Interview with Fairmont San Francisco: An Icon and Fabric of the City

The Fairmont San Francisco
Hotel’s legendary exterior. Photo: The Fairmont San Francisco

Long before the CBS show Undercover Boss came on air, Tom Klein (Region Vice President of California Region and General Manager of Fairmont Hotel San Francisco) was already exercising this practice for years within the hotel organization. “I hate hierarchy, at the end of the day, everybody has different jobs.” He explains, “It’s a team. The hardest job here is probably the housekeepers, can you imagine cleaning 15 bedrooms everyday for life? If you lose sight of who drives the success of your business, then you’d be out of business very quickly.” Last year, he was a doorman for a day. Each year, executives swap roles by taking a position out of a hat. According to Tom, he is the least important in the organization. Everyone on the team depends on each other.

fairmont hotel san francisco
The iconic lounge where you can spot celebrities. Photo: The Fairmont San Francisco

Hundreds of locals and tourists grace through the doors of Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco each day, all are instantaneously taken aback. “Wow!” is typically the first and immediate reaction. “It’s important that in San Francisco, there is a place with a heart and soul. With this hotel, you can capture the history.” Tom states, “We’re creating an emotional experience for the customer. We’re creating moments into memories with the guests.” As humans, we love history. We all love to know that there’s an iconic place with a meaning to it.

Fairmont San Francisco triggers emotions, because it has survived through 107 years of natural disasters yet remains in glimmer as the picturesque establishment where countless world affairs have taken place. In 1906, as the hotel was close to completion, it was immediately destructed by the great San Francisco earthquake. Although the earthquake didn’t truly destroy the hotel, the interior was massively impaired by fire. The hotel’s opening was delayed until 1907 with a replete reconstruction. In 1945, Fairmont San Francisco was the meeting place that crowned the creation of the United Nations, in which the UN Charter was drafted. Every president, worldwide royalties, famous celebrities, touring rockstars around the world have chosen this particular hotel as their home away from home in one of the most beautiful cities on the west coast of America. It has been called the White House in the West as there is always something going on in the hotel. Yet it remains quite low-key with focused protection of its guests. One would never know who is sitting at the next table.

The Fairmont San Francisco
Room with the ultimate view. Photo: The Fairmont San Francisco

“Our company brand was built around Fairmont San Francisco.” Tom notes that Fairmont is indeed a brand, as it is the group’s flagship hotel. It’s a place to be and a place to be seen. With that, comes the whole dynamics of delivering from the service and the product standpoints to the customers that come in. “Flagship means, for us, we set the benchmark. You continue to raise the bar, you continue to rise. You don’t follow, you lead. You understand what’s going on in the marketplace and you keep raising the bar from the consumer’s and the service standpoint.” Tom and his 500-plus team know what the customers want. They deliver and they execute. The continuous success of the hotel relies on exceeding expectations that make the point of difference.

Consistency is a must-have ingredient in all five-star hotels, but what sets Fairmont San Francisco apart from others is its delivery to the customers today, not yesterday. When a guest walks into the room, every element is expected to be executed fast and quickly. The hotel holds the key to retaining history and blending it with today’s customers. It revolves around food and beverage, for examples, today’s consumers yearn for local and healthy or fast service. Fairmont San Francisco houses 200,000 bees that make honey on its roof deck. It uses the honey in its restaurants. Similar to its herb garden, where the chef utilizes his herbs and spices for thw restaurants’ dishes. The hotel also builds great relationships with local farmers to retrieve local fruits, meats and vegetables. Recognizing what their current demographic longs for, hence Fairmont San Francisco is sensitive to the lifestyle of the younger or even the older travelers.

The Fairmont San Francisco
Meeting room for business travelers. Photo: The Fairmont San Francisco

Throughout the years, what hasn’t changed in every guest’s desires are: safety, clean rooms, technology, recognition and engagement with employees. “Guests don’t want a programmed staff, they want to be personally engaged and being recognized by their first names.” Tom continues, “When they return for the third time, they don’t want to be asked silly questions. We understand personal profiles. What’s important to you? Do you like sports? Are you a wine connoisseur? By the way, did you know this was happening at Farmer’s Market? It’s about getting inside the personal psyche of a customer’s profile, without them having to think about it.”

Walking in, it’s clear that Fairmont San Francisco is a destination. There are various touch points showcasing historical events that have unfolded in the last 107 years. With 591 guest rooms and suites, the hotel encompasses a panoramic view of the entire San Francisco skyline. Its Venetian Room was where Tony Bennett sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” for the first time, and again 50 years later. Its Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar is one of the few places in the city that entertains its guests with a live rain storm while serving one of the best Mai Tais. Its legendary Penthouse holds a two-story library with a rotunda that details the constellations during nightfall, becoming a home for: politicians, Chief Justices, the Windsors, Heads of States and numerous Presidents.

The Fairmont San Francisco
The breathtaking view of San Francisco’s famous skyline. Photo: The Fairmont San Francisco

The Fairmont experience is defined by being touched on all senses, whether it’s sound, scent or engagement. “Because you’re going to see it, and it’s going to touch your emotions.” Tom indicates, “Hopefully, our colleagues are getting engaged and say ‘good morning.’ You’re going to smell it, hopefully it’s fresh. It’s always about a sense of wellbeing and a place in time of where you are. That’s why it’s important that people, lights, music and everything else falls into the right place.” At Fairmont San Francisco, everything works in harmony, everything works seamlessly.

Coined as the “Grand Dame” of Nob Hill – a classic and elegant residential area in San Francisco, Fairmont San Francisco felicitously postures atop the hill. It’s the only destination where every line of Cable Car intersects. “The world is so small, and this is home. I’m German, but I consider this home.” Tom reflects, “Having moved 30-plus times in one lifetime, the home is the world. You can travel anywhere now. To me, the glass is always half full. You always get the most out of wherever you are.” Like him and many others from around the world, Fairmont is possibly the reason why they all leave their hearts in San Francisco.

Planning a trip to San Francisco? Book a reservation at Fairmont San Francisco.

Wendy Hung


As the founder of Jetset Times, Wendy is an avid traveler and fluent in five languages. When she's not traveling, Wendy calls Paris and Taipei home. Her favorite countries so far from her travels have been: Bhutan, Iran, and Russia because they were all so different! St. Bart's was pretty amazing too (wink)!

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