6 Female Hotel Entrepreneurs and Their Secrets to Success
When Liz Lambert opened the Hotel San José in Austin, Texas, just over 20 years ago, it felt like something radical: a motorcycle-riding female attorney from the Manhattan D.A.’s office leaves her job, returns to her home state, and finds success in an industry that’s always been dominated by men.
Lambert set up the Bunkhouse Group, a company that now operates 10 hotels in Texas, California, and Mexico. More importantly, she paved the way for future women hoteliers—visionaries behind some of our favorite independent properties around the country.
Like Lambert (who left Bunkhouse in 2019), few of this new class have traditional backgrounds in hospitality. That didn’t stop them from pursuing ambitious projects—none of which had the backing of a big real estate developer or a corporate chain. These six women have used hotels as platforms for their passions, from interior design and architecture to food and the great outdoors.
The Surfrider Hotel — Malibu, California
Tucked among the oleanders and verbenas on the cliffs of Malibu, California, there’s a rooftop bar that now serves as a gathering place for style-conscious visitors. Flickering firepits, overstuffed sofas, and a cinematic view of the ocean make it the place to be for a sundowner or après-surf cocktail. This dreamy scene was created by Emma Goodwin, the force behind a 20-room boutique hotel that takes its name from the iconic Surfrider Beach across the Pacific Coast Highway.
A Brisbane, Australia, native with a Zen sensibility when it comes to interior design, Goodwin and her architect husband, California native Matthew Goodwin, had not worked on a hotel project before. But when they heard that a run-down 1950s motel was for sale on a prime stretch of the PCH, something clicked, and the couple realized it was the ultimate opportunity to express their idea of the good life. “We approached the process as if we were guests expecting our fantasy of the perfect hotel,” Emma explains.
This meant filling the place with all of their favorite things: custom four-poster beds covered in soft Bellino linens, waffled bathrobes from Parachute Home, and organic bath products from Grown Alchemist. Guests can use a quiver of surfboards by local shaper Wax Surf Co., and hammocks are strung on every balcony. The couple added personal touches, too, like their own Le Corbusier drawings from the 60s, which hang in the library.
“A hotel isn’t just about design but about an entire sensory experience,” Goodwin says. “It’s something I think women are very good at.” Among her favorite hotels in the world? Hotel Il Pellicano, in Italy, and Raes on Wategos and the Atlantic Byron Bay, in Australia—all of which are run by women. “I think the industry would be so much better if there were more females in it.” thesurfridermalibu.com; doubles from $400.
The Copper Door B&B — Miami, Florida
“My vision was a modern take on a grandma’s bed-and-breakfast,” says Jamila Ross, who opened the Copper Door B&B in the Overtown enclave of Miami in 2018. “I wanted the vintage vibe, individually designed rooms, homestyle breakfasts, great conversations around a communal table—but elevated, with a feeling of cool.”
Ross, originally from Yonkers, New York, first established herself in the food world after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in the Hudson Valley. She then spent a decade working for chefs and hotels in New York State, Los Angeles, Kuwait, and Dubai. After arriving in Miami, she met her future husband, Akino West (he’s also a chef and has a stint at Copenhagen’s Noma under his belt). They planned to start a restaurant of their own.
Instead, the couple fell in love with an Art Deco hotel that had been boarded up for nearly 20 years. Ross and West soon got to work on transforming the 1940s building into a one-of-a-kind small hotel, with custom botanical wallpaper, bamboo furniture, and rotating installations by local artists. In response to the pandemic, last spring they added Rosie’s, an outdoor pop-up breakfast spot, which is now one of the hottest brunch reservations in town.
Ross lives with West on site at Copper Door to oversee the day-to-day operations, and she’s keenly aware of the uniqueness of her position.
“In American culture specifically, the owners of hospitality businesses tend to not be present, and they’re certainly not a twentysomething woman, let alone a Black woman,” she says. “I hope our culture gets to a place where the idea that anyone can be an entrepreneur on this scale is normalized.” copperdoorbnb.com; doubles from $115.
The Joshua Tree House — Joshua Tree, California
Not many hotel projects start with a Craigslist ad. But the Joshua Tree House is far from a typical hotel, and its co-owner, Sara Combs, is far from a typical hotelier. It all started in 2014, when Combs and her husband, Rich, were craving time away from the hustle of their San Francisco tech jobs. They headed south on a road trip and wound up in Joshua Tree, about 45 minutes outside Palm Springs.
They were so taken by the otherworldly desert vibes that they began looking for real estate—and fell hard for a 1949 hacienda they saw posted for sale on Craigslist. To help pay off the mortgage, they put their new digs on Airbnb, naming it the Joshua Tree House.
Images of the place soon went viral, thanks to Sara’s natural eye for interiors. “There weren’t many properties like this—surrounded by nature but also focused on elevated design,” she says. She grew up in Connecticut and studied environmental design at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Buoyed by this success, the Combses began searching for another renovation project nearby, eventually adding a mid-century casita to the original property.
“There’s something really feminine and personal about these spaces,” notes Combs, who selected every element of the décor. “It’s about creating an entire mood.”
