Grace Leo-Andrieu on service with style

Grace Leo-Andrieu has run some of the best hotels in the world. So how do you achieve that perfect blend of style and service? She reveals some secrets to Ian McCurrach

Looking back, I think the hotel business has been in my blood since a very early age. I grew up in Hong Kong where my father was a successful businessman. One of his interests was a hotel called The Astor on the Kowloon side - he was like the managing director. As a result, I spent quite a bit of time there. I just loved wandering through the back of house and was fascinated to see things like intricate little cakes being made in the pastry room.

Hong Kong in the 1960s had so many great hotels, that I suppose I was introduced to the concept of luxury properties at a time when I was very impressionable. We'd often go to The Peninsula, where there was such a sense of glamour - it was heavenly, so theatrical. Everything was always very elegantly presented and the staff would work in such a discreet way - you'd never see the mechanics of what was going on.

I loved going for afternoon tea at The Peninsula - it was pure ritual. We always arrived at around 4pm and waited in line in the lobby. Then we'd be ushered to a table set with beautiful silverware. The service was impeccable and a little jazz quartet played discreetly in the background. I'll never forget the traditional bell boys with pillbox hats who ran between the tables with little blackboards paging guests and dinging a bell - it was like being in a movie.

Twenty years ago, when I established GLA Hotels, my objective was to develop and to manage small to medium-sized luxury hotels that were independently owned, niche-market properties. Back then there were only big hotel chains, standardised throughout the world. The décor was the same in every country, so you could be anywhere. I wanted to develop hotels that had a sense of place, time, history and culture. I wanted guests to know where they were, so it wouldn't be a case of arriving and thinking oh, if it's Tuesday I must be in Belgium.

I also wanted to revisit the whole notion of service, because at the time, all the luxury hotels such as The Ritz offered only snobbish service and I'm totally anti-snob. If people are paying a lot of money to stay in a place they don't want to be abused. The first hotel I opened was The Montalembert, on the Left Bank in Paris in 1989. The notion of design hotels was unheard of then and it was hailed as innovative. My philosophy is simple: I create an atmosphere of luxury and charm that is supported with a level of attentive, yet unobtrusive service, while recognising the need for guests' individuality.

Today, I have 33 properties in my portfolio and I've just opened Discovery at Marigot Bay in St Lucia. Discovery was an unusual project for me because we came on board quite late when the owner-developers were almost two-thirds of the way through building the property. They contacted me because the operating company they'd employed to open the hotel wasn't reaching their expectations. They wanted to do something very upscale. I went to visit the site and fell totally in love with the island. Above all, I fell in love with Marigot Bay.

Discovery is set on a beautiful bay that is a natural haven for yachtsmen and sailors - it has provided the backdrop for many films from Dr Doolittle to Pirates of the Caribbean. The 124 rooms and suites are built of dark wood and sit gently against the hillside so as to blend in with the rainforest. I wanted to create an atmosphere of tree-house-living-meets-city-chic by using simple but stylish furnishings. There are two swimming pools, outstanding dining facilities and an ESPA spa. But we also have exceptional natural features, such as the outlook over the yachts in the bay, which adds to the charm and the glamour of the resort.

Life at Discovery is slow, but if guests want to do more than just lay by the pool we have a new marina village next door. It's built to look like a traditional Caribbean-style village, using lots of colourful wood and it houses several boutiques, restaurants and bars, a French bakery (that we are running) and an art gallery. It gives guests a little bit more of an urban living feel.

All my hotels are very different but the one thing that connects them is that they all have a soul. For example, when I took over The Lancaster in Paris, which is just off the bustling streets of the Champs-Elysées, I was struck by how peaceful it was - like a little oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle. I didn't want to change that. It was full of beautiful antique furniture and oil paintings which had a history and were part of the make-up of the hotel. So when we came in, we didn't do what other people did in Paris, we didn't strip everything out and replace it with copies of period pieces. We took out every piece of furniture and art, catalogued it, then had it restored. And that's what people come back for, time and time again. They discover something new every time they return.

People tell me that when they come into my hotels, whether it's the Bel Ami in Paris or The Royal Riviera in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat or The Ananda Spa in the Himalayas, they feel an incredible sensation of well-being. They really pick up on the feng shui aspect - they feel that everything is in harmony. I'm almost afraid to talk about it because so many people today think they are feng shui experts and it's become very commercial. But for me, having grown up with it, it's very subtle and has to do with the energy flow and balance in a hotel.

