Over the course of Grace Leo’s illustrious career, she has amassed a wealth of experience in inventing, converting and developing distinctive hotels and resorts across the globe. Here, she talks to Can Faik about her most recent venture, Relais Retreats – a new series of stand-out waterside properties.

What does your current position involve?

I have recently founded a new hotel company named Relais Retreats, and my role is managing partner, based in the UK, while my business partner Tim Hartnoll works out of Singapore. We are both very keen to build up a small portfolio of lifestyle hotels in vibrant market towns with proximity to water.

What was your background prior to becoming a hotelier?

I started my career in the hotel industry right after graduating from the Hotel School at Cornell University. I was influenced by my father while growing up in Hong Kong, when he co-owned the 150-room Astor Hotel in Kowloon back in the 1950s. It was significant back in those days to own a hotel in Hong Kong, and I always had an affinity for beautiful decors and international travel, which thankfully became the staple of my working and personal life.

“Relais Retreats is a new brand of English waterside escapes in evocative locations”

Can you tell me about the idea behind the well-received Relais Retreats?

My initial idea was to acquire a well-located hotel no more than one hour away from London. I focused on vibrant market towns where there was a confluence of history, culture, a picturesque town centre, and a potential to uplift the business and the building so that it stands out amongst the traditional country house hotels that are part of the competitive set.

The name Relais was inspired by the first hotel we bought, which is a 500-year-old coaching inn and a much-loved historical landmark in Henley-on-Thames. The French word for ‘coaching inn’ is ‘relais’, and I thought that this beautiful Georgian building deserved a more distinguished name than the ‘Red Lion Hotel’, which is used in over 550 pubs and inns all over the country.

Relais Retreats is a new brand of English waterside escapes in evocative locations.Situated within easy distance of London, each property offers a restorative escape combined with thoughtful service and personalised guest experiences.

The Relais Henley is the first property to open under the Relais Retreats brand, having undergone a sensitive renovation that reimagined the 16th-century coaching inn as a stylish retreat. Specialist fit-out contractor, Pure Fitout, was part of the experienced team working on the project. The second property is located on the beach in East Sussex, and will complete a renovation in spring 2022 to become The Relais Cooden Beach.

How important is design and architecture when developing the the Relais Retreats?

As in each and every one of the hotels that I have developed over a 30-year career for different investors in diverse cities and countries, I start off with visualising the initial concept of what the property will become – the architecture of the building, local arts and crafts, neighbourhood vibes and aesthetics all play a part in shaping the design storyboard that will become the framework for the project and design team to follow throughout the creative process.

Turning to the topic of authenticity of experience, how do you approach each project?

My motto has always been to create an immediate bond between the guest and the hotel so that it truly reflects the unique character of the particular town, country and neighbourhood, and so our guests have the experience of being part of the fabric and ambiance of where they have landed to explore. Authenticity does not mean that the hotel interiors must state the obvious, with ornamental or ethnic designs that become overpowering – or even worse, kitsch, which is the worst sin to the sophisticated eye.

“We do not want to be a predictable country hotel, but reflect cultural influences from the past and combine these with the changing needs of today’s travellers in a unique, stylish environment”

Was it important to maintain the history while also making the property modern?

It’s important to preserve the authentic history of each property – it is part of the character of the building, and also provides great storytelling for our PR and marketing. We have taken great care to preserve historical elements of The Relais Henley, which is rich in history. Our recent dendrochronological dating survey confirmed that the hotel was originally built in 1462 – that’s an incredible age, and we are proud to be the custodians of that history.

We love to bring the stories of interesting characters who have resided at the hotel throughout history to life – including Charles I, whose coat of arms is preserved in room 108. Guests can now stay in this room with a piece of living history.

What’s been your best investment to date?

I think The Relais Henley sets the tone for the concept of a lifestyle hotel group in a vibrant market town – this hotel’s exceptional location in the heart of the commune undoubtedly represents a safe and sound real estate investment, as well as a promising trading property.

What are your properties’ USPs?

We are redefining the restorative escape within 90 minutes of London. The Relais Retreats embrace traditional English hospitality, thoughtful service, personalised local guest experiences and the opportunity to work remotely away from the city. We do not want to be a predictable country hotel, but reflect cultural influences from the past and combine these with the changing needs of today’s travellers in a unique, stylish environment.

What does luxury mean to you?

There has been such an abuse of the term ‘luxury’ in every sector, from buying a notebook to a sports car. I tend to avoid using the word luxury unless it has some meaning.

My notion of luxury is something that reflects quality, thoughtfulness and good taste. It doesn’t have to be a shiny and perfect gift that’s in your face, it could be simply the art and manner of delivering a product or a service, with style and attention that make a difference.

