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Interview with Grace Leo-Andrieu, President of GLA Hotels : “A “je ne sais quoi” that Makes the difference”

The daughter of Hong Kong hoteliers, at 27, Grace Leo-Andrieu was appointed Vice-President of the Warwick Hotel Group, in charge of expansion in North America and Europe. In 1985, she decided to form her own company, GLA Hotels, in order to offer a range of à la carte services for management and commercial representation. GLA Hotels now manages five hotels and has taken over the commercialisation of twenty or so others.

{{HTR Magazine: GLA both owns and manages hotels, and also commercialises other properties. How would you define your group?G. L-A: }} Investment funds have become separate players on the hotel scene. We can’t do without them, without their transactions. As people in the trade, we are no longer in the habit of thinking as they do, in the short or midterm. Our vision is more in the long term. There are frequent misunderstandings between the parties. But we have a role to play in advising the owner, if the market is not ready for selling a hotel. You can no longer think as a simple operator. Nowadays, it is a question of calculations, profitability. Before carrying out works, the investments must be justified. You can no longer do it for the fun of it. We are used to working like that. Hotel management in the 21st century has taken on another dimension. A hotel is no longer maintained throughout a lifetime. Owners wish to make their investments profitable. Our role as manager is first and foremost to increase turnover, improve yield and “prepare the bride” with a view to finding another owner in five to seven years.Grace Leo-Andrieu:}} Indeed, we wear three hats. We own the Lancaster Hotel, a property that is very dear to me as it was purchased by my husband. We have really put our stamp on it, but I treat it like the others. It is one of the hotels whose management has been entrusted to us. GLA is specialised in the management, marketing and development of discreet and elegant luxury hotels with tailored service. Moderate-sized hotels with sixty or so rooms, with the exception of our hotel in Mustique, in the Carribean, which is somewhat different having twenty rooms and being owned by investors who are not in the trade. When we took over management of the Montalembert eighteen years ago, we were ahead of this both intimate and stylish hotel sector.{{HTR: Is your experience in the management of this type of property an advantage with regard to investors?G. L-A:}} First and foremost, we are in the trade. There is no potential risk of ‘zapping’, as there is with hotels that are ‘too trendy’. None of these properties are managed in a standard way. Without wishing to be negative, you could say that we are ‘anti-chains’. Like children, all our hotels have their own personality and all are raised in a different way. In Paris, the Lancaster is not the Bel Ami. The location, the guests are vastly different. There is no competitiveness between the two. On the Right Bank, the clientele is comprised of both business and leisure clients. Their expectations in terms of services are much higher, they are more demanding. On the Left Bank, the clientele is more leisure, and therefore more relaxed. They have more time, are more ‘cool’ and expect service with a smile. This is why from the very beginning in the Montalembert we recruited young, initiative people who better understand clients’ expectations.{{HTR: Does your personality influence the mentality of your properties?G. L-A:}} I’m a mixture of three different cultures. My Asian roots taught me not to have any hang ups about providing service. It’s a pleasure to make people happy. I try to share this personal philosophy. And I think that it shows. Our hotels have a ‘je ne sais quoi’ that makes all the difference. I insist that our staff be very friendly and attentive. The design and the décor contribute 50%. The other half is the human aspect. In Asia, service is not a chore. This entails an approach of sincerity and generosity, and not one that is narrow and robotic. We recruit people who like people.{{HTR: What is GLA’s development strategy?G. L-A:}} Our objective is to manage fifteen or so hotels. We wish to consolidate our European activity in the major capitals such as London or Madrid. We are currently looking into the possibility of taking over the management of a small European hotel group. We also wish to add one or two resort hotels to our portfolio: a property in the mountains that would function in summer as in winter and a leisure property on the Mediterranean coastline. We are in the process of acquiring a hotel in Saint Lucie that will open in late September. Proof of our flexibility, this hotel was managed by a US group that parted with it in the midst of its development. We were selected as the operator in order to finish the hotel and ensure its opening. This hotel will have 120 rooms, of which fifty will be suites. Today we are favouring larger properties with between 60 and 120 rooms. The hotel industry has evolved over the last twenty years. Given the constraints, we no longer have the same room for manoeuvre today. A small property that was once profitable is no longer. That is why I am no longer concerned with hotels with less than fifty rooms.