Campbell Gray Hotels chairman Gordon Campbell Gray explains why he follows his instincts when it comes to hotel projects, with the success of boutique hotel Le Gray, Beirut testament to his intuition
There is very little that Gordon Campbell Gray doesn’t see in black and white. A self-confessed control freak, he is dedicated to the hotel industry and a firm follower of his heart when it comes to business decisions.
“I can have an instant reaction for or against a situation,” says Campbell Gray during our exclusive interview at One&Only Royal Mirage in Dubai. “You’ll never see a tumbler or a wine glass that wasn’t approved by my office, so I’m like a madman.”
But how does a failed architect and loyal charity volunteer (Campbell Gray is now vice president of Save the Children, which he started working with at the age of 22), go about setting up his own hotel — Feathers in Woodstock, UK — and then expanding with namesake hotels from London to Antigua?
Campbell Gray explains he was swayed from his “frugal Scottish upbringing” by his “glamorous aunt”, who regularly took him for dinner at Claridges in London.
“I suddenly got the taste of being in the glamorous industry of hotels. My parents totally disapproved of me being a hotelier; they thought it was terrible,” he says.
But has he proved them wrong now? “Yes, I really have. It was what I was meant to do,” asserts Campbell Gray.
After a 10-month stint at hotel school, which was “a complete waste of time”, he started working in hotels in London, doing everything from working in the kitchens to housekeeping.
“I knew I had to do that but I had the vision always to do my own thing really. I always wanted to paddle my own canoe and have my own hotel,” he says, realising that he “wasn’t born for the corporate world”.
Through continuing to follow his instincts, Campbell Gray has slowly begun to build up a portfolio of four Campbell-Gray branded hotels — One Aldwych, London, Dukes London, Carlisle Bay, Antigua and Le Gray, Beirut.
The hotels are a hybrid of ownership and management, says Campbell Gray, except for Dukes which is owned by Seven Tides in Dubai and so a pure management contract for Campbell Gray.
“We literally get offered I would say two new projects every week,” reveals Campbell Gray. “But for me the criteria is very firm — I’ve got to want to be in that place, I’ve got to believe that commercially it would work, but also I have to really like the people I’d be working with. We were offered a fantastic project recently in an Eastern European capital; I think it would have been a fantastic project, but I didn’t like the people.
“We are successful, we’re small, we love what we do; I’m not greedy to personally make lots of money for me, I want successful ventures.”
But while Campbell Gray may not strive after the upcoming property pipeline of the internationally branded hotel chains, he does have his private wishlist of locations.
A destination that Campbell Gray has always wanted to have a flag, despite the multiple of warnings of analysts, was Beirut in Lebanon and his dream finally came to fruition last year with the opening of Le Gray, Beirut to much acclaim.
“I have never been strategic, I have always been opportunity driven. With Beirut we were asked if we would like to do it by people who loved One Aldwych and I went to look at the site and loved it — it totally won my heart.
“All the analysts who I spoke to said ‘you’re crazy, don’t go to Beirut, go to Dubai if you want to go to the Middle East’. That was four and a half years ago. I said ‘I don’t want to go to the Middle East, I want to go to Beirut, which just happens to be in the Middle East’. I think that’s the difference,” says Campbell Gray.
The opening has certainly brought Campbell Gray Hotels to the forefront, not only in the Middle East but across the globe, with the unique interiors created by Campbell Gray in partnership with designer Mary Fox Linton, capturing the interest of hoteliers worldwide.
“I didn’t know how it would be received, I didn’t know how the Middle Eastern guest would like the design because it’s not flashy but it’s not minimal,” says Campbell Gray. “I would say 70% of the guests are intra-Middle Eastern and they love it — they are really very sophisticated, they travel all over the world, so they love the fact that is a modern hotel but it’s not silly modern — it’s kind of modern classic.”
This recent notoriety has caused Campbell Gray to take a closer look at his Campbell Gray Hotels brand, which until now has been unified by a shared philosophy rather than hard and fast brand standards.
“Each one is its own creation. And I would say that in the end they feel like cousins but not brothers and sisters,” says Campbell Gray.
As to whether guests and consumers understand that One Aldwych is run by the same people as Dukes for example, he adds: “I think it’s gently known. We’ve never made the brand a big deal, but as we add to the portfolio and particularly with the dazzling opening of Le Gray, which has had so much attention, it’s really put the brand in the spotlight and we’ve suddenly realised that maybe we should do it more.
“Everyone in Beirut has been talking about ‘the Campbell Gray brand coming’ and we never really thought of it as a brand. Suddenly it is a brand and everybody wants a Campbell Gray. So we’re just trying to be very careful and have just a few — I don’t want too many,” says Campbell Gray.
He reveals that there could be one or two more Le Gray hotels, however, and says there are plans to roll out Le Gray’s Pure Gray spa brand into all the hotels. There will also be a Gallery Gray — Campbell Gray is an avid art collector and has personally sourced hundred of pieces of art for Le Gray — and a Pure Gray chocolate shop at Le Gray, Beirut and maybe in London.
“We’re really flogging my name over here at the moment but everybody just seems to love it,” laughs Campbell Gray.