Crafting Stories in Luxury - Michael Doneff - Defining Hospitality - Episode # 155

Dan Ryan: guest is a creative, strategic, and visionary brand storyteller. In his 30 year career, he's left an impact with leading luxury lifestyle brands in hospitality, Food and beverage, design, and wellness. He's known by many as an invaluable strategist and effective leader for new concept development.

Launches and Brand Reinventions. He's the Vice President of Food and Beverage Concept and Brand Development at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Ladies and gentlemen, Michael Doniff. Welcome, Michael.

Michael Doneff: Hey, Dan. Great to

Dan Ryan: It's so good to have you here, and this has been a long time coming. I just want everyone to know,

Michael Doneff: you've been very persistent.

Dan Ryan: and I finally, I finally harpooned the whale.

So, uh, call me Ahab. So

Michael Doneff: I know. Thank you. I'm excited to do this. Sorry it took so You know, you had a lot of big changes, and I'm really excited to talk about them. Um, but first I wanted to tee up, because obviously this is defining hospitality, and I think I, more than many, I actually might say the vast majority of the guests,

Dan Ryan: you know, I've had dinner with, we've met up, we've worked, we've perhaps been at a conference together, we've had some sort of, many of them, some sort of a shared experience. Um, Which is why I enjoy them, and we laugh, and we have a good time, and so there's like a really deeper personal connection. But you, I was at a very important milestone birthday for you, and

Michael Doneff: Mm

Dan Ryan: I forget the name of the house up on the PCH next to the Getty.

Please help

Michael Doneff: hmm. Villa

Dan Ryan: Villalion. I've driven past it a hundred, a thousand times. Um, I've always been fascinated by what that was. But going in there with 60 or 80 of your closest friends, of people who are most important to you, and I know that I only got the ticket because of my wife Alexa, But, uh, but, um, I, it was so meticulous and so incredibly thought out and it was probably one of the best and most incredibly planned and executed soirees, dinner parties, birthday parties I've ever been to. Not only was the view amazing, you can't mess with that, but just everything from the table settings to the, the cutlery to the table runner to just how thoughtful the seating arrangements were. And even though there were, I don't know how many people were there, but it felt like there were, So I don't know.

And I think that this kind of ties into your superpower of what you're doing now with Four Seasons and all, and it has served you incredibly well along your whole, um, life journey, career journey. And I would just say life in general. Um, you know, we've had dinner before, we've hung out before, but that was just such a A spotlight into who you are and who you surround yourself with.

And I was just honored to be there. I mean, it was like, it was something that I will never, ever, ever forget.

Michael Doneff: Yeah, you were an important, you and Alexa were important additions. I mean, it was such a, because it was at the end of the pandemic, sort of, we thought it would be. Um, and it was just the moment, because so many of my friends had not, you I've been in an environment like that, and it's just, we all wanted a celebration, we wanted a party, you know, and I thought, there's so much wrong in the world, like, this is, this feels so right, and so I was really, I wish I could do that every year, but it was a lot of work, and, but I, that, I'm glad you enjoyed it, because that, for me, when you ask about it.

defining hospitality, and I wish we'll get to that in a minute, but I think that's kind of it. Like, all is, I love the small touches, I love those things that maybe people don't notice, maybe they do, but just, I wanted it to be a celebration of you guys, more than, and having appreciation of having you in my life, as opposed to like, let's, you know, celebrate me because I'm, I'm going through this milestone.

But anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed

Dan Ryan: was, well, it was, it was just phenomenal just from, from sight to everything else. And so if you were to look at that event as a microcosm for What's between your ears and your beautiful mind. How does that tie into what your definition or how you, or what you feel about hospitality as far as like both giving and receiving and also just setting the stage for everyone that's passing through.

Michael Doneff: I mean, I think for me, when I've thought about this in the weeks up to this now to doing it, like, what does that mean for me? Because obviously it's been part of my life from being a kid and wanting to like plan or host things. And just, I've always loved that. that world, and that gesture of welcoming and hosting.

Um, but I think for me it's the art of welcoming people into an environment or an experience that they feel comfortable, they feel understood, they feel appreciated, they feel heard, and then you create this experience Whether it's a dinner, an overnight stay, an event, you create this experience that they, they really, you give them more than they might have expected.

And it doesn't have to be fireworks, but it can be the little gestures. Um, or just things that like show thought, you know, that show caring, that show authentically welcoming people. And, and, you know, we're in a world where a lot of in, you and I have stayed in a lot of hotels and, and experiences where you can tell it's kind of scripted, you know, it's not from the heart.

It's not just what they want to say. It's what they're, they've been taught to and it always feels inauthentic. So I think having that genuine Spirit. And it could be having friends over for pizza. It could be a gala event. It could be a celebration. It could be a three star Michelin restaurant. It could be the corner French bistro on your street, which you just love going to and they, you feel like your home in a way.

So that's maybe a long window, but that's my, uh, view on what hospitality is. And that's why I've loved being in it for so many years because it's just, I think it's so fun

Dan Ryan: fun. And also just looking at

Michael Doneff: mmm,

Dan Ryan: at that dinner and just, Seeing how many mutual friends and like what our tribe is. It's, it's so, it's like 3d chess, right? It's like, it's like everyone, it was just an all encompassing event where like so many people I care about, um, I want to go back to, you said when you were a kid, so you grew up in Minnesota, correct?

Michael Doneff: mmm hmm.

Dan Ryan: I'm sure

Michael Doneff: all in the winters,

Dan Ryan: when you were a child or younger, the younger version of yourself, and you're thinking about, or what, how did you know that this is what you were drawn to and that this was, this was your superpower? And you're like, Hey, this is what I want to do in the future. In my life.

