Gordon Campbell Gray – The Green Man

Gordon Campbell Gray – the green man

Emily Manson

Thursday 01 October 2009 15:56

Gordon Campbell Gray
Gordon Campbell Gray may seem like a classic hotelier, yet for the man who began his career as a disaster relief aid, life is more complex. Emily Manson finds out more about the man, his motivation and the opening of his latest hotel, Le Gray in downtown Beirut.

Despite walking out of hotel school, Gordon Campbell Gray worked through all hotel departments at a variety of properties before landing the role of assistant food and beverage controller at London’s Portman InterContinental, aged 22. He was promoted to purchasing manager but then his career was put on hold while he ran projects for Save the Children in Bangladesh, Morocco and Nicaragua.

Campbell Gray returned to the UK in 1982 and bought the old Dorchester hotel in Oxfordshire, which he redesigned and relaunched as the Feathers at Woodstock. The stylish Draycott in London’s Chelsea district followed in 1987 on the site of a neglected club.

After selling the hotels, Campbell Gray moved to New York’s Long Island to buy, refurbish and run the Maidstone Arms in East Hampton.

In January 1996, after being turned down by the banks 66 times, he bought the Edwardian Inveresk House in London and reopened it in July 1998 as One Aldwych. The iconic boutique hotel was hailed as the most innovative luxury hotel in London.

He set up Campbell Gray Hotels, which includes One Aldwych, in 2003 to develop a small collection of individual, luxury hotels around the world, which now also includes Dukes in London, Carlisle Bay in Antigua and Le Gray in Beirut.

The consummate professional, Gordon Campbell Gray is as slick as his hotels – effortlessly elegant and sophisticated, without being trendy or faddy, yet he admits to being thrown each time he states his profession as “hotelier.”

It quickly becomes evident the man is so much more complicated than the term implies. Originally a hotel school dropout, yet now a pioneering and successful hotelier, he’s a truly committed environmental champion, yet admits guiltily to being a serial jetsetter; and to top it all, he’s the founder of several iconic luxury hotels, yet a hater of all excess, spending time each year in war-torn or famine-stricken countries as part of his role with Save the Children.

So how do these contradictions manifest themselves?

Well, mainly by making him a sort of maverick or buccaneer within the industry – taking the less-travelled road because of instinct or conviction. And this, of course, has resulted in his pioneering attitude towards creating environmentally sensitive hotels decades before it became de rigueur to have a corporate social responsibility policy and picking destinations, such as his latest project, Le Gray, which opens this week in Beirut.
BEIRUT

The success Campbell Gray has had with One Aldwych and Dukes in London and Carlisle Bay in Antigua over the past decade or so are well documented. His next venture, in Beirut, is arguably one of the world’s most eagerly anticipated new hotel openings this year.

Beirut is hardly known as a metropolitan hub, but Campbell Gray is convinced that the city, having come through recent turbulence, is on the cusp of a renaissance.

He fell for it the minute he got there. Within a week of visiting, he’d signed the deal for the hotel and despite the two wars that flared up during construction, his spirit and conviction for the project never wavered.

He explains: “I’d seen Beirut many years ago when it was quite bombed out, but five years ago, when a guest asked me to visit, I fell in love with the city instantly and suddenly sensed it was on the verge of a comeback. The people are incredibly upbeat and have such a ‘can-do’, positive attitude it just spurred me on.

“Beirut is one of the sexiest cities in the world – it’s sexy, vain, damaged, beautiful, difficult and exciting all at the same time and these together make it utterly beguiling. Just being there is magic, whether you’re walking along the street, at a nightspot or seeing the ruins.”

Although he always viewed the two wars as mere hiccups, he admits they did complicate matters somewhat. “Our Syrian workforce just disappeared during the wars and each time the troubles ended it was hard to get the project revved up again and back on track. Everyone was really weary after the Israeli attacks two summers ago – it was really brutal and relentless. Everyone was really fed up and I could see the people being dragged down by it, but we just refused to let it throw us off course and bashed on.”

He’s now reaping the rewards as the region enjoys relative stability and is actually thriving, its strict banking laws having made it impervious to the recession the rest of the world is suffering.
LE GRAY

“I’m particularly excited about Le Gray,” says Campbell Gray, “It’s our most exciting and definitely the sexiest hotel yet. What’s great at the moment is that we designed it three years ago and I’d forgotten what we’d done, so it’s like a wonderful surprise each time some new facet goes in.”

The purple glass tiles for the rooftop swimming pool, for instance, were picked years ago after he and his design partner Mary Fox Linton approved a sample of four tiles in basin in Battersea.

