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Pursuitist Q&A: Talking Travel with Commune Hotels & Resorts CEO Niki Leondakis

Pursuitist Q&A: Talking Travel with Commune Hotels & Resorts CEO Niki Leondakis

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Pursuitist talks to many leaders in the luxury travel space, but very few have impressed us quite as much as Commune Hotels & Resorts CEO Niki Leondakis. A veteran of brands like Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants and Ritz-Carlton, Ms. Leondakis has decades of firsthand experience in brand building in the boutique luxury space. In this exclusive Q&A, we asked her all about her new(ish) position with Commune Hotels & Resorts, the parent company of brands like Joie De Vivre, Thompson Hotels and tommie

Commune is really an inventor of the boutique hotel space. What do “boutique hotels” mean to you today? 

Today I see boutique hotels as alternatives to the consistency and predictability that was highly valued by consumers in the past.  Boutique hotels provide the traveler with a sense of adventure and discovery, inspiring environments to stay in, and, when done well, offer a genuine glimpse into the neighborhood and community where they’re located.  The exceptional ones also provide a level of casual, friendly service that is personal and unscripted. The staff is willing to go to great lengths to take care of any special needs the traveler may have.

How are boutique hotels changing the luxury travel space?

Boutique hotels are able to offer an intimate, thoughtfully designed environment that is a fresh alternative, redefining luxury for their guests.  At Commune properties, whether it’s a Thompson, Joie de Vivre or tommie hotel, we do this in the spirit of the 21st century, without the overbearing formalities that were the norm in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.  Our hotels are designed in a residential style with location-specific inspiration and experiences.

We encourage all of our team members to be their best authentic selves. This inspires them to do whatever they can to make our guests feel welcome, comfortable and cared for while staying with us.  An increasing number of travelers are choosing to stay at boutique hotels rather than larger hotel chains because they can find and choose a hotel that suits who they are or aspire to be.

What is one travel trend that you wish would die?

False sense of enhanced/VIP treatment: paying to qualify for elite/premier status to receive benefits like Group 1 boarding privileges then realizing majority of passengers on the flight have been assigned to Group 1 or being granted TSA pre-check, only to find you are standing in a long line anyway.

 What are your favorite trends for 2015?

Neighborhoods influencing hotel concepts.  Boutique and lifestyle hotels are bringing back the concept of hotels as social centers in their communities in a slightly different way than the traditional luxury hotels did in years past. By featuring local talent in their chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, baristas, coffee shops, retail boutiques and even hair stylists, you empower the local community to embrace the hotel as their own. This is a trend you’ll find at all of our hotels because our guests are not just looking for a comfortable bed to sleep in at night or a “temple of design,” but a destination where they will discover and experience the lifestyle, history and culture of a specific destination or community.

Listening to guests to create an individualized set of experiences that are “outside the box” is the new differentiator.  Being able to do this better than the others is paramount, and something we pride ourselves on across the Commune brands (Thompson Hotels, Joie de Vivre, tommie).

Travel brands increasing social media interactions with guests before, during and after travel to enhance the experience and educate on the destination.

Culinary experiences playing a larger role in travel decision-making/hotel selection.

How are you redefining the travel experience for today’s millennial traveler? 

The next gen consumer is an expressive, engaged class of traveler with a keen sense of self. They appreciate thoughtfulness, purpose and depth of story to their experiences. Millennials also care about personalization, efficiency-inspired solutions, shareable experiences, as well as the local, artisanal and indie.

With our forthcoming tommie brand debuting in NYC next summer — which targets the youthful and open-minded — we’ve addressed this by offering self-service check-in kiosks, convenient grab-and-go general stores with artisanal, locally-sourced offerings, and dynamic social spaces, from activated rooftops and courtyards to listening lounges that flex as meeting space. The guest of a tommie sees technology as a normal part of their life and holds an expectation for it to assist them in simplifying otherwise frustrating travel tasks and increasing the pleasure of their stay. Tech exists within a tommie without needing to be a flashy focal point because these features are a rule of norm for the Millennial. Guests will also be able to author their own experiences through subtle cues and collaborative programming.

At our recently opened Epiphany Hotel, which is a Joie de Vivre property in the heart of Silicon Valley, we cater to Millennials by offering completely wired co-working spaces, a dedicated Tech Concierge, smart guestroom amenities like a G-Link dock for streaming movies and games from your mobile device to a TV, and “Hoodie” chairs – a cheeky nod to the uniform favored by Silicon Valley’s young entrepreneurs, featuring all the conveniences of a cubicle (plug-ins and ports), the comfort of an easy chair, and the peace-and-quiet of noise-cancelling headphones. The subtle integration of technology can also be seen in the hundreds of outlets and USB plugs available throughout the hotel, which means you never have to fight your neighbor for a charge.

You came from another boutique brand, Kimpton. What experiences there do you use today in your work with Commune? 

