The power of One

20 January 2003 by
The power of One

Gordon Campbell Gray. A creative force? Of course. Just look at One Aldwych, which on its opening in 1998 was the most innovative luxury hotel in London.

A philanthropist? Definitely. An exponent of high service standards? Certainly. Passionate about people? Yep.

An hotelier through and through? There's the rub. Gordon Campbell Gray doesn't quite fit the standard mould. He never has. His approach to his hotel business is unique, born out of a desire to do something different, produce something different - adopt a different attitude.

By-products of this philosophy are commercial success and shelves full of awards and accolades. But the Hotelier of the Year trophy genuinely delights him, awarded as it is by his peer group in the trade. "It's recognition for what the team, the hotel's secret weapon, has done at One Aldwych. It makes us feel like ‘good guys' - and we all need that," he says.

Campbell Gray, 51, recognised early on that he was never likely to go down the standard route of an aspiring general manager. "I walked out of hotel school for a start," he says. Nonetheless, he landed a job at the Portman Inter-Continental as assistant food and beverage controller at the age of 22 and on a salary of £17 a week. Promotion to purchasing manager followed. "Inter-Continental liked me and told me I was being groomed for bigger things, but Bangladesh intervened ."

The crisis there in 1974 prompted him to ring Save the Children and offer his skills. "From then on in I decided to make decisions that were not money-based. I spent two years directing a project in Dhaka before succumbing to amoebic dysentery."

It was touch and go for a while, but when he recovered, he moved on to Morocco where he ran a school for disabled children.

"I loved the work, but I didn't want to become a disaster follower. I needed to get back into the real world - and that meant going back into hotels."

Campbell Gray got a job at the Brussels Sheraton, but as he was about to fly out to start as food and beverage manager there he got a call at the airport from Save the Children with a request he couldn't turn down. So, he swapped providing nutrition in Brussels to set up a nutrition programme in Nicaragua, drawing on his Bangladeshi experience. Two years on, and he handed over the developed project and returned to the UK - and no job.

"For six months I couldn't get an interview, let alone a job," he recalls.

"I had travelled, I had run major projects and been responsible for big-budgets, but I didn't fit into the mould."

Cunard finally employed him, and he worked at the Hotel Bristol before becoming deputy general manager at the Athenaeum under Ron Jones.

"But I always feel that my real career began when I set up my own hotel," Campbell Gray says. "In large organisations, making things better in anything but the smallest way is difficult, and I wanted to do things very differently."

Six turned-down loans later - the seventh was a "yes" - Campbell Gray bought the Dorchester hotel in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, putting up 85% of the capital, with 15% from a friend. "I became the man who bought the three-legged table at Christie's auctions, I didn't want a standard hotel look." Renamed the Feathers, the hotel picked up a loyal following both from customers and staff. " Our aim was to be honest and straightforward, unpretentious yet with loads of panache. And we treated people well."

An irresistible offer for the hotel, at the time the highest price paid per room outside London, (he won't reveal the figure) gave Campbell Gray the luxury of a sabbatical. He spent a year in the USA, where he became involved in setting up the Maidstone hotel in East Hampton.

Back in the UK, he knew that it was time that he turned his back on the traditional style. He had his dream hotel in his mind. "An utterly original hotel - modern, but not hip and trendy modern."

Sixty-six financial institutions didn't see it the way he did. "All the reasons it was going to work in my eyes represented a risk to them." Eighteen months of "nos" just made him more determined. "One chink in the armour, one doubt, would have stopped me - but I knew that I was right to keep going. And when I did meet the right person to back me, it really was the right person."

After buying the current One Aldwych site, Campbell Gray toured the world staying in five-star hotels to ensure that One Aldwych would offer all and more. And he was determined that what would make the difference was the people he employed. "I am an old-fashioned hotelier in the sense that we must never forget that it's all about service, but service that is efficient, friendly and above all genuine - not subservient or obsequious."

Potential recruits to One Aldwych have a minimum of four interviews. Not surprisingly, they don't have to "fit the mould", but they do need to have a passion for getting it right. And he is adamant that he has a personal responsibility to give those who work for him the right environment. "We operate the hotel as a politically free and snob free zone to both guests and staff," he says.

One Aldwych is now the hotel that other hoteliers want to see, and businessmen want to buy. Campbell Grey admits he was once tempted to sell. "But I walked out of a meeting where I was being offered serious amounts of money, feeling really good. In my experience, tonnes of money for one individual means that the product loses out and becomes second rate. I see money only as the by-product of getting it right."

For the future, Campbell Gray's big excitement is not just to "roll out" another half-dozen or so One Aldwyches but to create up to six new hotels in Europe and the Caribbean. But he's relaxed about the quantity. "I know that I want every one to be different but to smell the same. I love the excitement of designing."

He will have the backing to hire the best people, "the greatest brains in the world", as he puts it. But bigger will not mean a dilution of the One Aldwych offering. "Wherever the company opens a hotel, I want both guests and staff to say ‘it was really good to be there'".

Past winners of the Hotelier of the Year award

1983 Richard Edwards, then at the Chester Grosvenor, Chester
1984 Ramón Pajares, then at the Four Seasons hotel, London
1985 Terry Holmes, the Stafford hotel, London
1986 Harry Murray, then at the Imperial, Torquay
1987 Eion Dillon, then at the Copthorne Tara, London
1988 Ronald Jones, then at Claridge's, London
1989 Grete Hobbs, then at Inverlochy Castle, Fort William
1990 George Goring, Goring hotel, London
1991 Martin Skan, Chewton Glen, New Milton, Hampshire
1992 Dagmar Woodward, then at the May Fair Inter-Continental, London
1993 Ken McCulloch, then at One Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow
1994 David Levin, then at the Capital, London
1995 Ricci Obertelli, the Dorchester Group, London
1996 Chris Rouse, then at Turnberry, Ayrshire
1997 Peter Lederer, Gleneagles, Auchterarder, Fife
1998 Nicholas Rettie, then at the Halkin and Metropolitan hotels, London
1999 Nick Ryan, the Crinan Hotel, Argyll
2000 Peter Crome, Chewton Glen, New Milton, Hampshire
2001 Karen Earp, Four Seasons Canary Wharf, London

2002 judges

Linda Astbury, business manager, RAC Hotel Services
Peter Crome, managing director, Chewton Glen
Karen Earp, general manager, Four Seasons Hotel Canary Wharf
Ricci Obertelli, chief operations officer, Dorchester Group
Nicholas Rettie, managing director, the Great Eastern Hotel
Dominic Walsh, business reporter (Leisure), The Times

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