Canadian businessman Isadore Sharp founded Four Seasons in 1960. While a young architect working for his father, Sharp designed a motel for a family friend; its success motivated him to try creating his own hotel. He bought a large parcel of land in a run-down area of Toronto and planned a stopover for business travelers; the Four Seasons Motor Hotel opened in 1961.
Four Seasons built more hotels, including the 1963 Inn on the Park, a $4 million two-story resort hotel in suburban Toronto that housed Canada's first discotheque.
Upscale luxury became part of the brand when the company expanded to London. When a developer approached Four Seasons about building a hotel in London, Sharp planned it to compete with the city's old-world, elite hotels, such as Claridge's and The Connaught. The hotel opened in 1970.
In 1974, cost overruns at a Vancouver property nearly led the company into bankruptcy. As a result, the company began shifting to its current, management-only business model, eliminating costs associated with buying land and buildings. The company went public in 1986. In the 1990s, Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton began direct competition, with Ritz-Carlton emphasizing a uniform look while Four Seasons emphasized local architecture and styles with uniform service; in the end Four Seasons gained market share.
The first full-service spa was introduced in 1986 at Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas. Today, nearly all Four Seasons hotels and resorts have spa facilities, and the remainder offer spa services. Many of the hotels have also integrated high-end restaurants.
Economic downturns in the early and mid-2000s affected the company. When the September 11 attacks caused the collapse of the travel industry, Four Seasons refused to cut room prices in order to preserve the perceived value of the brand, which caused tension with property owners who were losing money. The company recovered, and in 2007 it agreed to a buyout by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia for $3.8 billion. The pair own 95 percent of the company, in equal shares, and Sharp owns the rest.
Challenges returned again during the financial crisis of 2007–2010. The company made the first corporate layoffs in its history, cutting 10% of its Toronto workforce. In April 2010, after a year-long dispute with Broadreach Capital Partners and Maritz, Wolff & Co., owners of the Aviara resort near San Diego, an arbitration panel ruled that, while both parties contributed to the demise of the business relationship, Four Seasons had not violated its management agreement. The arbitrators ordered Broadreach pay Four Seasons to terminate the contract." The resort is no longer a Four Seasons.
Four Seasons has continued to add more hotels and resorts to its portfolio, notably in China. It opened a new hotel in Hangzhou in 2010 and Guangzhou, Beijing, and a second property in Shanghai in 2012. In India it has one hotel in Mumbai. In 2013, it opened its first hotel in Russia in the Lobanov-Rostovsky Residence in St. Petersburg, and later opened a second hotel in Moscow.
In October 2012, Four Seasons opened a new 259 room Toronto property in Yorkville, designed by internationally known design firm Yabu Pushelberg. The hotel will include an upscale restaurant led by celebrity chef Daniel Boulud. It was hailed by The Globe and Mail as "the renewal of an iconic Canadian brand in its hometown". The penthouse was bought by entrepreneur Robert Österlund, the founder of Xacti, LLC and Inbox.com, for a Canadian record price of over $28M. The
Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts offers trips in a company-owned Boeing 757 with 52 seats.
Four Seasons does not own most of its properties; it operates them on behalf of real estate owners and developers. The contracts between Four Seasons and property owners typically permit the company to participate in the design of the property and run it with nearly total control over every aspect of the operation.
Four Seasons generally earns three percent of the gross income and about five percent of profits from the properties it operates, and the property owners are required to additionally contribute money for chain-wide sales, marketing and reservations systems. Four Seasons hotels have larger staffs than competing chains, and the company maintains separate reserve accounts for each hotel to cover upkeep costs. Profit margins are relatively low, but the brand attracts developers through the hotels' reputation as solid assets for loan collateral or resale. Four Seasons also produces a complimentary magazine for guests that is supported by advertising revenue. Four Seasons has a fractional ownership division, Four Seasons Residence Clubs.
Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts began offering vacation rentals in June 2014. Titled Residential Rentals, the properties are available in: North America (Costa Rica, Houston, Jackson Hole, Nevis, Punta Mita, San Diego, Whistler, Vail). Africa (Marrakech, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sharm El Sheikh) and Europe (Cap-Ferrat) and Asia (Jimbaran Bay, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui).
Residential Rentals provide the same services as Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in a residential setting. Customers are mainly multi-generational vacationers and small group travelers.
Travel + Leisure magazine and Zagat Survey rank the hotel chain's 98 properties among the top luxury hotels worldwide. Readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine have voted Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai, Thailand as among the top ten hotels in the world for three consecutive years. The company has been named one of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" by Fortune every year since the survey's inception in 1998, ranking #47 in 2015, and is lauded for having one of the lowest employee turnover rates in the hospitality industry.
In recent years, restaurants at Four Seasons hotels and resorts have been recognized by Zagat and Michelin. The latter has awarded at total of 12 stars to six of the company's restaurants, including Hong Kong (two restaurants), Macau, Paris, Florence and Los Angeles.
The company and its hotels and resorts have been involved in a number of philanthropic programs, with a focus on supporting sustainability, building communities, and advancing cancer research. Four Seasons was one of the founders of the Terry Fox Run in 1981, which has since grown into the world's largest single day cancer fundraiser, with events around the world every September. To date, the Terry Fox Run has raised close to half a billion dollars.
In 2001, Four Seasons Resort Maldives started collaborating with the local environmental organization Seamarc/Marine savers, which has set up a program of reimplantation of coral in damaged areas. Thousands of guest-sponsored "coral frames" have been transplanted in Kuda Hurra and Landaa Giraavaru resorts' reefs, and are under survey by marine scientists; they constitute a refuge for thousands of tropical species, and help to preserve and recover fragile ecosystems.
On June 19, 2002, the Canadian Opera Company announced Four Seasons Hotels as the naming donor for the COC's new Opera House, also home to the National Ballet of Canada, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto, Ontario.