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Hotels across the capital continue to invest. Mark Hayes investigates the fresh openings – alongside old favourites that are upping their event game
Looking at the long list of London hotels being launched or lavishly refurbished this year, you wouldn’t guess we’re in the depths of a recession. A host of established properties,
from neighbourhood boutiques right through to grand old dames like The Langham, Four Seasons and Savoy, have been calling in the
decorators, while a steady stream of new hotels is waiting in the wings.
The British Hospitality Association estimates that over 50 hotels will be opened or relaunched this year in London alone, with a further 70 or so lined up to follow from 2010 onwards. This means bookers will soon have upwards of 16,000 new bedrooms to play with – not to mention all the exciting event space about to be unleashed on the capital.
Events are now as important as overnight guests and most properties offer much more than just function rooms. The 79-bedroom Bermondsey Square Hotel, which welcomed its first guests in April, has a 150-capacity event space, but it also hosts parties on its restaurant terrace and in the larger guest rooms.
It’s a similar story at bijou boutique Sanctum Soho, where 30 bedrooms are complemented by a restaurant, screening room and rooftop bar, while Sir Terence Conran’s Boundary, a new restaurant with rooms in Shoreditch, serves up a sizeable roof garden, swish dining room and 12 duplex hotel suites for event hire.
Over in King’s Cross, the Georgian terraced house due to open as Rough Luxe in September is deliberately being left unfinished, juxtaposing contemporary wallpaper, smart furnishings and modern art with chipped paint, rough edges and bare floorboards. ‘Beauty is subjective. Perfection doesn’t mean beauty,’ says the hotel’s designer, Rabih Hage, who has created a really unusual property, which will be available for exclusive hire.
Organisers can expect more polished event space as Von Essen launches Hotel Verta next to the London Heliport in Battersea later this autumn. The 70-bedroom property, which promises to bring old-world glamour back to the capital, will have a business suite with seven function rooms, plus a 100-seater rooftop restaurant with 360-degree views.
We’ll have to wait until the end of this year, if not longer, for the hotly anticipated reopening of The Savoy and until the latter half of 2010 for the Four Seasons on Park Lane, but both look set to make quite an impression when they finally arrive. At the Savoy, we hear the 600-capacity ballroom will be turned into a huge cocktail bar with drinks mixed on a stage, while the Thames Room will become a winter garden, complete with gazebo and waterfall. The Four Seasons will dedicate an entire floor to events.
There’s also plenty to distract in the meantime. All over the capital, hotels are rising to the challenges brought on not only by the economy but by competition from an ever-growing number of venue competitors. Read on to find out how they’re upping their event game.
Beating Off the Crunch
A more cost-conscious approach to business has definitely descended on the London hotel scene but hoteliers nevertheless appear upbeat. Antony Rush, head of sales and marketing at Sanctum Soho, says: ‘Event-wise, people are cutting back, but there’s still business out there to be had. I think companies are looking to reduce rather than cancel what they’re doing – they’re holding smaller, more intimate events instead of big, extravagant things.’ Which suits Sanctum just fine, as the hotel’s largest event space takes just 70 guests.
At big venues such as the Royal Lancaster, where the Nine Kings Suite seats 1,400 for dinner, bookers are getting tough. ‘They’re trying to bargain,’ says marketing executive Nivert Tamraz. ‘They want added value – not just a DDR but also an LCD projector thrown in, a flip chart, canapés on arrival… And if they’re not getting what they see as added value then they want us to reduce the rates.’
‘It’s pretty ruthless out there,’ agrees Des Mclaughlin, managing director of Grass Roots HBI, a company that places £150m or so of events business a year on behalf of big companies such as Deloitte, Ernst & Young and Deutsche Bank. ‘There’s a perception in the market that it’s not good to be seen to be spending money on entertainment at the moment. Many have gone from using five-star to four-star hotels, and we’re finding that investment banks and large accountants are switching their training from hotels to training centres because then it’s clearly serving a purpose and there’s no perceived “jolly” around the event.’
This aversion to perceived extravagance is something The Ritz admits has affected business at William Kent House, the townhouse it opened in Arlington Street in 2006 to offer five private dining and banqueting rooms. Gerri Pitt, director of public relations, says: ‘Of all of the things we do at the hotel – our rooms, restaurant or bar business – I would say that banqueting and private dining has been the most affected… People feel that it’s a bit ostentatious to be seen to be entertaining at the Ritz.’
