London Calling

Alnwick Castle and the Lions Bridge
Alnwick Castle Northumberland England UK // Photo by darrenturner/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Our Esteemed Panelists: Louis Sailer, Café Royal; Kiaran MacDonald, The Savoy; David Morgan-Hewitt, The Goring; Debrah Dhugga, Dukes; Sylvain Ercoli, Bulgari Hotel & Residences and Andrew Thomson, Metropolitan by COMO.

Our Esteemed Panelists: Louis Sailer, Café Royal; Kiaran MacDonald, The Savoy; David Morgan-Hewitt, The Goring; Debrah Dhugga, Dukes; Sylvain Ercoli, Bulgari Hotel & Residences and Andrew Thomson, Metropolitan by COMO

 

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As part of our Affluent Traveler series of roundtables, Luxury Travel Advisor gathered a group of hotel managing directors and general managers in London recently to scope out the trends in the city’s luxury scene.

The prestigious group was hosted in grand style by The Savoy. In attendance were Debrah Dhugga, Dukes; Sylvain Ercoli, Bulgari Hotel & Residences; Kiaran MacDonald, The Savoy; David Morgan-Hewitt, The Goring; Louis Sailer, Café Royal and Andrew Thomson, Metropolitan by COMO. The roundtable was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, vice president, editorial director of Luxury Travel Advisor. Following is a condensed version of our dynamic discussion. 

Ruthanne Terrero: What’s the most exciting thing happening at your hotel this year?

Debrah Dhugga, Dukes: The most exciting thing for Dukes is the investment our owners have been putting in over the last four years to take it up to the five-star, deluxe standard. And even though last year wasn’t the healthiest of years because of the Olympics, this year I’m seeing a nice increase in our suite business. Dukes was a very corporate hotel and I changed it. So now we’re getting top-end luxury, which we’ve never historically had. Certainly the leisure side of it is growing, particularly the American market and the Russian market. There is quite a lot coming in from the UAE as well.

Sylvain Ercoli, Bulgari: We opened our hotel last year and we’re still positioning where it should be amongst the top luxury hotels in London. The market has accepted the hotel extremely well. After one year, 45 percent of our clients are repeat customers, which is higher than we had anticipated. Guest satisfaction is something I was really keen on, and 96 percent of our clients say that they have been delighted by their stay.

Andrew Thompson, The Metropolitan by COMOPictured: Andrew Thompson, The Metropolitan by COMO

We have opened one of the most advanced movie theaters in Europe in the hotel; for £58 you can now have a wonderful brunch and then watch a movie. The theater has 13 projectors and a Dolby system with 8.2 Surround Sound. You can watch a soccer match or just enjoy your Blu-Ray with your family. We have a 22,000-square-foot spa, which is extremely popular with our clients; our members pay an average of £5,000 to £8,000 a year depending on their membership. I’m focusing more on the London scene and how we can attract more Londoners to the hotel. It is really about exploring one of the most competitive marketplaces in the world.

Louis Sailer, Café Royal: I’m the newest kid on the block. Café Royal is still in soft-launch mode; we soft launch it the first week of December. And then progressively we’ll add floors and venues to it. We have a lot of different spaces within the hotel. Some are 150 years old, some are from the 1920s. Some are completely brand new. We’ve inherited a massive history with the name “Café Royal,” which used to be the place in London from the 1860s to the 1940s. We had the poets, the artists, Oscar Wilde, Churchill; almost everybody was there. Our aim is to bring the spark back in London, but in a version for the 21st century.

The people of London are very protective of Café Royal and what they want to see. So very slowly, very gently, we are entering the market, trying not to offend anybody. We used the restoration expert who did Windsor Castle after it burnt down. They restored our historic spaces beyond perfection. They exceeded all the expectations of the Crown Estate, which owns Café Royal. At the end of the day, the building is owned by the Queen of England; we’re just leasing it for 150 years.

The owners have poured in an enormous amount of passion and vision to create the hotel. The aim is to bring Café Royal back as the center point of London. In the old days, all the theaters of Soho, all the main acts, when they finished a show, would congregate on Café Royal. Our aim is to bring this life back so there’s full action going on in the public areas.

