Any colour, as long as it's austere

Thursday, 12 December 2019 09:46 pm

This piece was originally written for Quarterly – the magazine for the high net worth clients of Insinger de Beaufort bank (now in partnership with BNP Paribas Wealth Management). Each issue featured an entrepreneur.

Master and maverick

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Master and maverick

A profile of unique hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray
by Jenny Rivarola

In November 2011, Gordon Campbell Gray added yet another award to his collection: Outstanding Contribution to the Hotel Industry. Among previous accolades was Independent Hotel of the Year, awarded to the iconic ‘One Aldwych’ which helped him make his name. Jenny interviewed Gordon soon after that award.

A waiter – just the right side of attentive – poured my water. It was a calm overture to the sweeping entrance of a man with high cheek bones, a hint of Patrick Lichfield and an impeccably tailored linen suit – in a blue not normally seen in a suit.

“I’m so terribly sorry about yesterday,” he began in a gentle brogue. Our interview had been postponed while he dashed up to his native Scotland to seal the deal on his ninth hotel – a castle close to Glasgow. Rowallan Castle, at Kilmaurs overlooking the Firth of Clyde, will be “a kind of extension of Glasgow in the country – quite sporty,” he explained. “I want guests to know they are in Scotland, but without the tartan carpet. The challenge is that castles seem inaccessible – but this one will be welcoming.” And Gordon Campbell Gray likes nothing more than a challenge.

Four hundred miles south, Campbell Gray’s startlingly original hotel in the heart of London, One Aldwych, opened in 1998. It was his first ‘creation’: earlier projects had been refurbishments of existing hotels. Within six months it had won two major international design awards. Though he works closely with designer Mary Fox Linton on all his hotels, he is undeniably the creative force in a partnership he describes as ‘a fusion of mutual understanding’.

One Aldwych is a triangular building in a commanding position at the heart of theatreland and close to Fleet Street. Until 1927 it was the home of The Morning Post. The basement, which used to house the paper’s urgent printing presses, is now a cool, blue pool with underwater music.

“I’m not sure what being an entrepreneur means. But if I were technical I’d want to invent a silent vacuum cleaner – wouldn’t that be wonderful?” said Campbell Gray, having just defined the term perfectly. “But I’m just a very professional hotelier. An old fashioned one in many ways”.

The originality of One Aldwych is hard to describe. It’s a series of ‘this yet thats’. Classical yet contemporary, luxurious yet practical, elegant yet not ostentatious. And full of surprises. The Lobby Bar is presided over by a boatman sculpture holding two oars, a life-size papier-mâché dog guards the reception desk and the lift is far from the usual dull experience, being lined with mirrored glass which changes colour through the day.

The eldest son of a Scottish family, Campbell Gray was brought up in a draughty home in Renfrewshire. It was a warm but rather restrained household. “If there were six people at table, there were six biscuits on the plate.”

When he bought his first hotel, which became The Feathers at Woodstock, he told his father “I can’t believe I own this hotel” to which his father replied “You – and the bank”. While undeniably a grounding influence, this attitude also stifled him. “It was very heavy – and I had to get away from that. If you’re Scottish, you’re plain,” he added, referring to the nation as a whole. “It’s probably why I’ve never done anything in Scotland, until now.”

Another significant influence was a flamboyant aunt living in London. A director at Courtauld Textiles, she had a sense of opulence which captivated the young Gordon. And she was the first woman in the family to work.

Campbell Gray wanted to be an architect but wasn’t good at maths. Then, on a visit to a dreary hotel in Loch Lomond with his parents, he’d decided he could do better. But after eight months at hotel school, he dropped out. “I admit to having an arrogant streak,” he said, “But I thought ‘what am I going to learn from such dull people?’.”