But bad news for hoteliers means good news for event organisers, who can now expect to be rewarded for bringing in business. Most properties will now negotiate on rates, while others have launched reward schemes allowing members to collect points and redeem them against a range of incentives, from spa treatments to holidays. ‘It seems to work well, especially with the corporate clients and PAs,’ says events supervisor Ricarda Neims at the St James’s Hotel & Club, which launched a ‘bookers’ club’ in April.
The Innovation Crowd
Hoteliers are also becoming more creative in the way they attract event business. ‘Choice is key at the moment. Ideas cost nothing and it’s the venue’s job to give them to clients,’ says Arnaud de Saint-Exupéry, general manager at Andaz, whose in-house team regularly stages ‘silent cinema’ screenings, interactive cooking events and comedy nights. This summer, the hotel’s Atrium space will be transformed into an English Summer Garden, complete with grass, flowers and trees to be used for private as well as public events, starting with a Wimbledon-themed singles’ night on 26 June.
The Metropolitan has found a niche in a new ‘Vitality’ events package, which sees delegates greeted with supercharged berry shots on arrival, with healthy food provided throughout the day. Marketing manager Jo James explains: ‘The dishes are low in carbs and fat, high in protein, and are developed so that once you’ve eaten you feel invigorated as opposed to having that lull. They’ve been really popular.’
F&B offerings at The Savoy promise to be innovative too. Mark Scholfield, director of event sales, says: ‘We want to be the first London hotel to offer à la carte banqueting. This is not for 20 people, this is for 500 people.’ Crikey. He’s talking, however, about a choice of three starters, three main courses and three desserts rather than a restaurant-style list of 20. Nevertheless, as Scholfield points out, it will take away the pressure from the organiser on finding out dietary requirements.
The Savoy is also playing the ‘green’ card, claiming its new incarnation will be London’s most environmentally responsible hotel. It plans to turn leftover food from its restaurants into enough electricity to light 10% of its 263 bedrooms. Meanwhile, The Athenaeum on Piccadilly took down its scaffolding in May to reveal a 10-storey ‘vertical garden’, created by French botanist Patrick Blanc. The same refurb also created a three-bedroom penthouse with its own terrace and space to host 30 people for cocktail parties.
Also finishing its makeover next year is The Wyndham Grand, where a new 600-capacity event facility will be fitted with a Lurex ceiling for image projection. As befits its Chelsea Harbour location, the hotel has also acquired a boat able to host events for up to 100 guests.
At One Aldwych and The May Fair, as well as at the hotels in the Firmdale group, guests can be entertained with dinner-and-movie packages in luxury screening rooms. Sanctum Soho’s function room can also double up as a cinema, though for something a bit different, Antony Rush suggests staging a ‘Wii Olympics’ on the big screen. The hotel management is obviously keen on Nintendo, having put Wii consoles and Wii Fit boards into guest rooms too.
That ‘wow effect’
Interactive events continue to grow in popularity – and hotel designers seem more than happy to create space to accommodate them. The flexible Studio space at the Andaz has been fitted with an open-plan kitchen ideal for cookery experiences, while the Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill has introduced a chef’s table for nine in its Montagu restaurant.
‘We’re noticing that people want an experience rather than something traditional,’ says Howard Rombough, the public relations director at One Aldwych, which is one of many hotels to offer Champagne-tasting dinners and cocktail masterclasses for groups.
Ricarda Neims of St James’s Hotel & Club concurs: ‘We’re always looking for new things to help us stand out. We want that “wow” effect.’ More often than not, this is achieved by showing organisers up to the hotel’s Westminster Suite, where a terrace with views across the surrounding rooftops creates a striking setting for summer parties. ‘It’s really taken off in popularity,’ says Neims, confirming that the hotel gets at least one enquiry a day for this unusual space.
Over at the Bermondsey Square Hotel, where the roof terrace (like that at Sanctum Soho) comes with a hot tub, Sarah Hernandez has had a similar experience: ‘We’ve had lots of interest in the terrace for summer – it’s nicely located for the City. We’re going to put together some summer packages with BBQs and drinks, because it’s nice to have a meeting and be able to break out onto a terrace.’
One of the most impressive outside entertaining spaces in Central London must be Portman Square, recently launched on the corporate events market by Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill. From its location right opposite the garden square, the hotel can supply the makings for just about any alfresco event but suggests early evening BBQs work best, as parties must finish by 10pm. As London hotels continue their search for that ‘wow effect’, event bookers can expect to be lured with ever-more attractive offers and spaces.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, summer 2009