Women Who Go the Distance

Meet Liz Biden, South Africa’s Coolest Lady Hotelier

by Berit Baugher
Liz Liz Biden. Photo courtesy of The Royal Portfolio.

It’s nearly impossible to plan a trip to South Africa without coming across at least one of The Royal Portfolio hotels. The South African hospitality firm oversees some of the continent’s most beloved boutique properties, including a safari lodge in Kruger National Park and an elegant farm in the Cape Winelands. We spoke with founder Liz Biden about her second act as a successful hotelier and what makes her hotels so special.

Tell us about your work.

I am very fortunate in that I don’t really consider what I do to be work. I absolutely love my job, and it’s my life. That said, running a hotel requires a huge amount of personal attention. I try to be present at all of our properties as much as possible – spending time at each one every month, fine-tuning everything from the decor to the dining and service, while working on exciting new experiences for our guests.

What inspired you get into the hospitality industry?

I began The Royal Portfolio at age fifty when I sold my fashion business. I retired for two days and then made a proposal to my husband that we convert our holiday homes into private hotels. We were very fortunate to have a beautiful place in the African bush. We wanted to share all of our incredible memories and experiences with others, and so we decided to convert our family home into the luxurious lodge that is now Royal Malewane. We then did the same to Birkenhead House, which had been our beach house for twelve years, and La Residence, our smallholding in Franschhoek. We spent many years looking for the perfect spot in Cape Town and were thrilled when the opportunity for The Silo came along. It really completed our circuit around South Africa.

What did you do before this?

I began my career as a teacher before running a medical debt-collecting business when my children were young. I had five jobs at university, ranging from making lampshades and designing jewellery to working with my husband Phil at a travelling disco and being the first female waitress at a restaurant. From there I started at the fashion business Jenni Button.

A guest room at Royal Malewane.
The outdoor lounge at Royal Malewane.

What was your dream job growing up?

I’m not sure that I ever had a dream job. I loved travelling and people and have always enjoyed design and fashion. I think my work has evolved as a culmination of those passions.

I retired for two days and then made a proposal to my husband that we convert our holiday homes into private hotels.

What is a typical day like for you?

There aren’t many typical days at The Royal Portfolio, which is what I love most about what I do. I try to start the day in our home office catching up with my team and my emails and then head out to the hotels or to suppliers and designers for whatever the day has in store.

How do you design a good space?

I start with the premise that each room must be different. In terms of a process, it is more about finding inspiration in something and going from there. It might be a certain painting that sets me off. Or a carpet or an interesting piece of fabric. Until our most recent hotel opening, my husband Phil and I had designed and built the properties ourselves – adapting them from our original holiday homes. But The Silo was a bit different. I believe in destination-specific design, where the property takes inspiration from the unique South African locations.

What are some of your favorite places to visit outside The Royal Portfolio?

There are so many, but I do love the charm, history, and grandeur of Europe. My favorite hotel could be the Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli in Italy, and I love having lunch at Le Club 55 on the beach in Saint Tropez. Musee d’Orsay in Paris is one of my favorite museum spaces.

Dinner at Birkenhead House.
Birkenhead House.

How would you define good hospitality?

I love for our guests to feel special. They work hard and deserve to be pampered. I think that The Royal Portfolio is defined by our remarkable staff and the highly personalized service at each of our properties. Giving our guests a complete experience and a perfect stay is what The Royal Portfolio is all about – it’s our company purpose. Being a family-run business, we strive to make each of our properties a home away from home, so that each stay is an extremely personalized experience.

What do other hotels always get wrong?

I think that many hotels really get it right. I love all sorts of design and I love to see the wonderful creativity of hotels around the world and am always picking up little ideas wherever I go. But for me the key is comfort. Our guests need to be able to enjoy a space and not feel like they are in a museum.

Describe a defining moment in your career.

Selling my fashion business and taking the plunge to transform one of our family homes into a hotel was undoubtedly a career-defining moment. When I sold my fashion business, I decided to develop a game lodge in the bush with separate units next to our “home” in the bush so that we could have guests employ good staff. We wanted to share our incredible memories and experiences with others, and so we eventually decided to convert our home as well into part of the private hotel. I had no idea at the time that it would be the start of what is today The Royal Portfolio. Since then, we haven’t looked back and have continued to share more unique South African experiences with our guests, our friends, and our growing family.

What is most rewarding aspect of your job?

Seeing our guests enjoy the spectacular spaces we have created and knowing that their enjoyment is having a direct, positive impact on South Africa and its beautiful people.

The Terrace Room at La Residence.
The swimming pool at La Residence.

How has travel influenced your work?

Much of my inspiration comes from various fabrics and designs I have seen during my travels. I try to incorporate these ideas into the local industry using South African artists or designers wherever possible. And magazines like Veranda, Vogue, Conde Nast Traveler, and Travel + Leisure.

Tell us about the first time you traveled alone.

I don’t usually travel alone, I prefer to enjoy sharing experiences with loved ones.

What's something you haven't been able to do in your career?

We haven’t been able to open an international hotel yet, but that’s definitely something I’d like to do in the future.

A guest room at The Silo.
A bathroom at The Silo.

Speed Round of Favorites

Favorite destinations: Italy.

Dying to visit: Bhutan.

Bizarre travel rituals: I don’t travel without four bags of jewellery and a pile of magazines.

In-flight relaxation regimen: I like to curl up with a glass of champagne and my favoritie magazines.

Always in carry-on: Jewellery and a spare ID card.

Concierge or DIY? DIY.

See it all or take it easy? See it all.

Drive or be driven? Drive.

Travel hero and why: I don’t really have a travel hero, but I have a lot of respect for the other female hoteliers out there.

Weirdest thing seen on travels: When walking the Chinese food markets, it was fascinating to see what the locals eat. 

My favorite hotels is The Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli because the combination of tranquillity, personalized service, and surrounding beauty are incredible.

I dream about my meal at Le Club 55 in Saint Tropez. 

Best hotel amenity: Dressing gown.

Favorite childhood travel memory: The thrill of flying for the first time.

Everywhere I go, I check out the local dining scene and try to find a really authentic eatery.

When I arrive in a new place, I learn the lay of the land by walking around local arts and crafts and food markets and chatting with locals.

I always bring home bits and pieces from my travels and inspiration that I try implement into local industries which could supply our properties in various ways, for example a lot of the beautiful furniture produced locally has been inspired from my travels.

I travel for the pleasure and to create memories that I can share with my grandchildren.

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