Combining the best of East and West, hotelier Grace Leo has returned to London to embark on her most ambitious project yet, she tells Elizabeth Mistry
Grace Leo likes a challenge. As a hospitality industry veteran or “hotel maker” of more than 30 years, she thrives on creating or repositioning beautiful spaces such as The Lancaster and the Hotel Montelambert in Paris, London’s Cadogan, New York’s One UN and Mustique’s Cotton House, where she was general manager for 13 years.
After studying hospitality at Cornell (preceded by an economics degree at Stanford) Leo began her career working for major brands including IHG and Warwick International. No stranger to hard work (her father owned the Astor hotel in Hong Kong) she took up every opportunity, gathering experience in asset management, F&B and design along the way.
Eventually she started her own consultancy, working on projects in London, Bali, Paris, the US and Portugal, while bringing up her daughter.
Last year though, she was tapped to head up Reignwoods’s hotel and hospitality development division, and for the foreseeable future, she is committed to London, “the capital of the world right now”, and is rolling up her sleeves as work continues apace on her latest project – converting the landmark former Port of London Authority building into the capital’s third Four Seasons hotel.
The historic property at Ten Trinity Square is at the heart of a £300 million project that will see around 100 hotel rooms, a private members’ club and 41 apartments rise up inside the magnificent Grade-II listed building overlooking a garden square on the edge of the City of London. It is due to welcome its first guests in 2017.
“We’re shooting for the first quarter,” she says, with the air of someone who knows just how many London properties have opened on time in the last few years.
Now owned by Reignwood Investments – the aviation-to-energy multinational headed by Chinese-Thai entrepreneur Chanchai Ruayrungruay – which bought out original partners KOP a few years after purchasing the site for £60 million, the Trinity Square site has had a colourful history with a range of developers, architects and designers attached to the project over the past few years.
Reignwood – headquartered in Beijing – clearly believes that Leo is the woman to see things through.
“We are the third cycle (of ownership) and the one that will bring it home of course,” she says determinedly of the project. “It has been very complex and we are very respectful of where we’re stepping into. We’re about doing business mindful of the cultural and ethical side of things.”
“We’ve rethought about what sort of hotel it should be – when you build a hotel in a prime location, especially in London, it has to have some kind of balance,” she says, when asked about the trend towards mixed-use developments, with, increasingly, a split between traditional hotel rooms and exclusive use/longer stay options.
“Return on investment is a long term affair and having residences to support (the hotel operation) makes all the difference. It is true that mainland Chinese investors love trophy assets but no sensible group would be wise to sustain one for the sake of it. We are not trying to be a hotel management company. We are committed to investing in other projects in the UK and elsewhere – not necessarily development from scratch. That can be a very long journey with lots of risk and obstacles, especially with a heritage site. We’re also looking at gateway cities, where the chairman and president see a connection or synergy with our activities. London, Paris and San Francisco for example,” says Leo.
Leo is clearly positive about the sector’s ability to secure financing, especially in the light of the recent election result in the UK. But she is careful to point out the importance of ensuring ROI doesn’t get lost in the rush to do deals. “France has had a difficult time and may continue to do so for a while, ” she says. “There are some properties that underestimated the time it takes to get back the colossal investment required,” she adds poignantly.
Reignwood – even with coffers fuelled by its many business interests including the Chinese Red Bull franchise – looks unlikely to splash the cash without a shrewd idea that it will pay dividends in the long run.
Perhaps better known in the UK for snapping up Wentworth golf course from restaurateur Richard Caring last year, Reignwood’s chairman Dr Chanchai tapped trilingual Leo (she grew up speaking Cantonese and English in Hong Kong where her father looked after the Astor Hotel, and perfected her French in Paris during her first posting for Warwick Hotels) to head up the company’s hospitality division. The company owns several resort and lifestyle properties, as well as a golf course, in China.
Ten Trinity Square – with its famous dome – is “without a doubt, the grandest project I have ever worked on in my career,” Leo told Boutique Hotel News on the eve of the Boutique and Lifestyle Hotel Summit which took place in London last week.
Leo is convinced that there is room for a very high end product at the top end of the luxury sector, and recent figures certainly suggest that there is a demand for such accommodation in and around the Square Mile. Situated within a stone’s throw of the Tower of London – and with views over the river Thames towards City Hall, headquarters of London’s local authority, the site is in a prime position.
And while the current occupant of City Hall, London mayor Boris Johnson, is rumoured to have his eye on the country’s top job, Leo believes the company’s efforts to undertake the conversion as sensitively as possible have helped reinforce Reignwood’s image as a business committed to London.
Might this one day see a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by prime minister Boris? Leo diplomatically demurs saying: “Our group has a lot of friends in the City and in financial circles and naturally that is where we envisage a lot of our business will come from.”
Her ‘steel mixed with caution’ approach has won her many admirers within the industry over the years. She gently brushes aside the fact that there remain relatively few women in similar positions but expresses a wish to see more enter and rise up the ladder, in addition to her own daughter who is currently “making her own way in the industry” having recently started her first management trainee job in Paris following hotel school.
“I’m very happy because she was hired on her own merits. She did a two month summer stage the year before she graduated and then they invited her back.”
Hospitality education is clearly a subject dear to Leo’s heart. “It is very important we encourage the next generation. I have tried to help where I can, I’ve seen in their eyes when they are a bit lost so I have done my best to be a role model or give a bit of mentoring.”
Leo’s own role models – “When I was a budding hotelier straight out of university my heroes were Robert Burn who created Regent International Hotels and Adrian Zecha” – remain her inspiration and now as she moves into the next phase of her career, Leo looks set to inspire another generation of hospitality professionals.
Leo, who particularly treasures her Honorary Doctorate from the school of Hospitality at the University of West London, finds herself looking forward to the opening of Trinity Square “and whatever comes beyond. And though I do find it hard to step away from something I have created, I think you should move on. I don’t have regrets. I have lots of ideas.”
Follow Elizabeth on @ElizabethMistry