|The Geoffrey Gelardi helped launch The Lanesborough in 1991. “Anyone who is anyone has been here at some stage or other,” he says.|
Geoffrey Gelardi, the managing director of The Lanesborough in London, is a rare breed of hotelier, as comfortable in handling the varied tasks of opening luxury hotels as running them.
Prior to launching The Lanesborough in 1991 and operating it with wild success ever since, he’d spent 20 years in the hotel industry, working his way up with relative ease. After all, the hotel business is in Gelardi’s blood: a fourth-generation hotelier, his grandfather was at The Savoy and Claridge’s in London and opened The Waldorf=Astoria in New York; his father was the president of Trusthouse Forte in North America.
As a result, working in hotels during school holidays and “whenever I needed some money” was quite natural for the British-born Gelardi. And while he wasn’t particularly looking to get into the business after he graduated from school, he took a gig as a trainee at what is now the Carlton Towers in London because, he says, his father could get him the job.
“I just enjoyed it,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “It’s a business where you are not paid very much in the early stages and you have to work quite hard, but it never bothered me. I enjoyed my work so much I didn’t care if they paid me or not.”
In love with the business, Gelardi worked in all the parts of the hotel, then headed off to France where he worked in the kitchens and as a bartender, “which is probably my favorite job in the hotel business,” he says.
When Gelardi returned from France, he took a job with the London Hilton and decided he was going to make a career in hotels. He eventually moved to New York and took a graduate trainee position at The Waldorf=Astoria. Moving up the ladder with Hilton, he moved to Washington, D.C., Arlington Park and Philadelphia, and the Statler Hilton as food and beverage director.
“They moved me around as a sort of troubleshooter trainee, which gave me great exposure,” says Gelardi.
Along the way, he headed food and beverage operations for Resorts International in Atlantic City, where, at the ripe age of 26, he had 1,500 employees under him. He eventually took on the task of virtually rebuilding the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and then running, as a partner/owner, the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle.
With all of these feats adding up, his arrival at The Lanesborough seemed quite logical. It happened like this: For many years, Gelardi had been friends with Atef Mankarios, then head of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, who approached him with the news that the company might soon be managing a new hotel in London, which would sit in the most plum part of the city’s Knightsbridge section, overlooking Wellington Arch and Hyde Park. The hotel was to become The Lanesborough, but first, the Regency-style building—which had been built as a residence in 1719, but converted over the years to the well-known St. George’s Hospital—needed some work.
Mankarios told Gelardi that he needed a general manager “who speaks English, understands the American style of operating hotels and understands the Rosewood standard of doing things,” recalls Gelardi, who had already spent a number of years working for Rosewood. “He went on to list a number of prerequisites that he was looking for. I said, ‘Well, a chap like that is pretty difficult to find. The only guy I know who fits it to a tee, you probably can’t afford.’ That’s how it happened and then he just made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Rosewood won the management contract and Gelardi came on board a year-and-a-half prior to The Lanesborough’s opening.
“I love opening hotels,” Gelardi says. “It’s probably the most difficult thing to do right. I have done numerous openings and I have to say I really enjoyed all of them.”
Having been in North America for 17 years, Gelardi was able to assess his new competition candidly. “One of the things that was interesting to me when I came back was how staid the hotel market in London was,” says Gelardi. “I visited the major competition at the time and found them to be a little pompous and a little full of themselves, and the service was not friendly; it was too English. In opening The Lanesborough, we wanted a quintessentially English hotel but without the pompous British attitude.”
One ingredient of the formula for achieving this was to do away with a dress code for guests, which seemed logical to a man who had just spent a substantial period on the West Coast in the U.S. “In those days, nearly all the major hotels in London wanted a jacket and tie after 6 p.m. I had lived in California for quite a long time and I knew some very wealthy people who never wore a coat and tie,” says Gelardi, noting that the concept of designer jeans was also becoming the rage at the time.
The relaxed dress code was just one of the many things that set The Lanesborough apart from its London competitors. Gelardi made sure it was high-tech for its times, installing two-line speaker phones and fax machines in each room, whose phone numbers changed every time a new guest checked in. As The Lanesborough evolved over the years, free high-speed Internet and in-room laptops also became the standard, as have other innovations, such as complimentary in-room movies.
Along with high-tech came a high-touch feature—providing butler service in guest rooms, which would be another first for the London hotel scene, and the international hotel scene as well. It wasn’t easy to find 25 butlers, Gelardi recalls. Part of the challenge was that household butlers are a bit different from those who work in hotels. Hence, Gelardi and his team employed a butler-training company to assist them in developing The Lanesborough butler staff.
Ever the hands-on manager, Gelardi sat through the butler classes, to assess how they were being trained. During one part of the presentation, however, he had to interrupt. “The instructor was telling the group how as a butler you don’t look people in the eye and you don’t smile unless you are smiled at,” says Gelardi. “I took him into the corridor and said, ‘No, this is an American-style English butler service that we want.’” This did not go unheeded for, he notes, “at The Lanesborough, butlers give a lot of eye contact and they do a lot of smiling. So, we rewrote the book on hotel butlers.”
Adding to this high level of service was a beautifully presented hotel; in fact, about a million British pounds sterling were spent on each guest room, making it at the time the most expensive hotel on a per-room basis. The hotel’s design was developed in conjunction with the local historical commissions to keep it as authentic as possible to its Regency heritage.
“It was beautifully done, and we haven’t really changed it very much in the last 20 years,” says Gelardi, adding that the hotel’s design is so admired it’s been replicated in private residences. “I can tell you some very famous people—if you walk into their house, you would think you are in The Lanesborough.”
