Faces of change

We meet the women hoteliers who are shaking up their male-dominated industry, one inspirational destination at a time

Sharon Tissera: Hideaway Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka

"My parents built this place in the late 70s," says Sharon Tissera about her charming boutique hotel. "When the war ended in 2009, they wanted to sell it, so I flew back from the States where I’d been living for over 20 years to take it over." It’s easy to see why she’d want to return. Hideaway Arugam Bay is truly a hidden gem – a tranquil oasis nestled in its own little patch of jungle on Sri Lanka’s south-eastern coast where people come for the peaceful surroundings, zen yoga sessions and Ottolenghi-inspired food. 

In a part of Sri Lanka previously known as solely the domain of die-hard surfers and intrepid travellers, Hideaway is well and truly off the beaten track. Today, there’s still no online booking system. Reservations are made by emailing Sharon – a method which helps establish a relationship with guests. "I’ve created something that I like to experience when I travel, a place full of warmth and attention to detail, where you feel taken care of. That’s something you only get with an owner-run hotel."

Valentina de Santis: Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Italy

Valentina de Santis knows exactly how to capture that sense of la dolce vita in her hotel. The formula is simple yet effective – amazing Italian food, a luxurious spa and a killer waterside location set within private parkland. Oh, and a glamorous heritage, of course. With over 100 years of history, the iconic Grand Hotel Tremezzo was the first hotel on Italy’s scenic Lake Como – a legacy Valentina has been keen to highlight and build upon. The result is a hotel where you expect to see Sophia Loren hidden behind oversized shades in every corner. "My inspiration comes from my mother who taught me love for what is beautiful, and reverence for history and tradition," says CEO and owner Valentina. "I believe that respecting our roots is key for the success of a hotel like ours, full of history and love."

Esin Gural Argat: JOALI, Maldives 

Picture-perfect JOALI is everything you’d expect from a dreamy Maldives getaway – luxury over-water villas, pristine white beaches, crystalline waters filled with colourful reefs to explore... But if you can manage to drag your eyes away from the surrounding paradise, you’ll notice other things of beauty in your line of vision. Joali is the Maldives’ first and only immersive art resort, with original artworks scattered across the island for guests to enjoy, each of which have a message of sustainability at their core.

This aesthetic focus is the brainchild of JOALI’s owner, Esin Gural Argat, a Turkish businesswoman who wanted to create a female-orientated resort. "JOALI’s design reflects different talents of being a woman, including our social sensitivity, communication power, our tendency to act with collective mind, and our leadership abilities," explains Esin. Female artistic talent is a key part of this, leading her to launch the Women in Art project in collaboration with the Maldives Art Committee to help address the lack of female representation in the art world. "Our mission is to celebrate talented female artists around the world and to also provide a platform to educate and support local artists," she says. "Unfortunately, there aren’t many opportunities for female artists in the Maldives, but the project aims to support and honour local ones by promoting emerging talent and showcasing their work.’"A perfect example of women supporting women in innovative ways. 

Sandra Perez: Ser CasaSandra, Holbox, Mexico

Isla Holbox on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has always had a laid-back attitude – think car-free streets and barefoot vibes. It was that authenticity and natural appeal which attracted Cuban artist Sandra Perez, who runs an 18-bedroom beachfront hotel here. "I had travelled a lot in the 90s and most of the hotels were very standardized," says Sandra. "None of them felt like home. So I saw my path very clearly in Holbox – I wanted something that allows you to return to nature; either through the arts, the senses, meditation, or even through doing nothing and staying still to be able to listen to yourself."

Having overseen all the design and decoration herself – much of which includes her own art – the result is a stylish hotel that transports the senses. Vision, energy and creativity have built Ser CasaSandra, an end product only Sandra herself could have achieved. But the overall aesthetics aren’t what matter to the artist. "We don’t see our hotel as fashionable," she explains. "Instead, it’s a home."

