INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects
HELEN GREGORIOS-PIPPAS

World Interiors News met freelance FF&E consultant, Helen Gregorios-Pippas, at 'Ladies of Leisure' in London, a networking event for women who work in the hospitality industry. Over breakfast Annalisa asked Helen about her career highlights and the projects she is currently working on.

How long have you been involved with the Ladies of Leisure group?

It was my first meeting! My sister Sophie Gregorios has been involved with the group for five years in her role as Managing Director of Red Lion Leisure - our family's hotel group. She suggested I went along to take advantage of the good networking opportunities and to chat about my new hotel marketing and FF&E (Furniture, Fixtures & Equipment) business.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, what were you up to before your involvement in hotel design?

Technically, my background is marketing and communication, but hotels are in my blood as they've always been my family's business. Career highlights include running my own independent record label in the US and marketing European Funding programmes to small businesses. Both very different but have given me plenty of transferable skills to work in hotel design. I got involved with my family's hotel refurbishment project when I was made redundant from a Communication Manager role in the public sector.

Although I have taken an interior design course, I don't consider myself an interior designer, I'm more of an FF&E consultant. FF&E may not be as glamorous as interior design and some FF&E specialists are all about procurement rather than design, but that's definitely not me! I don't believe you have to compromise on design just so something can be fit for purpose. It's also being clever with budget. Re-using excess bathroom tiles in the loos for example, so you can buy a certain cushion fabric you've fallen in love with is a smart decision. You just have to be fantastically organised, skilled at negotiating, yet still have a creative eye on how to make something look right and work practically in the space. It may be obvious but you also have to know and understand hotels!

Having undertaken the FF&E for my family's hotel, I was approached by the interior designer to do the same work for another hotel in London. I then thought I could make this a business but somehow I needed to incorporate my marketing experience with hotels and FF&E. So, I decided to merge all three areas to offer a unique service. It's particularly aimed at those who may be considering a hotel refurbishment or upgrade project but don't have the skills or resource in-house to manage the design and FF&E. In addition, I can also help with pre and post-opening marketing, sales and marketing strategies, launch events, competitor analysis and so on.

I also do a lot of internal communications work with hotels around culture and change. I'm working with a small hotel at the moment whose 'churn' rate is really high and they struggle to recruit good staff. I am looking at why that is and what they can do to change things such as different ways to recruit and how to keep the staff they already have. Unfortunately in the hotel business, good design doesn't stop at the style of chairs or the linen thread-count, it doesn't matter how amazing the hotel looks if the service is poor or the staff are unhappy. Trying to get hotel managers to understand how the culture of their hotel affects their bottom line is something I really feel passionate about. Large hotel groups already recognise the value of an effective IC programme but it's in smaller ones where sometimes I feel Basil Fawlty is alive and well!

The Red Lion hotel in Cambridge is a stunning project. I believe this is your family's hotel?

Thank you, it's been in our family for nearly 40 years, my parents met there! When my father retired, he didn't want to sell but it was not economically viable to continue running it as a very dated, country pub with a few rooms. We took advice from Peter Gee of Leisure Dreams and decided to radically change the business model. If we were going to survive as a business, we needed more bedrooms and better conference facilities, so we built a second, branded hotel (Holiday Inn Express) in the grounds of the Red Lion. The Red Lion was then completely refurbished which included adding a large, glass atrium and conference room that seats 140. The whole project from initial feasibility studies, to getting planning permission, securing funding and the build itself, took over three years.

How did you come to design the interiors, and what was your level of involvement?

Sue Wheldon of Brand Architects designed the interiors, but I was heavily involved from the start of the project which included briefing and selecting the interior designer. Because of the nature of the building (13th Century and Grade II listed) the interior design and fit-out had to be a very collaborative process between client and designer. Sue presented the concept and colour schemes, which my sister and I signed off. I then undertook sourcing and procuring the FF&E. My knowledge of every nook and cranny of the Red Lion helped ensure that what looked great on a concept board could be translated in reality and within budget.

Although the reason we chose Sue in the first place was because we felt she understood the building and its challenges the best, it was very much a joint effort. Latterly my involvement has included everything from our Food and Beverage offering (we serve contemporary British food) to the fun-stuff of crockery, cutlery, staff uniforms and hospitality products. The sea-salted caramel fudge in the bedrooms is the one thing our customers write about most on our comment cards!

