Redesigning Hospitality

Redesigning Hospitality

To say that Kelly Sawdon is a fine hotelier is to assume the Ace is just a hotel. On the eve of their Chicago location opening, we caught up to understand why they're both so much more. 

Ace Hotel is a complete redesign of the hospitality experience; one based on the notion that the physical design is part of a broader engagement with communities of all backgrounds (you get a great night's sleep too). Not just Vice President of the Ace Hotel Group, Sawdon also heads up (in-house creative) Atelier Ace, so if anyone knows what makes for a unique hotel experience, it's her.

Hi Kelly, please tell me you are strapped to a keyboard behind a deck and not poolside?

Hi, yes, unfortunately, I'm not by a pool but I am in our Chicago Hotel finishing and tweaking things before our opening event. 

Ahh, nice, what kind of a party do you put on to open your 10th hotel?

Whenever we open a hotel, we want to make it a point to shine a light on the city we are moving into by supporting the communities doing great things. For this particular opening, we’re doing a series of events curated by our community partners; Young Chicago Authors, Little Black Pearl and 826CHI - three organisations in Chicago doing impactful things for youth in the city. YCA will help kick off our first event including a gallery show with all the in-room art created by students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

Ace Hotel Chicago
Ace Hotel Chicago
Ace Hotel Chicago. Photos by Spencer Lowell

"We want to make it a point to shine a light on the city we are moving into by supporting the communities doing great things"

Kelly Sawdon

How many rooms are we talking?

There are 159 guestrooms 

And restaurants and shops?

We have City Mouse, our all-day restaurant, which we've partnered with Jason Vincent, Josh Perlman and Ben Lustbader (the team behind the acclaimed Chicago restaurant, Giant, helmed by Chef Patrick Sheerin of the award-winning Chicago restaurant, Trenchermen). It has a pretty eclectic seasonal menu inspired by the Midwest, complemented by a beverage program featuring classic cocktails, craft beer and a variety of natural wines. Waydown, our top-floor bar and lounge, features craft beer, wine and an inspired cocktail list from our amazing beverage director, Caitlin Laman. There’ll be a small plates dining menu, too, from Chef Sheerin, and checker boards for lingering. 
After opening this fall, our longtime collaborators at Stumptown Coffee Roasters will be opening their first outpost in the Midwest inside Ace Chicago, and we’ll have some new exciting retail partners to announce too. 

For someone that appreciates attention to detail, that seems like a lot of decisions. How many emails do you send a day?

A LOT 

Or do you prefer to jump on the phone?

I prefer phone calls, actually. So much can be decided, addressed or pushed forward with a quick phone call. Since there are a lot of people who prefer email but I keep pushing my team to pick up the phone. One question can go back and forth for hours when a 15-minute call could quickly answer it. 

"How can we take our ethos of 'friends taking care of friends' to new places? How can we be better neighbours? These are questions we are constantly asking. We design the worlds we want to live in."

Kelly Sawdon
Kelly Sawdon and Ace Hotel Chicago
Kelly Sawdon and Ace Hotel Chicago
Kelly Sawdon and Ace Hotel Chicago

Do you feel like you have a good balance of connecting with your friends and colleagues to limit your dependency on digital communication tools?

It certainly can be difficult to stay away from screens, particularly when you travel a lot for work and your colleagues are all over the continent. I try to really unplug on the weekends, get out into nature and spend quality time with friends and family, staying in the present moment as much as I can. That being said, during an opening, it can get a little trickier. There are always unforeseen kinks to iron out, so the team stays in pretty constant communication. 

You base yourself out of LA, why?

Alex (Calderwood) and I lived between NYC and London while we were designing and developing our London property. As we (Ace) moved into the LA preopening period, I was spending more and more time out there. As the hotel and theatre were getting closer to opening I fell in love with what was happening in the city. Over the past few years, Los Angeles has been going through a kind of renaissance: it’s a magic, burgeoning place for the arts, culture, food, fashion and people. Plus, the weather is amazing. As a Californian myself – I grew up about an hour south of here – it felt like the right move to come back to my roots and family. Ace started in Seattle, so I would say that we’re West Coasters at heart. 

And when you open a new hotel like this one, are you trying to jump on a great moment in time for this city or are you looking a few years ahead to what you see as somewhere that is just about to hit its stride?

It’s never really about a momentum or a trend. Since we’ve started, our process has always been to scout for opportunities that feel right. We trust our intuitions and we are in a constant state of gut-check. We love cities that have strong, idiosyncratic characters, whose aesthetic identities are a juxtaposition of historic and modern, and who we feel have enormous creative potential. And sometimes it's the buildings themselves we fall in love with. Chicago was a city we’ve long admired and wanted to have a home in. 

