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Gordon Campbell Gray: The luxury hotelier on his renewed creativity

04 February 2016 by
Gordon Campbell Gray: The luxury hotelier on his renewed creativity

Hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray is a man of contradictions: the luxury hotelier with a passionate green agenda; an art-lover and taste-maker who abhors needless excess. Janet Harmer meets him as he sets off on yet another business journey: involving new hotels, luxury yachts and even a chocolate brand

Gordon Campbell Gray can't quite believe his luck. At a time when most hoteliers are thinking of taking life more easily, the Scottish-born 2002 Hotelier of the Year has never been busier.

Today, Campbell Gray has boundless energy as he travels the world looking for new projects to add to his growing portfolio of hotels. An agreement signed with Cyprus-based trading company Audeh Group has injected an undisclosed sum into CampbellGray Hotels, enabling it to add properties to its existing 87-bedroom Le Gray hotel in Beirut.

New hotels on the horizon include a second Le Gray in Amman, Jordan, the Phoenicia in the Maltese capital of Malta, and Machrie on the Isle of Islay in Scotland. There are also plans for a new collection of hotels at a more accessible price point, a seaside hotel brand and a project to design and brand luxury yachts.

"It is very flattering that someone should come along who could see the value of building the business for the future."

That someone was Saad Audeh, son of Issa Audeh, the founder of the Audeh Group. He was in Le Gray in Beirut one day when he approached Campbell Gray about a hotel he was developing in Amman, Jordan. "Saad asked me if I would consider getting involved in creating a Le Gray at the site," explains Campbell Gray.

"He told me he had been talking to the big hotel brands, but he was frustrated because he was unable to build a relationship with any one person. It was important to him that he felt a connection with the partner he worked with. We immediately hit it off, as I despise the corporate culture - as it generally creates very dull people. Anyway, one thing led to another and I agreed to the launch of a second Le Gray."

Alongside the development of a 180-bedroom hotel in a new downtown area of Amman called Abdali, Campbell Gray is also involved in the creation of Le Gray Living, which combines apartments serviced by the hotel with offices and retail space. The hotel is not due to open until 2018, but the apartments will launch in September this year.

Martin Brudnizki Design Studios is designing the interiors of the hotel and apartments, while Architecture-Studio in Paris is under-taking the facades. Campbell Gray is curating the many elements of the project that will give it the unique identity and beauty he has such a wonderful eye for - the art, books, food, and his great love, chocolate.

Shared vision

Originally, the Amman hotel was going to be a one-off project. However the partnership between the two parties proved to be such a success that it was cemented with Audeh buying a majority share of CampbellGray Hotels in January 2015.

Le Gray Beirut

How has such an individualist as Campbell Gray coped with being involved in a partnership? "I had previously always owned the company 100% and enjoyed full control, so it was strange to begin with. The Audeh Group is made up of a lot of different companies

and is more mechanical in its approach, whereas we have always been very polite in the way we do things.

"I'm enjoying the process of sharing and discussing new projects - it is very exciting. Saad's involvement has enabled additional fire power for growth and the opportunity to bring in some of the best people where necessary."

New appointees paramount in driving the business forward include Spencer Yeo, previously general manager at the Viceroy Santa Monica, California, as operations director, and Nicholas Glenister, who has joined Campbell Gray Hotels as finance director from area director of finance at the Dorchester Collection.

However, although he has a new team in place to support him, Campbell Gray is finding that he is having to put the brakes on expansion. "The Amman project is huge and creating a lot of attention, which is leading to requests for our involvement in other projects. I personally get very excited about many of them, but we are being very careful to select the right ones," he says.

While Le Gray in Amman is funded by the Audeh Group, the Phoenicia (pictured) and Machrie are management contracts on behalf of owners.The 136-bedroom Phoenicia, in the heart of Valetta's Old Town, will be the first hotel within the Campbell Gray Classics collection. It is due to reopen in May following a transformation by Peter Young Design and Mary Fox Linton. This will include the addition of two rooftop suites, a health club and spa, and indoor and outdoor swimming pools.

Campbell Gray has always wanted to restore an historic hotel and he has enjoyed the process of doing this one, which was built during the 1930s, was opened in 1947 and is now owned by fellow Scotsman Mark Shaw of Edinburgh-based property company Hazeldene Group.