Michael Doneff: mean, there's two aspects. There's sort of the hosting, hospitality, service industry, which I've For whatever reason, I've always been drawn to. I used to help my mother when she would throw dinner parties, I would dress up as a waiter and like black and white and like have a towel over my arm and help serve, which I was like that nerdy kid who was doing these weird things, but I loved it.

I thought it was really fun to be part of it, you know, and she would make like chicken Kiev and all these like fun 70s things, which people don't really make for dinner parties anymore. Um, so that, that was that part. But then travel has always been my. I've been so, uh, enamored and infatuated with the idea of long, faraway countries, cultures, people, music, landscapes, beauty, history, all that things.

And so, but living up in, growing up in Minnesota, I, I probably traveled when I was 14. I think that was the first time we actually got on a plane and went to Florida, which for me was like, At that point, people dressed up for flights, and so I had this, like, navy blue leisure suit with white, uh, details, and a leopard Guiana shirt, so that I was, like, styling for this first inaugural trip.

So I just, it's always been fun, and I, you know, I went to France on a 10th grade school trip, and I fell in love with France, and I went, you know, back for a journey abroad. And so that was kind of the eye opening experience. This kid from Minnesota who had never really. seen anything outside of, you know, and again, then we didn't have the internet.

So there was not, you know, TV, I guess, but you couldn't just Google your way to like exotic lands, you know. So that's kind of where it started.

Dan Ryan: So, and then at what point, I guess, having done that, I guess, so you did it for fun as a kid, and then you got the travel bug dressing up on the plane. But how did you, at what point did you connect all the dots and realize that, wow, I could do this? As a career.

Michael Doneff: It's, I guess I didn't intend it. I, when I lived in, so after I got my degree, I went back to France after college and got a job in a restaurant. It's a Michelin restaurant in the South. And I just, I met a lot of great people. I loved it. And after that summer, I did not want to come back because when my mother, and she will never live this down, but when I wanted, I needed the money to go to France after college, and I'd spent it all in Cancun on my, my careful savings.

And, uh, I said, I need a one way ticket to, I have this job in this Michelin restaurant. She's like, what? Why would you want to work in a restaurant in France when you're already working one in Madison, Wisconsin? So I was like, okay. So I, I borrowed the money from a friend and I went and I stayed for three years.


Dan Ryan: in the south was

Michael Doneff: It was in some small, I think it was St. Paul les Durands. It was like some small town up in Provence, like literally a village. And there was this great restaurant there. Um, anyway, and then I didn't want to come back. So they, Sent me up to Paris and introduced me to this guy, uh, Jean Pierre Coff, who is now a, or has since passed, but he was a TV personality.

But at the time he had restaurants in repertory theaters in Paris. So he said, I can give you a job. And so I worked as like a barman. And then I ended up managing the restaurants weirdly enough, even though I didn't know anything about that, but he trusted me. And, you know, so I had to, it was a quick thing.

Crash course on restaurant management at that time. And I was like 23 or something. Um, and so it was the restaurants of three theaters in Paris. So it was like during the day it was for the crew, but the actors when they were rehearsing and one of them, there was a drama school. So they were acting students and that at night it was for the people who came to see the plays and it was their repertory theaters.

So everyone, every night was a little different. It was a fascinating experience, but I learned quickly about the restaurant, and I just love that idea of hospitality and food and seeing people enjoy and putting together the elements of the experience that people would come and enjoy. And you get a lot of, I get a lot of satisfaction from watching people enjoy things that I sort of helped

Dan Ryan: Did you ever while working for a Michelin restaurant in France get to say Don't get saucy with me. Bernas

Michael Doneff: I don't think I had that opportunity, but I'm going to use that next,

Dan Ryan: credit, Mel, Mel Brooks for that one.

Michael Doneff: career.

Dan Ryan: So actually I'm, I'm really, um, fascinated by the repertory. Repertory theater. So the, the different types of people and age mixes that would come in and eat and just, I'm sure this, the, the, the stories and the, the joie de vivre, and just all of that with all those actors and actresses coming around and being able to serve them, like, what, what were some of your favorite memories of that, or, or how did that type, how did that type of, um, I don't know, like crucible of people and personalities.

help influence your, your path as far as like brand development and really thinking creatively about trying to get out of someone's idea onto a tablecloth, if you will.

Michael Doneff: Well, working in that environment where you're just surrounded by creators, or you're people who want to come see a play or see a musical or see an opera, that was pretty incredible to be. And then doing this, you know, getting paid as a bar man or bar manager and then a restaurant manager. And so, and it was long hours, you know, but it was just fun because it was really interesting people.

I met, you know, kids who are acting students then, and now I've seen them, you know, become French actors in cinema and directors and just the exposure as a Minnesota kid, like stuck in this weird time warp of just in Paris and, and. You know, it was, it was amazing. And I was very grateful to have that experience cause it just changed my life.

You know, when you get. When you get that chance to go abroad or live abroad where nothing is given, and, um, And then weirdly, I didn't choose hospitality or that restaurants as a career. I just, you know, I worked in them because they paid, and I went, when I moved to New York after that, I worked in restaurants because you made great money, you know, and tips.

Um, and then the hotel thing just kind of evolved to travel, because travel is always a love, and then There was a job when I moved to New York for a, um, receptionist in a PR firm. It was a travel PR firm. And I was like, I don't know what PR is, but travel, you know, I can do travel. So I, I got it and kind of worked my way up in, in starting in PR and for destinations and companies and hotel groups and stuff.

So that was my first exposure and got to go on press trips and, you know, so. Again, I just, I'm always like ready with the passport to go anywhere if the opportunity arises.

Dan Ryan: Have passport, it was fun. Mm hmm.

and I think just hearing these stories of just, I don't know, I feel like a theme that comes up often on this is can get into hospitality. Anyone, because you can start washing dishes, you can start, um, cleaning rooms, you can start serving people at a table. And there's great people like yourself and millions of others who have started in a career that way.