Yeah, a great friend of Semi Permanent’s is the well-travelled Director Ben Briand. He was recently in LA getting his first feature film off the ground and ended up extending his stay at the Downtown LA property by a week because he loved it so much, and attributed his time to things like the concierge…

That’s so nice to hear. To us, service is as important as design. But all of it is about taking care of people holistically, in as much a hospitable and compassionate sense as an aesthetic sense. Our team is really everything: we spend a lot of time finding the right people we want to work with and who want to work with us, too. It’s fun to see what a lot of members of the staff do outside their work at the hotels. So many of them are incredible artists that we are able to showcase too. We have musicians, actors, jewellery makers, photographers, ceramicists, movie directors... the list is long, really.

"Service is as important as design. All of it is about taking care of people holistically, in as much a hospitable and compassionate sense as an aesthetic sense."

Kelly Sawdon

I can imagine it's a special experience getting to work with lots of local creatives on all the individual components of making a hotel - like the robes, furniture, menus, magazines etc?

It what attracted me to this industry and why Alex Calderwood started Ace in the first place. Hotels are an opportunity to bring in a wide variety of businesses under one roof. We are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with people we have long admired and are inspired by. With the help of friends and kindred spirits, we’ve been able to expand our activity beyond just hotel rooms: we’ve opened venues, art galleries, restaurants, coffee shops and events, and we’ve developed a full selection of collaborative products that can be found in our hotels and on our online shop. I’m particularly excited for guests to see the beautiful blanket that LA-based studio RTH custom-designed for our Chicago guestrooms, woven from the softest milled wool from Iowa's Amana Woolen Mills. 

And this culture Ace Hotel has created, was something done early-on in collaboration with the late Alex Calderood right? Who else on the team helped create this vision?

Alex was a magnet for creativity. He was all about making human connections and would look for that special spark in every person he’d meet, finding a way to incorporate it in into an idea or a project. In that way, Ace has always been about fostering collaboration and the people we admire. For having now opened ten hotels, our team is still pretty small and feels like a family, where each member helps us continually evolve. That’s the one constant, really — continual evolution. 

For our 2014 Semi Permanent Sydney event, along with John C Jay, Alex was actually the first speaker confirmed to come and present but sadly he passed away shortly after and John came in his place. It’s quite a special thing to leave such a huge mark on his friends, business colleagues and people just wanting to enjoy their holidays. What does his legacy mean to you?

We were both business partners and the best of friends; losing him was both a massive professional and personal loss. He inspired, supported and encouraged people from every walk of life to be fearless, push boundaries and never let people discourage you because you’re different. He was a brilliant visionary that lacked ego and truly loved making things with his friends and people he admired. To carry on the Ace brand with a team of people he helped attract is both a challenge and an honour. He put so much of himself into our team and our projects and to be able to carry on that legacy with our team and our extended family has been incredible. 

The Atelier Ace PDX office
The Atelier Ace PDX office

So we’d love to know a little more about Atelier Ace. From what we can see, it’s a central creative agency that is the heart of all the decisions Ace Hotel make on their hotels, collaborations, events and so on. Can you tell us a little more?

We call ourselves a Band of Misfit Toys. Our approach is unorthodox and constantly evolving. We don’t really approach things the same way ever. Atelier Ace is our in-house, all-inclusive creative agency behind our hotels, restaurants, digital outlets, cafes, collaborations, events — and all the other thousand things we do. It’s really a workshop, a kind of laboratory of experimentation, where a small group of thinkers, enthusiasts, optimists and curious friends with the creative spark come together and re-imagine what a hotel experience could be. How can we take our ethos of 'friends taking care of friends' to new places? How can we be better neighbours? These are questions we are constantly asking. We design the world we want to live in. 

What’s a piece of business advice you might give to a younger Kelly Sawdon?

  1. Take risks and don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. 
  2. Surround yourself with people that know more than you and ask them lots of questions. 
  3. Find people who are culturally curious and always absorbing information and find a way to work with them. 
  4. Learn to LOVE and embrace change….it’s inevitable and shouldn’t be a scary thing. 

Is there someone your look up to for business direction? Maybe a mentor or someone you’ve always been aware of?

I start with what my instincts are telling me and then I consult a handful of friends and family. I don’t have one go-to person but a trusted circle that I regularly consult when I’m making decisions.  

And lastly, please tell us one thing that you think is dramatically going to shape the future of travel?

Over the past couple of years, the community aspect has really become an important facet of the travel industry. As everyone is more and more connected and aware, people are getting more conscious and respectful of the communities that they are going into. The hotels, therefore, have an opportunity and duty, really, to encourage the connectivity between the hotel and the local audience and celebrate the cities they are in. With our hotels, we want to be aware of our impact on both nature and culture, engaging with the people who work and live in the cities. From the way the spaces are designed as open vessels for the community to express itself, to our F&B partners, the in-room art, the cultural programming and even room bookings, we want to focus our efforts on giving back to the local communities. In Chicago, our reservations launch kicked off our community partnerships. For the first month of our booking, we donated a percentage of revenue to Young Chicago Authors, Little Black Pearl and 826CHI, with a goal to raise $25,000. 

Thanks for the time Kelly, now, please get in the pool for us.

The Ace Hotel Chicago is available for reservations. We highly recommend it. 

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