My sister Edith had married Edmund Creed, son of Jack Creed, who owned Creeds, a highly fashionable clothing store. Eddie's best friend was Murray Koffler, a pharmacist whose father died, leaving him a drugstore. He now owned two and before long would own many more. I'd built a rental apartment over one drugstore for Murray, and since he and Eddie were always looking for ways to invest in real estate and we all lived in the same neighborhood, all three of us were soon talking frequently about building a motel. None of us, of course, knew anything about the hotel business, let alone the prospects for a motel within the city.
I approached Max Tanenbaum, of course; Max was everybody's financier. "You're crazy," he said. "You know nothing about the hotel business. I do, and I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole."
So when Murray read in Time magazine about a man named Mike Robinson, who ran a successful chain of motels, one of them in downtown Phoenix, I wrote him a letter. He invited us down, so Murray and I flew to Phoenix.
Finally I enlisted the help of a friend, real estate broker Andrew Csepely, a colourful refugee from Budapest whom I'd met when he came to me with a new concept for Canada - cooperative apartments, the precursor of condominiums - and in 1957 we built Toronto's first co-op on Avenue Road. Andrew brought a European sensibility to his view of future Toronto land values, which put him well ahead of his competitors, and he found us a good-sized piece of property on Jarvis Street in the center of the city. All three of us liked it. But almost everyone we talked to about it had the same reaction: "How could you think of building a motel or hotel on Jarvis Street! People will think it's a flophouse!" Jarvis was, at the turn of the century, a major thoroughfare of grand mansions for families such as the Masseys and the Seagrams. Since then, it had slowly gone downhill; it was now a hangout for gangsters, hookers, and street people, with many rooming houses on that street selling drugs or sex. But I believed in our courtyard concept and doubted that land in the center of a fast-growing city like Toronto could remain cheap.
I was now, for better or worse, about to become a part-time hotelier. We needed a name, and someone came up with "Thunderbird." But on checking it out, we found it already taken. We kept looking, leafing through phone books to find a name that stood out. Then Eddie remembered a hotel in Munich he had stayed at during one of his buying trips, the finest hotel he knew, the Vier Jahrzeiten. That translated as Four Seasons. It sounded right. And that was the extent of our market research for a name.
Often Ian Munroe, our first general manager, and I would sit there talking, generating ideas, inexpensive things that would set our hotel apart. Because we couldn't afford advertising, we decided to make food our drawing card and establish the dining room as our showcase, something people would come for and talk about, thus attracting others. In the end, we decided to serve only roast beef, make our roast beef the best in the city, and present a customary menu only in our coffee shop. So after some research, with help from Eddie Creed, who also loved food, we found a company in Chicago selling very high quality beef from corn-fed cattle.
I, of course, was checking out hotels for several years, finding that in most of them, the towels were so thin that it took two or three to properly dry yourself. We put in bigger bath towels and thicker hand towels, all 100 percent cotton. And we were among the earliest at our level to do so.
Growing up with three sisters, I'd also learned something of women's habits: I knew that while traveling, because they don't like to wash their hair with soap, they usually carry a small bottle of shampoo. So we put shampoo in all our rooms. And that was a first. Today you can't go into any hotel or motel in the world without seeing shampoo in the bathroom.
It finally came time for our opening, and Murray, always a great promoter, said, "Let's open as a charity event for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the opera." He also told me, "When I was in New York, they had this fantastic outdoor art show. Thousands of people came to see it. Well, we've got hundreds of fine artists here in Toronto, and they can't get a place to show their work. Let's clear the parking lot of cars, and they can hang up their pictures here." We arranged for our guests to park across the street where a car dealer had a large lot, and several hundred artists hung their pictures in our parking lot - a first for Toronto, and a great draw for us for eight years. The event is now at Toronto's City Hall in its forty-second year, the largest outdoor art show in North America.
Eddie followed up Murray's arrangements by borrowing the Creed store's mailing list, which included most of Toronto's social elite. That gave us the marketing clout of Zena Cherry, the Toronto Telegram's society reporter, and anybody who was anybody showed up at our opening, supporting not only their symphony, opera, and artists, but also us. We opened in 1961 with elaborate publicity and much more soon to come, for directly across the street was Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) headquarters, generally known as the Kremlin by its staff. One of its staffers, Elwood Glover, hosted a popular daily half-hour noon radio program called Luncheon Date . Murray knew him and suggested that by broadcasting from our adjacent dining room he would have the applause and stimulation of a live audience. That appealed to both him and CBC management, and Glover began broadcasting from a corner table in our dining room, headlining show-business celebrities from Canada, the United States, and Europe. Glover's program grew better and better, eventually becoming an hour television show and then a simulcast, a TV program simultaneously broadcast on radio. We gave him a place in the lobby with stage and tables, cabaret style. For thirteen years, Glover's program drew some two thousand guests a year, the illustrious of stage and screen, music hall and opera.
Not only did the CBC make the first Four Seasons quickly and extensively fashionable, it also made it profitable beyond all expectation. It was an extraordinary beginning for a small, unknown hotel company.
From: Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy by
Isadore Sharp. Copyright © Four Seasons Hotels Limited 2009.
Reprinted with permission of
Penguin Group (Canada).