“As they were going in I thought ‘please God make it look good’, and when we put water in it last week I’d never seen anything like it. With the grey parasols and tomato red loungers the whole thing looks kind of wild.”

Despite being an avid non-smoker, Campbell Gray has included a wood-panelled, amber-glassed cigar lounge/terrace in the hotel as he acknowledges it’s just part of the Lebanese culture. His search for great Cuban cigars also led him to part of the art collection that’ll be on show in the hotel. While some of the art is from Damascus, more than 50 pieces are from Cuba and take in works from established artists as well as some from art school students that he just fell in love with.

“There are some really big pieces and some sculptures. It really is quite spectacular. We even have a multi-coloured baby elephant for the lobby, to complement the dog we have in the lobby at One Aldwych,” says Campbell Gray.

Restaurant-wise, in keeping with his other properties, there will be an Indigo restaurant – this time on the roof. “We won’t be doing a big Lebanese restaurant as there’s so many in the city. It’s a horrible word, but Indigo will focus more on ‘international’ food, very non-trendy, just a grown up restaurant serving the best of everything,” he says.

Of course, the people factor is always key for Campbell Gray and the most exciting day so far for him was the opening of the staff dining room. “There were 220 Lebanese staff wearing grey polo shirts with Le Gray Preopening Team emblazoned on them. You’ve never seen a more exciting or excited team in your life.”

A training team has been out from London to ensure the Campbell Gray ethos and guidelines are understood but he is adamant they will also be encouraged to find their own style.

“When you get to the bottom line, it’s always about the service and the staff for me. The Lebanese instinctively give terrifically warm service and this is the most energised team I’ve seen in my life. The real key is that they’re allowed to be utterly authentic.”
GREEN CRUSADER

His new role as chairman of the Considerate Hoteliers Association cements what has been a life dedicated to common sense about the world. “I’ve always felt I paddled my own canoe, not because I’m a smart arse but just because what I wanted to do made sense. It makes sense that we should care about what we do.”

Having spent some years in Third World regions such as Bangalore, Ethiopia and Nigeria as a volunteer, Campbell Gray has a more vivid understanding of the evils of waste and excess. His role as vice-president of Save the Children takes him back to a suffering region at least once a year and this certainly keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground.

“It’s particularly striking when you see how happy some of these children are with so little. It does make it hard to see people complaining in a luxury environment and it constantly resets your mind to what matters. It doesn’t let you lose sight of the fact that staying in a lovely hotel can be wonderful but becomes offensive when it’s excessive. To me the Rolls-Royce at the front door is like a puffing dinosaur,” he says.

His Scottish background has also been influential. “I think if you’re Scottish, there’s an essential plainness to your personality – I grew up in comfort but there was never any sense of flashness or ostentation, it was actually quite frugal and I love that concept of frugality.”

He’s conscious that his choice of career may seem to contradict these ideals, but he explains: “We can’t all be doctors or nurses. It doesn’t matter so much what you do, as how you do it, that it’s underpinned by honesty and integrity. You can be very powerful within your own kingdom and do good things. Through the hotels I can contribute a lot to Save the Children and other charities and it’s a means to many ends.”
THE INTELLIGENT GUEST

And he believes passionately that the customer is increasingly seeing through all the extravagance of hotels. “Things that used to be great in hotels, like layers of packaging for dry cleaning, look really bad and actually seem ridiculous and disagreeable now. People have no time for that any more.”

While big corporations have teams employed discussing guest demographics, Campbell Gray simply labels customers as “the intelligent guest”. He uses the example of the Toyota Prius that suddenly provided a product that the market was ready for but the car manufacturers weren’t. “Hoteliers need to be careful, too, as customers will be ahead of us in their expectations soon and those who don’t recognise that environmental concerns are genuine and dismiss it as a fad do so at their peril.”

However he’s reluctant to preach. “We can always do better. We’re always learning and improving. We have such a lot of guest interaction now, that they come up with suggestions and I love that, it shows they care as much as we do. More and more people will become offended by waste and it will eventually become the norm.”

He’s confident that although the majority of hotel developers couldn’t care less about environmental concerns, it will eventually become necessity through changing legislation and concerns over resale values.

With GCG hotels, it’s an essential ingredient. “Developers have to listen to what we say. Many aspects of these environmental features have a long-term positive financial effect and on top of this there may well come a time when properties will have to include these features and it will cost much more to install things retrospectively. It will become legislation to such a degree that in the end it will be impossible to escape and I agree with that.”

