Women Who Go the Distance

Meet Kelly Sawdon, The Boundary-Pushing Boss Lady Behind the Ace Hotels

by Daniel Schwartz
Kelly Kelly Sawdon. Photo by Lindsay Byrnes.

There are seasoned hoteliers, and then there are hoteliers like Kelly Sawdon, chief brand officer and partner at Ace Hotel Group, whose work over the last few decades has literally shaped the face of the modern boutique hotel. (In other words, she's one of our featured Women Who Go the Distance.) We caught up with her to talk travel, design, and how, through her ever-expanding portfolio of hotels — including new properties in New York City, New Orleans, and Kyoto — she always stays ahead of the pack.

Tell us about your role at Ace Hotel Group.

My job is to create dynamic spaces that connect people to projects, cities, and each other. I oversee our creative studio Atelier Ace, which provides interior, graphic, and product design; marketing, PR, and digital services; and event and cultural engineering to our roster of properties. And I take a lot of meetings, both in Los Angeles and abroad. I’m an ideator and a connector. I like using the right and left sides of my brain — and I get to flex both at work every day.

How did you get into hotels?

I started out working at Neverstop, a marketing and events agency in Seattle co-founded by Alex Calderwood, who later went on to start Ace. I didn’t think hotels would be my career path (I wanted to be a doctor and studied bio-med in college), but my path shifted when Alex and I started working together. He was all about challenging preconceived notions. It was an exciting opportunity to push the needle, not only in terms of hotels, but in thinking about the intersection of culture and hospitality.

The rooftop at Ace Hotel Los Angeles. Photo by Spencer Lowell.
The Nesci Dome at Ace Hotel Chicago. Photo by Spencer Lowell.

Ace Hotel made boutique hotels cool for tourists and locals alike. What goes into creating spaces like that?

Ace Hotel has always been about building the worlds we want to be in. We think of hospitality as friends taking care of friends. We treat others with kindness, compassion, and empathy and set out to build welcoming spaces for the public to animate. We think of aesthetic hospitality, providing moments of unexpected delight, good design, art, and creative culinary experiences, and are inspired by places that teem with life and are beloved in their communities, like art galleries, off-the-beaten path restaurants, and really good dive bars. We make a point to support these existing communities and collaborate with passionate individuals and organizations who are in love with their neighborhood and are doing good work there.

Kelly's inspiring, and so are these Women Who Go the Distance.
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Can you give us an example of this in action?

We were really excited to throw down roots in Chicago. We’ve long been inspired by the city’s ever-evolving design history and the formidable heroes that emerged from it. We took cues from the visionary work of Chicago’s Prairie School and New Bauhaus, as well as from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. We wanted the hotel to reflect midwestern craftsmanship and utilitarian design, so we used materials that evoke the simple and straightforward aesthetic of Chicago. We worked with local Volume Gallery and students at SAIC to commission original, functional artwork that’s displayed throughout the hotel’s rooms and public spaces. The first public events we hosted at Ace Hotel Chicago spotlighted our community partners and the amazing work of 826CHI, Little Black Pearl, and Young Chicago Authors — organizations that have long supported the creative development of Chicago’s youth.

When Ace Hotel New York opened, no one knew the neighborhood as "NoMad." It was just "Flatiron." How do you decide where to build hotels?

We love neighborhoods that have strong, idiosyncratic characteristics, whose identities are a juxtaposition of historic and modern and that we feel have enormous creative potential. When scouting new locations, we trust our intuition and look for opportunities that feel right. With Ace Hotel New York, we completely fell in love with the building, which was part of the Madison Square North Historic District, a neighborhood filled with stunning turn-of-the-century architecture and dotted with costume jewelry shops and generational businesses. Midtown has such a long history and distinct personality, and we loved that it’s a central throughway in the city with easy access to the rest of Manhattan and Brooklyn. One of New York’s enduring traits is how it’s constantly evolving, reinventing itself, yet is always New York. We were excited to throw roots down as part of this legacy.

Ace Hotel Chicago (left). Best Girl restaurant at Ace Hotel Los Angeles (right). Photos by Spencer Lowell.
Ace Hotel Kyoto. Rendering by KKAA.

What's  the difference among West Coast, East Coast, and international hotels?

There’s no set formula or blueprint. We look at every hotel through a fresh lens and are guided by its architectural history. Ace Hotel New York is housed in a 1904 building, formerly the Breslin Hotel. We honored its historic elements, like the exquisite mosaic floors in the lobby, while incorporating our own own touch. At Ace Hotel Los Angeles, we were able to move away from traditional public spaces thanks to the city’s temperate weather. The all-day Parisian cafe and restaurant Best Girl bridges the lobby and the outdoors; the large public rooftop pool and lounge provide a space where people can gather, read a novel, or bask in the sun. The Theatre was where architecture most informed design. It was opened by Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin in the 1920s as the flagship movie theater for United Artists. Today, after careful restoration, the majestic palace holds large-scale concerts, major movie premieres, and dance performances.

Tell us about Ace Hotel Kyoto. Was that hard to get off the ground?

Ace Hotel Kyoto was a dream project that took root more than a decade ago. People were surprised that we decided on Kyoto instead of Tokyo, but Kyoto is the cultural center of Japan, and we felt an affinity for its deep history of craft and its appreciation of nature. We worked with hyperlocal actors on everything from the design to the music to the gardens. For example, legendary Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and his studio KKAA, who we’ve admired for a long time, came on to do the hotel exteriors. At the same time, we’re an American brand, and that’s part of why Kyoto was so welcoming — there’s a shared admiration for each other’s culture and heritage and an opportunity to make something new together.

