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Pink Power: The Colony Hotel, Palm Beach

Inside The Colony Hotel; a historic institution with a big personality. 

The Colony Hotel's lobby, with exotic wallpaper by de Gournay.

As far as Sarah Wetenhall is concerned, The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach is firmly female. 

“It’s not just because she’s pink, because in the past she’s been painted hues of brown and yellow. But I’ve always thought of her as a ‘she’,” she says, with palpable fondness. “Like any Grande Dame from the 1940s, she’s been around the block a few times and, while elegant, she can be finicky, has her quirks, and keeps us on our toes.”  

Acquiring and renovating The Colony Hotel, Palm Beach, Florida, over the last few years has certainly been a labour of love for Wetenhall and her financier husband Andrew. She never dreamed of running a hotel; she had a high-flying career as a New York-based marketing and advertising executive. But when the hotel came up for sale in 2016, they couldn’t turn the opportunity down — even though she was busy bringing up three young children.  

The hotel had a solid place in their hearts as her father-in-law originally purchased the hotel in 1969 before selling it to a business partner in the 1990s. After meeting at college, as a young couple they would escape the city most weekends to go and stay at The Colony as guests, at the penthouse rented by her father-in-law, which he kept after the sale.  

“It was definitely never my plan to go into hotel ownership,” says Wetenhall, who worked for international fashion brands such as Dolce & Gabbana and Calvin Klein. “But there was a huge emotional attachment to this place.” 

Sarah Wetenhall in a signature golf buggy (c) Nick Mele

When she took it on, Wetenhall saw it as more than renovating a hotel, but an endeavour to build community in a neighbourhood that she loves. “What we wanted to do was to create a place that embodies Palm Beach, for the magic to happen. There wasn’t one place that welcomed both visitors and locals to feel the essence of Palm Beach.” 

Palm Beach has an eclectic mix of locals: an old guard of lifetime and multi-generational residents, as well as newcomers, just as many drawn by the low Floridian taxes and the sunshine as the media focus that has shone on the island in recent years, not least because Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago hotel and resort at the tip of Palm Beach became host to meetings with international leaders during his tenure as US president — now it is his primary residence.  

“Palm Beach has been more-or-less constantly in the spotlight over the last decade or two, and there has been a natural evolution of community here. But the fact remains it is an incredibly beautiful place with spectacular architecture, world-class dining, amazing shopping and museums and cultural institutions, all a few steps away from some of the world’s most beautiful beaches,” says Wetenhall.  

The pool at The Colony Hotel

“My father-in-law would always say, back in the day, it wasn’t a proper weekend if you didn’t start or finish at The Colony,” says Wetenhall. “But when we took the hotel on, it was struggling to make money, it was sleepy and there was deferred maintenance that needed to be addressed.” 

With little experience, Wetenhall sought the advice of Susan Richie, a former hotel manager-turned consultant veteran with 30 decades of hotel experience under her belt. One of the first things was to bring booking systems into the 21st century (prior to that, bookings had to be done over the phone with an agent who worked 9-5, weekdays only). Next, was to hire a General Manager with deep knowledge of the luxury market in South Florida, which led Wetenhall to hire Bruce Seigel in 2019, who is still with The Colony hotel. 

Branding was key, something that Wetenhall had knowledge of in spades. “I wanted to take the hotel back to its heyday, and its pink identity was part of that, I wanted to build ‘Pink Paradise’,” she says. Wetenhall commissioned luxury paint-maker Farrow & Ball to customise the perfect bubble-gum shade that covered the façades — hotel guests can even buy their own cans of ‘Colony Pink’.  

The facade of The Colony Hotel

It immediately injected a bit of fun and playfulness into the old hotel at the end of Worth Avenue. To this was added pagoda framed fireplaces and bespoke, hand-painted De Gournay wallpaper illustrated with monkeys sipping from Champagne bottles and panthers dripping with jewels. In 2020 Wetenhall orchestrated a pop-up of the glamorous New York restaurant Swifty’s, which has stayed in-house ever since.  

The star factor only grew stronger. In the mid-1980s Wetenhall’s father-in-law purchased a large private home called Casa Mañana opposite The Colony and turned it into seven separate apartments. When the Wetenhalls started renovating the hotel, they simultaneously renovated part of Casa Mañana to make a home for themselves. When the pictures of their gorgeous new villa were published locally, word went around. “We started getting calls from people wanting to stay there. At one point we received an offer we couldn’t refuse. So, we decided to buy our own home on the island and start renting the Owner’s Villa out while renovating the others, soup to nuts.” 

Wetenhall hit on an idea to bring in stars to renovate each of the villas, and roll them out separately over time, maintaining a continual buzz. Names such as AERIN, the luxury and lifestyle brand of Aerin Lauder, granddaughter of the cosmetics pioneer; chic furniture brand Serena and Lily; interior designer Mark Sikes; online antique and vintage furniture emporium Chairish; and Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop. As an aside, The Colony offers weekly classes by celebrity fitness program Tracy Anderson Method, developed by Paltrow’s favourite celebrity personal trainer, Tracy Anderson. “It’s been good to have fresh content to stay at the forefront of the press and social media,” says Wetenhall.  

Details from a suite at The Colony Hotel

While staying true to the Palm Beach aesthetic, each one has a different personality. The 2,100 square-foot Villa Jasmine by Aerin mixes terracotta, rattan, conches, bamboo and plenty of orchids; the Chairish villa combines antiques with a good dose of chinoiserie; and Serena and Lily’s villa contains contemporary turquoise splashes for a breezy, beachy feel. 

Is the hotel making money now? “Every year of our ownership, we’ve done very well,” says Wetenhall modestly. Mondays is Trivia Night at Swifty’s, round the pool with its tropical indoor-outdoor space. It seems anyone who is anyone in Palm Beach attends this as a non-negotiable Monday night ritual, decked out in their finest, and with a huge range of people types and ages; Wetenhall has obviously been successful in her bid to unite Palm Beach. 

As for the hotel’s future, Wetenhall is looking to take tentative steps to expand the brand in the right location. “We get offers to sell regularly, it sometimes feels like daily, but that isn’t in the cards,” she says. “What’s next is tricky. There was a lot on the line in the beginning; there was certainly  a lot to risk in those early days when we didn’t know anything about hotels. But we took a sleepy hotel in a town with a big personality and transformed it into an international brand, and now there is more on the line.”   

And with a potential second Trump presidency in the running and his official home down the road from The Colony, it won’t be a quiet year. But something tells me the Lady of Palm Beach’s Pink Paradise will relish every minute.  

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's The Power of Women Issue. To subscribe click here.