The night before a redeye from Tel Aviv to New York, we grabbed a shower on the rooftop of the Brown TLV, developer Leon Avigad’s first solo project, a boutique hotel in the heart of the cultural capital of Israel. Short of getting upgraded to business class, this was good as it was going to get: a post-shower beer in a reclining chair overlooking the city during sunset. Avigad’s company, Leopard Hospitality, is all about the details: good wine and chocolate in its rooms, gratis Champagne on the roof, weekend parties in the lobby. And he has plans to expand, bringing more unique properties to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where the status quo is cookie-cutter hotels for tourists. We sat down with Avigad twice over the course of two years to talk about Israeli hotels, family life and Serbian film directors.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. The cool answer: how to tie your tie, of course. We’re not very good at that in Israel, I’m afraid. The real answer: how to provide for your family.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Survived though my nearly 15-year relationship with my better half.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. We’re opening The Brown Beach Hotel this winter. It’s on 64 Ha-Yarkon, a minute from the beach. 40 really beautiful suites, all with balconies overlooking the beach. All the rooms are big. There’s a spa, underground pool, hamam, wet sauna, dry sauna, beautiful gym. In each hotel we have a feminine character behind the design we’re thinking of. Here it was Faye Dunaway. Tel Aviv, it’s a little bit shabby, you need to know Tel Aviv. Once you know it it’s super creative and amazing. We wanted to create not a shabby hotel but somewhere between your grandma’s home and an LA motel in the ’70s. You can see that Tel Aviv used to be very glamorous. At the Beach House, it’s a bit more Grace Kelly — more glamorous, more posh.
On Ha-Yarkon no one is daring. They all do blue because it’s on the beach and beige because of the sand. On the beach you can’t find good hotels. You can find interesting hotels inland. Exciting on the beach? Not really. They’re all afraid.
We’re young and creative, so we can work harder and make less.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. My family: my partner and my daughter. My life partner with whom I’ve been sharing my home for 15 years. He was working with me at the Hilton in Jerusalem when it just opened up. My daughter is four, and she’s my stabilizer. When I work 17 or 18 hours a day and she says, “Daddy I miss you”, I come right home. I know it’s banal and tacky, but it’s the truth.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: Movies are a strong experience. They inspire me with the personalities, the design and the music — a 360 degree experience, which is what I like to offer in a hotel. I love lobbies; people need to interact. Ian Schrager once told me that it’s all about men and women meeting the lobby. I love to create those spaces. Our rooftop at The Brown TLV has a jacuzzi overlooking the city where we offer complimentary champagne every weekend. I get the influence from very lavish, over-the-top experiences you see in movies. For the new Brown Beach House I get it from Grace Kelly and the Rat Pack. All of our mirrors look like they’re from dressing rooms of Hollywood stars. Somewhere I’ll do the feel of Emir Kusturica, a Serbian film director who creates this beautiful world that could be heaven or a nightmare.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Israel’s financial newspapers. I’m a bookworm usually but am so focused on my next project that I cannot concentrate on anything else right now. I’m very connected to my artistic side, but I’m an MBA guy. This is what I do. You can’t own a hotel and develop four hotels in Israel and consult to many more without a good understanding of the numbers.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. Oranges and bran flakes, chocolate and a fresh baguette with French butter. This is me. Not posh. But good chocolate. My favorite is Neuhaus. I’m a rather West Coast guy so I’d also have a good margarita — that’s impossible to find in Israel — a frozen margarita that you can find for like $2 in everywhere Los Angeles.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. You’re good. Just keep on doing your thing.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. As a storyteller through my hotels.
Q. We were just in Jerusalem. There doesn’t appear to be much going on there, hotel-wise. We understand you’re working on a place there, too.
A. We’re doing another one in Jerusalem, yes. It’ll also be a fun, sexy hotel, as sexy as Jerusalem can be. It’s an 18th century mansion, with a former well that we’re we’re turning it into an underground pool.
Q. Why even have a boutique hotel in Jerusalem? It’s mostly big groups of tourists.
A. Jerusalem is a big city, an interesting city. Most of the tourists coming to Tel Aviv want to go to there, but there’s no one really cool hotel, except for the Mamilla which is quite expensive. People want to spend $200 to $300 — which still isn’t cheap — and still be at a cool hotel. As a team, we’re not as rich as everybody else; our margins aren’t as high. We’re young and creative, so we can work harder and make less.
Q. Any other exciting projects you can share with us?
A. Yes, but I don’t want to talk too much about it until I find the money. I don’t believe in the Evil Eye, but in Hebrew we say, “Why open your mouth and allow the evil in?”