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Hans Willimann

Julie Mautner / November 2003

Food Arts presents the November 2003 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Hans Willimann, general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, for melding classic European hotel training into a thoroughly modern management style. For facing the challenges of a competitive market and emerging a champion...again and again. For maintaining an unparalleled level of refinement—and a devoted repeat clientele—in a city exploding with new hotels. For urging young hoteliers forward to do great things.

"Hans' formal education makes him a stickler for details," says Santa Monica–based hospitality headhunter Benoit Gateau-Cumin. "He has an educated palate and a hawk's eye, just like his countryman César Ritz. But he's a man of the 21st century when it comes to financial results."

With stunning views of Lake Michigan and the Magnificent Mile, Willimann's hotel appears on all the lists: top this, finest that. Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report has just named it Best U.S. City Hotel. The newest Zagat Hotel Survey says it's "the gold standard for all hotels." Until this year, it was the only Windy City property to earn the Five Star/Five Diamond rating. tell people that you're at the Four Seasons, and you'll see their eyes light up.

Willimann is the only general manager the hotel has ever known. After 10 years with the company—in Boston, Houston, and Toronto—he opened it in 1989. And like most successful managers, he knows he's only as good as his team. "Guests don't see me unless they're deliriously happy or dejectedly unhappy," he says.

Willimann was delighted to hear, for instance, about the receptionist who recently rescued a frantic guest by trading shoes with her; the wman had arrived late for a party, having forgotten to pack her heels. "That's the commitment I look for," says Willimann, who, years ago, gave a desperate guest the tuxedo off his back. He's known to be as charming to little kids as he is to Colin Powell, and all others in between. "It's not hard to treat people with dignity," he points out, "employees and guests alike. If a guest wants lobster at 3 a.m., we do it."

Born and raised in Zurich, fluent is four languages, Willimann attended the famed École Hôtelière in Lausanne. He began his career on the f&b side and remains passionate about that part of his job. "Deep down in his heart, he's still and f&b manager," proclaims Alfons Konrad, Four Seasons' senior vice president of f&b. "He's always challenging his team to find new, exotic flavors."

Known to be fiercely competitive, Willimann counters that tendency with humor and infectious joie de vivre. "Every day we laugh," he says. Indeed, even after all this time, he seems genuinely delighted at how much fun it all is. Public relations manager Jennifer Cooke offers a telling example. "There's a little perfumer hidden under the center lobby table that Mr. Willimann loves to show to people," she reports. "He'll be like, 'Ha-ha-ha...and you thought it was the flowers that smelled so good."