In 2019, the couple decided to branch out and open another desert property—this one outside Tucson, Arizona, bordering Saguaro National Park. A five-bedroom inn on 38 acres, the Posada by the Joshua Tree House reflects Arizona’s adobe vernacular and is furnished with pieces that conform with Combs’s signature spare, boho look.
“I’m passionate about offering an experience for other people to reflect, reset, and recharge,” she says. thejoshuatreehouse.com; doubles from $285.
The Roundtree — Amagansett, New York
Opening a hotel in the summer of 2020 may not have been ideal timing, but if ever a property was made for social distancing, it’s the Roundtree. On two idyllic acres stand a series of shingled buildings—a classic style that has become synonymous with the East End of Long Island. Rolling lawns are dotted with Ping-Pong tables, firepits, and lounge chairs, and interiors have a soothing palette of natural wood and slate.
“I want guests to feel like they’re staying at their second home,” says owner Sylvia Wong, who opened the Roundtree as a 180-degree career move after working at Manhattan tech and investment firms. Her story is one of passion for place: the first-time hotelier fell in love with the history and bucolic charm of the Hamptons—and with Amagansett, specifically.
Like many busy New Yorkers looking to get out of the sweltering city, Wong escaped to the Hamptons every summer weekend for years. “One of those weekends I hopped on the Jitney shuttle to view a property I had seen online, and I immediately felt inspired,” she says. One of the hotel’s cottages is more than 250 years old, a barn is a century old, and the whole place previously belonged to one of the town’s oldest families.
Guests who walk to Amagansett’s small commercial center or to Indian Wells Beach will realize Wong has created a world that offers a unique experience in this rarefied corner of America: the feeling of living like a local. theroundtreehotels.com; doubles from $1,095.
The Carpenter Hotel — Austin, Texas
“I am a deep believer in the idea that the preservation of funky old buildings helps maintain the character and continuity of a place,” says architect Jen Turner. “They’re kind of like folk songs.” A Houstonian and University of Texas at Austin graduate, she worked in Manhattan for 11 years before moving back to Texas.
Turner and her husband, Jack Barron, opened the Carpenter Hotel in Austin’s Zilker neighborhood in 2018. The hotel is centered on a 1948 Modernist landmark that was once the home of the carpenters’ trade union. The single-story building, as well as the four-story annex that houses the 93 guest rooms, was a canvas for Turner to display her skills. The property is characterized by strong, clean lines with a Bauhaus influence and details that range from industrial concrete staircases to a 40-foot metal sign above the pool that reads simply HOTEL.
There are touches of old Texas, too: vintage bowling-alley banquettes found at the famed Round Top antiques fair are used as seating in the restaurant; recycled oil pipes around the ground-floor parking area add a rustic patina; and terra-cotta blocks from San Antonio’s century-old D’Hanis Brick & Tile Co. line the hotel’s exterior.
“One thing people have always said about the Carpenter is that we thought of everything. Maybe that’s something women do—not necessarily better, but more often,” she says. “How do you move about a space, what do you need on a bedside table? Those are all things that I really put thought into.”
The Carpenter has been such a hit that Turner—who had no previous hotel experience—has several more hospitality projects in the works, including Wo Fat Hotel & Restaurant, a 23-room hotel above the oldest dim sum restaurant in Honolulu. carpenterhotel.com; doubles from $225.
Hotel Peter & Paul — New Orleans, Louisiana
Cookbook writer, Uber driver, ice-pop entrepreneur, bicycle-tour guide, London cheesemonger: Nathalie Jordi’s path to becoming a hotelier has been a winding one. But after moving from New York to New Orleans in 2009 and later spending a year working the front desk at a hotel in the city’s French Quarter, the Miami native found her calling.
At the time, Jordi was living in the Marigny district, known for its jazz clubs and cafés. “I felt like there wasn’t a place in New Orleans that I was enthusiastic about, in a neighborhood I’d want to be in. I was excited to create that,” explains the developer behind Hotel Peter & Paul. Then she discovered, just four blocks from her home, a group of 1860s buildings consisting of a Catholic schoolhouse, a church, a rectory, and a convent. The complex sat abandoned for 13 years until Jordi took an interest and found out it was for sale.
She approached the New York–based design firm ASH NYC about a site visit. They all agreed it was a dream project. After all, where else could you build an entire hotel from the grounds of a 19th-century religious compound? Five years of zoning headaches and painstaking construction later, Peter & Paul opened its doors in 2018—thanks in part to the committed group of women Jordi hired to work on the project.
“During construction, our architect, construction manager, interior designer, and historic consultant were all women,” Jordi says. The 71 guest rooms are furnished with canopy beds and gingham sofas, while the former rectory houses a neighborhood bar and restaurant—plus an ivy-covered sunroom inspired by Monet’s house in Giverny, France.
“A hotel is a living thing,” Jordi says of her hospitality philosophy. “We are just continuing a conversation the neighborhood has been having for hundreds of years. These buildings have seen so much—epidemics, wars and heartbreak, progress and joy—and we’re just the latest custodians. We wanted the layers and patina to be palpable.” hotelpeterandpaul.com; doubles from $139.