Model’s boutique approach
Her latest career is in hotels, writes Martin Kelly
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.