But I also feel like if you look at the workforce now, where everyone's so starved for people and great people, especially in hospitality, it's amazing how With a drive and a desire to please, like in this kind of hospitality quotient idea that Danny Meyer has coined, the jobs are there. And then the path to leadership management is so steep.

And it's so, um, it's so easy to build a career. Well, nothing's easy, but there is a very sharp career path that I think a lot of people tend to overlook. Um, but it's not like if you start serving as a table server, as a bartender, or as a barback, you're stuck in that. And that's what I'm seeing, and what I've seen in design, hotel management, everyone starts in one place. So many people think that they're corralled into this one path once they start on that, but no, it's really just a door open in every restaurant, every hotel. They're just like these, um, laboratories of business and, and revenue streams, and there's so many different things that you can get involved in with a brain and a work ethic.

I don't know. It's, it's a pretty awesome career. And I, and most of the people I talk to you like yourself, they all seem to stumble into this field by accident. It wasn't like, it wasn't by design. Um, what are your thoughts on finding, uh, on like this path that I guess this career path that hospitality offers

Michael Doneff: I mean, you're right. It is, you can go in from any aspect, you know, whether it's design or ops or culinary or beverage or, you know, I mean, there's a lot of ways in and I think again, I stumbled into it, but I think what always drove me back to it was the just love of this Both travel and the art of hospitality is just like the gesture of hosting people, of creating environments, or creating brands, or concepts that people, then you can actually watch people like, enjoy and to write about until like it becomes this thing, you know, and I've been part of, I've been fortunate to be part of a lot of early stage brands and being part of see how they come to life, you know, and creating the the name and then the logo and then the name has, takes on its own life, you know, um, and just to watch that process.

It's really fun because you mentioned storytelling. I mean, that's probably my favorite term for all of this because it is really kind of like you're creating little mini stories and I, and I love thinking how that looks, how it sounds, how it feels, like all those little things and that, you know, and I'm doing a lot of that over and over again now,

Dan Ryan: with Four


Michael Doneff: yeah, I get to create so many new things all over the world.

Dan Ryan: Well, and I want, I want to, I want to get to Four Seasons. Cause also just looking at your path from, you know, I don't know, SBE to. I guess you were at Canyon Ranch, and then, um, Jose Andres, you were at Viceroy, um, now, to me, Four Seasons is like, definitely, it's like the top of the top, right? Um, but along your Along your journey, um, what was one of those concepts where maybe, not so much a new one with a clean slate, one where you came in where they were kind of like, okay, we think we have this, but something's not working.

We got to bring in some new ideas to kind of reposition what we have going on. What's a, what's a story, like a success story about Somewhere where you came in and helped reposition with, with success. And it just kind of reaffirmed your belief in your superpower and what you do.

Michael Doneff: Hmm. One fun thing, I mean, there's been

Dan Ryan: I'm sure there's been several of them, but I, yeah, but one fun project which I worked on, which, uh, it was a resort, it is I think still a resort in Bermuda, which the actor Michael Douglas owns. His family's from Bermuda, his mother's from Bermuda. And they came to us when I was working in, I guess, in PR at the time with Susan Magrino Agency, um, and, uh, they, he had met Susan and said, you know, we need to have this family property and we need some help with it, you know, and so, We went down there and it was, it had been designed by, it was, I guess it was in the 90s, but it was very 90s.

Michael Doneff: It was like really not great floral patterns and just the, the branding was very like, it just, it wasn't great. And so we, and we actually said to him, well, if, You're not changing things. I don't know what we can do from you because there's really no story here. It's not relevant, especially to the audience that we could help access for you.

So, we said, but can we just propose something? So, and we saw some of the historical photos and collateral and stuff from this property in the 60s and 70s and it was really cool. It was just like classic Bermudan like style and the property had good bones, but we, so I said, we said, let us, can we suggest going back to that and kind of a refresh of that?

And so he said, I'm all ears. So we, we connected with a designer who was a friend of ours, Jeffrey Bill Huber in New York. And he agreed to sort of re imagine the interior design. And, um, then we hired a friend of mine, uh, Richard Pandiccio, who has a very successful design firm. And we said, can you go back to this original logo and just make it fresh?

So we created this like kind of dream team of these people and we completely re did. And a very vintage kind of honoring the past, but really fresh and new and lovely. And so we got a lot of success from that. I mean, they, it really, the property was reborn. He was very happy.

Dan Ryan: What was it called?


is it called? Oh God. Okay.

Michael Doneff: Ariel Sands.

I think it's still around, but, and I don't know if he's still involved with it, but it was in the family. He has a long, and family in Bermuda is very important, and they have generations, and he had all these cousins there, and so, uh, it was really fun just to learn what the essence of that property needed to be, and, and really kind of taking off all this stuff that had been added in over the years since it opened, and bringing it back to a really modern version of its original identity.

So that was, That

Dan Ryan: So I find that, I find that interesting. And this actually has come up in a couple of conversations recently. Um, okay. So if you think about a PR company, right, What you just explained is outside of the Ballywick of a typical PR company, right? It's like, okay, you're in your lane. You're helping to get us press and promote us and blah, blah.

But there's so many people, whether it's PR, design, architecture, even management operations, where you're brought in to do one thing. But you have to, but you see the opportunity because maybe you have, I don't know, a fresh perspective or you're just like, Oh, these guys aren't seeing it. But when you come up with, against someone like, not against, but when your client is someone like Michael Douglas and his family, I'm sure that they have very specific opinions and it's a hard, I don't know, it could be a hard or difficult conversation to have. If you were to use that example of how did you get up the Courage to say, you know what, I think you might be looking at this the wrong way and sell them on a different vision. And how have you taken that, whatever that skill set was that gave you the gumption to do that, how have you applied that in other areas of, of your life and career?

