Hotelier of the week: Niki Leondakis

ABTN speaks to Niki Leondakis, chief operating officer of US-based Kimpton Hotels, about the group’s history and future plans, plus why green is high on the agenda and boutique is best for the business traveller.

How long has Kimpton been in business?

We are about to celebrate our 30-year anniversary. We have 51 hotels throughout the United States and 54 restaurants. All the hotels are boutique and all the restaurants are chef-driven individual restaurants created for the local community and neighbourhood they’re in.

But the Kimpton brand hasn’t been around for as long…

We came out publicly with the Kimpton name as an endorser brand in 2004. Hotels previously just had their own name, but with this we started communicating to the traveller that there was this collection Kimpton Hotels.

Kimpton has a strong environmental record…

We are continuing to push forward with our environmental efforts. We’ve been environmentally conscious for the past 30 years and evolved the programme each year with new practices – everything from in-room recycling to chefs who compost in the kitchen.

We also continue to evolve our commitment to wellness and overall healthy travel. We’ve recently launched a partnership with a renowned nutritionist named Joy Bauer, who is a television celebrity in the US. She’s created, alongside our chefs, some healthy dining options for our room-service menus.

We also offer a complimentary yoga programme – we have on-demand instructional videos, and we offer a complimentary yoga mat and a block and straps so guests can practice in their room.

What has made Kimpton focus on being environmentall proactive?

 We’re based in San Francisco, California. It is a beautiful city and people who move to California or live in California generally appreciate the outdoors. When our company was founded, our founder Bill Kimpton believed that it was our responsibility to give back to the communities where we do business and to make those communities better for our presence. So, helping to preserve the environment was part of that philosophy.

Our overall sustainability and social responsibility commitment has been in place for 30 years, during which it has evolved. When we first started our hotels were all doing different things, but in 2004 we standardised our environmental programmes across the portfolio, so there was a level of consistency. Today we’ve changed the way we do business to be more environmentally friendly.

One example of what we do is that all of our cleaning supplies for cleaning the hotel and guestrooms are non-toxic and environmentally friendly. Also, all of them recycle, both in the guest rooms and through the back of the house in the hotel, and all of our printed material is on recycled paper with soy-based ink.  In addition to that, where we can we use recycled materials for the furniture and finishings in the hotel.

Our Philadelphia hotel that opened last year is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold-certified building. Also all of our hotels have applied for the US Green Seal certification – most have received it, a few are waiting approval. That is a certification process documenting all of your practices and operating standards to ensure they’re environmentally friendly. A lot of companies today are claiming to be environmentally friendly and it’s a way of validating the programme.

Do you think hotels in the US are engaging enough with the green agenda?

I think they’re beginning to, but it’s been a long time coming. I think now the consumer, the traveller, is expecting it. More and more there are certain things they just expect to see. Many hotels are quickly trying to get their green practices in place. We know that because the hotel companies call us and ask if they can benchmark our programme. We’re generally happy to help. Our belief is if what we do inspires or teaches other people to do more it’s good for the planet and that’s the ultimate goal.

Does Kimpton have any expansion plans?

Kimpton is just in the US currently, where we continue to expand. We have hotels from coast-to-coast, from San Francisco to New York City, Miami to Washington DC, Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, and Portland to Seattle.

We have some cities that we haven’t yet been able to find the right location or sites for, so we’re still targeting several destinations in the US. We’re continuing to look at New York City for more hotels, there are lots of different markets in south Florida, and we have to penetrate the giant state of Texas. Plus we only have two hotels in Dallas so we’re looking there.

About 65% of our customer base is made up of business travellers. They travel from certain cities to certain cities and our goal is to have a Kimpton hotel in all of the cities they travel to. We don’t want them to switch to another brand. Places like North Carolina, South Carolina, Charlotte, Charleston and Nashville are some of the secondary markets that we’re looking at now.

Any thoughts on expanding outside the US?

That is an eventuality that will probably happen in the next five years, but at the moment we’re not focused on that. We’re exploring possibilities, but it’s not our immediate focus.

Where? Europe, Canada, Mexico, perhaps?

It could be all of the above. We’ve evaluated the situation and there are pros and cons to different international opportunities, but certainly Europe is one that makes a lot of sense. London is particuarly appealing because on the East Coast there are so many business travellers going back and forth to New York, Miami or Washington DC. Our customers are asking for it.

Kimpton claims to be the largest group of boutique hotels in the US. How do you classify boutique and  what does it mean for the brand?

In the last 10 years boutique hotels have become more and more popular. I think there has been some confusion about what boutique hotels mean. To us a boutique hotel means a small hotel. Some people think a boutique hotel is just one that is highly designed and has a cool bar, but to us if it’s 800 rooms or 600 rooms it’s not really boutique, it’s just a cool bar in a nicely designed hotel. To us size is a factor.

Boutique to us also means unique. A boutique is individual, there’s not another one like it. All of our hotels are individually designed and created for the location they’re in, drawing ideas from the history or some aspect of that region or neighbourhood, or even the building itself. Many of our hotels are in historically significant buildings.

The level of personal attention and care is also important in creating a boutique hotel. We place a big emphasis on a personalised experience for our guests. That’s what we do, distinguishing ourselves from our competitors out there. Our employees really go out of their way to take care of the guests in unusually unexpected ways. It’s not something that’s scripted, it’s something that is motivated from within the employee.

We’ve recently been included on Fortune Magazine’s top 100 companies to work for in the US. The reason that matters is because our employees are happy and motivated in the environment, and that’s why they go out of their way to do whatever they can to help the guests’ travel experience become stress-free and fun.

To us boutique also means the design is artful and special, that there is a sense of wow. There’s an element of surprise. The unexpected. It’s something special. If you think about a boutique, when you make a choice to go shopping in a boutique versus a department store, the reason you would choose a boutique is because everything is hand selected, very thoughtfully, and they’re unique items that you’re not going to see in the mass market. At Kimpton Hotels all of the furniture, everything, is custom-designed. Nothing is stock or mass produced. It’s special and different.

Do you think this is a popular hotel model for business travellers?

Yes, because it is inspired by the location. The business traveller – and I am one of those – the road warrior, wakes up and thinks what city am I in. You want to be able to experience the city and the history, no matter how busy your schedule is. At Kimpton Hotels you’ll get that in the building, in the design, through our hotel experiences, and also our chefs in our restaurant, who are locally celebrated chefs. The food on the menu has that local flavour.

Subscribe to the BBT Newsletter

Join the Buying Business Travel newsletter for the latest business travel news.

Thank you for signing up!