Fluxlings talks to Leija Graf, CEO and founder of Select Collection, about her love of travel and holidays with the family.
Dreaming of summer holidays to get you through the winter? We certainly are. But Leija Graf is someone who not only dreams but lives, breathes and adores travel. You can sense it in the perceptiveness of her personal blog, and from her biography and general online chit chat.
Leija’s particular brand of travel is not the everyday. Enter one of her beautifully crafted Select Collection travel ‘boutiques’ in Scandinavia and London’s Mayfair – a setting that is strictly Scandinavian cool combined with exotic palm trees, and an ostrich (stuffed of course) – and you’ll get an immediate feel for what a bespoke Leija holiday experience is all about. We are talking luxury – but not so much gated hotels and swanky dinners. The Select Collection way is a travel philosophy. Treating travel as an elixir, as a memory bank, as the perfect way to invest in yourself and your family.
From the age of seventeen and a year long study trip in California (she was born and had her childhood home in Helsinki) the very Scandinavian looking Leija caught the travel bug.
Her Sunshine State year living with a family outside San Franciso led on to work as a travel guide in the untypical triptych of Lapland, Bulgaria and Mallorca. But there was always a long term plan which began with tourism college in Borgå, Finland. Extremely hard working and with an ambition even then to start her own travel agency, Leija went on to study Business Administration at Stockholm University, before starting her first company Aktivresor (Active Travels) in 1980. After a slow start (the company was very much a one woman operation for some time), the break through came when Leija decided to focus on offering trips around the world.
Looking for a new direction, Leija sold Aktivresor in 1992 and started Select Travel, now Select Collection. As a company solely focussing on the luxury end of the market, her intuition for gaps in the travel market was on fire once again. Before long the business expanded from Stockholm to Helsinki to Oslo and Copenhagen, before opening the London office in 2008.
Select Collection is a travel paradise for anyone looking for something extra special, with personally approved hotels across the world and a bespoke customer experience. FLUXLINGS caught up with Leija as we all begin to throw off the Christmas excesses and look forward to new adventures.
FLUXLINGS: I read in some of your blog posts about the idea of ‘investing in travel’ for the memories it gives you which really appeals to me. What would you say about the value of those memories in your experience?
Leija Graf: For families and couples bonding is the ultimate investment for the future – you get the time together and the wonderful experiences to share. I have a wonderful relationship with my son through all the shared experiences we have around the world. One can never put an exact value on memories, but they last forever.
FLUXLINGS: In the current economic climate, many people are having to sacrifice holidays, but what would your advice be if you can only travel on a shoestring?
Leija Graf: My inside tips are to go to a destination in low season when pricing can be one third of those in peak season and still the weather can be great, Mauritius in June for example, slight cooler but dry, warm and sunny during the days. The other recommendation is to travel closer to home, Europe has so much to offer and this will bring down the flight cost.
FLUXLINGS: Of course the holidays at Select Collection are aimed at the luxury end of the market and the destinations are just wonderful. But how can we recognise the child friendly ones?
Leija Graf: We have an indicator in our brochure for child friendly and each hotel is highlighted by this indicator, the same on our website.
FLUXLINGS: Is there a secret to a great holiday with children? Can we really relax and leave the chaos at home?
Leija Graf: Your hosts should love children and extend hospitality to them with open hearts. I can recommend Mauritius from the bottom of my heart for this kind of attitude. Recently many resorts have reinvented their kids’ clubs and kids’ programs. They are much more elaborate, educational and enriching than they used to be.
FLUXLINGS: How do you select the hotels you feature – are there certain things you look for?
Leija Graf: Charm and quality in every way – including the beauty of the sea and the beach, and the richness of the environment. Being a five star property is not enough for us. We look for authenticity and also consider corporate social responsibility factors by preferring properties that reinvest in the local community, hire local staff, take an interest in the staff’s families by educating their children or enriching their lives in different ways. We also encourage the hotels to treasure the natural resources by reducing waste, refusing to import water from the other side of the world in plastic bottles and much more.
FLUXLINGS: Travel should be enriching – for all the family – and sometimes it’s difficult booking a holiday and being unsure of whether you are going to end up somewhere generic that could be anywhere in the world. Any tips on what to look for?
Leija Graf: This is a question we take seriously – and our philosophy is geared to giving our customers the ultimate experience. What a hotel looks like on the internet and promises in its literature is not always a good indication. Our team has been there, and they are the real professionals, they guide every customer to the right property based on that customer’s individual needs. Our team is well trained and extremely well-travelled, trust the experts. Every single hotel in our program has been personally inspected by us and we guarantee that none of them fall under the “generic syndrome”.
FLUXLINGS: What are your first memories of holidays as a child/young person yourself?
Leija Graf: My father played tennis when I was a child and due to this my first travels was with my dad to different tournaments and resorts, mainly in Scandinavia. As I grew older I explored the rest of the world step by step such as when I saw the whole South Pacific during six weeks as a result of a scholarship from PATA.
FLUXLINGS: Are you constantly travelling yourself? What proportion of your time do you spend away from home?
Leija Graf: Stockholm and London – 40% of time travelling.
FLUXLINGS: Do you have a most memorable journey anywhere in the world?
Leija Graf: Bhutan – a unique kingdom where gross national happiness is measured instead of Gross National Product.
FLUXLINGS: Your approach to travel seems almost like a philosophy for life. Have you always found it very natural to immerse yourself in the different cultures?
Leija Graf: I’m curious by nature and I keep exploring, it feels natural to me to meet people from other cultures and take part in their traditions, taste their food made from local ingredients and see the places of natural beauty they treasure.
FLUXLINGS: And you come over as a very positive person. Does that help with your busy lifestyle? Do you distinguish between travel and work at all – Can you ever go on a holiday yourself that is not working?
Leija Graf: I have always only seen opportunities in my life, a hurdle is something I jump over, why stop? Travel is my business and my biggest personal interest, but I have a balance between work and pleasure. I see new properties because I’m curious and I enjoy, of course it also benefits my clients that I constantly stay up to date with new hotels and destinations.
FLUXLINGS: Do you have any favourite destinations at the moment? Is there a next up and coming destination we should look out for?
Leija Graf: Indian Ocean and Asia have been quite domineering the last couple of years. Lately I experienced the Caribbean lifestyle for 6 weeks and found island hopping exciting with new and different music and lifestyles on every island. Antigua and Anguilla became my favourites. South America and mainly Argentina and Brazil generate more and more interest from our clients and these destinations have so much to offer together with the rest of that continent.