Liz Biden: Founder & CEO, The Royal Portfolio

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Liz Biden is the Founder & CEO of The Royal Portfolio. The Royal Portfolio is a family owned and run group of luxury, boutique hotels located in iconic destinations across Southern Africa. The Royal Portfolio started in 1999 when Liz and Phil Biden decided to turn their family bush lodge in the Greater Kruger National Park into a private safari lodge. Liz started her business career as the major shareholder in Jenni Button, a chain of seven high fashion boutiques in South Africa. After the successful sale of this in 1998, she started developing The Royal Portfolio. She has designed, built and decorated all the properties that make up The Royal Portfolio. In addition, she sets the standard in all forms of service and has built a reputation among the top agents in the world. She is tireless in her efforts to create the best hotel group in the world.

How did you get into the industry?

In the late nineties, Phil (my husband) and I sold our shares at Jenni Button and left the South African fashion industry to turn our family holiday home in the bush into what is now Royal Malewane. It was a fit of madness really, I didn’t know anything about how to create or run hotels. I just wanted to share the wonderful spaces that we were privileged to enjoy as a family with others.   

And yet, since January of 2000, Liz Biden and this luxury safari lodge have experienced fabulous recognition with awards like No.3 in Travel + Leisure World’s Best Hotel awards, a “Best Destinations” award from Forbes Magazine, and one of the “Top 57 Hot Spots in the World” by Condé Nast Traveler.

With so much confidence from Royal Malewane, we decided to turn our beach house in Hermanus into a second hotel, Birkenhead House. It was addictive – next we opened La Residence in Franschhoek.

La Residence was voted the No. 1 hotel in the world in the Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards 2013 and won the Travel + Leisure Magazine World's Best Award for the Best Resort Hotel in Africa & The Middle East in 2016.

Any emerging industry trends?

I think that guests are looking for ever more personal and unique experiences. Experiential travel is clichéd now but I think it is more relevant than ever – it has simply evolved to increasingly more interesting, intimate and bespoke experiences that allow guests to experience the soul of a destination in the way that they want to experience it.  

As a family run business, I have been delighted by the increase in multi-generational travel. It is wonderful to see different types of families enjoying themselves at our hotels and I think that it’s important that we adapt to accommodate these different family units and structures including single parents and same sex families.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

I think that technology will play a critical role in the travel industry over the next ten years – particularly in an industry that has traditionally been slow to adapt. Many ‘disruptors’ seem to be entering the market affecting the traditional travel channels forcing businesses to evolve and question traditional models.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

As mentioned above, I really just wanted to share the beautiful places that we were privileged to enjoy as a family, with others. But it was addictive and soon after opening Royal Malewane, we opened Birkenhead House and then La Residence. We had always wanted to open a hotel in our home town of Cape Town but had always been waiting for the right opportunity and the perfect property – that opportunity came along in the form of The Silo Hotel in the V&A Waterfront – a hotel that will complete a wonderful circuit of South African travel experiences.

We’re always open to new opportunities though that fit with our company purpose – to give guests a complete experience and a perfect stay. To those ends, we have been exploring opportunities in Gorongosa in Mozambique and at Victoria Falls – two wonderful destinations for visitors to Africa.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

We’re opening The Silo Hotel in Cape Town in March 2017. For us, this will complete a circuit of quintessentially South African luxury travel experiences, allowing guests to experience the best of South Africa with a safari experience, a wine country experience, a coastal experience and now the art and culture of Cape Town.

We are focusing on controlling the guest experience from end to end and connecting the dots between our properties to ensure a complete guest experience in keeping with the standards of The Royal Portfolio. 

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

Culture is critical. And even more so as a small, family business. As we grow and welcome The Silo Hotel into The Royal Portfolio is it is crucial that we retain that culture which we do through our Purpose & Values.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

A very influential guest came to spend his honeymoon at Royal Malewane. His new bride put her silk wedding outfit into the bush laundry. It came out many sizes smaller than it had been. With great trepidation I walked down to the Royal Suite and told them the unfortunate story. I apologized and said I could not replace it but I would like to offer him two complimentary nights at one of our properties in return. I could have pointed out that he had signed the form which clearly stated bush laundry only.  I learnt a great lesson. Face your disasters head on. Admit your mistakes even if you feel it wasn't your fault. Don't give any excuses and offer something in return. He became a firm supported and advocate of The Royal Portfolio.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

Our guest experience is at the heart of everything that we do. Guest enjoyment is paramount and is the cornerstone of The Royal Portfolio’s Purpose & Values. Each of our properties offers a unique experience. It’s impossible to pick one experience – it is as much a delight for me today as the day we started to see guests coming face to face with an elephant for the first time at Royal Malewane or looking out at a Southern Right Whale from the patio at Birkenhead House. Or simply relaxing with a glass of wine among the vineyards at La Residence, taking time out and relaxing away from their busy lives.

How do you motivate others?

We are very fortunate to have such a wonderful team at The Royal Portfolio. And an incredibly loyal team – many of our team have been with us from day one. And I think that is because we really are a family business and we believe that every member of staff is a part of that family. Mutual respect is another cornerstone of our culture – we believe passionately in creating an environment where individuals can grow and express their full potential.

Career advice to those in your industry?

I believe it’s important to just get involved. Get a foot in the door wherever you can and work your way up. With the right attitude and work ethic it is quite possible to go far in hospitality.
It is such a privilege to do something that I love – it never feels like work to me – I love seeing our guests relax and enjoy themselves. I suppose in that sense that hospitality is more of a lifestyle and it certainly isn’t for everyone – one must love people, travel and generous hospitality.