On August 19, 1991, Uday Rao started his hotel career as an overnight receptionist at a Four Seasons hotel in Chicago.
“I walked into that hotel and said, ‘One day, I want to be a GM with this company’,” Rao told HM.
“Thirty-two years later, I’m here at Four Seasons Hotel Sydney as General Manager.”
Rao joined the Sydney hotel in May 2022, moving from Bali, where he had spent 10 years managing two Four Seasons resorts there.
His Four Seasons career has taken him to Tokyo, Singapore, Dallas, the Maldives, and back to his country of birth, India, to open Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai.
“I was 16 when my brother sent me a book on hotels and motels around the world – tropical islands, the Swiss Alps – I wanted a job that would take me to all these locations. And I ended up doing exactly that,” Rao said.
“It’s been an incredible journey.”
After the best part of three decades with Four Seasons, Rao says the business has moulded him into the person he is today.
“All the highs and lows in my personal and professional life have been with Four Seasons,” Rao said.
“It was always there for me when I needed it most. It’s built my character. It’s taught me life lessons; how to dress, how to behave at a social event.
“The only thing I’m missing is a tattoo of the logo on my forehead,” Rao laughed.
But 19 years after he first joined the company, desperate to secure that lofty title of GM, Rao departed Four Seasons – albeit briefly.
“I left for all the wrong reasons – the money and the GM title,” he explained.
“I was Hotel Manager in Mumbai when I got this opportunity to work in the Maldives as a GM. I took the job, opened a hotel there and then realised, Four Seasons was calling me back. It was in the blood.
“Sometimes you have to do these things to realise that, culturally, it’s important that you feel you belong. I knew right off the bat that, while it was a great experience, I didn’t fit.
“And even though I got the GM title with another company, for me, it didn’t matter because I didn’t make it with Four Seasons.”
The dream vs the reality
While being GM has always been Rao’s dream, he says the job comes with a lot of sacrifice.
“You give up a lot,” he said.
“For example, in the Maldives, you’re living on a small island that you could walk the entirety of in 15 minutes – it’s like a stationary cruise ship,” he said.
“And you live in very confined accommodation, sharing bunk beds with somebody else.
“The volleyball ‘Wilson’ [in the movie Castaway] starts to look really good.”
Rao has spent 27 years of his life living in Four Seasons hotels. When he recently moved into his own place for the first time, he didn’t have so much as a teaspoon to his name. He was starting from scratch.
“Moving out for the first time – it was hard! I didn’t even have a teaspoon, a pillowcase, or a towel,” he said.
“Nobody had any sympathy for me, of course. My mom is relieved that I’ve finally grown up and have my own furniture.”
Rao admits this nomadic lifestyle is not for everyone.
“I don’t have kids. It’s just me and Court, so it’s easier for us to pack up and move,” he explained.
“When I met Courtney 11 years ago, I told her, ‘I move every two three years. I live in a hotel; I don’t have a house or furniture. Are you okay with this lifestyle?’ And she was open to the adventure.
“I know many friends who have kids and families, and they move because they love the lifestyle. You have to love it.”
People and leadership
Rao said he was a few months into his dream role when the reality of the responsibilities it carried began to weigh on him.
“When I was a kid, being GM was all about the glamour, entertaining, traveling the world; but I had the realisation, after about six months into my first GM role, that the responsibility of being a GM was bigger than the dream,” Rao said.
“I realised that every decision that I was making, was having a direct impact on people’s lives.”
He was working in Bali at the time, where staff relied heavily on the service charge (10% of every dollar, shared equally) for their income.
“When I made decisions and the business suffered, that meant they suffered,” he said.
“As GMs and managers, we have the ability to make a difference, but it needs to be about others and never about yourself.”
Having never went to hotel school, Rao relied on the support and mentorship of experienced colleagues, including former Four Seasons President Chris Norton, to find his feet in the industry. Now, he wants to pay it forward.
Rao says he is energised by developing people and supporting them to pursue their career goals through training and mentorship.
“My Hotel Manager wants to be GM so I’m trying to set him up for that,” he said.
“I enjoy that growth process.”
While labour challenges are a constant worry, Rao encourages his staff to go overseas, for the experience, and come back.
“You don’t have to go very far, just go for two or three years and then you can always come back. Worst-case scenario, you don’t like it,” he said.
“It’s a beautiful world out there and I think it would be a shame if you didn’t see it.
“My best education has been through travel. I say, I went to the University of Life. The travel, the exposure, the wrong turns you take when you’re driving in a country, and you almost break up with your partner – it tests you.”
Competition and growth
With several new luxury hotels opening in Sydney over the last year, and more in the pipeline, Rao says competition is constant.
Amid the increasingly competitive landscape, Four Seasons Hotel Sydney is continually evolving its offering, having completed a renovation of its rooms in December 2019 as well as its lobby café and, more recently, upgrading the gym.
“The entire pool is going to be completely redone in time for summer, and we’re looking at revising the restaurant concept,” Rao added.
“Competition is growing, but I think what’s always going to be the distinguishing factor will be the service.
“What sets hotels apart is the intangibles. People come back, not because of the furniture but, for ‘Naser’ or ‘Olivia’, so if we can get that right, then we are home.”
Four Seasons is set to open its second Australian hotel in 2027, within Melbourne’s AU$2.7 billion Sth Bnk By Beulah development.
“We’re looking forward to that, I think it’s time,” he said.
“And I’m sure there will be more to come. I’m sure we’ll have resorts in Australia because there are so many locations that we would love to be in.
“The brand has such strong power. It’s exciting times. Next year looks very positive.”