So he became a management trainee in the more sophisticated hotels of London and Paris. Years later, as deputy manager of a 5-star hotel in London, he sneaked a look at his appraisal form. The glowing report had one reservation: ‘Tends to be rather insubordinate towards his superiors’. So he took a red pen and wrote ‘please define superiors’ before returning the file to its drawer. Nothing was ever said but he and his appraiser still bump into each other at events and have both since been voted Best Hotelier of the Year.

Campbell Gray’s opinion of some of his fellow hoteliers is one of unconcealed contempt. “If I’m a visionary, it’s because I won’t do the same as everyone else. This is an industry which can tend to be lacking in brains,” he declared. “What is the point of putting a chocolate on the pillow? Who wants a chocolate after they’ve brushed their teeth?”

What One Aldwych offers is bedside lighting you can read by without risking blindness, a card every evening with the weather forecast for the next day – and an umbrella in the wardrobe in case it’s bad news. And though the Gideon Bible may be there too, there’s a specially chosen book by the bedside, ‘Change the World 9 to 5’, intended to entertain and inspire.

If Campbell Gray had another ‘room 101’ (One Aldwych has 105 rooms), it would be full of all the hotel industry gimmicks that are either useless or unethical.

There’s the dishonest breakfast tray,” he continued. “All froufrou layers and linen flaps, concealing what? A pedestrian offering with mediocre coffee.” One sensed he was on a roll.

“And who is impressed by a TV screen left on saying ‘Welcome Mr Campbell Gr..’ (they can never fit it all on anyway)? Heat, light and power are the new liquid gold. I find waste absolutely offensive.”

It is this view that led to what is perhaps the most unexpected of the many unexpected details about this hotel: its vacuum-flushing yacht-style lavatories.

Part of what makes Campbell Gray different, and unusual for an entrepreneur, is that you never hear a mention of money. In fact one feels slightly grubby slipping it into the conversation. Er… would I be right to think money is not the driver? “Absolutely. I don’t consciously try to make more money. I just make things better. Then the money comes.” But.. was it ever an obstacle? “Yes. When I had my vision for One Aldwych, I was turned down by no fewer than 66 lenders.

I was shocked by their lack of understanding. How could I compete with the big boys, they asked. I explained that originality was the key. But they didn’t have the guts. If I hadn’t believed 100 per cent, I would have folded in the face of such doubt from supposed professionals.” But finally a lender did agree, and the rest is history. With three Campbell Gray hotels open – the others are his own creation, Carlisle Bay in Antigua, and the completely renovated Dukes in London – he is now at various stages of developing others at Goodwood (Sussex), Oman, Morocco, and Beirut. Why Beirut?

“It’s such a sexy place. The people are attractive, generous, hospitable, the city has nice weather, splendid architecture and” (the crucial point one feels) “a hint of danger that makes it beguiling.”

But for all the location, design and originality, Campbell Gray is clear about one thing: service is the key. As well as the umbrella in the wardrobe, it’s the people he hires. “There’s a rigorous recruitment process. For a waiter applicant, for example, they’ll go through four interviews. Then there’s an intense induction – during which I address the staff.” For Campbell Gray, it’s all about seeing it through the guest’s eyes. He’s even asked someone from the Red Arrows to come and talk on the importance of banishing the ego and working as a team.

There’s no doubt One Aldwych is “a wee icon”, as he put it. Just before it opened, Campbell Gray did a world tour of top hotels. “I was checking out what I call ‘the loose bits’ – the detail. But the only thing I changed my mind about was electronic curtains. Because if they go wrong, do you want an engineer in your room when you’re ready for bed?”

Doesn’t he think he could leave some of the detail to others? “My business card should really say ‘Gordon Campbell Gray – Emperor’,” he laughed. “Because I know what’s best for the people,” he laughed again.

Home is a house in Pimlico – with an excellent housekeeper, of course. But he admitted to noticing two dead orchids recently in the dining room and not being in the least bothered. It was oddly reassuring.

Since this article was written, Gordon Campbell Gray has ended his association with One Aldwych and opened Le Gray in Beirut to widespread industry acclaim.