One would think that when the hotel opened, its uniqueness would catapult it into being the next “it” place to stay in London. However, this was 20 years ago, in the middle of a recession and a Gulf War.
“It didn’t open with a bang,” says Gelardi. “It opened quietly and we were looked at in the beginning as the upstarts from America.”
|The Royal Suite has views of Wellington Arch. Gelardi hints at a new suite for The Lanesborough next year.|
While one wonders if that was a tough pill for British-born Gelardi to swallow, he took it all in stride with, as he puts it, a “sticks-and-stones” mentality.
“I just focused on what we were doing and making sure that the hotel was of the quality and at the service levels that I wanted,” says Gelardi.
The hotel gained its footing after about two years of opening, with the Rosewood network pulling a healthy dose of North American guests its way; Gelardi, in fact, spent a fair amount of time in the U.S. marketing the property, which soon became one of the top hotels in London and remains so after 18 years, winning accolades from consumer publications throughout the world. During its history, it has drawn A-list names from the ultra-affluent and celebrity circles.
“We have had everybody who is anybody from kings and queens to the top celebrities in the world; anyone who is anyone really has been here at some stage or other,” says Gelardi.
While The Lanesborough today falls under the St. Regis umbrella, Gelardi says the hotel tends to run somewhat independently because of its unique qualities; however, “we look at them as a great support,” says Gelardi, citing the fact that the brand puts “the whole Starwood machine behind the hotel.”
Gelardi laughs when asked if he has a service philosophy. “If I could pin it down to something, I would bottle it and then I wouldn’t have to work anymore,” he says. “It is so many things, to be quite honest.”
One of his golden rules, though, is quite simple: “Treat your guests as you would like to be treated if you were spending that kind of money.”
Another is equally simple: “It’s about making life easier for people, which keeps us ahead in the market,” says Gelardi. “You have to listen to what your guests tell you.”
That’s one of the reasons Gelardi can be found visiting the luxury travel advisor community in the U.S. at least three or four times a year. “I go for the feedback that I get from travel agents who obviously get it from their guests,” he says. Suggestions are typically implemented in the hotel upon his return. Gelardi says the hotel’s owners, who prefer to remain low-key, make it easy for him to implement ideas quickly. “Part of being able to run a great hotel is also to have great owners. They are terrific; they have never really turned me down for anything,” he says.
Gelardi also stays quite close to his clientele; he’s very good friends with many of them. When Luxury Travel Advisor spoke with him, he was about to go skiing with one in two weeks and had plans to be in the Caribbean with another in February. Last year, he went to Africa with five of his clients.
That’s a surefire way of learning what they want most in a hotel and getting the right feedback. “Many guests who are not particularly happy don’t ever say anything,” says Gelardi. “The good thing about knowing your clients well is you can go and have a couple of martinis with them and, believe me, once they have a couple of martinis, they will tell you everything.”
These friendships also mean guests tend to “support you a lot more and they bring all their friends to the hotel. We don’t do a lot of marketing; our greatest tool is word of mouth, which is what brings us the business.”
Most importantly, he says, strong staff retention is key in a high return-guest ratio, which, for The Lanesborough, stands at about 62 percent.
“The retention of staff is absolutely critical to the ethos of a hotel like this,” says Gelardi, noting that many books have been written about guest recognition. He feels, however, that it’s not a science. Rather, it’s more about retaining one’s employees who are familiar with the guest’s needs.
“The employee knows what guests like, not from reading their history but because they know them personally,” says Gelardi. “They call them by name because they are a household name in our hotel. That’s real recognition, and the only way you can achieve that is to have the same employees in the hotel year after year.”
With that philosophy, The Lanesborough clearly keeps its employees happy. “We do our best to recognize them, we train them, we try to give them what they want and that’s important,” says Gelardi.
Because staff is so important at The Lanesborough, the interview process is rigorous, he says. “But I don’t believe there is a fail-safe interview technique that will tell you this guy or this gal is going to be just right. Sometimes people interview beautifully and they say all the right things. Then you put them in the spot and they are absolutely useless.”
It works both ways, though. “Sometimes you’ll get someone who is very nervous in an interview and says all the wrong things,” Gelardi says. “You give him a chance even though you think this guy is never going to work and he turns out to be terrific.”
In the end, when hiring, Gelardi looks not so much at a person’s abilities but at their personality. “There isn’t much we can’t teach somebody if they are willing to learn and have the right attitude,” he says. “If they have the wrong attitude and have all the knowledge, you still have a deadbeat.”
As important as staff is, the property itself has helped claimed the hotel a spot as one of London’s best. We asked Gelardi to name his favorite of the 95 rooms in The Lanesborough. “It depends on how many people I’ve got with me,” he jokes. “But if I am on my own, I like a Junior Suite with an open plan; there are two or three of those that I really like.” Some of these less grand rooms have a real personality that pleases even the most discerning guests. Consider one affluent guest who always stayed in the hotel’s larger suites; she arrived one time when the hotel was at capacity, so Gelardi had no choice but to place her in a smaller quirkier room on the fourth floor. “After she’d checked in, she came right back downstairs and said, ‘I just love this room. It’s terrific,’” Gelardi says.
When Gelardi is able to relax, he slips into the Garden Bar for a cigar. “That’s been a great success and it’s a lovely little area,” he says of the venue, which was carved from a sunken garden and has creatively installed under-floor heating. “Even right now, we’ve got snow all over the place in London, and last night, I got two calls from people who couldn’t get into the Garden Bar,” Gelardi says. “It’s a lovely place, and while I prefer it in the summer or the spring time, it's the perfect place anytime to sit and have a cigar and a drink. Whoever came up with that idea was quite clever.”