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Q&A niki leondakis,

President and CEO, Commune Hotels & Resorts

Named one of the '100 Most Influential Women' by the San Francisco Business Times every year from 2002 to 2010, recognized as one of' 30 Women Power Players' by Nation's Restaurant News in 2002, and one of the 'Most Powerful Women in Travel' by Travel Agent Magazine - phew, this woman is formidable indeed.  Who can live up to all these accolades and many more? Well Niki Leondakis can.  Commune Hotels & Resorts, the joint venture created last year between lifestyle operators Thompson Hotels and Joie de Vivre, recently named Niki Leondakis as its new CEO. Leondakis starts at Commune on November 26 after working for nearly 20 years at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurant Group, San Francisco, where she most recently served as president and chief operating officer. Leondakis also serves as Chair of the Worldwide Board for Dress for Success, an international nonprofit organization that provides job interview suits and career development assistance to low-income women. 

What inspired you to get involved in the hotel industry in the first place?
Hospitality has always been a part of who I am. When I was a child, my grandmother owned a Greek diner. I remember one breakfast when she set the table with Wedgewood pale blue and white china, starched white linens, silver flatware and included a grapefruit knife and crystal juice glass. She talked me through each step and taught me the importance of paying attention to every detail in cooking, serving and presenting food.
 
What is the single best/defining thing about Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants?
Superior customer care separates Kimpton from its competition. Building a boutique hotel brand requires a genuine dedication to understanding and anticipating guest needs, which is a value we hold dear.
Care is at the heart of our brand. Every day I am humbled by stories of employees going above and beyond their job description to comfort a guest, solve an emergency or support one another. It's a certain connection to the heart that we look for in the hiring process. It's something that has been with us since Bill Kimpton founded the company in 1981. It's about integrity, genuine kindness and the ability to emotionally connect with people. We hire people with big hearts

What is the next big luxury travel trend?
Right now, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the virtual travel experience. Real time platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Four Square, along with applications popping up constantly, are making a big impact on how people plan travel and experience a destination. New social communities offer authentic (trusted) recommendations for every aspect of a trip, from restaurant recommendations to secret shopping haunts.

What is your own personal litmus test for whether a hotel is worthy of the 'luxury' tag?
The word luxury can mean different things to different people. For me, it's unwinding on the road. It's feeling at ease and personally cared for by people that I like and trust are looking out for my interests as an individual.

Hotel Palomar, San Diego
Hotel Palomar, San Diego

Apart from your own, what are your favourite hotels/resorts? (and why)
I love staying at Aman Resorts. The service is impeccable and genuinely caring, the resorts are unpretentious yet beautifully designed to reflect the nature and culture of the locale and they offer authentic and unique experiences. One of my favorites is at Amankora Punakha, Bhutan. The eight suite lodge compound is centered around a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse built as a residence by the Queen Mother to oversee the surrounding rice fields and plantations.

What is your favourite city to visit?
Hong Kong. It's international, diverse, has world class hotels, shopping and restaurants that coexist with old world Chinese traditions, exotic cultural influences and traces of British culture.

What is your best overseas dining experience?
As an operator of more than 50 restaurants across the country, each with their own individual concept, chef, menu, design and cuisine, it's always exciting when I discover something new and different. On a recent trip to Peru, I was thrilled with the locally inspired Amazonian and Peruvian cuisine I experienced in the dining room of the M/V Aqua, a 135 foot luxury cruise ship, while traveling down the Peruvian Amazon. The extraordinary Peruvian fare is created by Executive Chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino from Lima, using local ingredients paired with South American wines.

What is your favorite airline for business or first class? Why?
Singapore Airlines partly because I have a passion for traveling throughout Asia and because the individual suites and reclining leather seats in First and Business class are as comfortable as you can get. They have an outstanding line-up of internationally acclaimed chefs creating the meals and they are part of Star Alliance which allows me to use the hard earned miles from all of my business travel for seat upgrades.

hotel monaco baltimore
Hotel Monaco Baltimore
What three things do you never travel without?
Collapsible running shoes, lavender scented sanitizing towelettes and a lightweight cashmere wrap for the airplane that doubles as a scarf.

What is the one travel experience you will never forget?
While traveling in Tibet, standing on a mountaintop amongst fluttering prayer flags and crimson robed monks overlooking the tops of the Himalayas.

What is the most important thing (travelwise) that money CAN buy?
An airline ticket.

What is the most important thing it CAN'T buy?
An experience. It's up to you to create your own memories and truly explore a new culture and destination.
LEONDAKIS' CHOICES:
Aman Resorts www.amanresorts.com
Singapore Airlines www.singaporeair.comsingaporeair.com
Luxury Links: www.kimpton.com
Posted 20/11/11
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