{{HTR: What are your objectives in terms of commercialisation and marketing?G. L-A: }} Our portfolio is constantly evolving. There are frequent new additions. We are known for commercialising moderate-sized hotels. Hotels call on us to launch their properties on the European market. Yet for several years now we have been commercialising the hotels of small groups such as Soneva in Asia, the Gruppo Lungarno Hotel of the Ferragamo family, and Thanos, another small family group established in Cyprus. The latter have obtained a sizeable market share with French clients. Before, we prioritised the name of the hotel. As GLA, we remained more discreet. But we realised that our clients in St. Barthelemy, St-Jean Cap Ferrat or Lisbon were looking for similar products and needed identifying signs. For five years, we have been working to emphasise our synergies by improving the marketing and communication of the GLA Group. We have invested in our website, glahotels.com, and launched our own e-newsletter.{{HTR: When wearing your management hat, you also have a role as a developer. For what type of property?G. L-A:}} Our clients look for hotels that are inspired by the culture and history of the site or city. They don’t want anything to be standardised. We consistently try to create properties that reflect their location, as in the Bairro Alto hotel in Lisbon, where we were able to create this ethos. When we are called upon to develop a hotel on behalf of an owner, we can do more thought out things whilst working with them hand-in-hand. I give a certain identity to my hotels. I look at the project from the outside. I try to retranslate the expectations of a foreigner who arrives in the city for the first time. But always in a subtle way. In Lisbon, the azulejos are not classical, but in a Moorish style. The Lisbon building is an old hotel, dating from the 18th century, which has had several lives, the last of which was as an office block. Each case is different. I really like to see a project through from A to Z, starting from a conversion or an underperforming property. I really like to continue raising a hotel, but occasionally the owner decides otherwise. In Dublin, for example, I helped a 5* hotel, the Clarence, the hotel owned by Bono and The Edge, to get off the ground. I was onsite every week. But, at the end, our partnership came to a close. We also had to handover the Montalembert.{{ HTR: You clearly had a tumultuous relationship with the Cadogen Hotel in London. Are relationships with investors sometimes difficult?G. L-A:}} In general, we work hand-in-hand but in this case we were faced with an investor with different objectives. Initially, the project was appealing, with the acquisition of an ageing hotel and an important market where we were not yet active. The Leading Hotels chain was also a stakeholder in this project with an investment fund. We began to renovate an initial third of the property. Problem: the fund wanted to make this investment beneficiary before beginning the second stage of the works. It was unable to take on the challenge that this hotel presented. And yet in a city where competition is as fierce as in London, when you consider the work that has been undertaken by Rocco Forte to renovate totally Brown’s, we can’t afford to hold back. Leading and us left the project.{{HTR: Have you been left feeling resentful of investment funds?G. L-A: }} Investment funds have become separate players on the hotel scene. We can’t do without them, without their transactions. As people in the trade, we are no longer in the habit of thinking as they do, in the short or midterm. Our vision is more in the long term. There are frequent misunderstandings between the parties. But we have a role to play in advising the owner, if the market is not ready for selling a hotel. You can no longer think as a simple operator. Nowadays, it is a question of calculations, profitability. Before carrying out works, the investments must be justified. You can no longer do it for the fun of it. We are used to working like that. Hotel management in the 21st century has taken on another dimension. A hotel is no longer maintained throughout a lifetime. Owners wish to make their investments profitable. Our role as manager is first and foremost to increase turnover, improve yield and “prepare the bride” with a view to finding another owner in five to seven years.

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