Michael Doneff: I don't know how we did it, I guess. We were just, cause Susan and I talked about it and we were like, oh, you know, cause Was

Dan Ryan: it Alan's idea?

Michael Doneff: no, Alan wasn't really worked in travel that, but it was really me and Susan, but you know, Alan has been a, now she's a huge part of the agency, she's not what it has been, but I think, um, I don't know, we just like, Susan and I and Alan have a very frank relationship, they're like family with me, and they, we just like, we don't, we can't do this, we see it, like we've worked with other hotels like Chris Blackwell and Island Outpost and very style driven hotels and we knew that we couldn't really help them, they could go to some PR agency And they could probably make great noise for them, but it would never be this game changing thing.

And for some reason, he bought it and he liked it. And so he said, because like, we'd never done this before. I had never done it before, but I, we just felt like we knew, and we knew people who could help us assemble this team to create. All

Dan Ryan: you tell him that you'd never done it before, or you're just like, no, I got it. Go. Okay. Fake it until you make it. Okay. So, but that's a, that's a huge coup, if you will, as far as breaking out of your, out of your lane, right?

Michael Doneff: yeah, because my, you know, I started in PR, but I always knew that my, it wasn't creative enough for me, like PR is great, and it's, I love the storytelling aspect, and I love the communications and the relationships and the, you know, the positioning of a thing into a, and guiding it, because I always loved that about PR, but again, at the end of the day, for me, PR, there was no concrete answer.

So, yeah. I think it's I could point to and say, I helped do that. You know, like, you help writers write a story or film something and you have a way of You have an invisible footprint on that coverage. But, um, anyway, I don't know, it's just something I always loved and I knew I wanted to do. Uh, little by little over the next years and decades, like, I, I got more into that creative space, like, and we actually use the Ariel Sands success story as a way into W, um, because W, um, I read a Crane's New York business story in, I guess it was the early or mid 90s, about Barry Sternlicht starting this, you know, Starwood group, and he'd hired Randy Gerber to create the bar, the whiskey bar for this first hotel in New York, and I was like, this guy, And it was sort of after the Ian, you know, it was like the next level of what Ian had done, Ian Schrager.

And so I was like, this guy's onto something, so I'm gonna write him a letter, because there was no You wrote Barry a letter,

I wrote him a letter, and I said, this I typed it. Yeah, I typed it. I signed it though, um, but I don't know how I even got an address, but I just wrote him a letter from us and I said, this is what we've done.

We just did this hotel for Michael Douglas and we'd love to just be a part of what W is doing because it sounds really exciting. And he actually responded. Um, he asked for a meeting and he asked actually this woman, Hilary Billings, who at the time was helping launch W, um, from a design standpoint. And so she met with us and.

They hired us to do like the initial PR, but also help with the branding. So we, based on this letter I got, we got W as a client when it was like, no one had heard of it. And. And I was talking earlier about the name, like, being part of that, like, W was, when it first came up as a idea for the name, I was like, well, that's a code name, like, Project X or something, like, it's like, it's just a, a thing, but then it, you know, look at W, people don't even think twice about, um, there was a lot of discussion at the time, but that was a, Not the best name for a hotel chain, but now it's, it's kind of iconic.

So just to see that trajectory, that was really fun to work on. And that's where I met, like, amazing people like Teresa Fittino and, you know, just got into that world in Ave and that's how I met Alexa. So every, you know, thanks to W, I know you.

Dan Ryan: Wow. Well, thanks to Barry. Actually, someone was asking me the other day who, like a dream client or not dream client, a dream guest on this podcast would be. I mean, aside from you, Michael, but really Barry Stern, like, I'm just so, and I've met him a couple of times. Um, I think when I was working with Steve Higgins way back in the day in San Francisco, he came in the office.

I met him there. I met him at some other charity functions, I think for juvenile diabetes, or so he was very, he was like a keynote in that. I think he's very. involved in that. I think it was juvenile diabetes. Um, but, uh, Just the way that he approaches and looks, much in the same way that you jumped out of your lane from PR to create that Ariel Sands and kind of turn Michael Douglas's idea on his head and deliver on it.

He also just looks in different places for what's next. And I think so often we're all going back to the same trough, if you will, create something new. So what he, his. I don't know. His track record is pretty amazing. And it's amazing. Who else has you've written a letter like that to and gotten a response from?

Michael Doneff: No one. No one. I don't think so. I mean, who writes letters anymore? But,

um, the

fact that it got to him and he actually took a chance on us, you know,

Dan Ryan: I bet a letter would stand out more than anything right

Michael Doneff: I think so now, probably, yeah, if you can get it to the

Dan Ryan: I always like writing.

Michael Doneff: Yeah, I do too.

Dan Ryan: Um, okay. So then thinking about kind of what he created in W and. that was at the time and how the name has endured. Um, you're coming into an iconic brand, Four Seasons, arguably one of the best hospitality experiences out there.

Um, how did you know that the time was right for you to take this next step to be with such an incredible and storied group.

Michael Doneff: I don't know. I just, again, it just kind of, the opportunity arose for me as a consultant into that space after leaving, after leaving Jose Andres, you know, uh, working there for many years and then pandemic and then trying to look at what I would do next. And I think I've always been a huge fan of the brand.

It's just kind of like the gold standard in so many levels, which I just never thought it would be, you know. It was never in the cards, but then this opportunity came and I was like, I think, yeah, I think I could do that. I mean, I've worked with a lot of other brands on the agency side from Indian house, like one and only and Peninsula and St.

