Hotelier of the Week: Phillipe Requin

Grace Hotels is best known for its two boutique hotels on the Greek islands of Mykonos and Santorini. This year the group has expanded internationally into America and China with the acquisition of Vanderbilt Hall in Newport, Rhode Island, which re-opened as Vanderbilt Grace in June 2011, and the Yi House Hotel, which re-opened as Grace Beijing in September 2011. Grace Panama and Grace Cafayate in Argentina are set to follow in 2012.

It’s quite a stretch moving from operating boutique leisure hotels in Greece to rolling out a global brand…

It has always been our ambition to become an international brand and we are achieving this, but at our own speed. We don’t want to compromise what we offer in terms of quality or experience for the sake of growth targets. We are all about the best location, wherever we are in the world. So that’s a challenge we set ourselves: to continue expanding internationally whilst maintaining our high standards, always in the right location, and becoming a major player in the boutique hotel space.

Behind Grace Hotels there is a larger group – can you tell us about that?

Yes, we are owned by the Libra Group which is an international conglomerate owned by the Logothetis family. Originally focused on shipping, the group diversified in 2003 to become a conglomerate. Libra Group owns two other hotel brands – Aria and US Hotels.

What is the difference between US Hotels and Grace Hotels?

The main difference is that with Grace you have luxury boutique hotel properties whereas US Hotels is a very varied collection and the properties trade under their own names including the White Barn Inn in Maine.

It’s difficult to make money on just a few boutique hotels…

You might think that but we are doing very well as a hotel group. Of course the last couple of years have been difficult for the hospitality industry worldwide, but we’re really happy about our current business levels. They are strong and the experience for us is really positive.

So what is Grace Hotels, what is the vision?

Our motto at Grace is ‘elegance and simplicity’. I’ve worked around the world for 30 years and have seen how the hotel business has changed and its clients with it. So now we look to offer supreme service and visitor experience. I know that’s not easy and a lot of people say it is their focus too, but for us we always look first to the location to make sure we are in the right place, then we apply our philosophy. We can give the best hotel, with the best people, and then little touches for an element to surprise. Examples are our fun ‘Saving Grace’ packing app and a soon to be announced bespoke service by which guests can customize aspects of their stay before they arrive – pillows, toiletries, room fragrance, minibar contents and so on.

It’s also about size. They say small is beautiful but that is a fine balance in hotels. Our properties at the moment are around 30 rooms, and that means guests can have a perfect, individual experience. But we aren’t limited to that number of rooms. Grace Panama, due to open next year, will have 60 rooms, so that is double the size; it will be important to us in maintaining standards and experience, especially for Grace fans. But it is hard to imagine a Grace hotel anywhere with more than 120 rooms. Our spas and restaurants become destinations in themselves so this helps us to ensure it all works together, in harmony with each part and the local setting.

And there’s still a demand in these straitened times?

Talking from the Grace experience, yes there has been strong demand this year and we see that continuing. People want quality and service, and they are happy to pay for it. At least, that has been our experience – certainly this year. Things are also looking good into next year, and we are opening more hotels too, so that says something about our confidence.

How do you make the restaurants work with so few rooms?

This is very simple. Restaurants in hotels across the world have learnt to cater for more than the guests of the hotel. Because any Grace property is always rooted in its local setting, it offers a great experience whether you’re coming for lunch, a drink, or to stay the night. So we make sure that our restaurants are a destination in themselves. Muse by Jonathan Cartwright at the Vanderbilt Grace is an example – real fine dining under the guidance of our Group Chef de Cuisine, Jonathan Cartwright. And the Yi House Restaurant at Grace Beijing is already very popular – fully booked for lunch with many people coming in every day.

How many rooms do you have?

We have 20 in Santorini, 31 in Mykonos, 33 in the Vanderbilt and 30 in Grace Beijing. Next year we are opening 60 rooms in Panama, 52 in Cafayate, Argentina (with 20 residential villas), and 22 in Kennebunkport. A further 32 rooms will open at the Grace Kea on the Greek island of Kea, with 17 self-contained villas.

But if I like your hotels I want them in gateway cities where I travel to…

It depends where you travel. If you are in Asia then Beijing is a gateway. Similarly Panama is a gateway for South America. Of course gateway cities have appeal, but we are always looking for the right location and that can mean a variety of environments – not necessarily gateway cities. We are an international brand, we operate worldwide and are always looking for development opportunities across all continents.

Would you rebrand a chain of boutique hotel?

Grace is a strong brand in its own right. If the fit and opportunity look good then anything is possible. But it would have to conform to the Grace style, our ethos and approach.

What’s the largest hotel you could open?

This is difficult to say, but a genuine boutique hotel experience in a property with more than 120 rooms would be difficult to conceive. That is why we are operating at the levels we are now. It is about elegance and simplicity, and so the experience is paramount. We won’t compromise on that.

Where do your guests come from?

They come from all over the world. A huge amount of British travellers, but also Greek, French, Korean, Chinese and Japanese. You can see where our hotels are and understand too that the British and Americans are very keen on the boutique hotel experience. In Asia it is a newer concept.

What about a loyalty club or recognition programme?

This is not something we rule out, but it needs to sit right with our main offering. People come to Grace for the experience, for the location. Our guests like what we do and want to experience the style in different places. Loyalty is very important to us but it is not necessarily achieved via a formal loyalty or points scheme.

Where else are you looking at properties?

You can see from our map that South America and Asia are important markets to us, along with Europe and the US. But we are open to having a presence anywhere in the world provided it is the right property and in the right location. Then we can work with it to bring our own particular style and philosophy to ensure the Grace experience translates and is successful. I can’t tell you where we are opening next after the current round we have already announced. But you can be assured it’s a beautiful place, and that when we know we’ll be sure to announce it.

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