Gordon Oldham, the founder of Pavilions Hotels & Resorts, is also a lawyer, entrepreneur, adventurer and philanthropist – disciplines you don’t often find coming together. As his new pop-up hotel, Pavilions: Mongolia opens, we meet this remarkable man of many talents.
Gordon Oldham has the kind of success story that unspools like a film script. He once ran his own publishing house (“If you want to make a small fortune in publishing, start with a big fortune,” he says); has had a jewellery business; launched MTV Asia (“Our first video was Madonna, and we brown-papered a friend’s office to make it soundproof”), and created the adventure travel company Action Asia Events. He currently shares his time between France, London and Hong Kong, where he still runs his 40-person-strong law firm. It sounds like he’s barely had time to breathe.
He also claims he founded his award-winning Pavilions brand by ‘accident’ – that it was purely created via his love of adventure, design and conservation. But Oldham’s life and career is really a testament to his passionate belief that when creativity and disruption meets business rigour, it’s a recipe for success. “Don’t be happy with the status quo,” he advises. “My biggest disappointment is with people who avoid trying innovate or be creative because they don’t want to screw up a bonus or change something that isn’t broke. But that attitude doesn’t keep you moving forward.”
The Man Who Would Be Many Things was born in Hammersmith Hospital to a Geordie mum and an American father, who came to England during the war (The military had a rule of three strikes and you’re out, and Oldham senior was blown out the water three times), ans ended up transporting coals from Newcastle to London. When Gordon was seven, Oldham senior made a decision: should the family move to Miami or Newcastle Upon Tyne? Alas, sunnier climes were not meant for Gordon – not yet. As he says, “I know what any other sensible person would have chosen – but no, we decided to freeze our nuts off up north.”
At 15, Gordon left school and hitchhiked to Turkey with a French girl he’d met in London. As one does, he’d told her he was 19. When the truth as out, and after a respectful break, reunited, and went travelling through Morocco and France, where he worked as a petrol pump monitor, and completed his A Levels in correspondence. After a child appeared on the scene, they returned to the north of England and married; supporting the family by working in a factory in her case, and as a bus conductor in his, further paying his way through Newcastle university, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics.
Later, at law school when one of his fellow students recommended Hong Kong as a place to live and work after he graduated. The money was good and the weather was just as fine. It suited Gordon down to the ground. The smell. The noise. “I got off the plane and fell in love with it” he recalls.
And then, he pivoted. Or rather, added to his skillset. After half a career in litigation, he started his entrepreneurial sidelines. He imported Space Invaders cocktail cabinets; bought properties, renovated and sold them; published Playboy and Forbes in Chinese; and the licence for Capital – a magazine that still exists. And Gordon was just getting started.
He was also the man behind MTV Asia, previously “EZ TV, reaching Indians working on oil rigs”, before it was eventually sold on to Rupert Murdoch. He’s had some luck – but mainly pluck. As he admits, “You can be a very unsuccessful entrepreneur. There are lots of failed geniuses who have come up with something, and then a businessperson comes along – a Richard Branson type – with the experience, money and work behind it to turn it into a success. Innovation plus business rigour is the key to success.”
He says he never had the hotel bug, originally. “I didn’t even think I was a social person. But strangely enough, when I started actually helping people, I realised I actually get a kick out of seeing people happy.” He opened a charming little hotel in Bali in 2000 and named it The Pavilions. A couple of years later, he built 25 ocean-view villas in Phuket, leading to today’s portfolio of Pavilions hotels and residences in nine locations around the world, including Pavilions: Mongolia for experiential travellers.
He describes the Mongolia experience as “an adventure like no other”. Situated in the whole Orkhon Valley park, in the wilderness, 360km west of Ulaanbaatar, it opens for just three months in the summer, for 25 guests at a time. “When you arrive, the last 40km is on a track, through water, up a hill. We see these super-busy, jet-set high achievers reconnecting to nature and relaxing. They transform back into their best selves. It’s great to be part of that.”
Ultimately, the man of many businesses cautions, “Don’t start a business unless you’re extremely passionate about it. It’s contradictory advice, because you should never fall in love with your investment. But you do need the passion, because otherwise it’s just another job, and if it's about making money, there are easier ways to do that. Money is just a means to an end. What your end is – that's up to you to work out.”