Banker turned hotelier
Hotel das Amoreiras
On early experiences of hospitality.
I am Portuguese, born and raised in Lisbon. I attended the Lycée Français school, and my family and I later moved to London. During that time, my father worked at the embassy, which significantly impacted my taste and exposure to the world. Living in England provided me with the opportunity to visit various houses owned by the National Trust and engage in cultural activities such as museum visits, exhibitions, and exploring castles and historic homes. I developed a fascination for interior decorating and wondered about the stories behind those houses and the people who lived there—the glamour and the way they received guests always captivated me.
Stays at hotels often accompanied our visits to these beautiful houses. Despite being young, those experiences left a lasting impression on me. For example, visiting places like Claridge's for high tea was awe-inspiring. I distinctly remember one incident when I noticed a hole in my linen napkin and pointed it out to my father. He responded by saying that the hole had a story behind it, emphasising the beauty of imperfections.
At home, hospitality was prevalent due to my father's official engagements. I witnessed my mother preparing dinners and making arrangements, which provided an excellent education for me.
Upon returning to Lisbon, I pursued a university education and ventured into the banking industry. I spent sixteen years in Geneva, working for major American firms. Geneva was where I met my wife, and our three children were born there. So I hold magnificent memories of that time. However, the passion for hospitality and combining it with interiors and design still lingered in the back of my mind. Setting up a hotel is not the most straightforward career path. But banking and hospitality share certain common interests. Both sectors require high-quality service, attention to detail, and anticipation. With this realisation, I decided to resign from my comfortable and steady career and embark on this new venture.
I took on every aspect of the hotel project, from selecting providers to interior decorating. The only tasks I didn't personally undertake were the construction of the building itself. People would ask me about specific details, such as the height of the sockets, and if I didn't know the answer, I would seek out the information, even visiting establishments like the Four Seasons to measure their sockets. This hands-on experience allowed me to design and produce around 90% of what you see in the hotel.
I wanted the place to be an extension of my experiences and soul. It may not appeal to everyone, and that's the beauty of life—the freedom for someone to appreciate or dislike things. But above all, I wanted a place that exceeded the standard checkboxes of a typical hotel.
On bettering knowledge and seizing the opportunity.
During the hotel's construction phase, I decided to further enhance my knowledge of the hospitality industry and enrolled in a programme at Les Roches, a Swiss school specialising in hospitality education. It was quite a challenging year—combining intensive studies with a total hotel refurbishment while caring for my three children. Nevertheless, the experience proved invaluable, allowing me to understand the sector and its dynamics better.
I remember a younger student approaching me, claiming to know everything about me. I was intrigued and asked for more details. His curiosity revolved around my previous career in banking, considering it to be at the pinnacle of success. I chuckled and explained that one's perception of fulfilment depends entirely on personal preferences and life aspirations. I don't know if he thought I lived near a vault full of money and life was cosy and beautiful. However, my decision to switch careers was driven by a dream and a passion. I firmly believe that everyone needs something that drives them, whether in their personal or professional life. For me, it was a matter of following this passion. This garden square where Hotel das Amoreiras is based is magical for me, and when the opportunity to create the hotel arose, I knew it was meant to be. I bought the first building in 2016, and the second in 2017, eventually combining them to create the hotel I always imagined. I don't think I would have embarked on such a project as easily anywhere else.
In retrospect, I can see the signs leading me towards this dream. It required a great deal of courage. Some may assume I had the financial means, or the building was readily available, but that was not the case. I took on the challenge entirely on my own. And it was a process of collecting experiences and inspiration.
On formulating the hotel's interiors.
Everything that now adorns the hotel, including the artwork and the books, used to grace the walls of my own home. As a result, my personal space has become rather empty, but it was a deliberate choice to infuse the hotel with meaningful elements.
I don't claim to be an expert in interior decorating, as I am still learning and striving to do my best. However, there are a few inspirational references that have greatly influenced me. John Fowler, David Hicks, and Ralph Lauren stand out as masters of their craft. Ralph Lauren, in particular, has achieved remarkable success by pursuing his vision as an outsider. Stepping into one of his shops feels like entering a dream, where he seamlessly combines the American way of life with British tradition. His philosophy of ‘dressing down your formal wear and dressing up your casual wear’ resonates with me. I humbly attempt to capture this essence by incorporating rich textures, such as velvet or solid brass, with rattan and other natural materials with a straw-like quality. Since the hotel overlooks a garden, it is essential to bring nature inside.
But I don't know what my style is. Hopefully, I don't have one because I don't want to repeat myself too much. But of course, I have my personal preferences. So apparently, there are references that it's me who designed it.
