It takes a lot of work to make a hotel stand out. But ever since Sarah Wetenhall took over as the independent lifestyle operator of The Colony Hotel, the perfectly pink and wildly photogenic Palm Beach icon has been making the hard rounds among certain social circles — and certain social media, of course. As part of our Great Women in Travel series, we asked the natural-born hotelier how she makes it all run smoothly.
What do you do?
I am the owner and CEO of The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach. That means I do everything from overseeing branding and interior design to creating partnerships and unpacking boxes when needed. I wear whatever hat the occasion calls for.
How did you end up here?
The path was indirect, but ended up being a perfect trajectory. I began my career in fashion public relations at Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein, and Hugo Boss, among others. During that time, my husband’s family were partial owners of The Colony, and it was always a cherished part of our lives. In 2016, the opportunity arose for Andrew and I to purchase the property outright, and we made the joint decision to acquire it, with me leading a comprehensive renovation and relaunch.
What's a typical day like for you?
I get up in time to get my three young children dressed, fed, and off to school. Then I may practice yoga or play tennis. By 10 a.m., I am at my desk replying to emails on construction and renovation design, sourcing branded products, and working on partnerships. Regular Zoom calls on finance, revenue, marketing, and HR break up my days.
The importance of an individual’s contribution goes far beyond their rank in the corporate hierarchy.
How did working in the fashion industry prepare you for the hospitality business?
Fashion was the ultimate cross training for luxury hospitality because at the end of day both are experiential. The choice to travel or shop luxury fashion is essentially an emotional decision made on how the experience makes you feel. Style, branding, and aesthetic play hugely into both worlds. You are telling a story that your guest or customer connects with and shares.
Talk about an important lesson you learned running The Colony.
I have learned that there is no such thing as a small job. In a hospitality environment, a guest will probably have more direct interaction with a valet or housekeeper than the general manager, so the people in those positions are critical to a hotel’s feel and spirit. The importance of an individual’s contribution goes far beyond their rank in the corporate hierarchy.
What is the biggest challenge you're facing right now?
I wish I had more rooms! Truly, the demand on the hotel for events, weddings, and guest rooms far outpaces our capacity, so we are having to closely examine all the elements of our business to figure out how to give everyone space and keep the right balance for the hotel and guest experience.
What's the most underrated thing about Palm Beach?
The beach, undoubtedly. Palm Beach is so known for glamour, architecture, food, and fashion that I think people forget that the original attraction was the wide white beaches. A quiet day listening to the waves and maybe surfing or skim boarding is a simple reminder of what brought people here in the first place.
How do you ensure that your work has a positive impact on the community?
Positive community impact has always been a pillar tenant of our ownership of The Colony. That starts with being an ethical employer and providing a living wage for our staff. It extends to preserving the physical history of Palm Beach by voluntarily having The Colony designated as an Architectural Historic Landmark. And finally it means personal and corporate engagement in organizations that have direct positive impact on the local community, including the Center for Family Services, Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League, Palm Beach first responders, Cancer Alliance, and Breast Cancer Research Foundation, among many others.
Share a career highlight.
The debut of the De Gournay Living Room felt like a pinnacle moment for me. It was truly the physical manifestation of what I had always envisioned for The Colony. A place that is welcoming to all, simultaneously classic and fresh, and effortlessly sophisticated and iconic Palm Beach. It debuted just as the Covid vaccine became widely available, and the euphoria of that moment culturally came to life in our new space.
If you could wave a magic wand and fix one thing about your industry, what would it be?
The lack of work/life balance in hospitality is one of the biggest challenges in our industry. I wish I could wave my magic wand and allow ALL of our employees the balance that we all desire and strive for on a daily basis.
The most rewarding part of your job?
Without a doubt, the most rewarding part of my job is feeling like I am creating something that has a life outside of my own. The Colony is a living lady; she has a long past and future beyond even me. I am a steward doing my absolute best to leave her better and brighter during my time, but her history is a story with many many chapters. I have heard hundreds of personal stories of people’s connections and deep histories at The Colony; it is both humbling and motivating to feel the responsibility of preserving all those moments.
Speed Round of Favorites
Fave destination: Paris.
Dying to visit: Italy.
Bizarre travel rituals: Packing books. I am always worried that I will run out of reading material and so I have always packed tons of books when I’m on the road. No, I don’t use an e-reader!
Always in carry-on: Evian spritzer.
Concierge or DIY? Concierge.
See it all or take it easy?Take it easy.
Favorite childhood travel memory: Visiting Moscow in 1996.
Everywhere I go I check out the local church. It is a great way to peek into a slice of life of the local population.
I always bring home CANDY.
I travel because I love tapping into a world that is larger than my own.