David Morgan-Hewitt, The Goring: Well, we didn’t open recently, we opened 103 years ago. Actually, for us, this year has been rather quiet. In 2011, we had the royal wedding, which brought us in front of the world, and at the end of last year the Queen wrote us a Royal Warrant, which is the first hotel that’s ever had a Warrant from a reigning monarch. So this year it’s all gone rather quiet. We had the Olympics last year, which, for all of us, was new territory, and took a lot of our time up in terms of strategizing. But actually it’s been rather nice to have a bit of a breathing space to go back to the core, which is our staff and our service. I’m not saying that anything’s gone wrong with it. But it’s wonderful to get the chance to say, “Let’s breathe and look inward to see how we can improve what we have.”

Kiaran MacDonald: The SavoyPictured: Kiaran MacDonald: The Savoy

It’s been an interesting journey for us because, with all the new openings, you have to be constantly looking at what you offer as people are bringing new ideas and new perspectives into the marketplace. As a very old property if you don’t play the same game you wind up being dated. The one thing we’re not is dated. I love showing people our rooms because they’re quite shocked by the standard and quality of them. They’re very traditional in their feel, but they’re very contemporary in their look and use.

This year we have a new chef [Michelin-star Chef Shay Cooper from the Bingham hotel in Richmond, Surrey], our first new chef in 15 years. It’s going to be very exciting because we trumpet traditional British food but not in a stodgy style. It should make our food more interesting and complex. We have a lot of clients who come in literally every day, and complex food isn’t necessarily what we want if you’re using a place all the time. So the balance is going to be a very interesting exercise for us. With a new Michelin star chef coming in it’s going to be interesting to see how we can retain our heritage, but then step it up because absolutely everything we do has to be a step above what we had before. It’s very important that every new member of staff produces something different and better than previously. No matter how good the previous one was, we’ve got to move forward.

Kiaran MacDonald, The Savoy: One of the most exciting things that we’ve done has been with our River Restaurant; it was a good dining room but it certainly didn’t draw in a London crowd, which is so important to us. So we closed it and reopened it as Kaspar’s Seafood Bar and Grill. It’s had a very successful opening.

Suites are critically important for all of us, and with 73 suites, we’re continuing to chip away at competition trying to get our market share because there’s only so much suite business in town. Our aspect of overlooking the river is key. We’ve embraced that by introducing a river cruise as part of the suite offering. We’ve done it for the summer as a testing and it’s been very well received. If you want to see London, a cruise up and down the river is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to the place.

We’ve also added airport transfer as a [suite] standard, whether you stay in a one bedroom or the Royal Suite. That’s more about taking ownership of the guest as soon as they disembark, to take out the stress around travel. Meeting them as they disembark has been very, very well received. From a service aspect, we’re all very proud of the receipt of the Five-Star Forbes award. We’re very proud of it and we will work hard to retain it.

Andrew Thompson, Metropolitan by COMO: Like many of us, last year was a hugely exciting year. We were a non-sporting venue of the Olympic family. It’s incredible the amount of focus we had from literally January 1, through to the end of the Olympics. And then came sort of a void afterward, so we used this year to bed down. We’re lucky with our owners that we’ve had their continuous investment in our spa and the bar. We’ve got a bedroom product that’s 16 years old, it’s still the original product, so it’s time to look at that.

At the Halkin, the most exciting element has been the launch of Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, which is Elena Arzak’s first venture outside of Saint Sebastian [Arzak was voted Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef in 2012]. At the Metropolitan, the most exciting part for me has been watching our ascent on TripAdvisor. Last December we were sitting at about 130th. We’re now somewhere between 57th and 64th, which as a hotel manager is great to see.

The Savoy was the setting for the roundtable discussion.

The Savoy was the setting for the roundtable discussion.

 

Ruthanne Terrero: What is the current booking pattern like? Is it still close in? David Morgan-Hewitt: What’s surprised us all is how good this year has been. Historically, a city after it’s had the Olympics has a really bad year. And we haven’t. We’ve had quite a good year. June for most of us was the best month we’ve ever had.

Debrah Dhugga: And August was amazing in comparison to 2011—you can’t look at 2012 ADR in comparison. Post- and pre-Olympics there was a real dip for our season at Dukes hotel. This August we had a huge growth in occupancy and a huge growth in ADR. It was one of the strongest Augusts in history.

Our clients are younger and they’re taking the suites. It’s not the older generation with the families, the buggies and the nannies. We all want that top-end luxury market so we’re looking at new opportunities. Russia is coming through nicely. Dukes was very much about Americans coming through. The younger market from the UAE is growing. There’s a lot of development in the St. James area; the Crown Estate is putting so much into it; it’s an area that’s on watch.

