Claridge’s on a Saturday night is pristine, echoing and a little spooky. The entrance is so quiet I feel like calling out: “Is anyone home?” After filling its rooms during lockdown by hosting NHS staff, the hotel has been welcoming back paying guests. The Claridge’s bar and the foyer, which offers all-day dining, have been operating this month with support from Eat Out to Help Out. The rooms and restaurant are to reopen in September.
The Savoy, which has not announced a reopening date, looms over the Thames in silence. Lockdown was its first unplanned closure since its polished doors opened in the summer of 1889. Many hotels in the world’s finest cities, from Paris to Rome and New York, remain empty. In Paris, the Hôtel de Crillon, the Ritz and Le Bristol are outliers in welcoming people back.
With international travel and, crucially for this sector, business travel all but grinding to a halt, luxury hotels have not faced more challenging times. When even Hollywood stalwarts like Chateau Marmont are having difficulties, you know there’s a problem. This summer it announced that following earlier job cuts, it would become a private members’ club. Were that to happen across the board, it would deny the rest of us the chance to dip into these bastions of grandeur for a cocktail, afternoon tea or a celebratory dinner. Indeed, it would change the fabric of our favorite cities.
Upgrading Urban Life
London may be full of tempting restaurants, but that wasn’t always the case. We have upmarket hotels to thank for kick-starting the capital’s thriving dining scene. Richard D’Oyly Carte, the original owner of the Savoy, paid the modern equivalent of $1.3 million in salaries to coax César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier plus their entourage from Monte Carlo to London to transform its culinary offering. Before then, the Australian opera singer Nellie Melba complained that: “The cooking was execrable, the carpets dirty, the menu medieval, the service an insult.” As the American investment banker Otto Kahn put it, the Savoy and its new style of dining made London “a place worth living in”. Dame Nellie became a regular too.
Tales of illustrious former guests are part of the smartest hotels’ attractions. The Goring will always be associated with Catherine Middleton’s last night as a royal subject before joining the family; the Duke of Edinburgh brought rakish charm to the Dorchester when he enjoyed his stag party there; and Winston Churchill could be spotted at the Savoy as often as three times a week at various lunches, functions and gatherings of the Other Club, his political dining club.
New hotels are looking to make their mark. But the Peninsula at Hyde Park Corner in London, originally due to open in 2021, has been shifted to 2022. The Mayfair Townhouse has pushed its opening date back to November.
As the American investment banker Otto Kahn put it, the Savoy and its new style of dining made London “a place worth living in.”
Even in an embattled travel industry, luxury hotels stand out as suffering particularly. Tourism in cities, broadly speaking, has fallen more than in rural locations and the imposition of quarantine rules has exacerbated their troubles. Philippe Perd, the development director of Oetker, which owns the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the French Riviera, says the hotel lost $1.35 million overnight when the British government announced quarantine with two days’ notice. It was a painful blow when the hotel was hoping to salvage the tail end of the summer. “It made us realize it’s risky to have a market that’s too American- and British-based,” he says ruefully. “We were relying on the UK to achieve decent activity this year, but we will be closing the season early — in September rather than October.”
Morale among staff must be low. Such hotels are big employers — Le Bristol has 575 members of staff, Hotel du Cap 450 — creating work for florists, gardeners, engineers, chauffeurs and chefs.
Robert Cole, formerly of the Four Seasons group and now of Phocuswright, a travel analytics company, points out that hotels took roughly six years to recover from downturns in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, and in 2009 after the financial crisis. He expects the same or longer this time, unless a vaccine becomes widely available soon.
There are modest silver linings, though. Hotels such as the Six Senses Ninh Van Bay in Vietnam are offering discounts to locals, and the Hotel du Cap has found itself hosting more French people, who are pleasantly surprised to find they can get a booking. The Langham in London has put together an in-house activities program, including English wine tasting and baking classes for children, aimed at city staycationers.
Problems with travel are lending currency not only to the staycation, but to a more recent portmanteau, the “daycation”. The idea is to offer hotel perks and a bedroom in the daytime at a cheaper rate than staying overnight. Day Break Hotels, a British booking platform, arranges this mainly for four-star hotels, but luxury hotels may be tempted to offer their own versions to cover the reduction in foreign visitors. The Athenaeum in Mayfair has its equivalent this summer — $265 based on occupancy from 10am to 6pm.
And attracting a younger, less affluent crowd will help too, injecting a frisson of fun along the way. One of the reasons I used to like Reid’s Palace, a Victorian clifftop hotel in Madeira, when I was a teenager on holiday with my parents was that I remember it as being sociable. I met a range of curious characters over the years, including a casting director, a convicted bank robber and a journalist who had interviewed the Yorkshire Ripper — or that’s what they all told me.
There was a bustling little dance floor by the bar and people were chatty and tipsy and smartly dressed, but perhaps a little the worse for wear, like the last few hours of a wedding reception. I’ve been writing hotel reviews for eight years and it’s rare these days that you might start chatting to someone you didn’t arrive with. Hotels could do with getting their sense of fun back. “If you’re going to get into trouble,” advised the Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn, “do it at the Chateau Marmont.” Will anywhere step up to fill such a vacancy?
Olivia Williams is a writer based in London. Her latest book, The Secret Life of the Savoy, was published on September 3 by Headline