Regis. And so over the years I've, I've had access to, but you know, I've, I've never worked for a company this big before. So that's a new experience, which has been really fun. But yeah, I don't know. It just seemed right. And from my point in my career and all the things that I've done over the years have like, led me to like, this makes sense for me, I guess.

Um, because I've, most of my work has been with entrepreneurs, you know, founder, visionaries, leaders, which has been really fun. A wild ride with all these amazingly creative people and just, you know, So this is different. Um, but it's really great because it's such a group of smart people and, um, who truly understand, uh, hospitality.

You know, I think in that art of, I've gone to maybe 20 properties now in the last year or so, and just seeing it like, you know, companies create brands and mission statements and brand words and things. And I, and I've been a part of a lot of them, but it's always nice when you go in the field and you actually see this.

what the company's saying from above as a brand level, like that actually is true, you know, and it's people, these teams live it every day, you know, And if you, from a storytelling PR perspective, helping come up with mission statements and values, I know I find so often, especially in hospitality, that it can ring so true on a poster.

Dan Ryan: but when, when you're coming up with, uh, these kinds of value statements and words, I find often, actually, I would say maybe more often than not, that there's an inconsistency between what that vision and what the vision and values are, and then when you're actually on site, when you come up with, in the past, when you've come up with these ideas and decks and visions and, and values, what else, like.

You do your, you come up with them, you move on, or you're sticking around. How, how do you help keep those on track as the person who comes up with the idea? Because I assume it has to come from the people within, but is it often just Just words and not meaning and then is that, is that like a, when there's that disconnect, it's like, okay, well, that's time to go.

Michael Doneff: Well, I think it always depends on the company culture, but I think the intent is always that it's, this is it. And that's if a brand, and I've been part of many brands, but if it's constructed correctly and thoughtfully, I think that it's meant to last. Right. Um, but it's only as good as. every execution of it, right? Some GM at a property might at some point say, Oh, you know, I like the color purple. I think we should just change this logo to purple. Cause I think that's going to be, or I saw it on a trend report, whatever.

So little like death by a thousand cuts, you know, little things happen. People make decisions they think are the right ones and you lose the, a brand loses its way, which I've seen that in, in, in, Some that I've, you know, worked with long ago and you see how they've evolved. It's some, it's good. Some, it's just, it's kind of sad because you see them have lost that original, but I think it's hard because it's every decision has to honor that core.

Even if it's a solid core that has been thought through, you know, people change, regimes change, leadership changes the field, you know, the. People at the front line change. So it is hard. I think one thing that I always tried to advocate for was internal comms as well as external, and they have to be aligned because a lot of companies sometimes have, uh, It's all clear to the outside in the PR and the messaging and the design and everything, but then it's not reflected in the staff training.

Dan Ryan: I find that, I find just in, um, with entrepreneurs and, and, and businesses that are trying to scale that, They have these values. They're projected to the outside. They're on posters. They don't become part of the lexicon or the everyday language of the teams. And I've gone through some really cool exercises where, you know, we'll have values and we'll share a core value story about someone on our little team in our huddle.

And then you'll notice or we would notice that like some of the values aren't being used very often. So we'd have a thing where it's like, okay, Share something about the value that's not being used for this week and just see. And then what we found was.

Michael Doneff: Yeah. Um,

Dan Ryan: The ones that weren't being used either weren't the right value and it needed to be changed or omitted. No, that's what it was. We found that it wasn't the right value. It had to be changed or omitted. And I find that, um, also giving, instead of giving positive feedback on something, it's also, hey, let's do a week where we're giving, negative feedback on someone who maybe fell down in a value. And what are some good examples that you've seen on your path where the values that are kind of come up that have come up on a, on a whiteboard, let's say, then get printed and become part of the propaganda.

But what's a good example of where it becomes part of the lexicon and what do you think, um, at a, at a management level is being done to promote that conversation?

Michael Doneff: I think the first example that comes to mind for me is working with Jose, um, Andres, which, you know, obviously he's, his humanitarian side is just, you know, exploded and what he's done for the world. But, you know, it all started from this mission statement for Think Food Group, which is what the company is to be called.

And it was changing the world through the power of food. So that's been on the wall. It's, it's, it's the motto. But one thing I, I know while working there is it, that guided a lot of decisions, you know, And it was always that thread through everything, you know, if this isn't doing well for people, you know, feeding the few, feeding the many, that kind of lens was really consistent everywhere, you know, and then now, and then, you know, that was when, when I was there, was World Central Kitchen was just starting to emerge as a, you know, You know, they started very small, but then with Puerto Rico and Houston and a lot of other events that they just really jumped into caused it to just grow.

And now they've, you know, they've, so much has happened there. Um, so I think that's one example of, of how that thread, um, carries through. And also, I mean, Canyon Ranch, I worked there for a few years, and that's another organization which has been around since the 70s. And it was, You know, a very founder led about his own health.

so Canyon Ranch, like, you know, it's all about his, it started with his own wellness journey. And then it just, the, the mission that people live and work by there, it's just amazing.

And then the transformations I saw people coming through their programs, whether it's a week or it's a month or, you know, whatever the journey, loss, post cancer, like just, A lot of things people came there with and they were really, I don't want to say healed, but they were emotionally healed and just taught mechanisms for how to live their life more fully or get over the trauma that they've been experiencing.

So it's always been very fun to work in an environment like that where it is hospitality, but it's also, you feel like you're serving a greater good as well.

Dan Ryan: I feel like it's, um, and I, I've not met Jose, but I would imagine that it's an, an other visionary founders. I love how you said that earlier, where I think part of what makes them so visionary is that they're single focused on whatever their gospel is. Right. And that is probably the way for Jose.

