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Erkka Hirvonen
The Long Way Home


Words Ken BaronImages Chris Abatzis

What Erkka Hirvonen would do with his life was never really in question. When he was a boy, his parents inherited a manor house from his grandfather and converted it into an events space and catering business.

Young Erkka immediately jumped in to help. “For me hospitality was never a business,” says the visionary behind Runo Hotel Porvoo. “It was a lifestyle.” Thus, the real question for this pragmatic Finn concerning his life’s purpose became not 'what', but 'where'. “My dream was to open a hotel, and I was looking in Croatia, in Crete, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.”

If that dream seems a bit all over the map, it’s because he traveled far to prepare himself to meet his lofty goals. “The hospitality school I attended in Finland enabled me to be an exchange student in Dubai,” he explains. He returned after graduation and worked for Jumeirah Group, then Intercontinental, and then Millennium Hotels, where he learned all there was to learn about the operational, commercial, and developmental sides of the business. Or put another way, ambition led him to fill his head with a toolkit of hotelier facts. As for his heart, that led him someplace he never expected to be, a place he had underestimated for much of his life: Home.


Ok, first off, why Dubai? It is hard to imagine a place more different than Finland?

Absolutely! It is completely the opposite. The soulful way of treating guests was at my core. Dubai, on the other hand, taught me the business. I went there because Finland didn’t provide many opportunities for hospitality experiences, since it was run by the big boys, the large hospitality groups. And the reason I never considered opening a hotel in Finland was because it didn’t tickle me as a tourism destination. We are bit behind in what we do. So when the Runo project came along, on a first look, I was very pessimistic.

What changed?

So much! In my wildest dreams I never would have imagined that my hotel would be in my hometown (Porvoo). During my time in Dubai, I started to value Finland more, not from a tourism perspective but for its design, culture, and nature. Dubai increased my appreciation for Finland. I had to leave the country to understand the country. Even then, there was some doubt. But in the end, the connection to the place that raised and shaped you is so great—your childhood friends are there, your classmates from second grade are there, your football coach, your network, a backbone that you didn’t even realize you had...those elements add so much, making things not only more efficient and doable, but more enjoyable.

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MBO RUNO Layout 04.1

“I had to leave the country to understand the country.”

Erkka Hirvonen

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MBO RUNO Layout 07.1

But what specifically caused you to take a closer look at Porvoo?

My older brother, who is co-owner and co-founder of Runo, used to come to Dubai with his family every year. We would talk about business. Then, in 2016, he heard that the building that would become Runo was for sale. My initial reaction was, “So?” I did not think a hotel there was doable. Sure, I wanted it to work for the reasons I just mentioned. But when I removed my emotions, I didn’t believe it could. In fact, to support my initial doubts, I did a comprehensive feasibility study, running all the numbers, and to my great surprise everything came up a green light. I was like “Wow!” I saw the growth of tourism, the value of authentic experiences in Old World cities not far Helsinki, the esteem that Porvoo has in the eyes of foodies and fans of architecture, the desire of travelers to immerse themselves in a country’s traditions, and my eyes were opened. Porvoo has 1 million visitors a year, but 90 percent are day-trippers. Plus, Finland is now very much on the world’s radar. So there was actually a desperate need for a hotel like Runo. I found myself thinking, “Why didn’t I try to accomplish this in my home country earlier?”

Were locals skeptical at first?

The city is a bit divided. We are half Finnish-speaking and half Swedish-speaking. The building was constructed in 1912, a time when Finns were separating themselves from Swedish culture by bringing forth elements of Finnish culture; this was called the Fennoman movement. Porvoo is a very old city, which means that any change is looked on as radical. Plus, the property sits right at the gate of the city, so we were afraid that we would be criticized no matter what we did. But as it turns out, the building was a sleeping giant. And once we woke the giant, we proved what could be done. I think who we were mattered as much as what we planned to do. We very much took care of the surroundings and were transparent to the community throughout. We are not a big international brand. Ninety percent of our contractors were local, and they wanted to do a good job because they take pride in their hometown, too. So, for one-and-a-half years, creating Runo was a labor of love and of cultural importance for everyone.

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And the reaction now that the hotel is completed?

It is something that the city is very proud of. It has become the big living room of Porvoo!

Runo’s sophisticated look immediately stands out. How did you choose the designer?

We short-listed five, and at first I didn’t choose the one we ultimately went with (Joanna Laajisto), as she was initially out of our budget. But Joanna just fell in love with the concept. I had a friend who had been working with her and he called me from a party the two of them were at, relaying her message: “Tell him to reconsider me!” Joanna’s family is also from a part of Finland where my father’s family comes from, so she understands our culture. And I loved her minimalist style. We connected.

