It must have been something Niki Leondakis saw or tasted or heard as a young girl flitting about her Greek grandma's restaurant that first spawned her love for the hospitality industry. Whatever it was that struck her about Charlie's Diner, celebrated as the first stainless-steel eatery in Western Massachusetts, it stuck.

Today, as CEO of San Francisco-based Commune Hotels & Resorts, Leondakis has become one of the country's most prominent women in the leisure and travel business. And with 38 hotels in three countries already under her command, including the oh-so-hip Joie de Vivre chain of boutique inns, Leondakis is about to cut the ribbon at Palo Alto's sleek new Epiphany Hotel. She says the sexy tech-inspired luxury property practically oozes the Silicon Valley zeitgeist.

"We really tried to connect with the culture of Palo Alto,'' says Leondakis. "And I think the Epiphany captures the whole entrepreneurial startup attitude, with all the optimism, vitality and curiosity that people in Silicon Valley are known for.''

We spoke with Leonakis about growing up with the restaurant business in her DNA, about working for some of the world's most successful hospitality companies, and about her excitement for the Epiphany, which opens this spring. Her comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q So it was really Charlie's Diner that got this all started?


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A I grew up in Western Massachusetts and I have Greek heritage on both my mother and father's side. I had family members in the restaurant business and I grew up on the fringe of it. So when I got to the University of Massachusetts, I ended up studying hotel and restaurant management. Charlie's Diner is still there, and it's a real period piece.

Q So you wanted to be in the restaurant business?

A I got out of school in the early 80s and went to work for Marriott. My dream was to someday own a chain of restaurants, but then I thought I'd better get some learning under my belt about how to manage a business like this. I eventually focused on food and beverage within the hotel segment of hospitality and left Marriott, worked for Ritz-Carlton for eight years, joined Kimpton Hotels in 1993, then in 2012 joined Commune, and here I am.

Q Both Kimpton and Joie de Vivre have really made their mark in the boutique hotel space.

A Bill Kimpton founded the company in 1981, and for the boutique segment, these were really the first ones in the United States, beginning with the Bedford Hotel in San Francisco. These were small hotels, of 100 to 200 rooms, each individually marketed as brands of one. The Kimpton collection evolved over time and today's it's still a collection of individual hotels that are all connected by a spirit of playful fun and creativity.

Q Commune is following in the same vein, it seems. What is it about your company, which owns both Thompson Hotels out of New York City and Joie de Vivre based here on the West Coast, that resonates with both business and leisure travelers these days?

A People are really looking for more than just a hotel stay today when they travel. They're looking for an experience that's inspiring and memorable. Business travelers, too, are integrating their personal lives with their business trips. Ten years ago, a business trip meant abandoning your personal lifestyle routines, like dining and exercise, but today people might extend their business trip by a day or two to see the sights, or take family members along with them. They're looking for a more inspired experience in their hotels, not just a place to park their clothes and get work done.

Q So tell us about your newest property, the Epiphany.

A Its design is all about discovery, new ideas, everything that Palo Alto stands for. It's about opening up your mind, about new insights, and things like the light installation on the mezzanine level -- designed by the innovation and design firm IDEO -- combines the art and digital worlds.

All of the public areas of the hotel were inspired by the startup mentality of Silicon Valley, designed for collaborative thinking and featuring meeting spaces that are open and flexible. And just like at many startups, you can write on the walls and even the windows!

Q What can we expect from Commune in the future?

A Our customers have become much more sophisticated, with many more expectations. They're no longer just looking for a comfortable bed; the standards have been elevated, and people want hotels and resorts that provide memorable experiences where they can learn and feel engaged. And that can't be done from a corporate office, where you just stamp them out. Each hotel has to be its own creation. Each is a piece of handcrafted art.

Contact Patrick May at pmay@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5689.

Niki Leondakis
Birth date: November 28, 1960
Birthplace: Massachusetts
Position: CEO, Commune Hotels & Resorts
Previous Jobs: President & COO, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants (18 years)
Education: University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Family: Bob Puccini, Husband
Residence: San Francisco
Source: Commune Hotels & Resorts

FIVE Facts About Niki Leondakis
1. Has traveled more than 2 million miles on United Airlines over the last 10 years.
2. When not traveling for business, she travels for pleasure -- hiking and trekking across the globe.
3. She's an avid gardener.
4. Does her best thinking while long-distance running.
5. Has been known to do a cartwheel at company meetings.
Source: Commune Hotels & Resorts