And actually that's a great, uh, another. Interesting path to go on in this discussion. So, you know, working at Four Seasons and being the gold standard, what do you think separates, and not just Four Seasons, but any of any of the companies and people and visionaries that you've worked with on your path, just good hospitality from exceptional hospitality?

Michael Doneff: I think it's the, for me at least, it's the small things that touches, you know, that most people, like, people expect wonderful furnishings, you know, great food. You know, checking the boxes, talking about service versus hospitality, exceptional service, attentive, courteous, you know, professional, anticipatory, all those wonderful things that service aims to be.

But it's also the, the genuine warmth, you know, the, the name recognition, the, like you sense that these people love their jobs and they love the industry and they love taking care of the guest. And they just, you see it in their faces, you know. And I think, so that's an important key that I have. I think that makes all the difference because anyone can check the boxes and have, you know, get your, um, forms or your, you know, ratings, your stars, your whatever.

And I think that's a very technical precision, which is important and people do expect that. But even if you have on top of that, a really emotionally intelligent approach, intuitive approach that really addresses all the things you wouldn't even expect. You know, um, I worked on the opening of One and Only Palmia years ago and the GM at the time was Edward Steiner.

And he, I had never seen a GM like that who just taught his team such Attention to detail, you know, they have these codes when the driver, because it was a, you know, 40 minutes from the airport to resort, and the driver would sort of communicate a number, I think it was number one to five or something, based on the mood and the sort of vibe of the guest, you know.

doesn't want to be, you know, needs to be left alone, just wants to get to their room. Chatty, you know, wants to know everything. And then when the guest arrived at the property, the, the team already knew how to approach them, you know, and obviously you have your own intuition when you see them and you read the signs, which I think is key to successful hospitality, but they have that extra sort of system behind the scenes that the guest was never aware of.

So you didn't have to, because we've all been in that situation where you just, you're tired. You just want to get to your room and they're trying to show you how the TV works, you know, and you're like, I got it, you know, so, um, over services is not a great thing either when you don't want it, you know, so I think that nuance, they also have this when they would.

you would unpack, you would go to dinner on the first night, they would check all the colors of your outfits, and they would leave you a sewing kit with all the matching color threads to what was in your closet. Which, yeah, I mean, but, and who notices that? They never tell you that, but if you're in need of it, you're gonna, you might notice, or you might just think it's, it's, you know, kismet that you happen to have the exact same thread you need to sew on this button that came off.

So that, those little things are just like, that's the magic

Dan Ryan: So

Michael Doneff: Yeah.

Dan Ryan: all about meeting them where they are. I had a former guest on here

Michael Doneff: If

Dan Ryan: Arnie Malum, he, he wrote a book called Worth Doing Wrong. It's about culture, building culture. Funny enough, it was, we were talking about it, um, within companies and whatever it is, it's worth doing wrong, but much in the same way that the driver from picking you up at the airport, um, they had a whole playbook on, was it, is it the UPS guy coming in?

Is it a client? Is it someone coming in for an office tour? And they all had their own special. Way of meeting people was like, do you want quarters for the vending machine? Here's a, a fresh glass of water. Oh, here's a cool, actually, this reminds me of the one and only Palmia pickup. But I think for the UPS guy, I might be wrong here.

If it was a really hot day in Nashville, they give him like a wet towel or something to like cool his head off. Cause like you're, he's the UPS guy, but you're, he's part of your company in a way. He's there all the time. Um, And to be able to have gradations of a one through four or one through five, that's actually amazing because it just helps you meet them where they are from on one end of the spectrum.

Don't show me how to work my television too. I'm going to, I'm here for my 20th anniversary or whatever, and I'm going to make the most out of this and I'm going to take it all in. Um,

Michael Doneff: you want to talk the ear off, yeah. Or you just need someone to, you know, you've been stuck on a plane, you know, five hours and you just want to talk to someone. So I think that it's that It's that nuance and it's that understanding of that. And like, again, it's not, you can train the steps or you can train the coding, but you can't train the intuition.

I think that's about the hiring and the identifying the right people and the. Culture, I think, you know, because culture is so important for the employees because we've been talking all about the guests, but you really have to treat your team as well, you know, and just let's Danny Meyer and you know, what I've read about his whole organization.

It's like, it's all about the team before the guest, even because happy team makes happy guests. So it makes so much sense, but it's, it's, it's surprising how easy it is Uh, forget that, I think, for companies, like, it's more about the guess metrics and the satisfaction and the, and yet not extending those same points of attention to the, the

Dan Ryan: Yeah. I, I, Danny Meyer is really amazing on that one cause he does. It's interesting. He puts team first, Then guests, then supplier, then investors. There might be five. I don't remember, but I feel like the investors were towards the bottom on the priority list, which is really unusual because any business is supposed to serve its shareholders, but it's counterintuitive if you're taking care of all the other ones. The shareholders are going to benefit.

Michael Doneff: They're gonna be happy. I mean, they want a successful undertaking, right? Hmm.

Dan Ryan: I want to go one and only pummy. I actually haven't thought about that. I must've been there 15 or 20 years ago now, 15, but I remember being greeted by the driver and he had a cold, super, super cold washcloth cause it was so freaking hot down in Cala and just that was a stunning. Then we just had an incredible time there.

I didn't notice the thread, but one of the things I do remember, and it was such an incredible touch. Um, At checkout, you sit down, like it's a low desk and they sit you down in this beautifully, I don't know, it was like a, like a leather, very plush leather chair with pillows and blankets on it, and it was very air conditioned, and they hand you this leather folio, and when I opened it, I nearly had a heart attack, because I forgot it was in pesos, but it was like 20, 000 pesos, and I thought it was 20, 000 dollars, and I was like, what?

