Women in the Hospitality Industry
Published: May 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
Travel + Leisure talks to seven of the hotel industry's most influential tastemakers
It's not easy being a woman hotelier. If it's not the scandalous PR legacy of one of their own (who can forget "the Queen of Mean"?), it's a muddy construction site filled with disrespectful hard hats. Then there's the catalogue of skewed gender-related assumptions—everyone knows women are hard-wired for pink, frilly, candy-box guest rooms. It's all enough to make a girl go home and play with her Barbie.
Given the potholes, the inroads women have made in recent years in the male-weighted hospitality industry are all the more impressive. Women now control hundreds of millions of dollars of international real estate. As designers they influence not just one another but the entire home furnishings business. And their hotels are recognized as some of the world's most innovative. The only wonder is that it took so long, especially since—politically prickly territory ahead—sheltering and swaddling have always been considered feminine talents. As architect Denise Scott Brown has noted of her staff's work, "There do seem to be some male-female differences, but there's no way of knowing if they're the result of nature or nurture." If only that closed the case. Some women hoteliers believe that a lobby bouquet in a hotel run by a man will always be bush-league, no matter how many ikebana courses he takes. Sorry, guys.
Of course, the lives of the women profiled here revolve around more than turn-down niceties. You wouldn't believe how many times their cell phones rang mid-interview with calls from a panicky daughter who'd missed a piano or ballet lesson. But the fluidity with which Mommy remained on message was dazzling. "Now, as I was saying about the sheets in my new suite . . ."
"It's a man's world," according to the James Brown song. Or is it?
No one who knows what Grace Leo-Andrieu has been through doubts that a woman is man enough for the hotel business.
Last year bailiffs turned up at the Bel-Ami, a Paris hotel she refurbished, and left with a number of rectangular cloth hanging lamps. The plaintiff was Christian Liaigre, the pan-influential designer whose friendly brand of minimalism and angular chocolate-wood furniture put Leo-Andrieu on the map in 1990 with another Paris property, the Hôtel Montalembert. Liaigre claimed that the light fixtures in the Bel-Ami were plagiarized from one of his designs. The back story is that he had already attacked Leo-Andrieu in The New Yorker for sullying the Montalembert with curtains not his own.
And you thought running a hotel was just a matter of training the operators to pick up by the second ring.
For anyone else, it would have been too humiliating to bear. Serenely composed, not to mention disarmingly well groomed and dressed—she often wears Céline and always carries a Kelly bag—Leo-Andrieu responded in print by suggesting Liaigre had an ego problem. Not very ladylike, you might say, but this is, after all, the age of women's boxing.
"I get a lot of comments from businesswomen traveling alone who say that staying at the Lancaster in Paris is like staying with friends," says Leo-Andrieu, who owns and operates the hotel, known for its peaceful Japanese garden and contemporary way with antiques. "The staff is trained to put women at ease. The restaurant is open only to guests and their friends, so there's a sense of security."
A graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, Leo-Andrieu was also thinking of women when she stocked the Lancaster with impossibly plush 66-by-35-inch, 1.5-pound terry-cloth bath towels, made in a factory also used by Hermès. "I'm obsessed with towels," she says. "I'm experimenting with a chemical-free rinse water scented with linden blossom. You can't pay enough attention to bathrooms. Many women travelers spend more time in them than in their bedrooms."
Leo-Andrieu is aware of her reputation as an icy taskmistress, but, frankly, she couldn't care less. Answering critics, she points to the success of GLA International, her management and consultancy firm, whose clients include the Cotton House on Mustique, Las Alamandas in Mexico, and the Royal Riviera in St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Côte d'Azur—the scene of yet another design contretemps. Following "l'affaire luminaire" at the Bel-Ami, Leo-Andrieu was fingered by Villa Kerylos, a neighboring turn-of-the-century re-creation of a classical Greek villa, for borrowing rather too generously from the building for the Royal Riviera's makeover. She happily acknowledges the influence of Kerylos, adding that Starwood's W hotels copy her all the time.
