Chairman Interview: Saad Issa Audeh on putting Campbell Gray hotels on the map
Saad Issa Audeh, chairman of Campbell Gray Hotels and founding member and managing director of Audeh Group, talks about putting Jordan on the hospitality map and how a chance meeting with Gordon Campbell Gray led to him becoming a hotelier
Saad Issa Audeh, chairman of Campbell Gray Hotels, and founding member and managing director of the Jordan-based Audeh Group, is fairly new on the hospitality turf; three years to be specific.
But with experienced hoteliers on his flanks, four operational hotels, and two in the pipeline in the Middle East, he is quick to point out the large strides his owner-operator company, Campbell Gray Hotels, has made in the recent years after he personally got involved.
Prior to his current role, Audeh was an entrepreneur and a shareholder of the Audeh Group, a family-run business formed in 1990, which is now a conglomerate of more than 30 companies operating in 11 countries across Europe, Middle East and Africa.
However, a chance meeting six years ago with Gordon Campbell Gray , the founder of Campbell Gray Hotels, led Audeh into expanding his services to the hospitality sector. It happened when he was scouting for a hotel operator to manage one of his properties, within a multi-million dollar mixed-use project in the heart of the up coming Abdali neighbourhood in downtown Amman, Jordan.
“We [Audeh Group] got involved in Jordan eight years ago. It was purely because we wanted to invest and go back to our roots. We got involved in the residential aspect and another opportunity to develop a hotel came up. So we went out looking for hotel operators as owners would normally do,” he explains.
“We went to the top five operators. Mainly one of them, because I previously had a good relationship with them,” he recounts . But when the talks fell through six months later, Audeh walked away from what he saw as a potentially risky deal for a self-funded project. Instead he decided to construct a white label hotel till they could come across a “smaller operator who could be hands on” for the project.
During a random business trip to Beirut, Audeh visited the Le Gray, Beirut, on the recommendation of a friend. It was operated then by Campbell Gray Hotels.
Impressed by the hotel design, functionality and attention to detail, Audeh decided to find out more about the operator, and eventually set up a meeting at Le Gray with Gordon Campbell Gray during a return trip to Beirut, a few weeks later.
Audeh notes that he initially connected with Campbell Gray to brand and operate his white label hotel in the upcoming project in Abdali but in doing so, he saw the potential to expand his portfolio into the service and hospitality industry.
The two men quickly built a rapport in what Audeh refers to a “yin and yang show” and soon enough, Audeh says he made the move to acquire Campbell Gray Hotels in 2015 to be part of the Audeh Group.
“I asked whether he’d considered having a partner. He said yes, but he’d never come across someone. So we kept on talking. A year into it, we [Audeh Group] invested and bought the company. We are expanding now; it’s been three years, and we’ve got six hotels under our belt. We are growing, and we are not stopping.”
With a keen focus on artwork, design and individuality, Campbell Gray Hotels currently has four operational hotels and two in the pipeline in its portfolio around the world. The operational hotels include Le Gray, Beirut in Lebanon, The Phoenicia in Malta, The Farmington in Liberia and The Machrie in Islay in Scotland.
Post-acquisition, the partnership also led to the launch of the Campbell Gray Living brand with the first project, Campbell Gray Living Amman in Jordan, already making progress in the new Abdali district. The brand offers residences, offices and retail space as well as a hotel. The residences offer one, two and three-bedroom apartments designed by London-based Martin Brudnizki Design Studio, in collaboration with Campbell Gray.
The development will also include the five-star hotel, Campbell Gray Amman, due to open in 2020, which can also be accessed by residents via a private underground tunnel. All the hotel’s facilities — including the rooftop pool, meeting spaces, ballroom for weddings, gourmet restaurants, spa and the private club lounge — will be open to residents too.
The other hotel in the pipeline is The Merchant House. It is located in the heart of Manama, Bahrain and is scheduled to open in October 2018. The Merchant House will be an all-suite boutique hotel with 47 suites in total, each featuring an open plan kitchen and dining area, as well as open plan sitting rooms, which have been designed for both business and leisure.
As the chairman of the hotel company, Audeh says he looks after the bottom line of the business while Campbell Gray focuses more on the design and creative element for the projects.
When asked how the collaboration between the two hoteliers works, Audeh lightheartedly quips that it emulates the dynamics of a marriage of sorts.
“It’s like a husband and wife, we have good days and we have bad days. But we both know what we want and we are both adamant. We like to get things done,” he asserts.
To drive the point home, he explains the dynamic further: “When you usually sit in with an operator, you usually sit with an employee and spend time setting guidelines and standards. But when Gordon and I sit down, we can tailor-make and can get things done. From an investor’s point of view, I know it has to be the bottom line — that’s where I come from. It’s always about the bottom line, return of investment, how soon, how quick, and when… And Gordon creates something very beautiful in a city - it’s a win-win.
“Important people are talking to us now because we are showing that it’s not just about hospitality, but also about thinking. We wear the owner hat, but we also wear the hotel operator hat,” he notes.
With the Campbell Gray Living mixed-use project, Audeh is keen on developing and contributing to help shape Jordan’s image as the next hospitality and tourism hub in the Middle East, while also citing stability compared to its neighbours as a key feature.
“Jordan, for example, as a country, to be honest, it’s a missed treasure. Because it has so many natural resources. It has natural history that nobody had to pay for,” Audeh points out, referring to attractions such as Petra, Wadi Rum and other sites.
As for what the company’s future holds, Audeh makes no bones about the fact that Campbell Gray Hotels is just trying to be different from what’s already in the market. This, he says, means putting effort and focus into bringing an eco-conscious hotel brand into the portfolio.
“We’ve created a new [eco] brand where we have incorporated another sister company. It is literally bringing anything related to eco-construction — not just managing the hotel or running it — but actually building it. This way, we are reducing the carbon footprint of the hotel’s operations, and so on. And the nice thing about that is that in our part of the world, everything is a greenfield site; so it is easy to operate as well,” he points out.
In terms of exploring new markets, Audeh reveals that the company is currently in talks to expand to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. “And there is room for more…” he concludes.