x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Gray's anatomy

Gordon Campbell Gray is one of the hottest hoteliers of the moment. Investors are queuing up to do business with him; his name appears on every respectable "best" list including The Times' "Top 50 people that every traveller should know".

Gordon Campbell Gray is one of the hottest hoteliers of the moment. Investors are queuing up to do business with him; his name appears on every respectable "best" list including The Times' "Top 50 people that every traveller should know". So, there was more than a whiff of speculation when he was in Dubai on business last month that he might be setting up a new venture in the emirate, or at least somewhere in the Gulf.

"It is something that I have been asked to do many times," he says when I caught up with him at One Aldwych, the London hotel that first gave him international recognition. But anyone who knows him can read between the lines when he says: "It's not for me." He is certainly not fazed by war - the building of Le Gray in Beirut - was interrupted twice by Israeli attacks, delaying the project by two years. "Everyone assumed that I would give up in 2006, along with the big chains, but I never once thought that way. People said I was mad and that I would be ruined. But we held tight and now it is the hottest city on the planet," he says.

But he is more cautious when it comes to setting up in Dubai - or Doha, where he was a couple of weeks ago to view a potential property. Neither are his kind of town. "I was asked to go to Doha and I went to be courteous, but no way," he says stopping short of saying anything rude in case it offends. "Give me old-fashioned cities. I love places like Damascus and Oman." Abu Dhabi is more of a possibility - he says he is talking with a potential investor but has yet to be shown a location that he feels will work. He appreciates the qualities that the emirate desires to offer travellers: a sophisticated place where visitors do not become ensnared in tourism traps.

He is, however, openly in love with Beirut and revealed that he is planning two more properties in Lebanon. "I love it. I love that sense of living for the moment. The West is going through such a joyless period. But in the Middle East everyone is in such a good mood. We opened the hotel at such a good time for Lebanon. "I feel that here [in the UK ] politically, economically, spiritually, morally, we are in a slump. I find it quite sad actually and I think the more you are away from it the more you are conscious of it," he says.

If the planners give the go- ahead for his new hotel on the coast in Damour, on the outskirts of Beirut, he hopes to have it open within 20 months. A new build, it is about 20 minutes away from Le Gray but will have a very different feel and is intended as somewhere to go to relax and chill out. "It will be very simple and beachy; the setting is in the design," he says. They are still debating whether it will be 80 or 100 rooms but he is confident that the planners will give approval.

The key to the design, he says, is making it as ecologically sound as possible, something he feels that Lebanon is not very good at, but that every hotelier should take seriously. The company is opening a new hotel in Montpelier in the south of France in 2012, and one of the things that attracted him to the location is its ease of access. "It's so easy to get there by train and I believe that is the way forward." He envisages the Lodge at St Germaine as somewhere to go "if you feel exhausted".

In the "design stage", but as yet without a plot of land, is his third project in Lebanon which will be in the mountains. And if it seems odd to have three out of eight hotels in Lebanon, and none in the Gulf, it is because he is not interested in what makes sense on paper. Indeed, he describes himself as "remarkably unambitious". Gray has never had a master plan, doesn't employ or listen to analysts and eschews feasibility studies. Instead, he trusts his instincts and jumps if it feels right. Beirut happened because one morning, five years ago, he was called down to the lobby to see a guest and assumed it was a complaint - it was a proposal. Gray had never been to Beirut before but booked a flight for the following Monday, loved what he saw, and the deal was done by Friday.

His only quibble about Beirut is that it is quite a snobbish place. "We are working through that though. Le Gray is a snob-free zone." He is a refreshing voice in the industry, if an unusual one for a five-star hotelier. He had a strict Scottish upbringing and says, "I enjoy the concept of frugality ... My mantra is 'live below your means'. That is, you can say 'I can afford it but I choose not to'."

Translated, this mantra means that he wants his hotels to be exquisite, but not excessive, which is perhaps the real reason we won't see a Le Gray in Dubai or Doha. The ultra trendy hotel he stayed at in Doha drove him mad. "It was so complicated. I want my telephone to be a telephone, I don't want it to work the curtains and the air conditioning. It's not an age issue. If you want it in your home, good luck, but if you are staying somewhere one night, you need it to be simple."

"I do not want to be picked up at the airport by a Rolls-Royce - that to me is a dinosaur. Nor do I want to have strawberries dipped in chocolate in my room unless I have asked for them ... "No one stops coming to my hotels because their shirts are not triple-wrapped. I am offended by waste." He is also critical of the luxury hotel chains who train their staff to name check everyone. Recently in one hotel, in the journey from his room to the front door 17 staff said "Good morning, Mr Gray". "Where is the privacy in that?" he asks.

Similarly, he is unimpressed by doormen who say "welcome back" whether you have stayed there before ? or just come out of the door two seconds ago and turned back because you have forgotten something. "That is not genuine," he explains. "It's programming." sryan@thenational.ae