Uh, And I was like, okay, well, then I, then I figured out, I was like, well, great. But I was also like, well, that's really nice that they're actually sitting you down when you, when they hand you the bill. So you're, you know, you're just, I was just, I was way more, way more

calm. God, that place is amazing. miss that.

Michael Doneff: It is. I haven't been there in a long time, but yeah, it's a really special place.

Dan Ryan: as you look forward and, and looking back on your career and then kind of seeing where you are at Four Seasons, which, you know, as you said, it was the, is the gold standard of hospitality. Or a gold standard, the gold standard. Um, and you've been traveling to how many different countries and hotels?

Michael Doneff: About 20 properties in the last in 10 countries, countries.

Dan Ryan: Okay. So as you're looking at kind of the work that's already been done there and then where you guys are headed, what's exciting you most about what you see out there?

Michael Doneff: I mean, the pipelines, we have 130 properties right now currently, but there's another, God, maybe 30 in the works, um, in the next several years. And there are great places and, you know, it's just, That's just exciting to me to be able to be part of these things. And now, you know, we're already working on properties opening in 26, 27, beyond as well as I also work on renovations and re concepts for existing restaurants at current properties.

So, um, it's fun. It's just, I love meeting all the people from the different regions and I think, and then we're working on the yacht, you know, which is going to be debuting, I think, in the next year at the jet. So there's a lot of fun ways to create food and beverage experiences, you know, and it's, and I, you know, it's just, it's really fun, I guess that's the best word, simple word, but, um, so it's, it's great to be part of the company at such a pivotal moment.

moment, I think, because it's maturing. Again, it still feels like a family company, even though it's, it's big, but, you know, it's, like Marriott or Accor, like there's a lot of different brands within one organization. And this is a one brand, which has been interesting too. It's, you know, there's, that's their sole focus and it's big.

And there's a lot of people involved. But it's one brand,

Dan Ryan: If you were to go through the 130 existing properties and 30 that are growing, the 30 that are going to get added, um, what's that like a 20 percent growth over however, however long to go from 130 to 160, um, each property has its own set of stakeholders from ownership. Well, I guess ownership, management, management.

team, right? Um, how do you navigate that? Like, much in the same way that the whole idea with Ariel Sands, where they have one idea, an owner might have one idea, but you're like, well, have you considered this? Are you having those conversations? across all of your properties? Or, or is it, or if an ownership group has Four Seasons managing it, they're like, you know what?

You guys know best. You do what you do.

Michael Doneff: yes and yes. It really, you know, every case is different. We have a lot of owners and it's just different. It's based on their experience, based on the type of owner, Whether it's family or it's institutional or it's, you know, um, fund. So it really depends. There's really no generalization, I could say, but it's every end of the spectrum, which makes it interesting too.

Um, you know, it's, it's one brand, but every hotel and every owner dynamic is different. So it really, I, I enjoy the challenge of figuring out that what and what, what are those, what are the important pieces for that ownership, for that location, for that region, for that project? And how do we best achieve that?

So it's, it's fun.

Dan Ryan: And I, I know you've like for, for the yacht, for the plane, for all the different properties, I've heard you say fun a lot. When I think of planning out a party like you did for your birthday. I guess that there would be an element of fun to it at the beginning, like who's going to be there, but this is why everyone has their own superpower.

Then I'm like, Oh my God, the rest of the details are not fun to me. Um, but when you look at the details and fun, like what in particular is fun for you in all of those small moments in the details of each of the very projects,

Michael Doneff: I mean, I think it's the initial buy in and the concept because then once we get that green light, then we can go to suggesting designers and talk about OS& E and work on the naming and branding of the outlets. And that unlocks just a lot of really fun, great things for me. It's like the creative challenge in that, you know, and how to differentiate them and working with great external agencies, whether designers or branding firms.

I mean, that's, it's just, It's so interesting just to craft all these different stories, you know, um, and work with some really talented team. You know, I've never, like I said, I've never worked in a big company, but there's a team for everything, which is kind of fun. Like I used to do a lot of it, you know, marketing and PR and design and myself because it was much smaller universe, but this is like, there's data insights, there's product team, there's, employee fashion.

There's, there's people for everything, but we get to leverage all these smart people into creating these projects. Um, so that's been the real intrigue for me, um, is to, and now that I've been with them for the year and a half, I'm seeing projects at different levels of completion because they take longer.

So my first Project that I've been intimately involved with, I think, opens in

Dan Ryan: which one is that?

Michael Doneff: So I'm going to start, uh, in Florence, we have a new restaurant that we're recreating. So that'll be sort of the first one that I've really been involved with, to see through to the opening.

Dan Ryan: And is there anything that carries through to each of the, of the food and beverage concepts within each of the 130 hotels? Is it, is there a similar level of service? Okay. You could argue that, but is there some, is there a, a font or, or a flower or a, is there a symbol? Is there anything that ties it all together or is

each thing completely unique?

Michael Doneff: They're kind of different. I mean, you know, obviously, some concepts we've replicated or tweaked into different settings, but I think there's certain concepts that. have fine popularity, whether it's steakhouse or Italian. I mean, but there's so many nuances within any of those, but there's really no standardization other than our, our standards, like for, you know, basics that what we need in number of service stations, all that kind of stuff, ADA clearance, all, all those sort of more technical things.

But there's really no, no, which is the fun part. Like you don't have to, if I was working for a. A franchise or something where that, that's a very different game, right? Where everything has to look the same. You have to follow the standards and it's a template that just gets cookie cuttered everywhere. I don't think that would, for me, that would be as interesting because it's, you're just kind of replicating,

Dan Ryan: One thing I've been hearing a lot about at, um, at the, at conferences is this idea of dynamic pricing. Um, as far as, you know, if the bar's three people deep at a certain time, not saying this would happen in a four seasons where there's three people deep at a bar, but like if the bar is three people deep, you know, maybe turn up the price on cheeseburgers to

75 or I don't know, to me it's, it's kind of cool.

