Nine months into his post running Dukes London, the iconic five-star Mayfair hotel—most famous as home to the bar that Ian Fleming frequented, inspiring the signature martini for James Bon—-newly minted general manager, Paul Skinner, had to cope with COVID-19 and shut the property in March. He took it in his stride, tapping into his years of experience in some of London’s most luxurious properties, most recently as the operations director at the five-star, Jumeirah Carlton Tower. The 87-room boutique hotel, tucked on a quiet street just off St. James, finished a top-to-bottom renovation in 2018; Luxury Travel Advisor had a remote chat with Skinner to learn what to expect when the property reopens this summer (besides a martini).
You’ve been at Dukes London for almost a year—quite an unpredictable one. What has been your biggest adjustment coming from Jumeirah Carlton Tower?
The biggest adjustment has been going from a larger property: The Jumeirah Carlton Tower has 215 rooms, as well as the resources of being part of a brand like Jumeirah, which has a strong presence in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Since joining Dukes London, an independent and privately owned, quintessentially British hotel, the support is more limited, but I have loved embracing the boutique and authentic approach. With the help of my senior leadership team, we develop our own strategies and initiatives, working closely with our business partners, maintaining a laser focus on our customer relationships to drive business forward.
Was the hotel completely shut during lockdown?
Closing the hotel on March 20 was not a decision I took lightly, nor did we have much time to prepare, but it was the only way to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our guests and colleagues, which has always been my No. 1 priority.
What are you most looking forward to about reopening in the summer?
As hoteliers, we focus on delivering the highest level of guest experience and always aim to exceed the expectations of our customers. I am most looking forward to welcoming back all our guests to Dukes London and to seeing the hotel come to life again. With the help of my team, we will do our best to continue to offer our guests the same five-star experience—only this time, we will be working in line with new health and safety regulations.
What can guests expect when Dukes London reopens in July?
Having recently completed a multimillion-pound hotel renovation in 2018, the hotel is very much in top form. Everything was redone—even some rooms were reconfigured, going from 90 guestrooms and suites to 87. Our largest suite is the Duke of Clarence, which can connect to a second bedroom with just shy of 915 square feet on the fifth floor, with a sun-filled living and dining area and a gorgeous private balcony that overlooks The Royal Households, our Mayfair neighborhood as well as Green Park.
We also did a full makeover of the restaurant GBR, which was closed for a year to complete the job, and sympathetically refreshed the famous Dukes Bar, with all new furnishings that kept the former look and feel intact. We have spent the last three months of lockdown making sure our equipment is in excellent working order and ready for guests. We’re proud of our executive head of housekeeping, KK Prabakaran, who is part of the task force, working in collaboration with U.K. Housekeepers' Association (UKHA) and Umbrella Training, helping to develop the new COVID-19 housekeeping secure standards for our entire industry, which, of course, we are implementing onsite.
Talk to us about Dukes Bar, the GBR restaurant and your Afternoon Tea service; how will these experiences look and feel?
We are working to ensure our guests can still enjoy the simple pleasure of dining with their family members, friends and colleagues at our restaurant GBR and The Drawing Room or having a martini in our Dukes Bar, whilst adapting to new industry health and safety guidelines. Unfortunately, all buffets are suspended going forward, but we have enhanced a la carte breakfast, in-room dining and picnic options. We will adapt to the social distancing regulations and ensure that we don’t exceed a certain number of guests for each of the outlets, conduct enhanced cleaning and we are looking into digital menus, aiming to keep the warmth of our hospitality throughout.
How are bookings looking for the rest of 2020 and into 2021?
Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, our booking pace for the remainder of the year is a far cry from our success in 2019. However, over the last couple of weeks, we have seen some positive signs of recovery, with occupancy levels looking much higher from September onwards. The outlook for next year is already showing signs that our industry is ready to bounce back stronger than ever and I have confidence that tourism to the U.K. will respond favorably in 2021.
How have you been working with the travel advisor community during this time and what are your plans going forward with advisors?
We recognize the travel advisor community has worked tirelessly since the start of the pandemic, dealing firsthand with the crisis and the impact on clients, helping to instill confidence and trust and keep the travel industry afloat. Maintaining strong channels of communications with our travel advisor partners has been a high priority for us during the lockdown period. Together, with my head of sales and marketing, Hubert Losguardi, we have shared bi-weekly newsletters, hosted phone and video conference calls, and attended various industry webinars with our advisor partners to ensure they are kept as up to date as possible with the hotel’s developments and what our colleagues have been up to. Closer to our reopening later this summer, we will be rolling out a set of initiatives to show our gratitude for their loyalty and support.
Last thing, since we’re still stuck at home, would you share the recipe for the legendary James Bond Vesper Martini drink?
Happy to share the recipe, however, the James Bond Vesper Martini that we serve, ironically, is actually stirred, not shaken. It is a “Direct Martini,” which was invented at Dukes Bar, where both the stemware and the alcohol are kept in the freezer, thus eliminating the need for ice cubes (and shaking), resulting in a cleaner drink. Give it a try at home!
- 1 frozen Martini glass
- 4 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 10 ml Sacred English Amber Vermouth
- 80 ml frozen No.3 Gin
- 20 ml frozen Potocki
- 1 zest of organic Seville orange
- Drop 4 dashes Angostura Bitters into the frozen glass
- Top the glass up with 10 ml Sacred English Amber Vermouth
- Top the glass up with 20 ml frozen Potocki
- Top the glass up with 80 ml frozen No.3 Gin
- Finish off with a large twist of zest of organic Seville orange, squeeze the orange zest to extract the fragrant oils
- Finally, gently swirl the orange zest around the rim of the glass and drop it into the glass and enjoy your Dukes Vesper Martini