Dora Ullian stands on a cheetah print carpet in her office wearing a simple, elegant green shirt and a black and silver statement necklace. She proudly points out the art piece on her wall, an aerial photograph print of Barack Obama’s inauguration.
As she settles down at the chic glass table to chat about The Eliot Hotel — her hotel — and its 80-year anniversary, she pulls out a sheet of computer paper with notes about her life on it. This kind of preparedness is just one of the lessons she’s learned while running the upscale Commonwealth Avenue hotel.
But Ullian didn’t start out in hospitality, and the hotel didn’t always have a reputation equitable with luxury.
Ullian came to Boston from her childhood home in Montreal for post-graduate studies.
“I got my doctorate at Harvard in child development, child psychology. I taught at Wheelock College and did that whole academic period of my life,” she says. “I got a little bored and isolated in academia. So, I went to Simmons and got an MBA. That really turned me around 180 degrees, but I loved it.”
I went to Simmons and got an MBA. That really turned me around 180 degrees, but I loved it.
Ullian’s husband Arthur’s family had purchased The Eliot Hotel back in 1939. At the time Dora got her MBA, they were beginning to revitalize it.
Once Dora graduated from business school, it was a natural next step for her to immerse herself in the management of the property.
“All of a sudden I had this vision of putting together my psychology, which is really what I am, with business, to develop this building into the best boutique hotel in America,” she says.
This proved to be a challenging task. Back then, Upper Newbury Street, where it meets Commonwealth Avenue, was not the wealthy enclave it is today.
All of a sudden I had this vision of putting together my psychology, which is really what I am, with business, to develop this building into the best boutique hotel in America.
“At the beginning, no one even knew what The Eliot Hotel was,” says Ullian. “Someone even thought we were a house of ill repute, because this hadn’t been developed yet. You’ve got to imagine it as really seedy at that time.”
Despite having just had a child, Ullian dove into the business working full time to get the word out about the hotel. She did that by collecting lists of colleges, businesses, banks and people, and calling them one by one.
It was Ullian’s background in psychology that drove the major changes to the hotel. She applied her experience with people to her unique hiring process, which prioritizes personality and work ethic over prior experience.
A prime example of this tactic personifies in Maureen Toomey, the current director of sales and marketing at the hotel. When Ullian met her in the Boston suburbs in 2005, Toomey was an elementary school teacher. Ullian liked her so much she brought her onboard, knowing that her communication skills as a teacher would be invaluable in hospitality.
General Manager, Pascale Schlaefli has been with The Eliot for 25 years, and Ullian considers her responsible for launching the hotel into the luxury market by adding thoughtful amenities and behind-the-scenes systems.
Ullian says she loves working with women because of their listening skills. In fact, women comprise her current management team entirely.
She and Arthur also hired Chef Ken Oringer for the hotel restaurant where he established Clio, and then Uni, which launched him into culinary fame. Ullian says Oringer is like a son to them.
This familial feeling isn’t just among the hotel’s staff; it’s a part of the experience for guests, too. “In this business venture, I had a psychological take on what the hotel should be like,” she says. “When I come into a new place where I’m going to sleep the night, especially if I’m alone, that whole experience has a certain intimidation. I wanted to create the opposite of that.”
She designed the hotel to feel like a Back Bay apartment where guests might be visiting a friend rather than staying in a hotel, and it’s the small details and amenities that bring this feeling to life, like the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that are always available, the babysitting and pet sitting services, and the multilingual staff.
It’s no wonder that Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards named The Eliot one of the top 100 hotels in the world.
Ullian set out to accomplish a goal, and she’s a woman who never gives up. But, even as The Eliot Hotel rings in its 80th year to wild acclaim, Ullian remains refreshingly and astoundingly humble.
“It still works as a total egalitarian partnership,” she says. “That was my vision. I love the camaraderie of it.”