Posted in People on 14 November, 2016

Grace Hotels’ new CEO Robert Swade talks to SPACE’s Can Faik about the new challenges ahead and the exciting opportunity he has been given to lead the Grace team on a journey to develop the brand…

Luxury boutique hotel group Grace Hotels recently appointed Robert Swade as its Chief Executive Officer. The appointment coincides with a significant expansion programme at privately-owned Grace Hotels, which currently has fifteen properties open, or under development, across four continents.

What was your background in hospitality prior to working for Grace Hotels?

I worked for the Jumeirah Group in Dubai for 11 years, where, before leaving in July this year, I was responsible for the operation of all hotels worldwide. I was also responsible for global development, leading the Jumeirah growth strategy through the signing of management contracts for new and existing hotels.

What does your current position involve?

As the CEO of Grace Hotels, I have responsibility for the overall strategic direction of the Group, the development of the brand and the expansion of its global footprint.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

Having just joined the Group, I felt that it was important that I had some first-hand knowledge and experience of each of our existing hotel properties. I have therefore spent my first month visiting each hotel as well as our regional offices. I have enjoyed enormously having the opportunity to meet my colleagues and our guests and to see the strength of our existing portfolio. It has been fantastic to witness the passion and energy displayed by my colleagues and to hear such positive feedback directly from our guests.

What are the complexities of meeting the demands of shareholders, fulfilling the growth of your management team and delivering the brand’s values to the guests?

There is no doubt that as a global hospitality brand we are operating in an increasingly competitive market.  As a Group, we are focused on delivering exceptional hospitality experiences in unique destinations.  As we grow our portfolio, it is important that we continue to demonstrate to our shareholders, and our third-party hotel owners, that we can deliver a high level of commercial performance, which is why we have such a significant focus on sales, marketing, revenue and brand.

What made you decide to join Grace Hotels when you held the senior position of Group Chief Operating officer at the Jumeirah Group?

I very much enjoyed the 11 years that I spent at Jumeirah and I am proud to have been part of the success of the company.  I have watched with interest as the Grace brand has developed, and the company’s particular focus on luxury destination experiences.  The opportunity to lead the Grace team on a journey to develop the brand was, and is, enormously exciting and I relish the new challenge. I was attracted to the company because I admire its family-oriented philosophy and how it has steadily developed over the last 10 years, staying true to its core values.

What will Grace Hotels have to do to stay one step ahead of its competition, especially in the boutique hospitality sector?

Aside from continuing to focus on the special details which transform a guest’s experience from good to exceptional, we will need to exercise creativity when shaping a guest’s stay. Our quest for knowledge of our destinations, their people and culture can never stop.

What are Grace Hotels unique selling points?

We pride ourselves on our offer of boutique luxury grounded in elegance and simplicity. There is a strong focus on authenticity, where we aim to create a sense of harmony with each destination and its culture. Each property is unique and our locations are inspiring – guests can really explore the world with Grace, taking in burgeoning cityscape views, idyllic countryside, sun-soaked coasts and wine estates with dramatic mountain backdrops.  Our portfolio offers a wealth of diversity for our guests, and our consistency comes from our beliefs and values, and from our standard of craftsmanship and service.

What is next for the Grace Hotels as in new openings?

We have several new projects in the pipeline. The next hotel to open (in 2017) will be Grace Marrakech, which is a stunning, authentic Moroccan retreat, about 25 minutes from the city. It’s incredibly tranquil with superb views of the Atlas mountains. In 2018, we will welcome Grace St. Moritz – a combination of a luxury boutique hotel and serviced apartments. We acquired the historic and charming ‘La Margna’ hotel, which was instrumental in putting the resort of St. Moritz on the map in the early 1900s.

Are Grace Hotels looking at any countries in particular for new openings?

We are always looking for new opportunities for expansion but naturally we are very selective. I would not say we have a strict list of countries that we are targeting for development, but while the Americas and Europe remain a key focus, we are also keen to explore opportunities in Asia.

What are the personality traits that define a successful and happy CEO, in your opinion?

I think it’s important to have a measured approach with a structured way of thinking, which enables you to clearly map out your vision for the company. It is, of course, equally important to effectively communicate this vision to your colleagues and ensure that they are committed to a common goal.. We have also got to enjoy what we are doing, and it’s good to stay grounded, ensure balance and have a sense of humour!

Have you noticed any particular trends in hotel interior design?

I think we are seeing more attention focused on authenticity, whereby even radical and avant-garde design touches must be sympathetic to their environment and never look out of place. That sympathy is expressed through line and form, colour palette, and use of materials. Another interesting trend is hotels being seen as art galleries. Guests want to be surrounded by beauty and authentic pieces rather than the generic hotel art of the past.

Our designers, Fifth Element Interiors, have been and continue to be instrumental in keeping Grace on trend. We collaborated with the Rarity Gallery at Grace Santorini and may well continue this partnership for our future projects. And what’s the next trend? Expect to see virtual reality and augmented reality playing a greater part in both the design process and the guest experience.

How important do you feel hotel design has become when launching a new hotel?

Design is a key part of the hotel experience. People are far less interested in standardised options than they are about witnessing truly individual design, architecture and bespoke features. Before a hotel launches, it is the first thing that people identify it by. Good hotel design allows you to showcase your impeccable service, outstanding food offering and luxurious spa facilities.

What would you say are the three best places you’ve ever stayed?

The trips that have most stood out for me are those that have been in fantastic locations – visits to Easter Island and Patagonia are particularly memorable. Since I am answering your questions from 363 metres above the volcanic caldera, I am sure you will forgive me if I also mention Grace Santorini – a truly iconic property.

Where currently ranks highest on your travel wish list?

I have always enjoyed active holidays and was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro a few years ago. I would love an opportunity to see some more of Africa, it has so much to offer in terms of the people, landscape, culture and food.

Let’s finish with the issue of personal and work life balance. How do you aim to achieve a good balance and what do those closest to you think of your attempts?

I think that work life balance is something you have to actively manage, otherwise work can take over. I have found that the most effective technique is to build time into your diary and to not let work eat into the time you have set aside for personal activities. I encourage all of my colleagues to ensure that they have balance and I also find that regular visits to the gym are a great way to reset and re-energise.

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