Chelsea’s newest hotel, the 54-room Belmond Cadogan Hotel, which opened in February 2019 following a multi-million dollar renovation, has a new general manager: Xavier Lablaude. Perfectly nestled between London’s most exclusive neighborhoods, Chelsea and Knightsbridge, the property dates back to 1887. Though the painstaking refurb has it looking pristine, the design feels traditional and sympathetic to its literary past (Oscar Wilde was a regular) with all the mod cons, plus views to die for overlooking the private gardens at Cadogan Place. The hotel reopened in August post-COVID-19 under Lablaude, who most recently served as general manager of Belmond’s Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa for 10 years.
London correspondent Emily Goldfischer caught up with Lablaude to see how he is settling into his new role.
How has the transition to London been for you?
So far, it’s been busy but very smooth. I arrived on July 20 and the hotel reopened on August 1. Everyone was thrilled to get back to work after the shutdown, so I’ve come into an energetic environment with an expert team ready to serve.
How is the hotel doing?
Room occupancy has been averaging about 20 percent, and we hope to see growth, but it obviously depends on the situation with COVID-19. When the hotel reopened, there was no quarantine in place and we had a fair amount of international families that were in the U.K. to drop children at boarding schools. Since then we have had a few Americans doing their quarantine with us. With consumers changing the way they look at travel, we have also been looking at new and innovative ways to engage with people and nourish the desire for travel and adventure. We have used the period of closure to re-examine every aspect of the guest experience on- and off-property.
How about the food and beverage?
Food and beverage has bounced back more quickly. The bar is very busy, which has been great for the local community. Our restaurant by Adam Handling is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturdays, and we have just launched a traditional Sunday lunch. We’ve also been fortunate to pick up several small weddings for about 30 guests, as we are actually an ideal venue for smaller groups.
How is COVID-19 presenting challenges to your hotel and the sector overall?
We have learned so much already, and made some systematic changes in regards to hygiene, security and housekeeping. The main difference is we need to allow more time; housekeeping now takes 25 percent more time than before and we need more time between check-in/out. This is the new normal; our staff has been re-trained and this is working well. Overall, the main challenge is getting business and how to get the tourism industry back on track. I’ve been in the industry 30 years, the impact of COVID is like nothing I’ve ever seen—including wars, droughts in Cape Town, 9/11. For all those events, hotels were able to bounce back, but COVID is another challenge entirely as there is still much uncertainty.
Face masks made by the hotel in collaboration with British artist Nancy Cadogan.
In terms of the operations, Belmond is being quite strategic. We have developed an app—if guests want minimum contact, everything can be done via the app—and the company is looking at how people want to travel in the future, and coming up with packages for longer stays and successfully combining London with train journeys on Belmond British Pullman, Belmond Royal Scotsman and countryside visits to Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. We offered some of these types of itineraries to the U.K. market this summer, which proved very popular.
Looking forward, what do you anticipate for the London market and Belmond Cadogan?
London has always been a last-minute booking destination, whereas the lead time for Mount Nelson in Cape Town and African safaris are much longer. Right now in London, 80 percent of the hotel revenue is booked within the month. In this situation, operating a small luxury hotel is like driving a sports car, we can react very fast. We are in the business of luxury travel where guest experience is key, and this cannot be purely transactional. The experience needs to be emotional, conscientious and a rewarding mutual exchange with the destination and Belmond is fantastic at fostering this. In London, we are encouraging guests to visit museums, to support the arts and with current social distancing regulations—it can actually feel like you have some of the most famous galleries in the world to yourself. We are also doing more private experiences; for instance, we have a partnership with the Chelsea Physic Garden and we are looking into other unique opportunities for our guests while there are less tourists in London.
How do you think the luxury hospitality sector needs to adapt/evolve to get through this period?
The hospitality industry has already come together as a community to work with the government, and needs to keep doing this to help with managing the borders to safely allow international travel, to help overcome temporary loss of business and keep our employees feeling secure. Here in the U.K., the partnership between the government and industry has been successful and may be the silver lining of the pandemic cloud. Belmond joined forces with 500 other companies to support an industry-wide "Quash Quarantine" campaign to encourage the government to rethink certain measures that adversely affect the travel industry. As a result, travel corridors were created to allow for international travel to resume between the U.K. and certain exempt countries. Although the measures continue to evolve, the campaign shows that it is more important than ever to act in solidarity as an industry. In addition, the "Eat Out to Help" program, where the government picked up a discount of up to £10 per person, was great for getting people out again. The lowering of the VAT—5 percent on rooms and food—is another very good thing for the U.K. hospitality sector right now.
What are some new offers guests can look forward to when they visit Belmond Cadogan?
We’ve just launched a fun new collaboration with British artist Nancy Cadogan. We have five of her paintings on display in the hotel until the end of the year and she has also designed some limited edition face masks, available exclusively for guests staying at the hotel, featuring designs from her 2019 show, "Mind Zero." As part of the collaboration, Nancy is also working on additional artworks that will be exclusively exhibited here, taking inspiration from the hotel’s history with references to the floral and botanical motifs in the interior design.
Another wonderful program Belmond is doing ongoing is the “Belmond Invites,” a series of concerts, cooking classes and even meditation practices which can be viewed on Instagram @belmond IGTV. The Invites program has been going on since March, just a lovely way to transport yourself from home. Despite these tough and challenging times, the luxury sector has proven its resilience and ability to innovate. We have seen from our guests that although this period of stillness may have dampened our ability to travel, it has not dampened our desire to travel. As soon as travel restrictions have eased, I believe luxury travelers will be back to explore the world again.
For VIP inquiries, contact Xavier Lablaude at [email protected]