Ben Pundole received an unorthodox education at The Groucho Club, London’s infamous members-only haunt. The entertainment honcho for Morgans Hotel Group opted out of a traditional university education, becoming instead the general manager of the Met Bar at the pioneering Metropolitan Hotel in London. It was there that he befriended Madonna, who later introduced him to hotel and design icon Ian Schrager. He also worked with Amy Sacco at Lot 61 in New York, then moved to Morgans to open Skybar in South Beach and the neighboring Florida Room at the Delano with Lenny Kravitz. In total, he balances his time between 14 properties. Most recently, he partnered with GoldBar mastermind Rob McKinley to construct Good Units, a raw events space under the Hudson Hotel in a former YWCA gym.
Background: I’m from London. I’ve been in the States for almost 11 and a half years now. I started off when I was 18 at The Groucho Club wheeling in wine deliveries, changing light bulbs and cleaning chef’s dirty laundry. I became a bartender and later a manager. Then, I worked at a sister restaurant, 192 in Notting Hill.
On life at The Groucho: I really had no idea what The Groucho Club was. One of my mother’s friend’s son was a chef there and got me a job. I was the lowest of the low when I started there and I loved it. I ended up not going to university because I found my location in life there. One night, Damien Hirst pulled himself over the bar and dragged me to the floor and poured tequila in my mouth. Then, he poured the rest of the bottle of tequila on my face.
On befriending Madonna: It was very, very strange and peculiar. She came into the bar one night completely unannounced. The Met Bar was small and all the tables were filled with people I just couldn’t move. I think I had Pierce Brosnan at one end and maybe Kate Moss and Jude Law and their whole crew on the other and hip people smashing around in the middle. She came in and I greeted her. I said, “Hi. I’m Ben. I’m the manager and I’m terribly sorry, I can’t give you a table right now. If you want to take a seat at the bar, I’ll make you a drink.” So, she and her friend sat at the bar and I made them drinks and I had a drink with them. She seemed to like the fact that I wasn’t just putting her in front of everybody else that was already there. Then, she came back a few times. When I was 23, she flew me out to L.A. to go and have dinner with some friends of hers. It was all fairly weird. She took a liking to me.
On meeting design heavyweight, Ian Schrager: I had a very fortuitous introduction to him by Madonna. He took me under his wing. I helped him when he was opening bars and throwing events, doing parties and promotions, marketing and whatever he needed me to do. I was his run-around kid. He’s a genius. He invented the whole way we stay these days. He left Morgans to open up the Gramercy Park Hotel. I stayed with Morgans and for the past two years, I’ve been the Vice President of Entertainment. I oversee, support, and develop partnerships, nightlife, marketing strategies, produce CDs. But I still make tea too.
On the contemporary definition of the term ‘Boutique Hotel’: Things got lost in translation. I honestly don’t think there’s a definition anymore. It’s a phrase that’s been overused, misused, and misconstrued. It certainly made sense when this type of hotel was born in the late ‘80s. It was more kind of luxury, lifestyle, and design oriented. Now, it seems like every hotel is like that. So, I don’t think there is a particular boutique market. Ian, obviously, does it very well. Andres Balazs does it well. The Thompson Group. I think Soho House does it very, very well. Although they’re slightly different.
On Good Units: It gives us real creative freedom. Usually, we build a hotel and we put the chair in place and that’s where the chair stays for years. That’s the way it goes. However, Good Units is a mobile space. It’s this 6,000 square foot space with an amazing mezzanine and a double high ceiling in the main room. It’s very much like a venue—similar to the Williamsburg Music Hall or Bowery Ballroom. Everything can be moved in and out, whether it’s the bars or the furniture. We opened with the 40th anniversary of Interview Magazine. Then, we did a great partnership with Patricia Fields and Susan Bartsch. We had an Erykah Badu performance there. We recently had a Twestival as well.
On the vices that come with a career in nightlife: In London it’s far more of a business whereas here, it’s more of a lifestyle. I think there are different levels of involvement. I think a lot of the reason that people get into nightlife and events is that they can live a certain way.
On the Florida Room: I met Lenny Kravitz when I was working at the Met Bar and I later approached him about this project. It was certainly not something I just wanted him to put his name on. He’d just started this design company, and I thought, “The last thing I want is for it to just be a bar with Lenny’s name on it.” But he was really involved with everything from the design to the glassware to uniforms to the music. If I told him I didn’t like something about the proposed design, he came to the office and defended his design or we came to a happy conclusion together. He’s a true artist. I didn’t know what Florida Room was. Lenny said that his aunt had a Florida Room. When he was growing up, it was where all the adults would go and drink and listen to music. The kids weren’t allowed in. Once he told me that, I thought it was a brilliant name.