Hospitality veteran Gordon Campbell Gray touched down in Bahrain this week to check out his latest project and to ensure it has all the ‘exquisite’ touches he believes can make a statement in an already highly-competitive and growing leisure marketplace.
A cement mixer sits outside The Merchant House and builders were busy beavering away on Sunday at the all-suite boutique hotel located a short walk from the Bab Al Bahrain entrance of the Manama souq.
The property, created from a disused office building, will feature 47 suites, each with an open plan kitchen and dining area, as well as open plan sitting rooms. It was due to open this month and a new date for the last day of November has been pencilled in.
In the grand scheme of things, and taking into account ‘Bahrain time’, a few weeks delay has not ruffled the feathers of this distinguished, charming and chatty Scot who has seen it all before.
He granted GulfWeekly an audience at the nearby club lounge at Downtown Rotana. Despite suffering from a heavy cold, his eyes lit up at the prospect of placing the art works on the walls of his latest project in the coming weeks and working with the start-up team … and moving in to one of the rooms as a ‘guest’ too for a few weeks.
No pressure then on recently-appointed GM Justin Kim … providing the guest experience is ‘exquisite’ and the fruit in the room is succulent and ready to savour every day.
Gordon is a man of many parts. As a luxury hotelier, he loves the best things in life, and as a committed charity worker and vice-president of Save the Children, he travels the world to help alleviate poverty in Africa and elsewhere.
He can switch roles in the same time it takes to switch off a light bulb.
It was documented in his local newspaper The Scotsman how he’d witnessed the most appalling human suffering that abject poverty brings in its wake and marvelled at the courage and generosity of the people he'd met, and he couldn't wait to get a good night's sleep in the comfort of his hotel room.
"It was about 4.45am in the morning and I was so tired and dirty. Yet the first thing I did was pick up one of the three plums arranged on a dish in my room. One of them was hard. I went ballistic," says the Glasgow-born hotelier, whose award-winning properties such as the Le Gray in Beirut are known for their understated luxury and warm welcome. They are the sort of hotels where three perfect pieces of fresh fruit are delivered to every room, every day.
"I can't tell you how furious I was that one of my hotels (Le Gray) was offering a guest an unripe plum," said the dapper-looking gent. “It’s actually folklore in the company. Whatever you do, don’t put over ripe or under ripe fruit in a room. It’s just like everything you do in life – it’s all about the detail.
“I scared myself that I could put on another hat so fast,” he admitted. “But it’s very significant. The reason it’s important is that if I put fruit in your room I have done it because we are in the ‘kindness industry’ and I want you to enjoy it. You say: ‘aahh, a nectarine’ but you can’t eat it, it’s like I’m torturing you!”
Campbell Gray's extraordinary life has often taken him from the sublime to the ridiculous – or, as he once reportedly said: ‘from the Ritz to the gutter and back’.
A descendant of tobacco barons, he is the eldest of three sons. He was raised in an atmosphere of middle-class comfort and well-mannered gentility. Aged 17, he was taken out for dinner by his parents to a hotel in Loch Lomond. "I couldn't believe how dreadful the hotel was," he recalled.
"The food was worse than home, absolutely hideous, and the decor was awful, but I was enchanted. I kept thinking, 'Imagine if it were better and different, it would be magical.' I knew then that I wanted to work in hotels."
In 1971, at the age of 21, he moved to London, where he became purchasing manager for the InterContinental hotel.
Then one evening he switched on his TV and saw a report on a famine in Bangladesh. The next morning he called Save the Children, said he was in hotel management and that he wanted to help.
They told him they needed someone to take charge of purchasing medicines, food procurement and distribution. That afternoon he resigned from his job. For four years he lived at the mouth of the Ganges and then in Nicaragua – where he met and married Carolyn, who went on to become London's first commodities broker, and with whom he remains friends despite their divorce. He never remarried.
On his return to Britain, he opened The Feathers, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, in 1982. Then came One Aldwych. It's rumoured to have cost more than 30 million British pounds, although he refuses to talk money.
The 105-room property – an imposing Edwardian building in London’s Covent Garden – originally housed the offices of a bank where its sniffy manager once refused the youthful entrepreneur an overdraft.
“When I bought the building 25 years ago, I risked everything,” he said. “I remember I was creating something that was different and I believed in it, 100 per cent. Sixty-five institutions turned me down when I tried to get funding. I bought the building but couldn’t complete it without a bank’s help.
“A friend of mine took nine years to make a movie and it went on to win an Oscar, so if you really believe in something it’s worth seeing it through. When that last bank said no, it could have all fallen apart but then No 66 and No 67 both came through at the same time – just like the buses, you wait for one for ages and then two come along, suddenly I had a choice!
“The best thing was when I actually took the keys and started walking around the building and went up to the seventh floor. I thought, I know this room, a bank had been on the ground floor and I had a total sense of déjà vu. I went to borrow money for my first hotel, The Feathers, and the guy who turned me down was in an office on the seventh floor. I remembered the room, in fact it was more than just turn me down, it was ‘run away, little boy, don’t be silly’.”
The hotel conversion was a massive success and it soon became an iconic part of London’s hospitality scene.
“The reason banks turned me down was because it wasn’t going to be like anything-else. It wasn’t copying anything, it was a complete original,” he said. “I like to describe it as a ‘modern classic’. If I’d told the bank manager it would have beige marble bathroom with matching bedspread and curtains, he and the others would have said ‘yes’ because they had seen it all before. They should have said ‘no’, if that was the case, because it was boring.”