So the connection was one of vision?

Joanna could help me advance the Finnish concept. Also, Ian Schrager is a hero of mine and I wanted to incorporate some of his feel into the hotel. Joanna totally got that. We both shared a desire to create something very cozy and homelike. I had mentioned to her a hotel in Stockholm, the Ett Hem, that I love, how I had tears in my eyes the first time I walked in, and she said, “I did too!” So when we turned to Runo and I discovered that she shared my love for original details and handmade elements, that did it. And Joanna did a fantastic job! She complemented me and what I was after, and then enhanced it. She pushed the craftmanship and I pushed the use of old materials. I had the desire; she had the expertise. Our visions just aligned.

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Handmade. Yes, that’s the word that most comes to mind when stepping into Runo.

We call our design “modern rustic.” The rustic comes from elements I took from my parents’ manor house—the old hay sticks that we use for towel rack, the pine floors that became benches, the 300-year-old trees that we converted into long tables. The modern comes from Dubai. Joanna was able to do both. I wanted the highest quality, naturally. The collaboration between Joanna and me was enriching for both of us. But I also need to credit our architect, Eve Sarapää. She executed all of Joanna and my ideas. She always had the answers to any questions that came up, especially those concerning working with an old building. If this had been a new build, Eve would have been the leader. I always want to give credit where it is due!

Beyond the craftmanship, art is such a driving feature in the hotel. Why is that?

One of the key elements of the Runo concept was to present high-quality art that is approachable. I learned in Dubai that art can be very formal, and thus hard to enjoy. I wanted to create spaces that are warm and accessible, but also very sophisticated. I want our guests to have an emotional reaction and connection to the Finnish way, to bring our culture closer to the surface of the daily experience. To do this, I hired an art curator to keep the walls and spaces fresh and changing every six months. And our guests immediately got it—the chance to experience, say, over one hunderd pieces of art in a cozy environment. And the art world has taken notice, too. There’s a huge desire by artists to be involved. This includes not only Finnish artists but those on the international scene.

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“I want our guests to have an emotional reaction and connection to the Finnish way, to bring our culture closer to the surface of the daily experience.”

Erkka Hirvonen

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You also hired a screenwriter to create a sense of place and story, right?

No, actually my parents hired a screenwriter for their business, and I hired a theater director for mine. For me hospitality is like a theater. You are on stage. You are performing. We want to create an emotional and soulful reaction. I hired this director to create role plays during an employee recruitment camp that I conceived to find applicants who have the skills to fully tell our story. Unfortunately, Covid killed the opportunity to arrange the camp, but that mentality never died. Some of the theatrical elements at the hotel are borrowed from my parents’ manor house. There, when I was growing up, my mother played the part of both the grand lady and the cook. And me? (Laughs) I played the part of the boy! The manor house really opened my eyes to what hospitality can offer beyond just food, drinks, accommodation, and service. If every detail is well thought through, it can provide lasting multidimensional and emotional experiences.

Did the book about the hotel stem from this desire?

Absolutely. The town made us prepare a long and comprehensive study about the building, the concept we had in mind, the furniture, the art, the history, the future, all of it. And when we completed this long study, we didn’t want it to just be stuck in some government drawer somewhere, so we hired a writer to tell our story, which also includes tales about how we found the materials and old wood that went into our custom–made furniture, as well as the people who lived here and who worked here. This 150-page book now sits on a stand in each room. And guests can buy it, too. Locals love it because they are very curious about the history and stories behind this important old structure in their city.

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Are some of the elements one experiences in the hotel important to your own personal history?

Yes, beyond showcasing the traditions and heritage of Finland through the textiles, porcelain, and carpets that represent the Karelia region of East Finland, where my dad’s family comes from, one can also taste Finnish history at Runo’s brunch in the ingredients passed on by my mother. My mother worked with our head chef bringing Karelian food culture to the hotel, along with the textiles and history that they brought to life at the manor house. She is literally a book of Finnish culture!

Your mother must be very proud of what you and your brother have accomplished with Runo.

Oh yes. And my father, too. He was at the manor house cutting the hay sticks for Runo, and now he is the doorman for our weekend brunches. He also works with our bar where we incorporate his extensive expertise about Finnish schnapps. My parents bring the roots and inspiration of the country to Runo. This is where it all comes from!

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MBO RUNO Layout 17.1

“Creating Runo was a labor of love and of cultural importance for everyone.”

Erkka Hirvonen

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