everything is essentially built around you. Ideal for buyouts, for incentive groups, for weddings, for spiritual retreats on an individual basis, for people just to go there. It is an extension of Punta Mita brand as opposed to an extension of the Four Seasons brand, if that makes sense. 

Justin: Absolutely. 

John: It's about really just extending and making it so "of the earth," involving all the local shamans who came in and gave us their blessing before we broke ground and being totally respectful that we do not own land; we are merely temporary custodians of it. And the more spiritual a land space is, the more you need to embrace the truth and the authenticity of that. We opened it in December. It's had absolutely rave reviews with people who've already come back three times. It's a life-changing experience that really there's very few other places in North America and the world where you can experience it. 

Justin: That's amazing. And I truly love the inspiration of the community and the space that the property resides - and the ocean, the land, the people, and the culture. So, John, I just want to thank you again so much. You are a true visionary in the industry, and we really appreciate you taking the time to share some of your insight with us this morning. So I appreciate it! 

John: Thank you so much for allowing me to be here, and looking forward to getting you back down to Punta Mita when you can finish doing your tequila tasting class! 

Justin: Absolutely! I can't wait to get back down there. 

John: Ok, big hugs to everyone. 

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of The Events Experience. Don't forget to subscribe to our podcast, and create JOY wherever you go!