"The Phoenicia was already a successful hotel with year-round occupancy of 84%, but we are injecting more international glamour and restoring it to its position as the number one hotel in Malta by making it more relevant to today's travellers," says Campbell Gray. Reaching a global audience will be helped by the fact that the property has just been accepted into the Leading Hotels of the World consortium.

Home ties

While Campbell Gray spends an average of 33 days a year in the air, taking two to three flights a week, he is always delighted to return to his native Scotland, where the focus is on the development of Machrie into "a world-renowned hotel and golfing destination".

Located on the Isle of Islay's Laggan Bay, the property is owned by former BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and his wife, Baroness Sue Nye, one-time advisor to former prime minister Gordon Brown. The couple bought what was previously a 16-bedroom hotel out of administration in 2011. Following its transformation, once again by Peter Young Design and Mary Fox Linton, the hotel will have 48 bedrooms.

"It is proving to be a complicated process because of the hotel's island location. We are having to comply with some rigorous building regulations and we have to accommodate all the builders," says Campbell Gray. "However, the setting is absolutely magical." The club house and golf course are open, and the hotel is planned to launch at the end of 2017.

Campbell Gray tries to be in Scotland at least twice a month, as he has now established a design studio at his loch-side home. "It is the place I am most undisturbed and relaxed, but it is also where I can be at my most creative."

Small ambitions

There, is of course, much that is on the drawing board. Particularly exciting is the development of Baby Gray, a group of quality hotels which will be "affordable" and have the potential of springing up in any capital or major city. Some will be financed by the Audeh Group, while others will involve investment from third-party partners. Firm interest has already been shown from the Queen of Bahrain for a Baby Gray to be developed within the kingdom, and locations as diverse as Barcelona, New York and Dubai are also being mooted.

Campbell Gray's number one aspiration is to do a Baby Gray in London, but he admits it is the hardest location to find the right property or site because of the high costs. "We don't want to get carried away and pay silly prices.

"Baby Gray will be the naughty son that has been born within the aristocratic Campbell Gray family. It will feel young, but it won't be hip and trendy and you won't need to be young to go there. It will offer everything you want from a hotel for grown-up travellers, such as laundry, a 24-hour gym, meeting rooms and food from a 24/7 deli. There will even be a swimming pool on the roof in the right locations.

"Although there will be reduced service, there will always be a warm welcome from friendly and knowledgeable people with a can-do attitude," he adds.

Baby Gray hotels will, on average, have 80 to 150 bedrooms, with the first one expected to open within two years.

Other projects on the horizon are not yet so well formulated, but Campbell Gray is still excited - whether it is a collection of seaside hotels, currently code-named Seashells, or the creation of his own brand of chocolate. He is lover of all types - from Cadbury's milk to the finest dark. "It is something of hobby project, but I'm working with a friend on creating the most wonderful new brand," he says.

Then there are the luxury yachts. Two are in the pipeline - Gray One and Gray Two - each with 50 cabins and two restaurants each. They will be owned by CampbellGray Hotels and operated by the Norwegian Yacht Club. "They will provide a haven of privacy and will be cruise ships for people who don't do cruises," he says.

Antidote to excess

For Campbell Gray, it is all about creating a point of difference, something he achieved so successfully at One Aldwych (see panel), where he created the first luxury hotel in the UK to give serious consideration to the environmental impact of the business. Sadly, 18 years on, he believes that the hospitality industry's concern towards the environment has declined.

"When the economy was bad, green issues were illuminated, but now - deep down - most people couldn't care less. It is offensive to visit locations like Dubai, Moscow and Shanghai and witness the huge amounts of energy being wasted. Excess is abhorrent - it offends me tremendously. The fact that I like frugality is, of course, a complete contrast to creating luxury hotels, but you can do it in a way that is not wasteful. An antidote to excess is the arrival of the intelligent guest and hotels should ignore this message at their peril."

"If the person leading the company authentically believes in [caring for] the environment, then it filters down to the rest of the staff, but while companies are focused on the bottom line, it will never be addressed."

The pool at Le Gray Beirut

Indeed, Campbell Gray is a rare operator in that he doesn't get turned on by the bottom line, but is instead motivated by the product and the process. While this partly revolves around the development of fabulous spaces where guests feel comfortable and relaxed, it also means building teams which offer intelligent, intuitive service that is always focused on the needs of the guest.

"I don't like fawning service and explain to the staff that no one is superior to anyone else," he says. "I've always done the induction for the new staff at Le Gray and the first thing I tell them is that we're all equal human beings, we just have different responsibilities."

