10 Questions with Liz Biden
10 Questions with Liz Biden
Liz Biden has been delighting visitors to South Africa with her unique charm, distinct style of design and generous hospitality for nearly 20 years.
Visiting any one of The Royal Portfolio properties is an amalgamation of experiences that leaves a lasting impression on even the most well travelled of guests. Plush, brightly coloured furniture, vintage ornaments, and opulent chandeliers are positioned alongside eclectic, quirky decors while magnificent works of art adorn the walls.
Liz Biden, founder and owner of The Royal Portfolio, is the maestro behind these majestically orchestrated interiors, an industry pioneer that, according to Vanity Fair. puts the ‘hot’ into ‘hotelier’. Superior, personalised service, destination specific experiences, luxurious spaces and a distinct style that infuses each of The Royal Portfolio’s properties are the common threads running through Liz’s award winning hotels.
We recently caught up with Liz to glean a few insights into her unique style of design, and to chat about The Royal Portfolio as it goes from strength to strength.
Tell us about the first few years of The Royal Portfolio – What inspired you to start this family business?
I began the Royal Portfolio at age fifty when I sold my fashion business. I retired for two days and then made a proposal to my husband that I was going to convert our holiday homes into private hotels.
We were very fortunate to have a beautiful place in the African bush. We wanted to share all of our incredible memories and experiences with others, and so we decided to convert our family home into a luxurious lodge which is now Royal Malewane.
We then did the same to Birkenhead House which had been our beach house for twelve years, and La Residence which was our smallholding in Franschhoek. We spent many years looking for the perfect spot in Cape Town and were thrilled when the opportunity at The Silo came along. It really completed our circuit around South Africa.
Since then we haven’t looked back and have continued to share more unique South African experiences with our guests, our friends and our growing family.
How does The Royal Portfolio differ from other luxury hotel brands?
Our remarkable staff and the highly personalised service at each of our properties. Giving our guests a complete experience and a perfect stay is what The Royal Portfolio is all about. There are certainly some common threads which run throughout our properties, but each property has a distinct sense of place. Being a family run business, we strive to make each of our properties a home away from home for our guests, making each stay an extremely personalised experience.
What does luxury mean to you?
For me luxury means providing value and superior, personalised service, and creating unique experiences for our guests. Increasingly, guests are looking for special moments to share with their loved ones, and so it’s up to us to create and offer those exceptional experiences at each of our hotels. Luxury means comfort and the opportunity to share breath-taking experiences with family and friends.
Tell us about your design process? What is your end goal?
The ultimate goal is to provide our guests with beautiful, comfortable and exciting interiors. I want our guests to leave with an extremely positive view of our beautiful country and to return home as advocates of South Africa. I love to promote our local creative talent to the international travellers staying at each of our wonderful properties.
I like our properties to be timeless and to stay true to the iconic destinations in which they are located. Destination specific design is a key part of the guest experience.
Every room is different and each space is unique. I first need to get a feel for the space – to spend time in the space and watch the space and light evolve throughout the day. I tend to start by introducing a piece of furniture, fabric, carpet, or painting into the space. Something that I love or that has really caught my eye. One of these items will then guide the subsequent design process and the room will take shape from there.
I love to mix things up – to place something serious next to something fanciful, something new next to something old and something expressive next to something more muted. I also love art. Art is what really brings the space to life and gives it personality.
But for me the key is comfort. Our guests need to be able to enjoy a space and to feel as if they are at home. Not like they are in a museum.
Luxury includes the opportunity to share unique, breath-taking experiences with family and friends.
You’re particularly well-travelled. Have your travels had any influence on The Royal Portfolio brand?
I love traveling to unfamiliar destinations, meeting new people and experiencing the wonderful hotels the world has to offer. You can learn something valuable from each destination and hotel. A lot of my inspiration comes from various ornaments, fabrics, and designs I have seen during our travels. I have tried to incorporate these ideas into local industry, using South African artists or designers wherever possible.
I’d love to inspire young artists, and to promote our local creative talent to the international travellers staying at each of our wonderful properties.
What have you learned about opening boutique hotels over the years and accommodating celebrities such as Sir Elton John, Richard Gere, Bono, Ivanka Trump, and Jourdan Dunn. How do you keep them coming back? Which is Sir Elton John’s favourite room?
Running a hotel requires a huge amount of work and personal attention. You need to be present at each property as much as possible. The work does not stop once the hotel has opened, it’s a constant work in progress. I try to spend time at each of our properties every month, fine tuning everything from the décor to the dining experiences and service. Despite the hard work, I absolutely love the process!
Our properties are all very small and exclusive. I think that celebrities enjoy the privacy and the freedom at our hotels as well as the discreet but attentive service. And of course the beautiful destinations that we are so spoilt with in South Africa. Sir Elton John loves to stay in the Maharani Suite at La Residence and in the Royal Suites at Royal Malewane.
Most of your hotels have been existing buildings that you’ve redeveloped – how important is it to you to draw on the building heritage and history in the new interior design and how do you balance that with your own vision for the space?
Each of our properties has its own unique characteristics and history. For the most part, the design will have similarities to the building’s heritage, and the interiors either highlight the characteristic, or augment one’s experience of the building and its surroundings. For example, our safari lodge at Royal Malewane has furniture and interiors which enhance the classical and romantic safari experience.
That said, I always try to brighten things up with the odd splash of bright colour and quirky patterns. The interiors of The Silo Hotel for instance are in stark contrast to the raw, industrial feel of the building’s exterior.
Each room adopts its own unique, often bright and daring colour-scheme. However, the building’s heritage remains an important attribute that has been silently incorporated into the interiors.
What’s the secret behind running a successful luxury hotel brand?
I believe one of the most important factors in building up and maintaining a successful brand is to consistently engage with it, ensuring that it is nothing but the best it can possibly be. For a luxury travel brand and hotel group this is particularly important.
I try to stay at our properties as much as possible. By being present and experiencing what our guests experience, I can actively ensure that the service and guest experience continues to improve, adapt, and stays consistent throughout our portfolio.
I believe one of the most important factors in building up and maintaining a successful brand is to consistently engage with it
Understanding our guests and their needs is critical. And I believe that our hotels should constantly evolve and improve – we need fresh ideas to keep things exciting.
This could be something as simple as mixing up the artwork in a room or reupholstering a lovely chair with a beautiful new fabric.
Apart from your design process, what else do you aim to achieve with each of The Royal Portfolio properties?
Uplifting local communities, promoting conservation and protecting the environment are core company values of The Royal Portfolio. I believe that this is an intrinsic part of doing business in Africa. We’ve just established The Royal Portfolio Foundation which will formally address these core company values and ensure we are doing our part in giving back.
It is essential that we use our properties to promote South Africa as a beautiful destination for travellers to visit from all corners of the world.
Each property has various programmes aimed at uplifting local communities and protecting the environment. Giving back is an intrinsic part of doing business in Africa.
It is also essential that we use our properties to promote South Africa as a beautiful destination for travelers to visit from all corners of the world. Tourism has such a positive impact on our country, so it’s important that we market the destination together with our properties.
What’s in the pipeline for The Royal Portfolio?
We recently completed a big refurbishment at Royal Malewane which included the magical new Masiya Bar. We’re also very excited about The Farmstead at Royal Malewane which will open on 1 June 2019. Building is already well under way, and this new space is going to be a fantastic addition to our safari experience.
We’re also looking at opportunities in Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls and at Gorongosa in Mozambique. These two projects will add some exciting new experiences for our guests.
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