Because his expansion has always been opportunity driven, rather than strategic – he only goes into business with people he really likes – the projects are always driven by passion. “While we are always mindful of the company’s profitability, that should come through the passion and integrity delivering a more exquisite product. In the end, there’s no down side to doing it right.

“Sometimes I despair and feel like taking my Labradors and going and living in the Western Isles. I find the uniformity of travel very disappointing. To me, big is never beautiful. What cheers me up is looking for individuality – that’s refreshing.”
EXPECTATIONS

Corporate management also makes him seethe. “I hate it when management is just obsessed with delivering the best possible profits on their watch. You can see it within minutes of checking in and it makes me livid. It should be about the guest, but with that attitude it’s about them, their next promotion and they damage the products they touch along the way.”

Excessive name recognition is another pet peeve. “It has become too intense, a symbol of what corporate hotels see as personal service but actually it’s suffocating and intrusive. One morning at one hotel I counted 17 good mornings Mr Campbell Gray. It’s too much and not really about delivering what the customer wants, only the semblance of what the corporation thinks he wants.”

But he admits it’s not all the manager’s fault. “It’s rather like a bad child, don’t be angry with the child, be angry with the parents. The corporations are really to blame. It makes me sick.”

Despite this Campbell Gray is a natural optimist. “Ultimately it’s always very exciting and hard not to be motivated when you see a team of great young people.”
WHERE NEXT?

Campbell Gray has a frightening number of projects on the go, although it’s minimal compared with the amount of projects he gets offered and turns down. There’s an eco-based resort in Grenada, the Lodge St Germain in Montpellier, southern France, and a lodge in the Falklands that he admits is his fantasy.

“To go to bed at night with the window ajar knowing you’re on a tiny island that’s the most southern place in the world listening to 20,000 penguins squawking is, to me, complete luxury,” he says.

But more imminent than these are two more projects in the Lebanon where he plans to set up a centralised office. There’s Le Gray on Sea, an 80-bed property outside Beirut by the coast, and he is also just about to start work on designing a 50-bed ski lodge in the mountains, both of which he hopes will open in around 18 months’ time. It’s clear his love affair with the Lebanon has plenty more mileage and with two books on the go and his passion as a budding artist, it would seem that Beirut’s gain will surely be London’s loss.

Then again, recent news that Bob Cotton will be stepping down as BHA chief executive sparked a twinkle in his eye of political ambition, as yet unfulfilled. “The one job I always really wanted was to be prime minister; it’s just that I wanted straight in, I didn’t want to have to be the candidate for Slough along the way.”

GORDON CAMPBELL GRAY

Despite walking out of hotel school, Gordon Campbell Gray worked through all hotel departments at a variety of properties before landing the role of assistant food and beverage controller at London’s Portman InterContinental, aged 22. He was promoted to purchasing manager but then his career was put on hold while he ran projects for Save the Children in Bangladesh, Morocco and Nicaragua.

Campbell Gray returned to the UK in 1982 and bought the old Dorchester hotel in Oxfordshire, which he redesigned and relaunched as the Feathers at Woodstock. The stylish Draycott in London’s Chelsea district followed in 1987 on the site of a neglected club.

After selling the hotels, Campbell Gray moved to New York’s Long Island to buy, refurbish and run the Maidstone Arms in East Hampton.

In January 1996, after being turned down by the banks 66 times, he bought the Edwardian Inveresk House in London and reopened it in July 1998 as One Aldwych. The iconic boutique hotel was hailed as the most innovative luxury hotel in London.

He set up Campbell Gray Hotels, which includes One Aldwych, in 2003 to develop a small collection of individual, luxury hotels around the world, which now also includes Dukes in London, Carlisle Bay in Antigua and Le Gray in Beirut.
LE GRAY: OPENING THIS WEEK

87 rooms and suites comprising:

  • 12 de luxe rooms
  • 62 executive suites
  • 10 one-bedroom corner suites
  • 1 two-bedroom corner suite
  • 1 one-bedroom presidential suite
  • 1 two-bedroom presidential suite

On the rooftop:

  • 164-seat Indigo restaurant
  • 60-seat Bar ThreeSixty
  • Cigar lounge
  • The swimming pool and pool lounge

Other facilities:

  • 72-seat Gordon’s Café on the ground floor
  • PureGray spa
  • Gym
  • Board room
  • Hair & beauty salon

 

http://www.caterersearch.com/Articles/2009/10/01/330206/gordon-campbell-gray-the-green-man.htm

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