When you sit down at a sidewalk table of Gordon’s Café in downtown Beirut on a balmy late September afternoon, you can sip your espresso or pot of Sencha (green tea) in the middle of the city, nestled between the restored historic Beirut Municipality building, and the nation’s symbol-laden Martyr’s Square, with a view of the port basin and the coastal mountains behind it. As such, Gordon Campbell Gray, CEO of the company that operates Le Gray Hotel, does not hold back from declaring that he feels, “Le Gray has the best location in Beirut.”
However, this is a doubled edged sword since, says Campbell Gray, “when there is trouble, it is the worst [location] because it all happens outside our front door.” This summer, since civil society and political protest movements have regularly converged in downtown Beirut from August 22, “it all” meant roadblocks and cordons of riot police, tense standoffs between demonstrators and security forces, and, one September Sunday, even the sight of political thugs assaulting protesters who dared call certain politicians “corrupt”.
Campbell Gray had a bird’s eye view of the attacks by thugs, from the balcony of the suite he was staying at for one of his frequent business visits to Le Gray, and it shook him. “I have always loved Lebanon but my love affair has been cracked for the first time. Although I am quite an optimist, it’s really depressing at the moment,” he tells Executive the day after the disturbing event.
According to him, the hotel staff dealt professionally with guest needs during several tense hours that day, but no effort could shield Le Gray from losing business this summer, including last-minute event cancellations. And the troubles in front of their door were not the first in the hotel’s six-year history of operations. From construction delays forced by the unstable Lebanese situation in the mid 2000s to travel warnings amid regional unrest in more recent years, it seems safe to assume that Le Gray experienced more unpredictability and tough business cycles than periods where management could comfortably anticipate the results of the coming quarter.
Campbell Gray refuses categorically to disclose any operational results of Le Gray just as he will not say how much CampbellGray Hotels, the company which operates Le Gray under his leadership, invested into making the hotel the group’s flagship property and how much or little these investments had been paying out.
But here is where the story takes another surprising turn. Despite everything that happened to curb business this summer, the group is planning to invest in refurbishing previously unused areas located behind the hotel’s current atrium, adding 16 new guest rooms, a ballroom, a lobby lounge, a private screening room and a chocolate shop to Le Gray. Scotsman Campbell Gray declines to provide an investment amount for the expansion that will be carried out starting this month [October] but does tell Executive that it will be “millions, upward of $10 million.”
The investment is not a singular endeavor for Campbell Gray Hotels but rather a part of an expansion project focused on the Middle East. In the following conversation with Executive, Campbell Gray provides more about that growth.
E Can you tell us more about the new property in Abdali, Amman?
Basically everything is under the umbrella of Campbell Gray Hotels, but this new concept being built in Abdali is Le Gray Living which consists of offices, a hotel and apartments. We’re curating all the retail so we are in charge of the whole thing. All of this will be going into Le Gray Living which will be brought to Dubai as well.
E So are you starting to compete in the field of large complexes with things like serviced apartments and retail spaces which, in this region, one normally associates with a multi-level operator such as Emaar Properties?
I think the scale is smaller since we are private. We are not trying to compete at this level [of a mega operator such as Emaar] because I’ve never thought that big is beautiful.
E The CampbellGray website says that you are refurbishing the Phoenicia Hotel in Malta, and that it is a Grand Hotel. Your first globally noted property, the One Aldwych in London, was often described as a boutique hotel. How do you align such divergent identities?
I never thought of One Aldwych as a boutique hotel; I wanted it to be a modern classic and do all the things that a five-star hotel offers, [but] in a slightly more modern and relaxed way. I also wanted to create an inclusive atmosphere. What we did was eliminate the possibility of a two tier approach [in dealing with guests]. This relates all the way round – when anyone joins the company I personally do the induction and say that we are all the same and merely have different responsibilities.
E Looking at the style of properties that are operating or are under development, it seems you lean toward extremes. You have Beirut, with Amman and Dubai coming up, plus Malta, and then there is a resort in Scotland that you are working on. Can one present them in the manner of similar properties in a branded group?
We want them all to be little masterpieces in their own right. I’m excited about Malta because it’s completely original. I think you can stay in this [Le Gray Beirut] and [also] enjoy the Malta property. It’s going to feel comfortable and a little old fashioned but not a vestige of the past. The idea is to make it comfortable and sex it up a bit but without turning it into something silly. The brief that I have to make this really interesting is to put Malta on the agenda for people who have never been there; I first promote the country and then the hotel. It also was how I promoted this [place]. It was about Beirut. I said you must come to Beirut and by the way, you must stay with us.
E How about factors in hotel operations that are often said to be crucial, such as achieving economies of scales through large brands and having the advantage of a big group’s booking networks?
We have a wonderful relationship with Leading Hotels of The World [a network of independent luxury hotels]. For us, that works beautifully. The great advantage today, with internet accessibility, is that people can do so much online. So many of my favorite hotels in the world are privately owned one offs and statistically they nearly all have a higher RevPar (revenue per available room) and occupancy [than the hotels under big brands] because there is a desire for individuality.
We want [all our properties] to be little masterpieces in their own right
E Do you have investors in Le Gray?
Yes, I have local investors; we always try to partner with local investors which I think is very good. I want the product to be beautiful and I believe with the right finance directors and people around me, the bottom line can’t miss.
E Are you more of a proprietor or an operator in your way of working?
We have been both and we can be both. I have recently merged my company Campbell Gray with the Audeh Group and that has given quite a bit of firepower to invest. The Audeh family owns the [Le Gray Living project] in Abdali and so there are no [other] investors in that project.
E How busy does this partnership make you and do you have anything else up your sleeve?
At the moment we have three hotels being designed at the same time and this is really tiring because everything has to be detailed and the food has to be thought out properly, the chefs hired, the teams trained… I couldn’t do any more.
What I am very aware of is that there is a huge desire for individuality everywhere, and if you want to roll out twenty hotels in one year, how can they be fabulous? I know what it takes to create a hotel and I am doing it with a new brand, a more affordable one which is codenamed Baby Gray. It is huge work to create this brand. I am thinking through every detail to make it affordable, attractive, sexy, and young. The big thing now is developing the Baby Gray. I think you could put a Baby Gray in Dubai, [or] in Barcelona, and it could travel anywhere. It is less expensive to create and has less staff, with a very good business model. We could roll that out more because they can be replicated quite easily.
E Do you see it growing regionally or globally?
The word global is a little pretentious, but we are being asked by investors to [develop it] in quite interesting places and if somebody said we would love to do a Baby Gray in Buenos Aires or Iran, I would say, “I’ll meet you there tomorrow.” My only main criterion [for selecting a location] is that it has to be a city where I would like to wake up in the morning.
E What is your primary passion?
I am passionate about everything I do – I am a creator. My passion is to curate things that are successful. So when I say that I am not a money person, I do not personally need to make money. But I am very keen on making a business that has to be successful and I am meticulous about it being a good business model.
E Do you think Le Gray became a gateway to the region for CampbellGray Hotels as it was so successful despite the challenges which you encountered in Beirut?
Definitely. It was unintentional because I had never considered the region before, ever. I saw this place as an outpost and kind of an adventure but it got bigger than I ever expected it to be, so it exposed us to the region. The reason why they wanted us in Dubai or Amman is because they had stayed here [in Beirut] and thought ‘I would like that [too]’. So the answer is a big yes, unexpectedly.