Sonja Vodusek is the managing director of The Peninsula London, which is quickly emerging near Hyde Park Corner. Selma Day caught up with her to learn what’s happening
As The Peninsula rises on its significant site, Sonja Vodusek is getting to grips with London – and Belgravia, in particular. She’s a relaxed and straight-talking Australian who has been living abroad for 20 years since leaving her hometown of Yarrawonga.
“I’ve lived in seven countries and 13 destinations but I feel like I am at home here. I feel like I’m in Melbourne – the same culture, the arts, the food scene. I just love London. I feel like I’ve lived here before.”
London might be home now but until November 2019, it was in Japan, where she ran The Peninsula Tokyo. Prior to joining the hotel group in 2010, Sonja had gained 20 years of experience, holding various management positions in the luxury hospitality sector in Australia, Ireland, Japan, US, Philippines and the Czech Republic.
Her first job in hospitality was in Tokyo back in 1992. She went on to become the first female director then first female general manager in a luxury hotel in Japan. “It was a significant story for everybody,” she says. “For me, it doesn’t matter, it’s about knowing the businesses – it’s not gender specific – but in Japan it was a big deal.”
While Sonja had a soft spot for Japan and loved the culture, she’s looking forward to being in what she calls “the centre of the universe – London”.
“To open a hotel in one of the most dynamic cities in the world where there are so many beautiful hotels steeped in history is a dream come true,” she says. “I’m just so very honoured to be here.”
“This is a huge project for Peninsula – we’ve been looking for a site here for over 30 years and it was all about location, location, location and the location is very special – it’s a gateway to Belgravia but also very close to Knightsbridge and Mayfair.
“Standing on top of the roof and overseeing Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park – I got quite emotional when I was up there looking at the view for the first time. I thought, wow! It’s spectacular.”
With the constraints on construction during lockdown, the opening of the hotel looks like being late 2021, so how will Sonja be filling her time?
“Right now, it’s really about meeting as many people that I can and understanding what the community is about,” she says.
“And then the internal factor is really understanding the project – the building itself, how it’s all coming together, understanding the design, sustainability angles, recruitment, the spaces, the retail. It’s a big, complex development, with 189 rooms, 50 of which are suites, so looking at what this 400,000 square feet of space is and what I’m going to do with it.”
Sonja says the hotel will showcase the best of British culture, art and cuisine, while honouring the group’s Asian heritage.
“The hotel will set a new standard for design and space,” she says. “We are very much a relaxed style of luxury and want people to feel welcome. We want our neighbours to feel part of the fabric of this hotel – it’s their hotel. We want it to be an extension of their living rooms.
“There are three strong pillars that we, as a company, focus on: our community, out cities and our people. To thrive, we need to be a community.”
The Peninsula has already committed to supporting our Belgravia Awards in January and is seeking to collaborate with local businesses. “I’m exploring opportunities to bring the outside world in – looking at different ways to involve the local community. We will be working with local artisans and businesses to help us curate experiences. We call it the ‘Academy’ programme. We work, for example, with purveyors, whether craftsmanship, art, culture, history, cuisine.
“We are also speaking with our philanthropic partners about mentoring opportunities, to offer sustainable, practical support to people. I’m very interested to see what local hotel schools are doing and how we can contribute in that way – helping the underprivileged and really developing young people.
“We are also having community liaison group meetings where we communicate what’s going on, so no-one gets any surprises.”
Of course, the hotel isn’t just there to serve the local community – it will draw new residents for 25 Peninsula Residences and attract visitors from all over the world.
Art will be a major focus for the hotel. The Peninsula London will participate in the company’s “Art in Resonance” programme, which was launched last year. ‘It’s basically travelling art,’ says Sonja.
“We commission exciting artists to help create art in our hotels and contribute to the cultural eco system. It started in Hong Kong, then went to Paris, then to other Peninsula hotels around the world and we will continue to do this in London.”
Food wise, while the dining concepts are yet to be finalised, Sonja says we might expect “destination dining of all sorts”, including heritage Chinese, British modern cuisine and traditional afternoon tea.
Food is one of Sonja’s passions and she has been slowly eating her way around Belgravia’s restaurants and food shops. “I love Ottolenghi for creative salads and the best granola in town, the wonderful Peggy Porschen cakes and the old-school style of Boisdale. I also really enjoy the Alfred Tennyson pub.
“Now that I’m settling into my new home in London, Pimlico Road has been recommended as a treasure trove for antiques, art and furniture, so I’ll make sure to pop down there when I can. I'm a Daylesford fan, so I’ll be sure to have a coffee break there – it transports you to the countryside in an instant. Elizabeth Street is very pretty and has a ‘neighbourhood’ feeling.
“One of my favourite things about Belgravia are the many private gardens and parks, particularly at this time of year. Eaton Square is so gracious and the Royal Parks are spectacular.”
By the time The Peninsula opens, Sonja is likely to have made many new friends in Belgravia. “I am very much a visible hotelier and I look forward to welcoming our guests,” she says. “It’s all about making sure everyone feels welcome. I enjoy it. I enjoy meeting people otherwise I would never have been in this business.”
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