Model’s bou­tique approach

Her latest ca­reer is in ho­tels, writes Martin Kelly

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Prime Space -

GRITTY Dar­linghurst Rd, the snaking, chaotic in­ner- Syd­ney artery that crawls from Ox­ford St through to Kings Cross, has been Terry Sch­wamberg’s busi­ness beat for many years.

The pro­pri­etor of Con­tem­po­rary Ho­tels has owned at least four prop­er­ties on the strip, in­clud­ing the Medusa Ho­tel, which re­mains her flag­ship prop­erty, and The Kir­ke­ton Ho­tel, sold sev­eral years ago.

But her fo­cus right now is on Mother Na­ture, and the po­ten­tial for start­ing an ecoprop­erty in the Aus­tralian bush.

‘‘ I would love to do an en­vi­ron­men­tal re­sort — if I had a dream it could be to do busi­ness to­gether with Terri Ir­win ( of the Aus­tralia Zoo),’’ she says, laugh­ing at the un­likely match but se­ri­ous all the same.

The re­sort could be run along en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able lines, pro­vide in­ter­ac­tion be­tween guests and lo­cal fauna, per­haps tucked away in the rain­forests be­hind Noosa, By­ron Bay or Port Douglas.

Close to na­ture, but also near great cafes, restau­rants and bars — es­sen­tial com­po­nents of any Sch­wamberg busi­ness plan.

While it’s an emerg­ing idea, only a fool would bet against Sch­wamberg, who has built Con­tem­po­rary Ho­tels into Aus­tralia’s lead­ing bou­tique ac­com­mo­da­tion provider in just over a decade.

Con­tem­po­rary Ho­tels now owns or has a stake in 11 lux­ury beach houses, two chic Syd­ney apart­ments and the Medusa Ho­tel, while also mar­ket­ing a suite of lux­ury prop­er­ties on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

One project has flowed into the next and while some may ar­gue Sch­wamberg has lived some­thing of a charmed life, there is no ques­tion she’s also rode her good for­tune with the skill of a Melbourne Cup jockey.

An­other key in­gre­di­ent has been an abil­ity to recog­nise trends — and her own lim­i­ta­tions. Sch­wamberg knows her mar­ket — ur­ban so­phis­ti­cates — and makes no com­pro­mises in de­liv­er­ing prod­uct on that ba­sis.

Medusa, for ex­am­ple, makes strong and fre­quent de­sign state­ments right from the pink point of en­try, through to fea­ture colour walls in each of the 17 rooms.

The furniture is cool and the mat­tresses soft, but the min­i­mal­ist approach is not to ev­ery­one’s taste — and that’s ex­actly the point. It pulls no punches in ap­peal­ing to a cer­tain de­mo­graphic and is mostly full as a re­sult.

‘‘ It’s all about cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere de­sir­able to a cer­tain mar­ket — you have to be aware of what the mar­ket wants,’’ she says.

Sch­wamberg, who comes from a self- made Syd­ney fam­ily, has never strayed far from home turf, al­though the seed for what has be­come Con­tem­po­rary Ho­tels was planted on her first ma­jor trip.

‘‘ I’d worked in fash­ion as a model, lived in Paris for a year and be­came familiar with re­ally gor­geous small ho­tels that had a sense of place — there was noth­ing that had an in­ter­na­tional stan­dard in bou­tique ho­tels here.’’

Her Paris modelling gig was cut short by the good life — ‘‘ the food is so good there I was al­ways back for sec­onds, and put a lot of weight on my hips, so had to cart my 100cm der­riere back to Syd­ney.’’

On her re­turn, af­ter a cou­ple of TAFE cour­ses, Sch­wamberg made clothes for a liv­ing be­fore land­ing a job as fash­ion ed­i­tor at Cos­mopoli­tan, where she stayed 10 years.

That ca­reer was side- swiped in 1994 when her dad died, leav­ing be­hind an en­gi­neer­ing busi­ness with 200 em­ploy­ees, AAP In­dus­tries, that eldest child Sch­wamberg was drafted in to over­see. She did that for a cou­ple of years be­fore hand­ing over to her brother, Richard Kaljo, ‘‘ who’s done a great job — the busi­ness is go­ing re­ally well. We’re man­u­fac­tur­ing in China now’’.

Around this time, Sch­wamberg’s ho­tel ca­reer was in­ad­ver­tently born when she walked past a Dar­linghurst Road fleapit that had a ‘‘ For Sale’’ sign out the front and ‘‘ Tony Give Me Head’’ scrawled on the front door.

‘‘ I saw two cock­roaches cop­u­lat­ing on the ceil­ing and thought, ‘ beauty, I’ll get this cheap’. ’’‘

It turned out to be a good deal as the pre­vi­ous owner went broke meet­ing fire reg­u­la­tions brought in af­ter the nearby Down Un­der Hos­tel blaze, in which six peo­ple died.

How­ever, the three- storey ter­race still needed to be gut­ted, fu­mi­gated and painted be­fore open­ing for busi­ness as Syd­ney Star Ac­com­mo­da­tion.

‘‘ By the time I fin­ished, it was re­ally cute,’’ Sch­wamberg says. ‘‘ There were no en­suites but it had the things that do mat­ter — clean­li­ness, ex­pen­sive mat­tresses, good light­ing — and the lo­ca­tion was great.’’

Sch­wamberg ‘‘ mar­keted to peo­ple I knew in fash­ion’’ and busi­ness re­ally took of, not least be­cause there were few al­ter­na­tives. Ul­ti­mately she bought the prop­erty next door.

‘‘ It wasn’t a model house — it was a creative in­dus­try house. That was my area, my beat.’’

And Sch­wamberg be­lieved the mar­ket wanted a more up­mar­ket bou­tique prop­erty, which re­sulted in Medusa, a few doors down Dar­linghurst Road. She later opened The Kir­ke­ton for a sim­i­lar clien­tele.

The beach houses fol­lowed when Sch­wamberg mar­keted the fam­ily’s un­der- utilised Palm Beach prop­erty, Rock­ridge, to her ex­ist­ing client base.

She then ac­quired in Port Douglas and Bedarra Is­land and be­gan cater­ing to af­flu­ent clients who wanted private lux­ury close to fa­cil­i­ties — not just an­other ho­tel.

And that is driv­ing her think­ing on the ecore­sort, among other things. ‘‘ I have plenty of en­ergy now, and be­lieve there are a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties,’’ she said.

Quick, some­one call Terri Ir­win.

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