Sanjiv Hulugalle takes the reins at OÊ»ahu’s long-awaited Four Seasons Resort.
Much admired, not easily replicated
is a well-known tag line for four seasons hotels and Resorts. But it could be just as easily applied to Sanjiv Hulugalle, the young general manger presiding over the $500 million transformation of former J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa into Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina, slated to open in February of 2016.
At just 39, Hulugalle already has racked up a significant list of hospitality accomplishments. For starters, Hulugalle rose to the rank of general manager by the age of 33, which at the time made him the youngest general manger in the Four Seasons chain.
“It was quite obvious even at such a young age that he would go far,” says Steve James, Lifestyle Professionals Fitness Coaching, who has known Hulugalle since 1996 when he employed the then 22-year-old in his first position at Four Seasons, Sydney, as a part-time fitness instructor. “His people skills, intelligence, humility and caring nature were quite outstanding for such a young man.”
What wasn’t clear at the time was if Hulugalle would make hospitality his ambition, says his mentor Ivan Goh.
“Sanjiv studied in physical education, and he initially had a dream of managing his own gym and health club some day,” Goh says. ” I think I influenced him into changing his career goals into the hospitality industry instead. I thought that his personality and energy suit the hotel industry perfectly … it is fair to say that Four Seasons is lucky to have such a dedicated and loyal employee in its organization.”
Eighteen years and 12 positions later, Hulugalle has proved his mentor right. While he was general manager of Four Seasons on Kuda Huraa in the Maldives, it was voted “best of the best” in the world by readers of CondÃ© Nast Traveller U.K. And, more recently, he presided over the opening of Four Seasons Hotel Beijing, which was built according to his vision that emphasized culture and history. Friends, family and work colleagues attribute these successes to Hulugalle’s innate sense of hospitality, which gives him the ability to make everyone—from guests and colleagues, to friends and family members—feel special.
“When I first met Sanjiv, he would say that I was his most important VIP guest, and one of his expressions was: ‘Anything you want, Sir, consider it done,'” says longtime friend James Lee, who has stayed at Four Seasons properties the world over. “I felt special, until I realized this was his standard greeting.”
But over time, Lee says he came to understand that all of Hulugalle’s promises were sincere. Lee says Hulugalle anticipates preferences and delivers on them before they are articulated. For example, at breakfast one morning, while staying at Four Seasons in Beijing, Lee requested a ginger shot within earshot of Hulugalle.
“It was there every morning after and subsequently, to my surprise and delight, at breakfast in Four Seasons the world over,” he says.
Hulugalle’s mother, Sally Hulugalle of Sri Lanka, says his attentive nature extends to his family. She is impressed by the unconditional love and caring that he shows to his wife, Alice, daughters Catherine and Savannah, as well as his parents, siblings and extended family.
“I have always found that the most important aspect of his relationship with others is that, once he has recognized their importance to him, he is prepared to expend his total attention to make that relationship fruitful and constructive,” Hulugalle’s mother shares.
Now, Hulugalle’s attentions are focused on the Ko Olina opening, which will expand Four Seasons’ Hawai’i holdings to O’ahu and bring the first Four Seasons private residences to the isles. Ko Olina’s owners expect the opening to build on the success of Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, which debuted in 2011, and to finally bring the 650-acre master planned community to the glory that’s been imagined since the 1980s. But Hulugalle has set his sights even higher.
“The transformation has to make this property No. 1—I won’t take No. 2,” he says. “For us, the most important thing is taking the destination and the sense of place to create something very authentic that is connected to the environment and the people.”
Hulugalle says he is dedicated to working with Ko Olina developer Jeff Stone and the ownership group to execute their vision for Ko Olina, which encompasses historic Lanikuhonua, named by James Campbell’s daughter Alice—and reportedly a favorite bathing spot of Queen Ka’ahumanu, wife of Kamehameha I. As such, one of the first steps of his renovation opened up the lobby to the sweeping views of this historic island.
“We want people to walk in and feel that they have arrived in Hawai’i, this very special place,” he says.
The hotel’s room count also is coming down from 398 to 360 to add more suites and presidential-type rooms. New food and beverage offerings will include a waterfront fish house, with farm-to-table and fresh catch options, a Four Seasons-branded Italian restaurant, and an all-day dining spot, as well as a poolside sunset bar. Hulugalle also has added a family pool, an adult pool and a canoe house to expand the resort’s aquatic offerings beyond the property’s original pool. The resort will have a meeting space that can seat 350 at dinner. But the current ballroom space will make way for a 17-story residential complex with 133 units, ranging from 900 to 30,000 square feet. The residences are expected to go to market in June.
While Four Seasons has ambitious plans for the transformation in Ko Olina, Hulugalle says authentic hospitality is at the heart of the plan, which aims to make hotel guests think of the property as their home away from home.
“When a guest arrives at my hotel, I want them to feel as if they are coming into my home,” he says. ” I want guests to feel that this is their home away from home.”
To that end, HawaiÊ»i’s newest Four Seasons will open with 700 employees—considerably higher than the 300 employees who closed the J.W. Ihilani Marriott. Longtime friend Stephen Green says Hulugalle’s famous hospitality and work ethic are certain to extend to his new crew.
“We recently went to three different Four Seasons for a March break with our family, and so many senior staff had heard of him, and they all say they would like to work for him,” Green says. “He could probably cause a labor shortage at resorts/ hotels if the staff could leave and work under his guidance and supervision.”
Having worked under Hulugalle twice, Andrew Debrito, hotel manager for Four Seasons Beijing, agrees. Debrito says Hulugalle witnessed him lose his cool at a Christmas Eve dinner when guests were complaining, but chose motivation over discipline.
“Sanjiv gently and calmly said, ‘Andrew, you are so passionate, and you will do even greater if you can channel your energy properly,'” Debrito shares. “I walked away feeling like a million bucks and with a sense of great respect for him. I am who I am today because this man took a chance on me and trusted me implicitly.”