In hip-hop they call it sampling.
Bel-Ami 7—11 Rue St.-Benoît, Paris; 33-1/42-61-53-53; www.hotel-bel-ami.com; doubles from $213.
Lancaster 7 Rue de Berri, Paris; 33-1/40-76-40-76; www.hotel-lancaster.fr; doubles from $360.
Montalembert 3 Rue de Montalembert, Paris; 33-1/45-49-68-68; www.montalembert.com; doubles from $290.
The Château de Bagnols doesn't make money—actually, it loses money—and Helen Hamlyn doesn't care who knows it.
"Some people rescue dogs; I rescue old broken-down buildings," Hamlyn—actually, Lady Hamlyn—says in the high, fluty voice the French first became acquainted with in 1991. That was the year "the mad Englishwoman," as she was soon known, opened the hotel and went on national television to bash a portion of the populace for being true to type.
In transforming a ruined 13th-century fortified castle outside Lyons into the most hedonistic rural hotel in France, Hamlyn had indeed suffered at the hands of functionaries. She and Monuments Historiques, the state body in charge of landmark structures, fought viciously over the restoration. The authorities campaigned to keep paneling in place that masked earlier, historically important frescoes. Hamlyn was horrified.
But while she claims to have shed enough tears to fill Bagnols's moat, Hamlyn turned out to have the better connections. Through her old pal and fellow domestic-arts freak Terence Conran, she was introduced to France's then culture minister Jack Lang, who intervened in her favor. Perhaps he calculated how difficult it would be to find someone else willing to spend millions to rehabilitate the château and muster 200 craftsmen. Two years ago, the government recognized the rightness of Hamlyn's efforts by making her a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
"I think it was their way of saying 'Sorry' for having been so beastly to me," she says evenly.
Of course, as Hamlyn's opponents learned, she is not nobody. Her husband is Paul Hamlyn, the publishing nabob and the man who gave her a taste for philanthropy. Bagnols—"a work of art I simply made available to people to stay in"—is one such act. The Helen Hamlyn Research Center at London's Royal College of Art, where she was educated as a designer in the fifties, is another.
"I don't know anything about running a hotel except what I don't like at other places," shrugs Hamlyn, who makes monthly working visits to the 21-room château from her home base in England. Having endured for too many years hotels that gave her "aesthetic indigestion," Hamlyn used Bagnols as her instrument of revenge. More curator than decorator, she filled it with museum-quality furniture and created or adapted more than 400 items, including Swiss linen bedsheets, brass shell lamps, and Charles II—style silver-plated tumblers.
The guardians of France's architectural patrimony weren't the only ones Hamlyn defied. She and landscape architect André Gayraud buried their differences enough to develop a rose in her name and image. "It's got my tawny coloring," she says. "It's vigorous, and not too sweet." Pause. "It also has thorns."
Château de Bagnols Bagnols; 33-4/74-71-40-00; www.bagnols.com; doubles from $300.
CAROLINE ROSE HUNT
Like anyone who has just taken delivery of a new sofa, Caroline Rose Hunt is anxious to audition her croissant-shaped three-seater. She doesn't hate it, but she doesn't love it either. Something about it having a hotel-room feel.
Instantly likable, completely adorable, the picture of great-grandmotherly graciousness, the 78-year-old Hunt sits pretty on a multi-billion-dollar personal fortune. (Daddy was H.L., the East Texas oil suzerain.) Still, she's not replacing the sofa, and she's not re-covering it. In ways that are still unclear to her, it's part of what makes New York's Carlyle Hotel go. Hunt's Rosewood Hotels & Resorts recently paid about $130 million for the patrician landmark.
"Whatever we do, we'll do slowly because the Carlyle is successful the way it is," says Hunt, wearing a jazzy leopard scarf that subverts her softly tailored bouclé suit ("purchased" at Stanley Korshak, another family asset). "My feeling is, if it ain't broken, don't fix it. When they turned the Remington in Houston into a Ritz-Carlton, a lot of those signature cobalt glasses were added, and they clashed with the existing décor. Nothing like that's going to happen here."