If I could expand Dukes’ bar I would double it. It’s turning over a minimum of 400 to 500 martinis a night, and it’s a 64-seater.

David Morgan-Hewitt: Bars are quite important. There’s a real bar culture that has returned to London. We’ve all got people desperately trying to get into our bars and we can’t fit everybody in. It’s been a big thing for us.

Kiaran MacDonald: It’s more about the animation and the theater and the mixology. It’s about wanting to feel as though you’re experiencing something very new, and very experiential, that’s your nugget of personal experience that you can tell your friends about.

David Morgan Hewitt: The GoringPictured: David Morgan Hewitt: The Goring.

David Morgan-Hewitt: And success breeds success. If you can’t get into the American Bar, you come back another time. We find this with ours; we turn people away now, which we all hate doing. The Garden helps because we get another 50 to 60 seats from it if we’ve got nice weather.

Debrah Dhugga: What Kiaran said is quite right. People are looking for the experience now, not just to go for a drink.

David Morgan-Hewitt: Or to belong. We mustn’t underestimate people’s desire to belong. We’ve all got regular guests who come back time and time again. They feel like they own part of the hotel.

Andrew Thompson: Hotel bars have their own following in London. And although they compete with the local marketplace, they don’t suffer the same way as [hotel] restaurants do in terms of reviews from the critics.

David Morgan-Hewitt: But they’re an entry point as well. Our afternoon tea is one way in which people touch the luxury of our brands; it’s the entry, and the other one is the bars. You can come in and, okay, you’re not going to get out of there with two drinks for 10 quid, but you can join in the luxury aspect of it. Interestingly, when we had the [royal] wedding, suddenly everyone in the world wanted to walk through our front door. We had to turn away thousands of people a day, but they all wanted to come to the bar because they could afford a drink or a cup of tea. For so many people, their object of desire is to stay at The Savoy, to have the sexiness of the Metropolitan or the Bulgari brand, the history of Café Royal. I think the bars and afternoon tea allow people to just touch the magic that we have.

Ruthanne Terrero: How is your luxury leisure market evolving?

Sylvain Ercoli: All of our clients are individual travelers; there are [no corporate rates]. Our hotel has just 50 rooms and 35 suites and seven presidential suites. This is how we manage to sustain really high occupancy. I’ve observed that we’re inter-generational. We have a young market but they know the product. They enjoy a new product with contemporary design, which is a big deal in London. The new generation, ages 35 to 55, can afford £2,000 to £5,000 a night. We see them from all over the world. Only London can provide you throughout the year with an extraordinarily high occupancy rate.

Louis Sailer: The economics have changed: In the past, staying in a luxury hotel was a privilege but it’s a right nowadays. You don’t have to be 65 years old and rich to stay in a luxury hotel. You see clients aged 17, 18, 19 and 20 with the same disposable income.

Debrah Dhugga: There’s got to be opportunity for growth for business in London because we are still seeing more supply coming in. There are more hotels opening. We can’t just get comfortable; we have to think what is government doing to help us attract more business into London.

David Morgan-Hewitt: Without that we face a really long-term challenge. With so many hotels opening, it is undoubtedly making a difference and there is still a lot in the pipeline. There’s a very strong possibility that rates are going to be driven down. This might seem like a good idea for clients, because they are going to get to stay in our hotels for much less money, however, the reality is, luxury costs money. Our wage bills are enormous compared to many other businesses because we know that luxury is about having people who can see what you want before you know it yourself. If our business models change and we have to take our rates down, we are not going to have that sort of money to spend.

It’s a real challenge because all of the people around this table really care about our product. We get up in the morning and we want to produce amazing experiences for our clients. It’s not a job for all of us, it’s a moral crusade to take luxury and make it better and better. It would bloody well hurt me if I couldn’t do that, if I had to look at the books and say, “Where are we going to cut?”

Sylvain Ercoli: It’s important to keep in mind, building on what David said, that whatever you want your hotel to accomplish, we are in the people business, with shareholders, clients and staff. As the leader of all of this, you have to synchronize everybody to ensure that your clients are coming back and they are happy. The question that you constantly have to ask yourself is if you know what your customer wants today, what do they want tomorrow? 

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