Not only is the new 121 room luxurious Four Seasons Resort Vail a welcome addition to the Valley, there is a treasure that comes along with it. Hans Willimann, the 32 year Four Seasons veteran, is the property’s general manager. A native of Switzerland, Hans has skied all of his life, and says: “Relocating to Vail is a dream come true for me!” Willimann, who was brought to Colorado from the Four Seasons in Chicago, is a rare blend of keen intelligence, charm, sophistication - and in general a man who has integrity and is true to his principles. His philosophy of treating everyone with respect and kindness – no matter who they are - is known far and wide.
During his 23 years as general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago, and under his leadership, Four Seasons Hotel Chicago quickly became one of the country’s most awarded top Five-Star AAA hotels both in the U.S. and internationally.
While living in Chicago, Willimann contributed greatly to the community and his involvement earned him the fond title of “Mayor of Chicago.” He was recognized by the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association with the “Hotelier of the Year” and the “Ambassador of Hospitality” awards in recognition of his many achievements.
President Obama, Jimmy Carter, George Bush Sr., Ronald & Nancy Reagan, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Mick Jagger, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Richard Daley, Rahm Emanuel - and it doesn’t stop! These are just some of the famous people Hans has met during the last 32 years. Prior to managing the Chicago hotel, Willimann helped to set the high level of service standards at the Four Seasons Hotels in Houston and in Boston.
What better praise could Hans Willimann get than from the founder of the Four Seasons himself. Isadore Sharp, nailed it when with this compliment: “Hans is a passionate leader who wears his emotions on his sleeve. You really know that this man cares. And it's almost like he owns the hotel himself.” Sharp explains. "He couldn't put more into everything he does, looking for that elusive goal of perfection. Hans is a true perfectionist, looking for perfection. If everyone could be kind and so full of life as Hans Willimann, what a wonderful world it would be!” Add to that,Wolf Hengst, the executive vice president of operations at Four Seasons -- and Willimann's boss says: "It's a unique time in the life of hotels. You have to set a tone of true hospitality, caring, and enthusiasm -- which always comes from the top. Hans created what our Boston hotel became, in terms of quality levels. And Hans Willimann was instrumental in positioning our Chicago hotel, which is recognized as one of the best in the world."
Now Willimann will go out and show his competency and brilliance in our beautiful town of Vail. We will end here with a statement from Hans that shows the essence of this unique man. Hans Willimann's Fast Service Tip: "It is not hard to treat people with dignity, and that applies just as easily to employees as it does to guests. The only difference is, guests have more money. If an employee needs to be bailed out of jail, okay. If a guest needs filet mignon at 1 a.m. in the morning, we do it!"
What upcoming charitable events are taking place at the Four Seasons Resort Vail? We are booking many charitable events in the upcoming months. Right now, at our grand opening on March 19th, our biggest charity event will take place, and the nonprofit River Roundup Ranch is the beneficiary of the evening. The organization has built a camp in Colorado that will enrich the lives of children who have chronic or life-threatening illnesses by providing free camp experiences with appropriate medical support but are still fun, empowering and memorable for the kids. The actor, Paul Newman, founded the camps; and in addition to Colorado, they now have 7 ranches all over the country. I am a firm believer in embracing every community endeavor we can such as highway and river clean-ups, and I work with the Four Seasons supporting their various cancer organizations. As an example, we organize runs annually to raise money for cancer research, such as the event held to honor Terry Fox, a famous Canadian who succumbed to the disease years ago. Before he died, Fox started the “Marathon of Hope” a run to raise money for research.
How important is it for a hotel like the Four Seasons to be involved in the community? It goes hand in hand; and I would very much like to be part of this community. It’s important to support your community and have them support you. You just have to be community-oriented. We do weddings, funerals – and even have held free Easter mass in our hotel for 700 people. This is a win-win for all of us.
Hans, I know bragging is not your style, but you are known in your industry for giving over-the-top service; what motivates you? I enjoy working with people. For me to anticipate what the guests needs are, is what it’s all about. Good service for one person might not be the same for all. You have to figure out what the individual’s personal needs are. Always remember who the customer is, and see to it that they get the maximum out of the time they spend with you.
What are the key elements of service you expect from your staff? Warm, friendly, finely-tuned, anticipatory service. If they make mistakes, that’s okay, learn from them and don’t make it twice. Always anticipate the guests need and be gracious and humble - never be arrogant.