Rosewood owns four premier cru properties—the Carlyle, plus the Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Hotel Crescent Court in Dallas, and Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda—and holds the management contracts for 12 others. Hunt built the business from scratch. At age 55, nursing empty-nest syndrome, she decided it was time, Katherine Graham—style, to conquer her shyness. Taking a role in making her money grow, she thought, was the best way to accomplish this. Also, she couldn't bear to be idle.
"Of course," adds Hunt, twin tendrils framing a benevolent face with a charming dusting of powder, "I didn't have to work at all."
She knows what she doesn't know. "If a hotel in the group chooses not to follow my suggestions, considering who I am, it must be right. I think there's a market for guest rooms with two full baths. But if we don't do them, it's because management knows better than I do."
The woman with the resources to make the combined lifestyles of Barbara Hutton and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild look impoverished elects to live in an executive suite with hotel furniture and her own antiques at the Crescent Court. At 7 a.m. she can be found in a T-shirt doing Pilates alongside paying guests. Hunt counts Margaret Thatcher as a personal friend, and her dearest possessions—even more than her collection of vintage watch keeps—are the portraits of her five children by Janet Raser Faunce. Peach is her favorite color (but you guessed that); at the end of the day she does not say no to a vodka and water; and she is famous for her frugality—recycling paper clips, traveling with a hot plate and Lipton soup mix.
"My father said he'd rather be lucky than smart," notes Hunt. "But I wouldn't say I'm dumb."
Rosewood Hotels & Resorts 888/767-3966; www.rosewood-hotels.com.
Mansion on Turtle Creek 2821 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas; 214/559-2100; www.mansiononturtlecreek.com; doubles from $440.
"Women care more about guests' needs and well-being than men do," Olga Polizzi was saying, "and they're better at details. Flowers, for instance. What men do in hotels—you know, one deathly rose in a bud vase—is always so ghastly. I like bouquets that are generous and spontaneous. And fruit. Men seem to love putting out bowls of mixed anemic fruit. I prefer one perfect well-ripened pear to a lot of hard everything else."
Like a politically incorrect rapper who resists all attempts at reform, Polizzi is no repentant apologist. As director of design of RF Hotels, she has a major interest in the upstart luxury company headed by her swaggering brother, Rocco Forte. For anyone who doesn't subscribe to Lodging Hospitality, the London-based RF was founded in 1996 following a hostile takeover of Forte PLC, the hotel giant the Forte family built from the ground up.
From controlling a $100 million—a—year budget divided among 800 properties in her old job, Polizzi has scaled way back. RF's portfolio of seven handpicked holdings includes the Balmoral in Edinburgh, a Colefax and Fowler—ish mix of beefy checks and romantic florals. Like Polizzi's wardrobe, the Lowry in Manchester, the Savoy in Florence, and the Hotel de Russie in Rome look as if they'd sprung directly from the Emporio Armani design studio.
Outside of RF, Polizzi is also owner, with her two daughters, of Tresanton, a trailblazing hotel that brought a tonic, boutique sensibility where everyone assumed it would never fly: the English hinterland.
"People said I'd never get two hundred sixty-five pounds a night," says Polizzi, who is married to the political writer William Shawcross. "Well, I do—and against great odds. It takes four and a half hours to get to the Cornish coast from London. And the hotel is rather modern, which is not what people expect. At Tresanton I can't be doing with chintz, doilies, or mitered toilet paper."
She can be doing with a spy hole and chain lock on the door of every RF guest room, "for the security of women traveling alone." Not sure that as a man, I hadn't been dissed—I'm a star pupil of Constance Spry, and my fruit is always from the farmers' market—I tried to set Polizzi up by asking whether spy holes were a detail only a woman would think of. She would not be trapped.
" 'Women are so much better than men when it comes to particulars, and hotel-keeping is all about particulars.' I quote my husband."
