It is a bright February day in Zurich and Olivia Byrne is gushing about how wonderful the city looks. It does, though underlying her enthusiasm may be the fact that, following our chat over coffee, she will be on her way “home” to see her parents in Gstaad.
The pretty Paris-born hotelier calls the Swiss mountain resort home, despite spending most of her time running an award-winning boutique hotel in central London as the city’s youngest hotel owner – she is just 28.
“London is my ‘work home’. When you live there and then come back here, it’s just so … calming,” she says. “It is hard to explain to people who have never lived in Switzerland, but there is just something about this country. It’s my emotional home.”
Her feeling is not without foundation. Born in Paris to an English father – who owned two hotels there until 25 years ago – and a French mother, she moved around a lot as a child.
She grew to like being in international settings and, when Olivia turned 13, her parents decided to send her to Switzerland’s prestigious Institut Le Rosey on Lake Geneva. Her younger brother James joined her two years later, and their parents then moved to Gstaad to be closer to their children.
“I would recommend the Swiss education system to everyone,” says Olivia. “Switzerland is just the best place to grow up.”
After Le Rosey – and having decided she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and work in the hotel industry – Olivia enrolled at L’École hôtelière de Lausanne, one of the best hospitality management schools in the world. Internships during her studies took her from Monaco to Miami.
She now works in London, where she owns and directs Eccleston Square Hotel, a high-tech boutique hotel in south-west London. Since it opened in 2011, it has racked up a string of awards, including ‘In-Room Technology Innovation’ at the 2011 European Hospitality Awards.
Among the hotel’s features are 3D TVs and in-room iPad service, as well as the “world’s best beds” (handmade in Sweden, they are electronically adjustable with massage functions and retail at £12,000 each). “At the end of the day, we sell sleep,” says Olivia.
With her twenty-something’s glow, it is hard to believe she heads a central London hotel – one that opened when she was just 23 years old.
Olivia’s hotelier father invested in the property, which at the time was a budget hotel. She reveals that the family did consider buying in Geneva, but were concerned business would be restricted to weekdays.
She says: “I am very fortunate that my father took this huge leap of faith. It’s great to have the opportunity to start so young, as you can learn really quickly and gather a lot of experience even before you are 30.
“My parents are also only a Skype call away if I need to discuss an important issue. I’m really lucky to have my dad as my mentor.”
If her father’s finance gave Olivia a head start, her astute business mind has made the hotel a success. She calls Eccleston Square her “everything”, saying that it is “all about making the business successful”. “It’s not about ego,” she says. “I want to learn the business inside out, and make sure that it is the best it can be.
“I would like to open another hotel one day, but for now I am focusing on this one.”
She is keen to point out that her Swiss upbringing played an important role in getting her to where she is today. Referring to Switzerland’s “great international community”, she explains that if you work in hospitality, it is an advantage to feel comfortable around other cultures.
She adds that the network she gained from her schools is invaluable. She says: “Most of London’s big hotels have general managers that went to Lausanne. It feels like a little family.”
Home in Gstaad
I wonder if any Swiss hotels provided inspiration for Eccleston Square. “There are some really aspirational hotels in Gstaad, which we have definitely taken a few ideas from!” she admits with a smile. “We go to The Alpina a lot, and love it. The spa has changed my parents’ lives completely.
Olivia’s eyes light up when she talks about Gstaad, which she returns to as often as she can – usually three or four times a year in between work commitments. “It’s my favourite place,” she says. “It’s so peaceful. In five minutes’ walk I am in the mountains with the cows.”
And with that she’s off into the Alps, leaving Zurich’s busy main station behind, and disappearing into the train bound for home with a swish of her fur-trimmed coat.