The way that I decorate my properties is vital. I weave in furnishings and objects which have Chinese or Asian influences but will blend in with their surroundings and other furnishings. I've done this for many years. I don't want to sound pretentious but I created the trend for introducing this sort of thing. So when guests comment on the Zen feeling about a hotel or the gardens, it seems strange because it's just part of my culture and my way of life given my Chinese background.

Reinventing existing hotels and concepts with a new twist keeps things interesting for me. I was lucky at the age of 26 to come to Paris to work for a company called Warwick Hotels. They wanted to take over several properties that were tired and losing money, but were well located and had potential. My job was to fix them, give them a new lease on life, make them beautiful - but profitable. That's how I learned my craft and I did that successfully for five or six years before founding my own company.

I only open hotels in destinations that appeal to me. It also has to be a place where there's an opportunity to create a hotel that is different from other properties that are already there. So in cities such as Paris or London it's much more difficult. But in somewhere like Lisbon it's much easier, because when we were approached to open a property, there were no other luxury hotels there with style, charm and character. The Bairro Alto Hotel is in the heart of the old town and is housed in a stunning 18th-century building. I transformed it for the developer into a contemporary luxury hotel that reflected its historic past.

I find that travelling as much as I do is inspiring. I'm very visual and I like visiting antique shops and flea markets. I often buy things that I will later incorporate into a project. I have a warehouse where I keep lots of objects, such as a fabulous desk from the 1940s that I found - it has a perfect design that I might use somewhere. I also collect a lot of old lighting fixtures - I don't like modern lighting because it has no soul. I also buy things at auction that seize my imagination; I bought a couple of Italian chairs recently that have fabulous panelled backs and I'm just dying to use them somewhere.

Arts and crafts are important to me so when I'm travelling to a place like Bali I hunt out the local craftsmen and get them to make whole series of items. They weave things like placemats or baskets for the water bottles that I use in the guest rooms in the Caribbean. I think it's important to buy from local craftspeople and send their creations to other parts of the world for guests to enjoy.

I used to design individual toiletries for my various properties but then I got the idea of creating one line, which I've called Contemporel. I wanted to create something very contemporary and modern with a very good scent that wasn't too masculine or feminine and that had a sense of freshness. We still supply to a number of hotels, although I never had time to develop the line to compete with a brand like Molton Brown.

The one destination I haven't done yet is a ski resort - I'd like to try that next as there's nothing really innovative in that area. I'd like to create a chalet-like structure but with very modern architecture. The interiors would be very cosy using natural woods and stone with lots of fireplaces everywhere. The glow and charm of having a fireplace means everyone gravitates towards it. A hot cup of chocolate or mulled wine around the fireplace would be perfect after skiing. The service, of course, would be impeccable.

My top spa experience

I tried out the spa at Soneva Gili (sixsenses.com) in the Maldives and couldn't believe how wonderful it was. It looks amazing.

The spa has a thatched roof and is built on stilts over the water. It's all very ecological, made of natural materials such as coconut wood. And they use their own products made by herbalists. I had an excellent massage which combined Japanese and Chinese techniques.

Afterwards, they took me to a rest area with a fabulous view of the ocean. Very Zen.

My favourite ski resort

Every year we go to a family-run ski hotel in Courchevel 1850 called Les Airelles (airelles.fr). It's Austrian in style, which is odd in the French Alps but makes for a friendly atmosphere. The service is impeccable - the owners recognise returning guests so you feel like you are coming home. They really look after children - it's my 14-year-old daughter's favourite place. Apart from the excellent skiing there is an indoor pool and they have a swimming competition for the kids. The winners even get a little trophy.

My top table

Auberge 'd'chez eux' (00 33 1 47 05 52 55) is a neighbourhood bistro in the 7th arrondissement specialising in cuisine from south-west France. It's been there for years. There's nothing pretentious about it - you still have chequered tablecloths and it's the sort of bistro that France is famous for. As soon as you sit down they bring you an aperitif and a huge basket of sausages and salamis. The main dishes are rich and perfect for winter. They serve a wonderful bean cassoulet and duck à l'orange.

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