Gordon doesn’t do boring, that’s how The Merchant House, Bahrain was conceived.
“It’s really quite simple,” he explained. “We had guests at Le Gray who loved it, asked to see me and said: ‘would you ever give us something like this in Bahrain?’
“I hadn’t been there for a long time that they said ‘please come over’. It was about seven years ago and it took a while, but we kept in touch.”
They looked at options and there was a green field site possibility (which has not been ruled out as the home of a possible future project) and the building by the souq which the unnamed mystery guest and investor already owned.
“I thought it was lovely,” said Gordon. “I loved the location and I thought this could be really nice. One of the things that I love when I stay in a hotel is to be able to walk out and find somewhere interesting to go rather than having to get into a taxi.
“I like to wander around and I love to wander around this part of Manama. I feel like it’s a ‘real place’ and that’s why l love Beirut because it’s a real city and this is a real city too.
“What we’ll do with this building is going to blow your socks off. We’ve really gone to town and I’m very excited about it. We have invested quite heavily in beautiful materials - timbers, stone, solid oak floors and the furniture has been designed by us and handmade.
“We didn’t want to rush it, we recently opened a small hotel in Scotland, just a month ago, and we were six weeks delayed. That seems to be par for the course. What I didn’t want to do is to open here when it wasn’t ready.
“This is really built to last, it’s not going to be a flip project - this is going to be an inheritance project. We just want it to be perfect. I think when you see it you’ll realise why it took a little longer because the detailing is something quite special.”
Two obvious ‘challenges’ to the concept must have been a lack of a car park and the close proximately to a mosque. Unfazed, Gordon, says spaces have been reserved and a valet service put in place and the window glazing has dispelled any noise issues.
It also promises some interesting features of its own. His Beirut hotel is famous for its artwork and The Merchant House will be no different. The work of local favourites such as Abbas Al Mosawi and Jamal A. Rahim will be on display alongside the works of Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and numerous others in what Gordon calls an ‘amazing art collection’.
There’s a graffiti wall currently being worked on too. “We have quite a mixture,” he added, “fine art, modern art and even hand-painted Japanese paper artwork.”
Culture is very much the order of the day, and a ‘fantastic library’ is included. “When I say a library, most hotels with a library consist of three shelves, half-filled with books between two plant holders. Ours will be a serious library, curated by Philip Blackwell of Oxford.
“Personally, I spend my life travelling, staying in hotels and, to be honest, I would describe myself as a bit ‘lux-ed out’.
“I think I have stayed in so many five star luxury hotels and I’m actually quite weary of them because of the excesses, the expense, lack of integrity, a lot of waste, and I’m just bored with it all and I feel I’ve seen it all before.
“I’ve always believed that small is beautiful. I’ve never been a big brand person. I’m kind of anti-corporate. I think there is currently an insatiable desire for individuality.
“I remember arriving at a well-known hotel and they gave me a suite. I checked in on a sunny afternoon and there were 16 lamps on, and three televisions on in the middle of the afternoon, and I thought, so who ever thought this was luxurious?
“It was just horrible … and far too much fruit, far too much of everything, and about 40 macaroons. If I’d been left three macaroons I’d have probably enjoyed them but give me 40 and I don’t want to touch any of them.
“I do hate waste. I could never sit in my house in one room knowing there were lights on in another. It’s just a waste.
“I love the concept of frugality. I like personally to think I live a fairly frugal way of life which is comfortable. I never waste anything …ever. I like the best and I hold on to it. I hate waste, I hate the throw away world.
“We stopped using plastic straws in our company years ago when everyone thought at the time that we were barking (mad), luckily now that’s become the norm.
“I believe in the building and that people will come visit us and stay. We’re paying a lot of attention to detail and I think it will appeal to an interesting clientele.
“One of our golden rules is that we never have a VIP list, because if I say some guests are VIPs what I’m saying is that others are not. That’s horrendous. We treat everybody the same and focus on these little details.
“If you told me there were another 20 five star branded hotels coming here to Bahrain, I wouldn’t want to be arrogant, but I would say, that’s fine, it’s not what we do.
“I’m feeling quite relaxed about it. The Merchant House is very small and I think it will receive a lot of attention. It’s designed for both business and leisure and the service is going to be so personalised and so intimate.”
He flew out of Bahrain last night but will be back in the kingdom in a couple of weeks, ready for the final opening preparations and hanging the art pieces. “That will be among the best two or three days of our lives,” he said. “I love it - it’s two years of building the collection and the day you hang the art, that’s when it all comes together.”
To tempt people during the soft opening first month of December, rooms will cost BD90 a night with a second night free during the promotional period.
The only thing that has given Gordon more goose-bumps has been putting the team together. “I absolutely love that more than anything,” he said. “To build an opening team is very special and we’ve got them all at the moment, so we’re having a lot of philosophy sessions … every decision taken on any given day is a decision of what is best for the guest.
“I think that is totally the way to run this hotel. I always look forward to coming here because, in the end, what we’re building down the road is not worth a pile of beans if we don’t look after people beautifully and authentically.
“My favourite word in the world is exquisite and I think The Merchant House is going to be quite exquisite.”
Stanley Louis Szecowka
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