Having had the benefit of working with Bill Kimpton for many years before he passed, I learned to think about hotels from the traveler’s point of view. Bill would have a sample restaurant chair sent to his office to sit in personally before he approved the designer’s selection. I use that same sensitivity to the guest’s comfort when reviewing design for all of our hotels today.  While inspired design has become the price of admission for boutique hotels, design alone is no longer a competitive advantage. It’s the sum of hundreds of little details that make a traveler fall in love with their hotel stay.

A staff that is genuinely helpful, the right pitch on a sofa back, double pane windows in urban hotels, good bathroom lighting, a convenient place to store your luggage, being able to easily find and turn lights on and off — these are just a few examples of the many small details that people may not notice when they’re right, but leave guests repeatedly irritated throughout their hotel stay when they’re not.

The guest’s tolerance drops even lower when a lot of effort is put into design without thought to guest comfort. At Commune Hotels, we build a model guest room with every design detail as it will be in the hotel. In addition to fine-tuning the design to ensure we’ve achieved the aesthetic intent, we scrutinize every aspect of the room and all of the furniture, testing for comfort and ease. If it’s not just right, we have it redesigned or made differently, sometimes two or three times to get it just right.  I fly to wherever the model room is and participate in this process for every hotel.

Anything new and exciting on the horizon for Commune that you’d like to share?

  • The beloved California-native brand, Joie de Vivre Hotels, will be spreading its playful wanderlust spirit to three major gateway cities next year
  • Thompson Miami Beach will bring 1950s glamour back to the beach when it opens on November 21, in time for Art Basel Miami Beach. This beachfront property will showcase the creative talents of James Beard Foundation Award winning chef Michelle Bernstein, who will bring in elements of the local culture to her menu on property.
  • tommie Hotels is launching with the opening of the first property in NYC in summer 2015
  • The first Thompson resorts will open on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Mexico with the 2015 debut of Thompson Los Cabos in Cabo San Lucas and Thompson Playa del Carmen in Playa del Carman in 2016
  • Thompson Seattle and Thompson Nashville are also on the horizon for 2016

You’re active in the nonprofit space as well, particularly Dress for Success. Why are you passionate about this charity in particular? 

I am grateful for all I have in my life and believe we should all do what we can to help others less fortunate.  I’ve been active in supporting Dress for Success (DFS) for over 10 years because I’m a firm believer in its mission, having seen first-hand evidence of the difference helping just one woman can make.  DFS helps disadvantaged women become economically self-sufficient. When we help women change the course of their lives, their children’s lives change for the better, enabling entire communities to change.

You’re currently living in one of Pursuitist’s favorite cities, San Francisco. Describe your perfect day in the city. 

My perfect day begins with getting outside — if it’s a weekday, it’s a run (or you can stroll) along the waterfront down the Embarcadero and under the Bay Bridge. Most people dream about running across the Golden Gate Bridge, but the views of the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco Bay are breathtaking and it’s fun to look at all the boats docked along the Bay. If it’s a weekend, a long, leisurely run in Golden Gate Park, taking in its wide swath of nature. It’s bigger than NYC’s Central Park with lakes, little waterfalls, gardens (including Japanese tea gardens and rose gardens), a bison herd, windmills and woods all inside the city.

Next, a visit to the historic Ferry Building Marketplace for an individually prepared drip coffee from Blue Bottle Coffee, where I can also pick up a bag of their micro-roasted organic coffee beans. After that, I would wander around the Marketplace, grazing my way through, stopping at Biscuit Bender for a peanut butter chocolate chip biscuit with honey butter (I went for a run after all!), Cowgirl Creamery for some artisanal goat cheese and then a tasting of raw local honeys at Beekind before deciding which to buy.

For lunch, I’d head to Yank Sing in Rincon Center for some Dim Sum, ordering from trolleys being pushed around the restaurant. Then, I’d head to the Sacramento Street shopping district and wander through the antique shops and clothing boutiques. My favorites for clothing are Susan and sister shop, The Grocery Store. Every item in both shops is hand-selected with the distinct eye of retailing legend Susan Foslien.

For cocktails, I’d head to the bar at Americano at the Hotel Vitale to watch the Bay Lights flicker up and down the Bay Bridge as the sun sets. There’s some pretty good people watching here as well.  Next, I’d head over to Jackson Square and stroll through the narrow streets, home to one of the oldest commercial neighborhoods in San Francisco. I’d window shop the elegant furniture shops and art galleries before heading into Kokkari Estiatorio for Psari Psito, traditional grilled whole fish with horta (braised greens with olive oil & lemon).

For a nightcap, I’d head to Bourbon and Branch in the Tenderloin District for their unique take on a 1920’s speakeasy.  I’d wind up my perfect day with a leisurely walk home. San Francisco is one of the best walking cities in the world.