A complete Q&A with Grace Leo, president of G.L.A. Hotels, featured as one of the women of influence in the July issue.
By JoAnn Greco
In a field where the very top-level management positions are often held by men, Grace Leo, president of Paris-based G.L.A. Hotels, is an anomaly.
The first woman to serve on the board of Leading Hotels of the World, and widely credited with introducing the boutique hotel concept to Europe, she's learned from the best, er, guys in the biz. "There's never been that many women on the business end of things to model myself after," she says matter-of-factly.
After mastering all aspects of the trade at Cornell University's celebrated School of Hotel Administration in the '70s, Leo rose through the ranks at InterContinental and Sheraton. At 26, she moved back to the city where she was born and where her family had ties to the hotel business, to become a vice president at Warwick International Hotels. There, Leo says, the group was on a "spending spree to buy hotels—and I was in charge of fixing them."
The gig inspired her to strike out on her own and form a company that would operate similarly. Sometimes G.L.A. starts a hotel from scratch, sometimes it turns around a tired one; sometimes it puts together a concept and design team then bows out after opening, sometimes it sticks around.
On a recent spring afternoon in Paris, Hospitality Design (HD) sat down with Leo at her newly opened Hotel Beauchamps to talk shop.
HD: How do you find your next hotel project?
GL: Typically, it finds me! For our latest project [scheduled to open this month], the Vidago Palace outside of Porto, Portugal, the investors sought us out and said, 'we've been trying to renovate this hotel for four years now. We need your expertise.'
HD: So what has G.L.A. done there?
GL: It's a 100-year-old property, a real sleeping beauty with a huge, castle-like façade. It's always a privilege to work on an historic building, there's so much sense of place. This one is a little more traditional than our usual work, but there are these great overblown colors, like salmon pink.
HD: Who are the designers?
GL: Portugal's most renowned architect, Alvaro Siza Vierira—he's a true minimalist and is in his '80s now—restored the main old building and added an extension. The interiors are by Bastidor, the same Portugal-based designers that we used for Hotel Bairro Alto in Lisbon. They had no hotel experience at that time, about five years ago.
HD: You've made a point of working with untapped talent.
GL: Yes, I like up-and-coming designers without a lot of ego issues. It gives me the opportunity to match projects with specific designers and to realize the concepts that we're bringing to the project. My gift, to me, is having the ability to have a vision and then to be able to communicate that 'script' from start to finish, and I need a team to do that—architects, designers, actors, if you will, who can put together the pieces. That's what's most gratifying for me.
HD: Can you give an example of what you mean by a 'script'?
GL: Maybe a building doesn't have a particularly strong architectural character, so instead we might develop a strong message and a story. That was the case with the Beauchamps, which we liked most for its great location. So since the property was pretty nondescript, we created the story of an art collector who's been around the world and who's invited you to spend some time with him.
HD What's been the impact of these developments you mention—that sense of story, of a strong tie to location, and the other traits of what we've come to think of as 'boutique'—on the industry?
GL: It's changed the entire hotel landscape. I mean, we were the first to put a fireplace in the lounge, that was a major sensibility change! In the last 20 years, design hotels have really exploded, with everyone trying to out-do each other. Sometimes, I think they're trying too hard.
HD: How does that manifest itself?
GL: Usually you see it in the proportion, the scale of the furniture. Secondly, it can be in the choices of materials. For me, things don't feel right when they're bigger than life.
HD: Any lessons you've picked up along the way?
GL: Yes, the number one thing is: be wary of bad partnerships, even those with your clients.
HD: Any tips on avoiding disastrous relationships?
GL: Stay true to your first impression. I've found that, with rare exception, it's the one that sticks.
HD: G.L.A. has really been active lately, opening about one hotel a year. What's next?
GL: After Porto, we start work on the development stage of a property in Jakarta. But I'd also love to work in the States. I think there are great opportunities there, particularly in the area of adaptive reuse.
Top three photos: Hotel Jules, Paris; bottom two photos: Hotel Beauchamps, Paris.