What was the most challenging part of the project?

On the interiors side, it probably has to be scrabbling around trying to choose and order light fittings in time for the August shut down. I used to call the supplier one day and they told me stock levels but by the next day, they had all gone. Then I'd choose something else and they'd go too. There was no time for samples so I had to order large quantities of fittings without seeing the product and to compound it all, everyone wanted pro-forma invoices which also held up the process. I think I got all the lights for the bedrooms and public areas from about 15 different suppliers in total. Then, we ran out of budget for the 'statement' light in the atrium so in the end my mum found a huge brass chandelier for £35 in an auction, which my brother sprayed black. Because of the height of the glass roof it actually looks like it was made for it, a good example of being clever with your budget!

The Red Lion has a unique relationship with Holiday Inn Express, how does that work?

Both hotels are owned by Red Lion Leisure, our family's hotel group, but are managed by Chardon Management who are based in Scotland. It is a unique set-up having two completely different hotels 400m apart, but they complement one another perfectly, both in look and operationally. The modern 'box' of a Holiday Inn Express may sit opposite a 13th Century building (which used to be a monastery), but its exterior is clad in larch, so in time it will weather to blend more seamlessly into the countryside surroundings. Additionally, the exterior of the Red Lion has been painted in Farrow and Ball greys to give it a contemporary look which contrasts nicely against its more modern neighbour.

Guests like the dual set-up too. They now have a choice of facilities and comfort. For example; the Holiday Inn Express doesn't have a restaurant, but guests that stay there can eat in the restaurant at the Red Lion with only one bill to pay when they check out. Conference organisers like it because they can use the 73 bedrooms at the Holiday Inn Express for delegates that are holding meetings in the Red Lion conference centre. This is in addition to the 18 bedrooms at the Red Lion. Previously, we were never able to offer a 24hr day delegate rate because whilst we had the meeting-room space, the old Red Lion didn't have the accommodation capacity.

Tell me about your latest hotel project in Victoria, how will it stack up against the many hotels in the area?

The Belgrave is a 73 bedroom, independently run hotel about a stones through from Victoria station in London. It used to be a Days Inn but is now undergoing extensive refurbishment to an IHG 'Hotel Indigo' standard. I managed the FF&E for the bedrooms and public areas. This includes all furniture (except case goods), bespoke lighting, accessories, hospitality products and artwork. The Belgrave offers four levels of comfort across the bedrooms which are distinguished by different colour-ways. All bedrooms have wooden floors, Vitra sanitary ware, (the suites have Alessi sinks) and very sophisticated data and technology. Unlike many of the hotels in the area and in line with 'Indigo' brand standards, the Belgrave will have its own 'neighbourhood' restaurant and a meeting room.

The Belgrave opened in late October, do you have another project lined up, or are you looking to try something new?

At the moment I'm open to possibilities. Ideally I would like to work on another hotel project wherever that may be, or take on some marketing for a new establishment that's just been renovated or about to be. I have been talking with a client about doing the FF&E for another London hotel refurbishment but we'll see. It's often a waiting game when large projects with equally large budgets are involved. My sister will hopefully have another hotel development project starting toward the end of the year so I could end up working on that whichwould be my biggest hotel yet.

What would be your dream project?

I would love to work on a hotel in Ireland. The country has been so badly hit by the recession and global financial crisis that a lot of their hotels are barely scraping by and in dire need of updating. Sadly noone is doing that kind of investment any more unless it's an oversees hotel developer with deep pockets and a strong vision. The right property, which could be updated into a lovely, boutique hotel with a great restaurant showcasing fantastic Irish produce could do well - the Cliff House Hotel, in Waterford is a good example.

And finally... what 5 things could you not live without?

My Kitchen Aid mixer; Diptique candles; my Network Railcard - I'm forever on the Cambridge-Kings Cross line, it's saved me a fortune; Barrys Tea - it's Irish and the strongest tea you'll ever drink, my boyfriend's family bring it over for me; and my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Betty, who can be so naughty I've often considered making her into a pair of UGG boots...

Helen Gregorios-Pippas can be contacted at:
helengp@btinternet.com or 07966 270017 or 01223 832047

See the Red Lion at Whittlesford Bridge at www.redlionwhittlesfordbridge.com or its neighbour www.hiexpresscambridgeduxford.co.uk