Talking Design With The Royal Portfolio’s Liz Biden

High-end design and graceful luxury seem to come together almost effortlessly at South Africa’s The Royal Portfolio brand. The company features iconic properties such as The Silo in Cape Town and La Residence in the nearby wine country of Franschhoek.

We spoke with founder and CEO Liz Biden—who also heads up the interior design of the company—about her design inspirations and what’s ahead for the brand.

TP: You sort of evolved into the hospitality industry, turning your one-time family holiday home in the bush into Royal Malewane in 1999. What about that experience convinced you to move forward and keep opening new properties?

LB: I think it was the pleasure of seeing how much our guests enjoyed the experience at Royal Malewane. It has always given me great pleasure seeing our guests relax and enjoy our properties and to share South Africa with our overseas visitors. And I really enjoyed it—I am fortunate that it has never felt like work to me.

TP: Associates at The Royal Portfolio are some of the most professional we’ve encountered in the hospitality industry. Talk a little about how you train your staff. Being newcomers to the hospitality industry, how did you develop your training programs?

LB: We are fortunate to have an incredible team at The Royal Portfolio. We have always tried to do things our own way and do all our training in-house. Our company culture is extremely strong, and we use our Purpose & Values to guide everything that we do.

Our Purpose is ‘To Give Our Guests a Complete Experience and a Perfect Stay.’ Every member of staff is a part of our family and each can recite our Purpose & Values. I believe that it is by placing our guests at the heart of everything that we are able to deliver something special in terms of service and experience.

TP: The Silo has quickly become an icon in Cape Town. What was your role in the design? How do you feel about the finished product?

LB: The V&A Waterfront owns the building, which includes Zeitz MOCAA and The Silo Hotel. They appointed Heatherwick Studio and we worked closely with them on the hotel.

Heatherwick’s original plan, for example, had no balconies or opening windows, which we thought were critical for our guests. Together we found a way to incorporate balconies into the design—each of the 28 rooms in the hotel now has a balcony. We were responsible for the design of the interior of the hotel—working around the original steel columns that run every four meters throughout the building. Such a unique building certainly presented some design challenges!

I think we are all delighted with the finished product—the remarkable architecture, the beautiful African art and the contrast between the stark industrial nature of the building and the more colorful and comfortable interiors of the hotel. It’s a very special building.

TP: How would you describe your design aesthetic? How much does it vary from property to property?

LB: I think the one thing that you can say is that my style is certainly not minimalist. I like our properties to be timeless and to stay true to the iconic destinations in which they are located. Destination-specific design is a key part of the guest experience.

The ultimate goal is to provide our guests with beautiful, comfortable and exciting interiors. I want our guests to leave with an extremely positive view of our wonderful country and to return home as advocates of South Africa.

Every room is different, and each space is unique. I love to mix things up—to place something serious next to something fanciful, something new next to something old and something expressive next to something more muted. I also love art. Art is what really brings the space to life and gives it personality.

TP: You’ve been in design and fashion for many years. Today, where do you get your inspiration from?

LB: I love traveling to unfamiliar destinations, meeting new people and experiencing the wonderful hotels the world has to offer. You can learn something valuable from each destination and hotel. A lot of my inspiration comes from various ornaments, fabrics and designs I have seen during our travels. I have tried to incorporate these ideas into the local industry, using South African artists or designers wherever possible.

TP: What’s next for The Royal Portfolio? Do you have additional properties/growth plans? Renovations/expansions of any current properties?

LB: We are focused on building an iconic circuit of Southern Africa travel experiences. This year we will open The Farmstead at Royal Malewane, which will be something completely unique for the safari industry. Another exclusive lodge with just three luxury farm suites as well as The Farmhouse—a beautiful three and a half bedroom exclusive-use villa.

We also plan to open our first property outside of South Africa—Royal Gorongosa in Mozambique. Gorongosa has an incredible story and it has been a privilege to be involved in such a pioneering conservation project. I can’t wait for our guests to experience it.

TP: What are your design pet peeves when you visit other hotels/resorts?

LB: I love all sorts of design and I love to see the wonderful creativity of spaces around the world. But for me the key is comfort. Guests need to be able to enjoy a space and not feel like they are in a museum.

TP: What are three things that you simply have to include in your suitcase when you travel?

LB: Definitely a few new magazines, my favorite jewelry and my iPad so that I can stay in touch with my friends, family and our General Managers wherever we are in the world.

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