Plenty of hot, new boutique hotels burn bright and fade fast. How do you ensure Ace Hotel remains relevant throughout the years?

We’re approaching our twentieth anniversary and, while we’ve grown, our values and the things we care about remain the same. We’re fortunate to work with people we admire to build spaces out of our love of people and cities. You don’t just open hotels everywhere and throw open the doors. You want to become part of the community and be a gathering place for everyone. We’re known for hotels, but we’re opening music venues, art galleries, restaurants, theaters, and bars, too. This year, we launched two distinctive hotel brands: Sister City is an essentialist hotel in Manhattan. Maison de la Luz is a luxury guest house in New Orleans. Staying curious is at the heart of Ace. We’re always asking what the modern traveler needs and finding creative ways to build and evolve. Sustainability in any industry comes from a willingness to experiment, to learn from unexpected sources, and to find value in collaboration. Even in the age of globalized culture, people still want to feel truly cared for and to find delight in their travels. We try to create a platform where anyone can fully experience the place that they’re in.

Sister City (left). Photo by Brian W. Ferry. Maison de la Luz (right). Photo by Stephen K. Johnson.

How do Sister City and Maison de la Luz compare to Ace Hotels?

All three brands are rooted in their love for the cities they’re in. But while Ace invites the city in, activating public spaces with community organizations and work by local artists, Sister City acts as a sanctuary that provides the tools necessary to go out and explore the city at large. It’s a bit quieter and stripped-down. It doesn’t ask for anything or over-stimulate you, but gives you room to animate the space to your liking. With Maison de la Luz, our vision was a high-finish Southern guest house imbued with elements of luxury, grace, and a bit of rebellion. There are 67 rooms, and they’re meant to radiate comfort and bespoke hospitality, a private sanctuary replete with the quiet delights of Southern swoon.

When you travel on your own, what do you look for in a hotel?

Whenever I travel for work, it doubles as a research trip. I’m always on the lookout for inspiring experiences and new places. I try to find a hotel that’s centrally located to where I need to be, but it’s equally important that it intersects with vibrant parts of the city. For example, I love discovering close-by restaurants where I can grab a delicious, nourishing meal. If I’m traveling for vacation, I’ll look for something a bit more aspirational. I love exploring new neighborhoods and finding hotels that offer a particular sense of place. This can range from the pragmatic to the sublime — it’s a subtle tension, but authenticity is hard to fake. I seek out the places that are sensitive to the world around them and feel like they’re inspired by — and celebrate — the unique nature of their surroundings.

What are your favorite hotels? (Other than the Aces.)

Il Pellicano, a timeless retreat in the Tuscan countryside situated on a bay with crystal blue waters with a restaurant that makes their pasta in-house and serves some of my all-time favorite Italian dishes. (Editor's note: Read more about it on Fathom.) Six Senses Koh Samui, a relaxing island hotel in the gulf of Thailand with an incredible spa and beautiful ocean views. Hotel St. Cecilia, a well-designed luxury oasis in Austin that exudes romance and rebellion. (Read more about it on Fathom.) And campsites in Yosemite, one of the most incredible, awe-inspiring natural environments in the world. It’s amazing to explore and sleep there.

We think of hospitality as friends taking care of friends. Even in the age of globalized culture, people still want to feel truly cared for and to find delight in their travels.

What is the most rewarding thing about your job?

That my personal values match my work values. There’s no separation between what I do and who I am. I continuously get to meet new people — the more we collaborate and travel, the more empathic and deeper we grow as individuals. I’m grateful that I get to travel and work with so many inspiring, diverse people on a daily basis.

Where are you dying to go next?

Mexico City. It’s a constant source of inspiration — for many of my closest creative friends, too — and I want to fully immerse myself in its architecture, colors, sounds, smells, history, cuisine, flora, fauna, and art. It’s such a vibrant place — and I can’t believe I haven’t visited yet.

Ace Hotel Palm Springs. Photo by Douglas Lyle Thompson.
Ace Hotel New York. Photo by Katharina.

Speed Round! Fathom Questionnaire!

Favorite destinations: Berlin, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Big Sur.

Bizarre travel rituals: I always travel with my Japanese omamori, or amulets. I keep it in my purse when I’m flying as a talisman of sorts.

In-flight relaxation regimen: Lavender eye mask from Liberty London. Aesop Ginger Flight Therapy. Aesop Immediate Moisture Facial Hydrosol. Aveda Hand Relief.

Always in carry-on: My Ace-branded Klean Canteen water bottle, magazines, a book, and snacks like Chili and Lime Mango and Activated Dulse and Vinegar Almonds from Moon Juice.

Concierge or DIY? DIY. I like to get recommendations from friends and through personal research.

See it all or take it easy? Depends. When I’m in Greece, I’ll take it easy and relax, but if I’m in the heart of the city, I’m seeing it all.

Drive or be driven? Depends. I was just in Rome, driving around the city center in a stick shift, Google Maps routing us in all the wrong directions. Needless to say, the next time I’m in Rome, I’ll let someone else do the driving.

Best hotel amenity: Hinoki bath tea and lavender pillow spray — really relaxing after a long day of travel.

Everywhere I go, I check out the museums, galleries, restaurants, local bars, and live music venues and avoid tourist hot spots if possible.

I always bring home regional sweets to share with my team at Atelier Ace.

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