LIRAN WIZMAN – FOUNDER OF SIRCLE COLLECTION AND THE ENTOURAGE GROUP
From small time property investor to award winning hotelier, Liran Wizman, founder of Sircle Collection and The Entourage Group discusses his love of art, design, and hospitality with Emma Kennedy.
Like his hotels, Liran Wizman is everything you want him to be; relaxed, interesting and yes, it has to be said, cool. In fact, the hardest part of the interview was securing a time. My, this man is busy! Having finally got a date in the diary for a zoom interview, as requested, I start preparing my questions. However, the more research I did, the more questions I had. As it turned out, the questions went out the window, as he brought to life his very full career. The interview was breezy, and Liran glided fluently through his many achievements, collaborations and launches, and it isn’t until I start transcribing it hits me just how much he has achieved!
Describing Liran Wizman as a hotelier, is a little simplistic. He is ultimately an award-winning entrepreneur with a portfolio spanning across the hospitality sector. His career began as part of a small property investment group which led to the launch in 2004 of hotel management company Grand City Hotel (GCH). Since then, the group has gone on to be one of the largest hotel management companies in Europe with over 120 properties. Around the same time, inspired by the vibrant restaurant scene happening in New York and London he went on to join forces with restauranteur Yossi Eliyahoo, and together they launched their first restaurant MOMO alongside turnkey F&B brand The Entourage Group. Where lesser beings may have chosen to stop and draw breath, Liran chose to forge ahead with his next venture. The Sircle Collection- formerly Europe Hotels Private Collection-is home to brands including Sir Hotels, Max Brown Hotels and Park Centraal Hotels.
Looking through Lirans numerous hotel projects, original artwork and interesting textiles are a recurring theme, and I begin by asking him about his upbringing in Tel Aviv and if he had grown up in a creative environment? “My mother was an artist, a very spiritual person and although I was surrounded by art and creativity, I didn’t see myself in the same light. At that time everybody wanted to be in business, to be successful and I thought that too was for me.”
On autopilot, he went on to study business and law in Tel Aviv, but within a few months of qualifying as a lawyer, he realised it wasn’t the life he wanted. “I was fighting in court, working a lot on my own and writing contracts-it just felt like a game to me, and it didn’t feel right.” As he considered his next move, he joined a small syndicate of eight investors.
Immediately he felt he was in an environment he enjoyed and was able to bring his legal training to the table. The investments were small to begin with, first apartments and then stretching to small hotels. As the investments got bigger, he realised it was the hotel side of the business that he was attracted to, not so much from a creative viewpoint, but initially by the turnover.
“I was just 26, and I thought WOW! I found it so exciting that by changing a hotels management, and giving it a little attention, it could make so much more money.”
In 2006, the group made their first big deal, selling part of the company to the infamous Lehman brothers, enabling them to buy more hotels. “We bought a collection of 2-3-star hotels all over Germany, from Accor and Hilton, but although it was a successful period financially in terms of how we grew the business, it became too repetitive for me.”
It is clear at this point, talking to Liran, that despite being an extraordinarily accomplished businessman, it takes more than financial rewards to make him tick and following the Lehman brothers’ well documented bankruptcy, he established his first hotel group Grand City Hotels. Though once again, although this too proved to be successful, it still wasn’t where he wanted to be.
“We had big 200-300 room hotels, in secondary cities, throughout Germany, with a low to average room rate- but it wasn’t exciting. What was exciting to me at the time, was visiting cities like London and New York.” To this day, Liran still feels London leads the way in hotel hospitality, in terms or interest, innovation and diversity, and after seeing it with fresh eyes 16 years ago, he decided to act upon it.
Having recently acquired the Park Hotel, Amsterdam, he decided the space it offered was perfect to open his first restaurant. Initially the idea was met with resistance due to the additional cost on top of the hotel refurbishment but having convinced his partners, he connected with experienced restaurateur Yossi Eliyahoo and together they launched MOMO and the now legendary F&B The Entourage Group.
