Interview: Gordon Campbell Gray

The hotelier is continuing his Middle East adventure with a project in Dubai

Operators

To some, Gordon Campbell Gray might seem like a paradox. The hotelier, known for his boutique and luxury creations, is equally praised for his tireless work on causes and fundraisers — he is vice president of Save the Children UK, and spends a lot of his time in areas strife with war and disease.

He promotes environmental conservation, yet spends time all over the world no doubt racking up his carbon footprint. So, will the real Gordon Campbell Gray please stand up?

EARLY YEARS AND INFLUENCES

Brought up in Renfrewshire in Scotland, Gray is the eldest son of a Scottish family, and his foray into hospitality was not planned, neither was it welcomed. Initially dreaming of becoming an architect, Gray says he couldn’t pass the science exam. But he was inspired by his aunt whom he says “virtually lived in Claridge’s in London” and decided he would take a stab at hotel school. “To my family’s horror,” adds Gray. “When I told my father I was going to be a hotelier, he was so shocked, he dropped a cup, he said, ‘Gordon, you stay in hotels, you don’t work in them’.”

He admits to having walked out of hotel school, and says: “I used to be embarrassed about this, but now I’m proud of it, because I thought the teachers were awful, I thought the people I was studying with were boring. I thought, I’m being corrupted here and I need to paddle my own canoe.”

He then worked at various properties, including London’s Portman InterContinental. However, he resigned and joined Save The Children and ran its project in Bangladesh for two years, after seeing heart-breaking stories of the war in the region.

The experience changed his life, and was one of the defining factors behind his work ethos. “It’s why I have always emphasised the value of treating people well, and it changed the way I took the company [forward].”

In 1982, he returned to the UK and bought and opened The Feathers at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, followed by The Draycott in London in 1987. He sold these properties, and then re-launched The Maidstone Arms in East Hampton, New York. In 1996, he acquired the classic Edwardian building in central London that is now One Aldwych, which opened as a hotel in July 1998. The group ended management of the hotel in 2011.

He officially launched CampbellGray Hotels in 2003, which is now a small collection of luxury and individual hotels in Europe and the Middle East.

MIDDLE EAST MAN

Gray was a pioneer in the sense that he opened in the Middle East with Le Gray Beirut in 2009 when everyone warned him not to. And it certainly was no easy task to open his hotel — while the project was undergoing development, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafic Hariri, was assassinated and the country was attacked by Israel, which led to the project being delayed.

He recounts: “We couldn’t, at one stage, get to the building.” At that point, everyone thought he would exit the project. He didn’t. “It’s a weird thing to say, but I actually enjoy a frisson of danger. It’s been the best adventure I ever had because the hotel has been really successful. We made a big mark in hospitality in Lebanon,” says Gray. He stresses the hotel was designed for the country, and that he abhors cookie-cutter designs.

Gray adds: “It’s been a stormy path, and I think a lot of big companies see it as a bit of risky market. If you’re in Lebanon, you have to be in or out. Certainly when you’re planning a budget for Beirut, it’s extremely difficult because you don’t know what will happen next week. But we just look at it [obstacles] philosophically and go, this too will pass.”

Not burned in the slightest by his rocky Middle East beginnings, Gray has signed a project in Jordan with the country’s Audeh Group, scheduled to open in 2017.

The project will have offices and apartments in addition to a hotel. The former two elements will open first, followed by the hotel — all linked by an underground tunnel. It will also mark the first time one of Gray’s hotels will be a high-rise.

Art will be a big feature in this project, as it is with all of Gray’s collection. So will “beautifully landscaped” terraces, Gray says, “because as Cicero said, ‘if you have a garden and a library, you have all you need’.”

Design is also important for Gray, who claims he is more likely to be inspired by “seeing a perfectly Bugatti blue swimming pool or a flower arrangement than a person”.

London-based designer Martin Brudnizki is working on the Jordan project’s interiors, and design icon Mary Fox Linton is also a favourite of the Scottish hotelier.

Lebanon and Jordan — where next? Gray drops the bombshell that he’s confirmed Dubai plans. “We have signed for Dubai. The project is signed, but I can’t tell you more right now. Finally.” While no other details have been confirmed at the time of going to press, Gray says the UAE will now see a lot more of him than ever before.

He continues: “I love the Middle East. I think it’s a very misrepresented area of the world, and clearly at the moment, it’s a horror story for many people reading about it. And people put the whole Middle East together with not a bit of knowledge.”

OTHER BRANDS AND PROJECTS

The Middle East aside, CampbellGray Hotels is busy elsewhere. As part of the partnership with Audeh Group, the company is set to renovate and operate properties in Malta and Scotland.

The Phoenicia Hotel, Malta will undergo an extensive refurbishment programme between November 2015 and March 2016, and The Machrie Hotel & Golf Links, Islay in Scotland is also under renovation.

He is excited about the Malta project, and says: “It’s the grand old hotel of Valetta and Malta. It’s got tired, and one of my dreams has always been to take a grand old lady and restore it. Not to make it modern, not to do a pastiche of an old hotel. It’s quite a sensitive renovation. We’re closing the hotel next month and will re-open at the end of April. The idea is to make it grand again, not stuffy.”