Since you have come to Vail through the years – and have a home here, how do you think Vail has changed over the last 25 years? It’s a very dynamic mountain town. Vail is consistently improving. There are many developments that have improved mountain living and resorts and hotels like the Ritz Carlton and Solera are bringing more vigor to the village. We hope to do the same. It’s a very interesting village – it’s heated everywhere, fun, and I think it’s the greatest ski town in North America today.
Originally coming from Switzerland, how do you think skiing here compares to skiing in your native land? I grew up using long skies. I never saw so many moguls as you see in America. Americans are warm and kind, and they are very organized on the slopes – with better and more modern equipment. The ski lifts are nice and the grooming machinery here is the best. Europe still has that little ski town atmosphere – and everything is naturally grown by farmers, milkmen - even the local plumbers all grew up in the little ski towns. It’s a very organic infrastructure in Switzerland.
You were the General Manager of the Four Seasons Chicago for 23 years, what will you miss most about Chicago? I love my Chicago friends and will miss them. When you leave a town that you have lived in for a long time, you leave a lot of friends behind. It is easy though to make friends in Vail. Chicago is not as fast as New York, and you can stay in touch with people easier and really get to know them. Chicago still has all the culture you’ve ever wanted such as the symphony and other arts.
What do you hope to accomplish as the GM for the Four Seasons Resort Vail? I want to make it the best property in Vail, and hopefully the best and most vibrant Colorado mountain resort. I’ve looked forward to coming here for 15 years.
What is your favorite country to visit? I enjoy Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. It’s a very dynamic, beautiful country with wonderful people and magical towns that soon will host the Olympics and World Cup Soccer.
What is the biggest upside to being in the hotel and hospitality industry? Are there any downsides? Just like a coin, everything in life has two sides, strengths and the weaknesses. It’s a very people-oriented business. I am always intrigued by the guests, who they are, where they come from, what their needs are. Occasionally, the downside can be employee issues, especially when guests aren’t happy.
Since we never stop learning, what would you still like to learn how to do? I’m a skier and I admire snowboarders; I am going to learn to snowboard…
Tell us about the restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort Vail; why should we put it on our “don’t miss it” list for dining in Vail? The name of the restaurant in the hotel is Flame. The menu is protein-based with items such as bison, bone-in porterhouse steaks, salmon, striped bass; and in the wintertime – we make sure we have items such as suckling pig, braised ribs which are great hot “warm you up” foods. We’re going for an ever-changing, but very recognizable menu. No fusion - and no confusion! We also cater to children as well as adults – and we even have the macaroni and cheese they like – Kraft, right out of the box.
Out of all the celebrities and famous people you have met at events, who impressed you the most? Desmond Tutu, the priest from South Africa, really impressed me. He gave a speech to about 500 people in our ballroom. He’s small in stature, but a very charismatic, unpretentious, humble visionary.
Do you have a saying or motto that has helped guide you through life? 32 years ago, Mr. Isadore Sharp, the founder of the Four Seasons, asked us each about what we personally believe in, and how important is it to treat people well. You have to embrace the “Treat people the way you want to be treated” philosophy and live by it – or, in his eyes, you weren’t going to be an employee of the hotel. Treat everyone the same – guests, employees, vendors and you can’t go wrong in life.
What makes you such a great and respected leader in your industry? Thank you, what a nice compliment. I never forget that I once parked the guests cars and “schlepped” the luggage. I am happy to be who I am, and I put life in the right perspective to make others happy and let them be who they are. Life is all about attitude.
What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment so far? Of course I have to say my family. I’ve been married to the same lady for 32 years.
How long do you want to stay in the hotel management business? Forever! I’m good at what I do… It motivates me every morning to get up; I look forward to going to work. I love people, and I really missed the interaction with them when I was here working just before the hotel opened. As long as I have my wits together, I will be here.
What changes do you predict for the hotel industry in the next 10 years? I think that the hotel industry will become even more sophisticated because travelers are becoming more demanding and sophisticated. The industry will always try to improve. Because of social media – the word is out right away, so if a guest didn’t like the stay or service, people will know about it. I believe there will be more respect for the environment. Even more so, hotels will be a respite for people to go in and recharge their batteries. Travelers will have high expectations and will want more and expect more.
How do you want to be remembered by your family and future generations? As a decent human being who did everything to be sure that his wife and children and family were happy. They have been my main support through all the years, so it’s been about giving back to them. Providing my kids with a debt-free education - and literally the shirt off my back if that’s what they needed.