I ask Liran if he had a clear vision for his first restaurant. “I knew I wanted an Asian restaurant, and back then I felt the best restaurant was Nobu. It was new and exciting, and that was my inspiration.” Returning to Amsterdam, he began overseeing the refurbishment of the Park Hotel. “The hotel itself was a difficult project because I was trying to please too many people. I had to keep the investors happy as they were investing a lot of money- one had a wife who was an interior designer, one was this- one was that- and they all had an opinion. But I learnt from my mistakes, and the restaurant was a very different story. I wouldn’t allow any of the investors to touch it.” The design was led by his new F&B partner Eliyahoo and Architectural Designers Baranowitz and Kronenberg (B&K), and very quickly he could see the gap. “Although the hotel was very beautiful, it lacked a story and therefore coherence.” I question him further on what he learnt from the design process, and he is very clear. “I don’t want to call it dictatorial, because in the beginning it’s not. But at the end of the day there has to be one person. The brief needs to come from one person and then there can be a collaboration, but in the end the designer needs to lock in what they started.”
But like most mistakes, it proved to be a valuable learning curve. Not put off by the trying experience of his first foray into project managing, he went on to open the 90 key Sir Albert in Amsterdam and this time the experience was completely different. Having now established the beginnings of a formula, he instinctively knew what he wanted from the design. Working with B&K was proving to be so successful that he used them again for three additional Sir Hotels: Sir Savigny (Berlin), Sir Victor (Barcelona) and Sir Joan (Ibiza). ‘’What I like about them, is they are very conceptual, and don’t have a set signature look. They take everything into account-not just the city, but also the neighbourhood. They are cultured and restrained- not trying to impress too much. I instantly felt that was my blueprint in the design world. Somehow it took me back to my house as a child, my mother and growing up- my Israeli roots.’’
Talking to Liran is interesting. He is unquestionably on top of his game and is still hungry to take Sircle and The Entourage Group into new areas globally and shows no signs of slowing down. Why would he? He’s still only 46. But I can’t help noticing that the conversation invariably leads back to design, and I get the feeling this is still what he loves the most.
Having established a long and successful working relationship with B&K, he has now added an extensive list of interior designers he also uses including renowned architect and designer Pierre Lissoni. He clearly enjoys pairing the right designer with the right project, and occasionally mixing them up. Reflecting on the past he explains how different things are today. ‘’From 2006-2010, we were collecting all these hotels and they turned in to cookie cutters. Now I choose different designers, always listen carefully, and give my influence. But they are very talented creative people. I have to say to myself, I have employed these people, so I listen’’.
Describing his aesthetic, he says ‘’My true blueprint is clean, minimalistic, having beautiful art- not just as decoration- but with meaning.’’ Then considering his own home he quickly adds ‘’but that’s not to say I’m minimalistic. I’m not, my house has many things in it- I have three children…it looks like one big Lego land’’ he laughs.
There is a pleasing symmetry to his hotels’ designs, which lean towards the masculine, without appearing harsh. Recognising my observation, he explains that once the main design is in place, he will revisit the space and at that point decide how to dress it. For example,” he explains “B&K are architects. When you see architects move into interior design, they always push to have architectural lines in the building. That is my starting point. Sometimes we do need to warm an area up a little, because people need to sleep in these rooms. Maybe they don’t want a concrete wall, so we always go back and give it another layer. We don’t buy anything in advance, and we only choose things that have a story. Absolutely no gimmicks. For me that is when things go wrong!”
Art plays an important part in the hotels’ narratives. Original, interesting, and often beautiful pieces are present throughout- from the lobbies to the smallest guest room. As a collector himself, he now employs an art buyer to collect and curate for the whole group. Only using artists from the hotels’ locality, the art not only adds to the hotels aesthetics but also chimes with his desire to always support the community.
As the interview draws to a close, I carefully consider my last question. I feel it’s a given he will continue to expand his empire, probably in directions he hasn’t even thought of yet, so I resist that line of questioning. Instead, I ask him if he thinks he could achieve all he has, in today’s uncertain climate. He thinks hard and finally says “Yes. I think so. It would be very different as so much has changed. Technology is everywhere, the pandemic has affected everything- from how people use a space to the budgets we have to create them, but hospitality will always grow. I have a big a drive to succeed. It comes from the inside, so I would still invest everything, all the energy within me to succeed.”
Trying to pinpoint precisely why someone is successful can be a guessing game. But in Liran’s case, I’m convinced it’s more than his drive to succeed. He has a generosity of spirit that shines brightly, attracting the best talent and a true appreciation of the arts, creating accessible platforms for local artists. But over and above everything, he is a man who cares deeply about his industry and all that encompasses.