There are experienced hoteliers, and then there are hoteliers like Kelly Sawdon, chief brand officer and partner at Ace Hotel Group, whose work has practically shaped the modern boutique hotel over the previous few decades. (To put it another way, she’s one of our Women Who Go the Extra Mile.) We spoke with her about travel, design, and how she remains ahead of the curve with her ever growing portfolio of hotels, which includes new locations in New York City, New Orleans, and Kyoto.
Please Describe your Role at the Ace Hotel Group
My job entails designing dynamic environments that connect people to projects, cities, and one another. I manage Atelier Ace, our creative firm that provides interior, graphic, and product design, as well as marketing, public relations, and digital services, as well as event and cultural engineering to our portfolio of properties. And I attend a lot of meetings, both locally and internationally. I’m a connector and an idea generator. I enjoy using both my right and left brains, and I get to do so every day at work.
What Method did you Use to get into Hotels?
I began my career with Never stop, a Seattle-based marketing and events business co-founded by Alex Calderwood, who eventually established Ace. I never imagined myself working in hotels (I intended to be a doctor and studied bio-med in college), but everything changed when Alex and I started working together. He was all about putting preconceived beliefs to the test. It was an amazing opportunity to push the envelope, not only in terms of hotels but also in terms of how culture and hospitality connect.
The Ace Hotel made Boutique Hotels Fashionable for both Tourists and Residents. What Goes into Building such Environments?
Ace Hotel has always been about creating worlds that we want to be a part of. We view hospitality as friends looking out for one another. We treat individuals with compassion, empathy, and kindness, and we set out to create pleasant settings for the public to enjoy. We are inspired by locations that teem with life and are cherished in their communities, such as art galleries, off the beaten path restaurants, and very good dive bars, and think of aesthetic hospitality, offering moments of unexpected joy, good design, art, and unique culinary experiences. We make it a point to support and collaborate with enthusiastic individuals and organizations who care about their community and are doing excellent work there.
Kelly’s inspiring, and so are these Women Who Go the Distance.
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Could you Give us an Example of How This Works in Practice?
We were quite pleased to set up shop in Chicago. The city’s ever-evolving design history, as well as the great heroes that came from it, have long inspired us. We were inspired by the Prairie School and New Bauhaus movements in Chicago, as well as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. We utilized materials that echo the basic and uncomplicated style of Chicago to highlight Midwestern workmanship and utilitarian design. We collaborated with the local Volume Gallery and SAIC students to commission creative, useful artwork for the hotel’s rooms and public spaces. The first public events we staged at Ace Hotel Chicago highlighted our community partners and the incredible work of 826CHI, Little Black Pearl, and Young Chicago Authors groups that have long supported Chicago’s youth’s creative growth.
When the Ace Hotel New York first Opened, no one had Heard of “Nomad.” “Flatiron” was all it was. How do you Pick Locations for Hotels?
We adore neighborhoods with distinct personalities, whose identities are a mix of old and modern, and which we believe have immense creative possibilities. We trust our instincts when researching new sites and look for changes that feel right. We fell in love with the Ace Hotel New York, which was part of the Madison Square North Historic District, a neighborhood peppered with costume jewelry shops and generational enterprises and filled with gorgeous turn of the century architecture. We loved that Midtown is a central throughway in the city with easy access to the rest of Manhattan and Brooklyn and that it has such a rich history and distinct identity. One of New York’s enduring characteristics is its ability to evolve and reinvent itself while remaining true to its roots. We were thrilled to become a part of this tradition.
What’s the Difference between Hotels on the West Coast, East Coast, and Abroad?
There isn’t a predetermined formula or plan. We approach each property with a fresh perspective, guided by its architectural heritage. The Ace Hotel New York is located in a 1904 building that was once known as the Breslin Hotel. We kept the original characteristics, such as the beautiful mosaic floors in the foyer, while adding our flair. Because of the city’s mild climate, we were allowed to depart from traditional public spaces at Ace Hotel Los Angeles. The all day Parisian cafe and restaurant Best Girl connects the lobby to the outside, while the enormous public rooftop pool and lounge offer a place to meet, read a book, or relax in the sun. The Theatre was where architecture influenced design the most. It was founded in the 1920s by Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin as United Artists’ flagship movie theatre. The beautiful palace now hosts large scale concerts, significant movie premieres, and dance events following meticulous renovation.
Please tell us More About the Ace Hotel Kyoto. Was it so difficult to get off the ground?
Ace Hotel Kyoto was conceived more than a decade ago as a fantasy project. People were shocked that we chose Kyoto over Tokyo, but Kyoto is Japan’s cultural capital, and we connected with its profound history of craft and appreciation of nature. Everything from the architecture to the music to the gardens was done in collaboration with hyperlocal actors. For example, the hotel exteriors were designed by famed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and his team KKAA, whom we’ve long respected. At the same time, we’re an American company, which is one of the reasons Kyoto was so welcome there’s mutual respect’s history and tradition, as well as an opportunity to collaborate on something new.