31 Questions for… Jim Guttau, Four Seasons Chicago
Like so many who work in the travel industry, Jim Guttau didn’t start out on this career path. But he took a different path than any I’ve heard of so far, starting off in elementary education.
He’s now worked in PR/marketing roles for nearly 17 years, including owning his own boutique PR firm for a time before signing on with Four Seasons. He’s been with the luxury resort brand now for six years, first in Vail, Colorado, then several more cities before he landed at Four Seasons Hotel Chicago in May 2017.
But if you think he hasn’t put that elementary education experience to good use, you’d be wrong.
“It’s funny—that has given me the skills to deal with many ‘big kids,’ or adults,” says Guttau.
Only a few months into his new Chicago role, Guttau put his creative thinking skills to work.
“When I came into town, it was May—that’s rooftop patio season,” he says. “We don’t have any outdoor venues in [Four Seasons Hotel Chicago] at the moment, so I thought, how can we get young professionals here?”
His solution was to launch a secret society series, borrowing from the concept of speakeasies and other secret event series he’d heard about around town. So last summer, he held the first Allium Society event—an invitation-only party for 40-50 young movers and shakers, held around the Four Seasons pool. He got Aperol Spritz to sponsor it, so it was lit up in vibrant orange. Guests wore all white, while mermaids gliding through the pool served as a major conversation starter. Another Day of the Dead-themed event was held last fall, and a top-secret soiree is in the works this spring.
“I see what sells to young professionals, and it’s experiences,” says Guttau. And his efforts are starting to pay off, bringing awareness of a hotel brand previously perceived as fairly traditional to a younger demographic.
Guttau doesn’t pull all of this out of thin air, though. He spends a lot of time traveling (about five days a month currently), both for leisure and for work, collecting ideas from the places and people he meets.
Must-have hotel amenity?
Blackout curtains. I hate sunlight in the mornings—I’m a total night owl. (At Four Seasons, they are standard, thank goodness!)
In-flight reading material?
I love to read the airline magazines. I almost always recognize the bylines, so it’s fun. I’ve traveled on seven flights already this month so I think I’ve read United’s magazine three times.
Any pets? If so, how are they cared for when you’re away?
I grew up on a farm with so many pets, so I think I’m petted out, plus I’m allergic to almost everything.
What travel souvenir do you collect?
I make my own magnets with Instagram photos. My entire fridge is covered with places I’ve been.
What was the last place you traveled that surprised you?
Marrakesh, Morocco. I think Americans who have never been there paint a not-so-good picture of it. People say it’s dangerous, it’s dirty and that you won’t get a drink there because it’s a Muslim country. But it is none of those things. It’s probably one of the most exotic, interesting, vibrant places I’ve ever been. I would definitely go back.
Favorite travel companion?
My friend Jenny and I travel really well together. She and I have been friends since 2004. The longest we’ve traveled is two two-week trips together, and that’s a big test. I think it works because we are both open to doing anything and we don’t have a set schedule.
Out-of-office: Yes or no?
When I had my own business, I was working the whole time on trips. And it means you’re just not focused. Now when I go on vacation, I am off. It took me a couple bosses to realize it can happen. With Four Seasons, I’ve worked for five hotels, and they all left me alone. It was so weird!
What suitcase do you use?
I don’t do fancy suitcases. I use a simple black suitcase with no frills, but I do attach a really bright bag tag so I know it’s mine.
Uber or Lyft?
What is your first travel experience you remember?
My family and I went to Winter Park, Colorado, in the summer when I as a kid. It left an amazing impression on me, the scenery alone. I was into photography and took pictures along the way. It was serendipitous I would later move there and live there 14 years.
Favorite travel snack?
I’m a giant beef jerky fan. My grandfather is a hunter and he makes it, so he’ll have elk or venison jerky.
On-the-go wellness hacks?
I always have Emergen-C and echinacea pills—pretty much all the immune support i can get—plus hand sanitizer.
Biggest pain point of traveling?
It’s seeing people’s response to flight delays. I’ve been on multiple flights this month, and most of them were delayed at least an hour. But I think, I’m going to Aspen, to D.C.—how lucky am I? Here are people thinking the delay is so bad, yet some people didn’t even get a hot meal today. So there’s rarely a time when I will complain.
Biggest fears relating to travel?
As I’ve gotten older, I’m getting this fear of heights. I did hypnosis for it, and it’s seemed to help so far. I also have this weird fear of crossing bridges over traffic. In Prague, I had to hold onto my friend’s backpack to get me across.
Best spontaneous travel experience?
My friend Jenny and I wanted to apply for Global Entry, but there was an eight-month wait for interviews in Denver. I started looking at other states and New Mexico had spots available that weekend. So we flew to Albuquerque, did a three-minute interview and then went to Sante Fe for the weekend. It was a lot of money spent to get an interview but it was so fun.
Weirdest item in your carry-on?
I love a good theme party, so I tend to plan one when I travel with friends. For instance, in my carry-on this weekend, I had LED neon sunglasses and mini disco balls that you plug in your iPhone. They light up and spin to the beat of the music. [Editor’s note: You can get these incredible things for under $10 on Amazon here. I’m getting one ASAP.]
One state you haven’t been to?
South Carolina. I’m hoping to knock that out this spring and go to Charleston.
One way travel has inspired the way you cook/eat?
Morocco was one of the biggest influences. Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, I worked at an Italian restaurant part time. But the chefs were from Morocco, so I learned how to make chicken tagine. Fast forward to last year when I went to Morocco, seeing all those big bowls of spices at the market—it was so cool to buy all that fresh and bring it back.
Travel lesson learned the hard way?
Getting on trains and buses going the wrong way. My first time in Chicago, I got on a bus and didn’t realize I was going 50 blocks in the wrong direction until it was too late. I’ve done the same thing in Italy on a train. Now I’m hyperaware of double-checking.
Airline loyalty? United, Lufthansa
How do you stay informed about travel trends?
My No. 1 way is podcasts. I love "Extra Pack of Peanuts” for budget travel, “Amateur Traveler” and “The Expat Chat.” The top takeaway on all the episodes in the last one is people saying they love their life because they’ve slowed down from the [pace of] the U.S.
Where do you take visitors in your hometown?
The Chicago Architecture Foundation boat tour—I take everyone on it..
Tried-and-true jet lag remedy?
Menara Airport in Marrakesh is really something. It’s a nice welcome to the city.
How do you spend wait times when traveling?
I’m mostly on my phone, editing photos on Instagram or going through albums and deleting bad photos.
Travel gadget/product you can’t live without?
iPhone rechargeable case
Typical travel uniform?
I usually wear a nice pair of jeans with a comfy thermal and a scarf. In the summer, it’s a short-sleeved, collared shirt and flip-flops.
First thing you do returning home after a long trip?
I unpack almost immediately. One thing I’d like to start doing—and I’m seeing travel bloggers do this— is curate all my souvenirs and take a picture above them.
Plan every detail or let things happen as they may?
Let things happen as they may.
One thing you miss most about your own home when you’re away?
I live alone, so I miss the quiet. I love me some good Netflix; I watch a lot of foreign, period-type movies in Spanish or Turkish, so I miss doing that.
An interesting person you’ve met during travel recently?
I did a bicycle food tour in Marrakesh. It was scary at the beginning, being in a roundabout with motorcycles, buses, taxis, donkeys with carts. But our guide, Muhammad, was so knowledgeable. He knew all the restaurants and street vendors. I’m not a big person about eating street food in foreign countries, but when you’re with a guide who knows the quality, it was great. I’ve been recommending him to anyone who’s going there.