In addition to these properties, a new brand is also incoming. Earlier this year, Hotelier Middle East reported the exclusive news that CampbellGray Hotels will be launching a new midscale brand, code-named Baby Gray. At the time, Gray told Hotelier that the group is eyeing opportunities in Dubai for the new brand, citing the growing appetite for mid-market properties in the city.

When I ask about it again, he says: “It’s definitely happening. There’s huge interest in it. We’ve been quite astonished at how everybody’s ears prick up when you say ‘Baby Gray’.” He reveals the code-name may or may not stick, as a decision has not yet been taken on the name. “As a concept, it’s 90% developed. It is the kind of hotel that someone who stays in Le Gray will stay in.”

He stresses that launching a midscale brand doesn’t mean he’s delineating his audience, or targeting just a section of travellers. “We’re not saying you need to be 25 and hip. It’s grown-up, it’s fun. It is just an affordable version of what we [already] do, but it will still have great interest in art. It will be young but not just for the young. I think that’s very important,” explains Gray.

The world is watching with interest to see what this hotelier will do with a new brand, and it’s showing in the enquiries he’s getting. “To say people are lining up would be exaggerating, but I’ve got a lot of people interested. I’ve got meetings this afternoon and tomorrow, and people say they want Baby Gray and they want one here [Dubai]. People travel well, you could put it in Barcelona, you could put it in London; it’s always about finding the site.”

Other projects Gray is keen about include his spa brand, Pure Gray, and a range of chocolates for his hotels called Pure Gray Chocolat. “What we will always do is retain control of everything in the hotel. We will never bring in an outside chef or catering company. We want to curate everything within the hotel. Personally I think that’s what hotels should do. They should be able to run on their own, but of course in many cases they’re not.”

Gray’s belief in controlling every aspect of his hotels is a departure from hotel brands increasingly looking at outsourcing elements like housekeeping, security and F&B.

BASIC PRINCIPLES

In another deviation from other five-star hotels, Gray says he is allergic to VIP lists, which springs from his experience with Save The Children. He says: “The mantra I’ve always expressed and emphasised at each induction is that we’re all human beings, we merely have different responsibilities.

“And I decided that we would never, ever, ever have such a thing as a VIP list. What kind of message is that to staff, what kind of message is that to guests?

“As a member of staff, you are really being encouraged to differentiate the level of service you give a person, and to me that is quite abhorrent. If you’re staying in a hotel and you’ve got a suite, then what you’ve got is a bigger space. But it doesn’t make you a superior guest. Quite frankly, if we had Brad Pitt staying, and we had somebody’s mum staying… if I was going to VIP anyone, then I’d want it to be somebody’s mum because I think she would appreciate it much more.

“I find the whole concept really horrible, but it’s alive and kicking in five-star hotels.”

And his company, Gray says, is different from other management companies in its attitude towards owners. Citing belief in the location and any project’s financial viability as two of the key ingredients for a hotel’s success, Gray says it’s important to like and understand your partner.

“We don’t say, ‘you’re the man who pays the bills and comes to the opening party’. We encourage the owner to enjoy the process of the development. If it’s somebody who collects hotels, then they’re just assets for income. Other people have great pride, like my partner in Jordan, and with whom I’m doing other things. I love the fact that he’s engaged in the development of his investment, and that’s where we’re more generous as a company than the average management company who doesn’t want the owner to be around.

“So the key is, picking the right partner but also, very importantly, understanding what they want. Do they want to sell it? Is it long-term? Is it an asset to build up for a family portfolio? Is it to get rich quick? What is it all about? If the fusion of the two minds isn’t right, you should absolutely walk away because it will only get worse. If you’re creating something beautiful and the investor or owner does not recognise it will need constant investment to keep it at its peak, you will be in terrible trouble. So the marrying of the intellectual minds is a very important aspect.”

MARKING THE INDUSTRY

Gray is all about the intellect and personality, citing his team as being the most important part of his empire. In light of that, when I ask if he has any inspirations, he candidly (and perhaps brutally) says: “I really have virtually no mentors in my mind, because I’ve always had this streak of paddling my own canoe.

“I don’t know that, in general, the world of hotels is the most intelligent world to inhabit. I think a majority of hoteliers are, at best, operators. But I don’t see them as creative or exciting. It’s a very hard job and because you work incredible hours, a majority of hoteliers, when they get home, are exhausted. I do think that, as an industry, you could almost count on the fingers of two hands — if I’m generous — people who are exciting or inspirational.”

He does, however, say that he found the founder of Body Shop, the late Anita Roddick, an inspiration, and cites Ian Schrager, the co-founder of Studio 54 and Morgans hotel as shaking the hotel world up. Gray says: “I’m not saying he’s one of the world’s greatest hoteliers. He’s one of these people who just decided to change the stuffiness of what a hotel was.”

And like Schrager, Gray is probably going to leave his mark on the hospitality industry, not just with his luxury brand, but also with his vision of what hotels need to be.

He says: “I love hotels but I’m in a very lucky position now that I haven’t, for years, been in operations. I’m a curator of a hotel. I’m a curator of a beautiful team. And in CampbellGray, as we’re expanding, I’ve to expand the team. What I do want to do is make sure I step back more and curate more.”

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