Olga and Alex Polizzi: The Polizzi Collection

"The key to a successful hotel is good service," says Olga Polizzi, owner of The Polizzi Collection, which includes the luxurious Hotel Tresanton in Cornwall and Hotel Endsleigh in Devon. "Without this people won’t come back.  We want to look after people." Clearly, she’s doing a good job, as The Polizzi Collection is launching its third hotel, The Star in East Sussex – an official joint venture between Olga and her daughter, Alex. Together, the mother-daughter duo have renovated the 16th century inn, which sits in the pretty medieval village of Alfriston in the South Downs National Park. "I like to design the hotels in line with what I’d do in my own house," explains Olga. "They have lots of local art and antiques, and every room is different."

The meticulously curated end product is a result of not only hard work, but hard-won experience, too. "Everybody thinks they can run a hotel," says Alex, "But it is not easy to do well. Mum and I both know the business and we are both pulling in the same direction. We work well together as hoteliers because we both have different roles. Mum is of course in charge of the design of the hotels and I tend to lead on the restaurants." Together, it looks like they’ve hit upon a winning, female-dominated formula.

Jeanette Mix: Ett Hem, Stockholm

It’s not often that you find a townhouse hotel which feels like a relaxing escape. All too often, the hustle and bustle of its urban surroundings overwhelm, and the lack of green space feels claustrophobic. Not so at Ett Hem, which sits in one of Stockholm’s leafiest districts, and acts as a lesson in cool yet cosy Scandinavian design. The brainchild of owner Jeanette Mix (who incidentally lives just around the corner), the hotel is based around the concept of being in someone’s private residence. Even the name – Ett Hem – is Swedish for ‘at home’. But alongside the beautiful interiors, the ethos weaves into meal times, too. Think communal dining, an open kitchen and an honesty bar in the living room for night caps. Perfect for those not quite ready to leave behind lockdown’s ‘stay home’ mentality on their holidays…

Meryanne Loum-Martin: Jnane Tamsna, Morocco

"There is something very feminine about boutique hotels," says interior designer and hotelier Meryanne Loum-Martin. "The design, the flowers, the welcome, the colours – it can be an ideal space for feminine creativity. It’s why women make brilliant boutique hoteliers." The proof for this lies in Meryanne’s own boutique hotel, Jnane Tamsna – a peaceful oasis set in nine acres of lush gardens just outside of atmospheric Marrakech. "Going from being a Parisian lawyer to designing my own place and running it satisfied my craving for being creative," she says. 

Thankfully, the career change paid off, with the clear focus on creativity making Jnane Tamsna a truly special escape for guests. "The industry is divided into two types of hotel," explains Meryanne. "The first is large and corporate, usually run very professionally by people who came out of hospitality school. The second is a boutique hotel, often run by owners managing the place of their dreams and often created by them so that the place becomes much more personal." Intimacy and creativity – a recipe for the most transportive holiday experience.

Janelle Hopkin: Spice Island Beach Resort, Grenada

On the small ‘Spice Island’ of Grenada, one hotel stands out from the crowd. Sure, it’s got a beautiful beachside location on Grand Anse (hands down the best beach on the island) and all the usual five star frills. But what differentiates Spice Island Beach Resort is the old school Caribbean hospitality it offers – think dressing for dinner and weekly cocktail parties in the seafront garden at the Hopkin family residence. These are hosted by Janelle Hopkin, the hotel’s President and Managing Director who took over at the helm from her late father, Sir Royston. 

"As a woman in the hospitality field, I often hear the argument that women are more naturally nurturing and so can bring that to their individual roles," says Janelle. "But success in this role is really a result of passion and training – anyone can succeed if they put in the work". Yet as a woman hotelier, Janelle is well aware that she is still a rare breed. "There are many women in the hospitality industry, but what we need is more of them in the top leadership positions. I’m lucky to be supported by my sister and mother, who both help to shape our family business, but I would love to see more women rise in this industry."