Like I love capitalism, but it's also a little bit, But I guess it's a way of controlling supply and demand. Are you seeing that out there? It's, it's a new idea to me. I didn't know that was happening at a restaurant level.

Michael Doneff: I'm sure restaurants do it. We haven't, I mean, there's been talk about just as an industry, but I've, you know, I mean, but everyone does it. Uber, airlines, like theater, like every other, most every other, uh, entertainment or, you know, experience is, is, you buy food. You know, based on demand and, and restaurants, that's never been the case, uh, yet.

So could it happen? I'm sure it's happening in some places, but, uh, we haven't really looked into that at all. It's just, it's, it's different cause people aren't used to it and we don't want to, we don't want to appear like we're taking advantage of a busy time or, you know, I mean, there are obviously a lot of science behind pricing,

Dan Ryan: think to me, the biggest impediment and annoyance with the idea with, as it pertains to restaurants in particular, it's like you, you can't have a printed menu anymore, right? So unless I'm not thinking about it, it's like you need to order from an iPad or your phone or a QR code. And I'm like, no.

Michael Doneff: there's a lot of practical considerations that make

that hard. Yeah.

Dan Ryan: Um, I want to go back to you in the bow tie with the towel over your arm as a kid. Um, or even you going out to Provence to work at a restaurant at some village in the middle of Provence. Um, the Michael that I'm talking to now has had this incredible journey. You're still on it. You're doing really cool things and re re imagining all things F& B.

What advice, if any, do you have for your younger self?

Michael Doneff: I guess just believe in yourself, right? I think at that age, you look, we all look back at us at that age or whatever, and you just were so not self assured, questioning everything, I don't fit in, whatever, you know, can I do this? Um, Now you, you know you can, and maybe you should have started knowing that earlier.

Um, so I think it's always don't be afraid to, to ask, or to push a boundary, or to try something, because failure, I think we're all, everyone certainly that age is so afraid of failure, because it means like you're a failure, but it just means that specific task or whatever thing didn't work out. There's millions of other tasks that if you just.

change the dial maybe it'll work or maybe it's wrong and you know you move you pivot like life is a series of like choices right and I guess that what I would have loved to known from the older me to like just Go for it, you know. I mean, I did my share of it, but there was a lot of sort of trepidation hm. the way.

Dan Ryan: Well, I,

Michael Doneff: I wish I just

Dan Ryan: I would also say that we, we may not have Michael Douglas in our life, but we all have a Michael Douglas character in our life, something that I find that oftentimes where there's a, there's trepidation to use your word or a fear of someone saying no. But to me, I always think that. No is just information, right?

And it's, okay, if Michael Douglas said no, look, well, I'll find another one and I can do it there, or I'll adjust whatever my approach was. And I think that the more times that we're all having no said to us. The more times I think we're believing in ourselves and trying to sell someone on a different vision or a different path, and that's good.

Someone might not be ready for that. I think I'm just going to walk away from today being encouraged to just Go for five more no's every day. You know what I mean? Because maybe we'll, maybe we'll get a yes. Um, and I think that looking back, I, I, I agree with you. I think we don't need to be kind of pigeonholed and just being able to look at things differently and, and share our vision with someone else.

It might be a no, but I, I tell you the times that it's yes, it's life changing, Mm hmm.

Michael Doneff: It's worth all the no's before, you know. Yeah. I like the, like, the analogy of a Ninja, you know, like you're just stealth and you're like maneuvering and like the obstacles like you you can like jump over them or you can duck underneath them it's like just kind of like be very stealth and just keep going you know it's like because you know there's always a way there's always a way to like and again if you come to a brick wall and it's like there's just no way then you move like you change your Jose used to say or he still says I'm sure if your recipe doesn't turn out.

Or if your dish doesn't turn out, just change the recipe or something, or rename the recipe. So it's like, this is actually how it should be. Like, so it's. You know, it's that kind of like, doesn't matter,

Dan Ryan: Or if you're at that, if you're at that brick wall and you're a ninja, you just throw the grappling hook up and climb over it.

Michael Doneff: Exactly, exactly. There's always a way.

Dan Ryan: Michael, I love our conversation. I love you. You're amazing. I love Theo in the background barking because we all need a Theo. By the way, the dog is Theo.

Michael Doneff: know,

Dan Ryan: Um,

Michael Doneff: good it's a great name.

Dan Ryan: Everyone needs a Theo in their life. If you don't have one, go get

one. Um, if people wanted to learn more about what you're up to and what you're doing at Four Seasons, What's the best way for them to find out?

Michael Doneff: That's a good question. I think probably LinkedIn is probably the best way to

Dan Ryan: Cool, and we'll put that up in the show notes. And, uh, we'll put some Four Seasons stuff up there. And also, if I can find anything on Aerial Sands, I'll put that. Maybe I'll get some pictures. I don't know if you have any old before afters. That could be kind of fun

to drop in there. Um, this has been amazing, and thank you.

And I've been looking forward to this conversation for so long.

Michael Doneff: I know. Sorry it took

Dan Ryan: Also,

thank you to our listeners, because without you, we wouldn't be growing as much as we have. And also I signed up a, or started up a Friday five newsletter, five bullet points featuring them. The current episode, past episode with like a little nugget of there.

And then the other, just like things I find interesting that can help pay forward all the learnings that I've gotten from talking to amazing guests like Michael here. So please sign up. It'll be in the show notes. Um, but thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Michael Doneff: Thank you, Dan.

Creators and Guests

Dan Ryan
Dan Ryan
Host of Defining Hospitality
Crafting Stories in Luxury - Michael Doneff - Defining Hospitality - Episode # 155
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