Luxury in hotel accommodations has continued to escalate over the past 20 years. Some owners who wish to impress try too hard to outdo the competitors. Ultimately it seems almost wasteful to invest in over-the-top resources that do not leave the planet any better, nor hotel guests any more enchanted. But then, I could be wrong!

What’s one unexpected shift you’ve seen in guest expectations or demands in the last year?

Travel was taken for granted prior to the pandemic, and we would go anywhere at a drop of a hat. Since the pandemic, people are more reflective and grateful for what’s available to them – they have learned to appreciate experiences that are on their doorsteps and beyond.

The recent lack of social interaction has created guests who are hungry to build a rapport with others in a new environment.

“Staying nimble and thinking on our feet are essential to survival during these times, where there is only uncertainty and instability everywhere”

You’ve noted that expansion is high on the brand’s agenda. Where are you putting your focus in terms of growth?

Our development strategy is focused on identifying and acquiring a few more properties in England that are similar to the profile of our current assets. We look for existing hotels that are under the radar, not in the obvious places, and each one is scrutinised for its potential to be on-brand, applying the Relais Retreats physical requirements and philosophy.

I’m mindful there is currently a lot of foreign and domestic capital chasing investment opportunities in the UK, but we may not necessarily have the same criteria of search. We would like to grow the RR group to 5-6 hotels by 2025.

What has been the biggest risk you’ve taken so far?

I suppose the biggest risk I’ve taken was to commit to a significant investment during the height of the pandemic, when all the alarms were flashing red, the planet came to a standstill from fear and the entire hospitality sector was shut down with no visibility ahead. That took a lot of courage and a leap of faith to sign on. Not only did my business partner and I acquire our first hotel in Henley, six months later we purchased a second property facing the English Channel.

What other exciting projects do you have in the pipeline?

We are currently working on the refurbishment of our second hotel, at Cooden Beach in Bexhill-on-Sea, which will be completed by early summer 2022 and rebranded as The Relais Cooden Beach. With this property we are creating a stylish beach resort with influences from Nantucket, New England and Deauville, and of course the ever-changing colours of the English Channel.

The hotel was originally the private home of the De La Warr family, and they built their own private train station directly linking them to London – so our guests will have the benefit of stepping straight from the train into their sophisticated retreat right on the beach.

There’s also a third property on the horizon that we cannot talk about yet.

What do you consider to be your biggest success so far?

Success can be measured by two main factors. One is having a favourable public perception of the product and therefore receiving positive reviews for both the interior design as well as the service level.  The second is the performance, both financial and operationally driven – this will ultimately tell you how well you’re doing. It is still early days for us, but I’d like to think that the Relais Henley has been well received by our guests, and the future Relais Cooden Beach will do equally well after its repositioning.

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

The memorable sunsets and sipping aperol at the intimate market square in Capri, Italy. The majestic mountain views in Gstaad, Swiss Alps. The contrasting vision between the blue of the Aegean Sea and the pristine white cottages in Santorini, Greece.

“We are currently working on the refurbishment of our second hotel, at Cooden Beach in Bexhill-on-Sea, which will be completed by early summer 2022”

Where currently ranks highest on your travel wishlist?

I would love to get back to my native Hong Kong where most of my family still lives, but the Covid self-quarantine policies are far too impractical while the rest of the world has gone in the other direction.

Another spot on my wishlist is returning to Bawah Reserve in the South China Seas – as soon as Indonesia has lifted the travel ban, I would love to spend a week simply chilling out. One would luxuriate in the spectacular seascape and enjoy the personable service and original cuisine that’s unique to this eco-friendly resort.

What is essential to deliver a successful hotel project, in your view?

I believe you must start off with having a strong conviction of the project – even if others are not as convinced, I will do what it takes (nicely) to bring them around so we sing from the same hymn sheet.

Firm and fair leadership is indispensable – we seem to always do our refurbishments on a fast-track, therefore a good dose of determination and being decisive and reactive with the team, the suppliers and builders all help to keep the momentum on a focused path.

A lean and cohesive team that works well together, who are exceptionally professional but do not take themselves too seriously.

Staying nimble and thinking on our feet are essential to survival during these times, where there is only uncertainty and instability everywhere.

Do not expect nor accept conventional solutions to problems. If you think that we will one day revert to the good old days and a state of normality pre-Covid, then you will fail.

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 know this will sound deja-vu, but for me my work and pleasure are fused into one. If you enjoy your job, you never have to work a day in your life. So the myth goes!

We need to pay attention to our physical and mental wellbeing during exceptional times like the three lockdowns we have just gone through. I was on a mission to turn around an antiquated and run-down property during a depressing period, while most of the population were staying home watching bad news on TV.  I lived on pure adrenaline, driven by passion and determination for the project.

Luckily, I know to read the signs when my energy or resilience wane to a low point, so taking a few days off to reboot myself when I feel that I have reached my threshold is vital. My entourage also reminded me when I became unbearable – ha ha!