When Le Gray first opened in Lebanon, the staff would not get in the lift with Campbell Gray. He broke down the barriers by showing that he cared for them by, among other initiatives, providing them with beautiful, properly fitting uniforms and good meals.

"It is about showing respect for your staff. It can be enormously divisive if you don't care. I advise managers to love their staff - it is the magic formula."

Although he admits to sending the occasional work email himself at weekends, he advises his staff to ignore any they receive - unless he - rarely - flags them up as urgent. "The most powerful and creative people in business are those that switch off. I like the team to be fresh after their weekend. It is impossible to be creative if your life is controlled by the inbox."

Charity works

Campbell Gray's deeply ingrained, caring attitude - like his abhorrence of waste - is undoubtedly the product of more than 40 years of working with Save the Children, much of that time as a vice-president. For many years, he has spent some time every 12 months with a project, which could be anywhere in the world, and where the need for support is greatest.

Campbell Gray's role as a vice-president is focused on raising awareness of the work of the charity and getting involved in fundraising. One of the conditions of the agreement with the Audeh Group was that a proportion of the annual profits of CampbellGray Hotels was given to Save the Children. "I'm not driven by money, but being able to give to charity is a spur to financial success," he says.

Travelling to areas of the world that have been devastated by war or natural disasters does not phase Campbell Gray. It explains why he persisted, despite two wars flaring up during the building process, in seeing through the development of Le Gray in Beirut.

Even now, the ongoing politics stemming from the refugee crisis in Lebanon makes the country a challenge to operate in. But Campbell Gray is in fact overseeing an expansion of Le Gray involving the addition of a ballroom, private cinema, lobby lounge, 18 bedrooms and suites and, of course, a chocolate shop. "I am totally committed to the country and our staff there; I believe it will come right."

A maverick streak, has driven Campbell Gray throughout his career. It explains why, for instance, he is now making regular visits to Iran. Initially, he went to the country to expand his art collection for the hotel portfolio, but now he is considering the possibility of developing a hotel there.

"There is not a chance I would do something like bungee jumping, but I'm a bit of an adventurer and I like to push the boundaries when it comes to going to new locations. We were ahead of the curve in Beirut. Iran has 80 million inhabitants - the potential for a hotel there is very exciting."

Campbell Gray has been greatly inspired by his approach to life by the late Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop. "She always said, 'Just do it'. It was the best bit of advice. Too many people are afraid in life to live."

Gordon Campbell Gray - CV highlights

Gordon Campbell Gray has been a nonconformist from the outset, eschewing a formal hotel school education because "I just wanted to do things my way".

He worked through a variety of hotel roles before landing the role of assistant food and beverage controller at London's Portman InterContinental hotel at the age of 22. After being promoted to purchasing manager, his career took a diversion upon joining the Save the Children charity to run projects in Bangladesh, Morocco and Nicaragua.

Returning to the UK in 1982, Campbell Gray was appointed deputy general manager at the Athenaeum, London. Unsurprisingly, he was eager to make his own mark and, within two years - with family backing and that of Hill Samuel, the one-time merchant bank - bought the Dorchester hotel in Woodstock, which he redesigned and relaunched as the Feathers.

"It wouldn't happen now as I had no entrepreneurial experience then, but Hill Samuel financed me on the basis that they trusted and liked me and I am eternally grateful for that," he says. He went on to acquire the Draycott in Chelsea, London, in 1987.

After selling both properties, Campbell Gray moved to New York's Long Island to buy, refurbish and run the Maidstone Arms in East Hampton. He returned to the UK again in 1996 to work on the creation of One Aldwych, a hotel in an Edwardian building on the edge of London's Covent Garden. It opened in 1998 with finance from an overseas investor (64 other individuals and investors had turned him down), and was praised for its clean-cut, contemporary design and innovative approach to luxury, incorporating strong green credentials ahead of its time.

CampbellGray Hotels was launched in 2003 to manage a small collection of individual, luxury hotels around the world, including One Aldwych. Its first new opening was the Carlisle Bay hotel on the Caribbean island of Antigua.

In 2006 the company took over the management of Dukes hotel in London and opened Le Gray, on behalf of a Lebanese owner, in Beirut in 2009.

Campbell Gray's involvement in Dukes, One Aldwych and Carlisle Bay ended between 2010 and 2014, freeing him to take his company in a new direction.

Photography by Brendan MacNeil

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