RF Hotels www.rfhotels.com.
Lowry Hotel 50 Dearmans Place, Manchester; 44-161/827-4000; doubles from $265.
Hotel Tresanton St. Mawes; 44-132/627-0055; www.tresanton.com; doubles from $280.
He finds the buildings and converts them. She's the designer. Sometimes they pass each other in the hall, eyes averted, mute.
"A project generates so many—let's not call them 'arguments'—that Tim and I know we won't be talking for weeks," says Kit Kemp. In 1985 the husband-and-wife team founded Firmdale Hotels, a $14 million—a—year company that gave London the Dorset Square, the city's first country-house hotel; the Covent Garden, which pioneered a younger, fresher take on traditional English decorating; and Charlotte Street, a valentine to the Bloomsbury group of writers and artists.
"In my experience, men and women in the hotel business have different priorities," continues Kemp, a thin twinset italicizing her lean matador's body. "It's the nuts and bolts of elevator shafts versus the seduction of upholstery fabrics. They want to talk about quantity surveyors; I want to talk about a great new bench I've found to put at the foot of the bed." Typically, she accepts defeat on some issues in order to win others. "At one of our properties, I was forced to lose a period architrave to make way for the concierge desk. But in the deal I struck with Tim, I got to keep the full twelve-foot height of the drawing room."
Kemp measures the success of her hotels by the popularity of the public rooms. "The challenge I give myself—which, I'm sorry, would never occur to a man—is to craft common spaces with residential tone and texture where people want to idle."
And maybe even introduce themselves to the hunky blond across the room?
"Yes, absolutely! My big gripe with a lot of hotels is that they wrap you in cellophane. You feel separated from the city you're in, apart rather than a part. There's no chance for interaction." Other hotels, she says, can't even get the materials right, like the Clarence in Dublin, co-owned by U2 front man Bono. "The lobby has way too many leather surfaces," notes Kemp. "You couldn't linger if you wanted to, because the chairs send you sliding to the floor." (The Clarence is a client of Grace Leo-Andrieu—oops!)
The picture of Kemp arched over a drawing board—sketching the hotel bathroom of every woman's dream in a charitable act of sisterhood—is irresistible. Obscenely long, ridiculously deep, the vanity avenges every hotel that ever forced a female traveler to stow her Kiehl's in a bidet.
Well, scratch that image.
"Anyone who thinks I design hotels with only women in mind is wrong," says Kemp. "For one thing, men pack more toiletries these days than we do. And they're just as persnickety. Men are the new women."
Firmdale Hotels www.firmdale.com.
Covent Garden Hotel 10 Monmouth St., London; 44-207/806-1000; doubles from $314.
Beatrice Tollman is too much of a lady to name names. But the founder of Red Carnation Hotels, which includes such deliciously over-the-top sanctuaries as the Chesterfield in Palm Beach and the Milestone in London, works too hard shining the brass at her properties to let an arrogant newcomer go unscolded.
During a recent stay in a loudly trumpeted new hotel in Singapore, Tollman says, the doorbell was too faint to be heard in the bedroom. "Can you imagine!" And there was no outlet in the bathroom, obliging her to blow-dry her thicket of flinty hair—she has more of it, if that is possible, than Susan Sontag—on the edge of her bed.
"Here we were, paying all this money in a place that had just been built, and they couldn't get anything right," recalls Tollman, a naturalized American who was born in South Africa and is headquartered in New York. "They said the bathroom had been done by, you know, that Frenchman who works for Ian Schrager. Well, there may have been a showerhead by him, but that was it."
Nobody argues with the thin-voiced, antique-diamond-flashing, scrupulously turned out doyenne who made her name with the Hyde Park Hotel, the place to stay in Johannesburg in the early seventies if you wanted to share an elevator with, say, Marlene Dietrich and Petula Clark. Today, as president of Red Carnation, "Mrs. T," as her 600 employees address her, is involved to an almost scary degree in the day-to-day running of hotels known for their crackling service ("no request too large, no detail too small," according to the company slogan), devilishly deep comfort, and slam-dunk, full-frontal decoration.
