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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin A CENTURY AT CLARIDGE’S

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

October 20, 1997 -- On the road from Heathrow to London recently, our driver ventured the opinion that Claridge’s, our intended hotel, was the city’s best. Depending on the guest’s outlook, he said, it ranked one-two with the much newer Lanesborough. Never having stayed at the latter, I can’t offer any comparisons, but we all realize that such giddy ratings are, at best, flexible, fickle and subjective.

Having tossed in the caveat, let me add that if seniority is a visible criterion, Claridge’s has put in its time and paid its dues. As a matter of fact, this venerable property on Brook Street in Mayfair will be 100 years old next year, a reality that’s hard to grasp when you visit the gracious and spacious public rooms, dine in the handsome restaurants and settle into a distinctively designed room or suite.

Rich History. The seamless liaison between Old World charm and cutting-edge technology becomes even more pronounced when you learn that the property traces its history back to 1812 and was first known as Claridge’s in 1854. Of course, the hotel’s history is rich in color and detail, but I’m concerned here with the “new” Claridge’s, which opened its doors in 1889 under Richard D’Oyle Carte, founder of the Savoy Hotel Group and, incidentally, of the light opera community that still specializes in Gilbert and Sullivan. (The grand piano in the hotel’s Royal Suite was used by composer Arthur Sullivan.) The Savoy Group also has shelled out some $65 million over the last two years for a discreet, mainly back-of-the-house restoration that has wrought a subtle-but-significant change at Claridge’s, all in time for the centennial observance next year.

Detailed Restoration. I interviewed Geraldine McKenna, the Savoy Group’s director of marketing and sales, in the Library, the hotel’s posh, lobby-level bar (jacket and tie requested after 6 p.m.). McKenna had previously spent 10 years with Inter-Continental Hotels, five of them in New York. She told me that the air conditioning at Claridge’s has unobtrusively been extended throughout the hotel; fireplaces lost over the years have quietly been reinstalled; and renovations have been made in every room and suite. “We took off the old bathroom fittings, restored them and put them back,” she said, as evidence of the hotel’s effort to give attention to every detail of restoration.

Sophisticated technology has been introduced throughout the property, including fax lines, direct-dial telephone numbers for confidential faxes as well as E-mail and Internet access. There’s also a CD player in every room. Office space on the sixth floor, which was not being used, has been converted in part to the Olympus Suite, a health and fitness center that embraces the gamut from aerobic facilities to work-out rooms. (Yes, there are treadmills and exercycles.) For fitness-conscious guests, there’s a juice bar, and for joggers, maps of nearby Hyde Park.

My conversation with McKenna then swung around to industry matters. Some 48 percent of Claridge’s business originates in North America, of which 60 percent is booked by travel agents. McKenna cited the Savoy Group’s strong ties to the agency community, pointing out that “complimentary rooms are offered if available to productive agents, or we give discounts for agents who want to check us out.” In the last 12 months, the Savoy Group has hosted some 100 fam trips — “a majority from the U.S. ”— to show off the Claridge’s ambitious restoration, as well as improvements at the company’s other properties

. Recently introduced electronic innovations now allow the once-staid hotel to “perfectly serve” executives in all age groups, McKenna said, citing the many conveniences of the new cluster of meeting rooms on the sixth floor. Despite the evolving focus on corporate guests, the appeal to upscale leisure clients remains important and obvious. Claridge’s also has ties to a number of tour operators, such as Abercrombie & Kent and British Airways Holidays, as well as close links with Cunard and its QE2 passengers.

Repeat Business. All of this is overshadowed by one statistic: Claridge’s enjoys an impressive 60 percent repeat business. What else would you expect from a hotel that’s been used as a home away from home by the crowned heads of Europe for more than a century?

At the time we met, McKenna was preparing to head north for the ASTA World Congress in Glasgow, where she would share a pavilion with fellow members of the Leading Hotels of the World. I was prepped for the same adventure when the hotel’s publicist, Elizabeth Driver, showed me that Tartan Suite on the fourth floor, which certainly provided a foretaste of Scotland. Driver also took me to see one of the magnificent seventh floor penthouse suites, one done in Art Deco style, the other in traditional Victorian. They are priced at £2,300 a night plus 17 percent VAT, including Rolls-Royce transfers. We also got a look at the Main Ballroom on the lobby level, which can wine and dine up to 240 guests. The hotel is within walking distance of some of London’s toniest shopping streets.

My wife and I unfortunately did not get the chance to dine in the Restaurant, a gourmet eatery, but we enjoyed excellent Dover sole and friendly service in the Causerie, a somewhat more casual dining venue. This is as good a place as any to mention that service at Claridge’s is impeccable and surprisingly warm for such a formal English institution. The concierge desk staff, for example, couldn’t have been nicer.

I suspect that the climate at the Savoy Group’s other four hotels is equally unobtrusive and pleasant. Three are in London, plus the Lygon Arms in the nearby Cotswold Hills. The London trio includes the Berkeley, the Connaught (100 years young this year) and the Savoy. (There are also several deluxe restaurants and the Savoy Theatre.)

McKenna predicts that 1998 will be a “strong year” for the Savoy Group in general and Claridge’s in particular. After staying there, I’m not surprised. And I also wouldn’t argue with our driver about the heady ranking he accorded Claridge’s.

This column originally appeared in Travel Agent magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2006 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.