Ultimately, I just wanted to create a small hotel where guests don't feel like they're staying in a generic chain hotel, nor do I want them to feel like they're in someone's personal space. It's about striking a balance—a hotel experience that offers the convenience of services, well-functioning elevators, properly closing doors, and all that good stuff, while incorporating the dimensions, materials, and intricate details reminiscent of a private residence. The dimensions should feel human and comfortable.
I’d say it’s a grand hotel experience in a more intimate setting. When guests request tea, they don't receive an ordinary teapot but a delightful tea experience reminiscent of England's finest traditions. Achieving this is akin to dressing appropriately or hosting a dinner. Hosting requires much preparation to ensure everything is done correctly. For instance, I have chosen to embroider the symbol of the hotel on every napkin. While this may seem like an excessive choice, it's not solely about the financial aspect. It represents a mindset and a commitment to providing a unique and romantic atmosphere that guests appreciate and enjoy.
Large hotels, by their nature, struggle to achieve this due to contracts, budgets, and strict deadlines. However, it's possible to infuse soul into a place through the vision of someone—an individual or a team. When you peruse interior decorating magazines today, you may notice that the houses featured are often a checklist of trendy items that are meant to define one's identity. But if you look at magazines from decades ago, you'll see homes of people with diverse cultural backgrounds featuring beautiful colours and materials without focusing on brands. The soul lies not in the accumulation of brand names or what exactly is featured per se. It's an emotion. I want people to say, "I can't quite pinpoint what the hotel had, but it was comfortable and special.” That’s when I’m delighted.
On curation and form versus function.
Most of the items you see in the hotel have been collected over the years. It takes time to curate and gather them. For example, the central painting at the entrance was painted by my father. I collect pieces that hold personal meaning to me, and it's a process that evolves gradually.
In my own living spaces, I prefer not to rush into spending money on things that I might want to change later. My wife sometimes asks what I might use some stuff for, but you never know when certain objects might become useful. I try to exercise self-control, though.
An anecdote: in 2005, the Hotel des Bergues in Geneva was closing down for a complete refurbishment before being taken over by the Four Seasons. They auctioned off many items from the hotel, and I managed to purchase a significant amount of their cutlery. To this day, it is the only cutlery I use at home. It goes through the daily routine—we eat with it, it goes in the dishwasher—and still retains its beauty. The intriguing aspect is that those same utensils were once used by politicians, movie stars, and countless others.
When it comes to big hotels, there's a constant struggle between functionality and aesthetics. While it's vital to be functional to accommodate the needs of many guests, going too far in that direction can result in a lack of beauty or character. But whether it's functionality or aesthetics, it must be done with intention. Forcing things without considering their purpose renders them useless from a functional standpoint. Then again, it's essential to recognise that being 100% functional is not necessary. The beauty of the surrounding context and environment can contribute to the overall balance and create a unique atmosphere in the spaces.
On perseverance and grit.
The most challenging aspect of running a hotel is maintaining the standards. One of the biggest challenges in this regard is effectively managing human resources. When you have a specific way of doing things and a certain vision, it can be difficult to ensure that your staff understands and meets those expectations.
Indeed, the process of creating and sourcing the right materials for the hotel was also challenging. It required finding reliable producers, conducting tests, and obtaining samples. Given the financial constraints, there was little room for error, making the job even tougher. But with perseverance, I managed to establish contacts with numerous producers who found it intriguing that someone without any expertise was approaching them with unique requests. With just a simple drawing on the back of an envelope, they were willing to give it a try, and the results turned out great. It was a highly rewarding experience, but it came at the cost of exhausting nights without sleep and constant anxiety. Undertaking a project of this nature was completely new to me, adding to the challenges and uncertainties.
The good news is that having no prior experience means you have a unique perspective on the hotel industry. While some may criticise your lack of industry experience, you remain undeterred and open to learning from others. You observe and take notes, incorporating constructive feedback into future projects while maintaining your own innovative approach. You understand that many projects in the industry have been done repeatedly, and you strive to make your mark by defying the pressure of market trends and competition. Failure only occurs when one doesn't try. Though you might face numerous challenges and setbacks along the way, you have persevered, worked extremely hard, and brought your ideas to life.
My goal is not to have the best hotel but a memorable one. I'm a perfectionist, which is something that can be detrimental over time. So for now, I want to make Hotel das Amoreiras a solid operational machine before considering the next hotel project—it's good motivation.
When I worked in banking, I used to give examples of hospitality. Let's take the gentleman polishing glasses at the Ritz for the past 25 years—how do you motivate someone to do that job for that many years? It's because he doesn't think his job is just polishing glasses. His job is much greater than that. When you enter the hotel, he'll say, "You see all these tables? All these settings with the flowers and the glasses, all perfectly polished? I did that. I am the one providing these people with a memorable experience." So it was never about just polishing glasses. It's about the experience. And when you think that way, you can polish the glassware for another 25 years.