Grace Hotels CEO Robert Swade talks to BHN about expansion, authenticity and sustainability.
• What first made you want to become a hotelier? Can you give us a quick career history?
“Hospitality is something that I have been involved with from an early age. I grew up in the south-west of England where my family owned and managed a boutique hotel. I started my career as a parliamentary researcher for Sebastian Coe OBE (now Lord Coe) before becoming a commercial lawyer, working in London and then Dubai. This led to my move to the Jumeirah Group, first as general counsel, then chief development officer and subsequently group chief operating officer, where I was responsible for hotel operations and development worldwide. I was appointed chief executive officer of Grace Hotels in September 2016.”
• What attracted you to take the Grace Hotels position?
“Grace Hotels believes in a bespoke approach, creating a truly individual experience for every guest visiting each of the luxury boutique properties. This really resonated with me when considering the position. All of our hotels are elegantly authentic, paying homage to, and making the most of, their superb locations and local cultural connections. I had watched with interest as the company developed, and when the opportunity arose to lead the Grace team on a journey to develop the brand further and step into new territories globally, I embraced it with much enthusiasm.”
• What is the common thread between the hotels and what do you look for when considering further acquisitions?
“Each property within Grace Hotels is authentic to its location, and we aim to help our guests to disconnect from the pressures of day-to-day life and connect with the specialities of the hotel’s surrounding area. It is important for our guests to feel immersed in the experiences and culture of a place. We always consider this when looking at new developments or acquisitions. In addition, we are committed to maintaining the boutique model in order to stay true to our brand ethos and offer exceptional service.”
• The company is now looking at taking on management contracts – will the same criteria you apply to owned properties also apply to potential managed properties?
“Our priority is to grow and develop the Grace brand on a global basis, mainly through management contracts. New hotels will be located in markets that provide a consistent image and guest experience whilst enhancing the brand, in addition, of course, to being an economically viable opportunity. It is also important to have the right owner relationship structure and ensure there is an alignment of expectations between the owner and Grace Hotels as a management company.”
• Do you have any new properties in the pipeline, if so where?
“New additions to Grace Hotels in the coming years will include Grace Marrakech, Grace St. Moritz, Grace Kalamata and Grace Kea in Greece, and La Dolfina Grace in Argentina. We are pursuing opportunities to manage mixed-use developments, with a residential component, as well as individual hotels.”
• Are there any parts of the world where you don’t have a presence that you are particularly keen to become established?
“We are currently focusing on further expanding the collection within the EMEA region and North America principally, both in key gateway cities as well as leading leisure destinations. Discussions are already underway for the management of properties in Europe and the Caribbean.”
• Do you have a demographic that you would define as the “typical Grace Hotels guest” or is it very varied?
“I would say in this day and age it is becoming harder to define a typical guest by ‘traditional’ demographic segments such as age, gender, income, family status and more. Irrespective of this, we like to transcend their initial demographics through more personalised offerings from the moment the guest makes their booking. Once a guest has booked, they receive a form with details of our Bespoke by Grace Experiences and in-room amenities to choose from, to help customise their stay with us. Bespoke by Grace Experiences are themed around gastronomy, wellness, family, adventure and culture, and are unique to each hotel and its location. Our guests are looking for memorable journeys and moments, and we believe the experiences we offer around the world contribute towards them leaving feeling enriched and inspired. In addition, the interaction that our guests have with our team members is key towards creating an emotional bond. Our service is intuitive and personal, rather than process driven. This is something our guests have come to expect in all of our hotels worldwide.”
• How do you think Airbnb and the like has changed the way your guests travel?
“I think Airbnb has succeeded by bringing the human element back into travel, allowing guests to experience ‘staying like a local’. This approach has however always been central to Grace Hotels where each property is faithful to and culturally integrated with its locality and offers an authentic experience. Whilst Airbnb has made the travel market more competitive, it is important to focus on what it means to stay at a hotel: location, amenities and service. All Grace Hotels have the advantage of choice locations, onsite services like outstanding gastronomy, superlative spas and fitness options, as well as superior round-the-clock service which Airbnb hosts cannot compete with.”
• How important is sustainability and the environment becoming both to the guest and to hotel operators?
“Some hotels and hotel chains take sustainability more seriously than others, but the industry as a whole has had to become greener and more accountable in recent years, especially within the luxury sector. Luxury hospitality means offering guests a five-star service, which poses a challenge for operators who must balance their customers’ expectations while protecting their sensitive ecosystem. Environmental sustainability will be the mark of luxury as we move into the future, with discerning customers demanding that hotels do everything possible to mitigate their impact. For guests, it has gone from being a ‘nice to have’ to increasingly integral to travellers who seek out environmentally conscious and sustainable travel options. Whilst notices to encourage reuse of towels and linens may seem like token environmentalism, they can actually result in significant water, waste and cost reductions.”
“On the social front, there has been a remarkable shift in recent times, as demonstrated by the introduction of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. We are proud of our contribution to the communicates in which we operate – with our ‘Give with Grace’ programme, each hotel donates $1 for every night a room is occupied and invites guests to do the same for each night they stay. The funds are donated to SOS Children’s Villages, an international, non-governmental organisation which works to offer vulnerable children the opportunity to grow up in a loving home.”
Robert Swade will be speaking at the Boutique and Lifestyle Hotel Summit in London next week. Click here for more information.