Every 24 hours Tollman receives reports from the six properties under her parasol, giving the latest occupancy rates and the amounts taken in by every department. And she speaks with at least three managers at each hotel daily. Skip the love letters and read me the hate mail, she instructs them. In the time left over, Tollman dreams up exquisitely original felicities and flourishes: following check-in at the Milestone, a chambermaid arrives at your door with a basket of 15 different full-sized soaps (Chanel, Issey Miyake, Burberry) from which you are invited to choose. In the time left over from that, Tollman, with the aid of just one assistant, tirelessly designs and redesigns her boutique hospitality fiefdom, down to the bouillon fringe trimming the expertly karate-chopped throw pillows. The joke in the industry is that Mrs. T feeds her upholstery steroids, and that she never met a bed hanging she didn't like.
Red Carnation Hotels www.redcarnationhotels.com.
Milestone Hotel 1 Kensington Court, London; 44-207/917-1000; doubles from $386.
Anouska Hempel finds the whole sex-of-the-hotelier question both tiresome and fascinating. She is also deeply conflicted on the subject. Her observations, deliriously entertaining as they are, roll back on themselves in great waves of irresolution. Unraveling her true feelings on the matter is like trying to catch a butterfly with a screwdriver. At every turn she begs you not to take her seriously. But you do.
"You wouldn't guess my hotels are designed and run by a woman," says the Mother of Them All, a moniker Hempel earned for the 1981 debut of Blakes London, which is generally regarded as the world's first significant boutique hotel. "I mean, a chappy could be just as concerned with detail, couldn't he?Nevertheless, a woman's soft touch can be seen here and there, though I don't know why I call it that, it's not a gift every woman has. By the way, I love the softness and elegance of Amanresorts—and they're designed by a man."
Famously imperious and skittish, an old-school diva in the post-Supremes Diana Ross mold (T+L's photographer was kept waiting four hours), Hempel leans back in silent vacillation, removing her black sunglasses, retrieving a black cell phone from a black baguette bag, rearranging her black jersey skirt.
"I don't know . . . hmm . . . let's see. I'm involved in architecture, and that's always thought of as a man's pursuit, so what does that make me?If you look at my second London hotel, the Hempel, which is all very white, very minimalist, you wouldn't say, 'Oh, a woman did that.' You'd say it was done by a strong person with a strong point of view. I mean, I could be a fella!"
Two decades later, the ripple effect of Blakes is still being felt. Dozens of hotels every year try to ape its limited-membership, rock-royalty-and-aristo atmosphere. Dozens more try to outdo its transporting stage-set guest rooms. They should stop trying. As effusive as Hempel's personality, the bleached Corfu Suite is furnished with a Syrian chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl, waist-high terra-cotta jars, and a towering four-poster draped with 27 yards of linen and muslin. Blakes also taught an entire generation of wannabes how to stock a mini-bar, though many struggle to keep up. While second-generation boutique hotels are still trying to look cool by offering condoms and jelly beans, Hempel keeps guests on life support with antistress vitamins and canisters of oxygen.
Last year the London society figure also known as Lady Weinberg, thanks to her marriage to the financier Sir Mark Weinberg, exported her brand of clobbering fantasy chic to Holland with Blakes Amsterdam. Using words that would challenge even a 1950's Vogue editor, Hempel instructed her team to "be bold, go chunky, get butch." Every time a choice had to be made between style and comfort, she says, style won.
Is that a woman thing?Hempel was asked.
Blakes Hotel Amsterdam 384 Keizersgracht; 31- 20/530-2010; www.blakes.site.nl; doubles from $307.
Blakes Hotel London 33 Roland Gardens; 800/926-3173 or 44-207/370-6701; www.blakeshotels.com; doubles from $364.
The Hempel 31—35 Craven Hill Gardens, London; 44-207/298-9000; www.the-hempel.co.uk; doubles from $364.