But later I ask him however if the luxury hotel model in some ways needs blowing up. For example, why do guests need to schlep up to a check-in desk? It’s inconvenient and stodgy. If tourists can choose an airplane seat – a convenience offered even by the cheapest of airlines – why not a room at the Four Seasons? Mr. Smith stresses that it’s a people-driven business, and he feels that guests expect one-on-one attention and Four Seasons give them that long before the journey begins with concierges to help them plan.
It occurs to me about halfway through the meal that Mr. Smith is more at ease standing up than sitting down. The answers are growing stiff. Perhaps he’s just tired of this formality. Or perhaps the man has been on a non-stop tour of his properties for the past few months and it’s all finally catching up to him.
Consequently, when the conversation turns to his family, he starts opening up again. He hasn’t moved to Canada yet. His family is still in suburban New Jersey, where two of his four kids go to arts school, and once the second-youngest finishes high school next year, he and his wife will settle here.
He is no stranger to Canada: He tells me about his mother’s family from Ottawa. As a kid, he used to vacation at her family farm near Aylmer, Que., and sold apples at a roadside stand. “We did it by providing outstanding service,” he said archly.
As we end the interview, I ask him about a gold ring he is wearing, an old family heirloom he tells me, given to him by a close aunt. “There is a date inscribed on the inside: 2014,” he says, then correcting himself. “I mean, 1914.” It’s a sign, I tell him. It’s your year.
His salad is half-started, his wine glass half-drunk, and after sitting for an hour and half to go over what he needs to keep his famous stakeholders happy, he probably didn’t need any reminding about what this year means.
Time to stand up.
TRAVELS WITH ALLEN
Most impressive tourist site: Grand Canyon. “The scale certainly puts you in the larger scheme of say, um, geologic time. There’s not much else that does it more profoundly than that.”
Vacation home: None.
Hobbies: Flyfishing, cycling, cooking. “But frankly all of my my time now is spent with my family and the activities and interests that my kids have and trying to be present for all of those.”
College major: Sociology. “I can’t say there was a single [sociologist] who stood out for me as being my absolute favourite whom I have revered since.”
Serious car guy? “On the spectrum of car guys, I’m probably not ultra-serious. I have gone through many phases, and one of those phases is still parked in my garage and hasn’t been driven for quite some time. It’s a 1988 Porsche Targa.”
Books most recently read: In fiction, The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel by Adam Johnson; non-fiction, A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook.
Best business book: From Good to Great by Jim Collins. “What I thought was most important is what it said about building teams, or what it called ‘getting people the right seat on the bus.’”
What could you have been, other than a chef or a CEO? A doctor. Or an author.
Do you speak to Isadore Sharp? “Relatively frequently. When he’s in town and I’m in town, we try to get togethe r to have coffee at his house once a week or something like that ... my relationship with him is very important to me.”
As a tourist, what do you look for first in a hotel room? An electrical outlet.
Poison of choice: Wine, and Stella Artois