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Historic London Hotels

December 28, 2010 By: Jena Tesse Fox Travel Agent

The Savoy, LondonIn London, luxury hospitality has been driving the industry for not just decades, but centuries. Every neighborhood has plenty of hotels that have stood the test of time and remained fresh year after year.

Of course, balancing history and modern tastes is never easy. The iconic Savoy Hotel, which originally opened in 1889, made headlines when it closed down for nearly three years to undergo a multimillion-dollar renovation—reportedly one of the most expensive in the business.

“History and heritage can be a hotel’s biggest assets,” says Kiaran MacDonald, the hotel’s general manager. “However, it’s important not to rely totally on the history of a property. A hotel must stay up to date, and, as Rupert D’Oyly Carte [proprietor of The Savoy from 1913 to 1948] said, ‘if possible, a little ahead.’”

To that end, the hotel has made concessions to 21st-century tastes, juxtaposing them with historical elements. “The two hotel bars are a perfect illustration of our approach,” says MacDonald. “The American Bar has been totally refreshed but in the style and feel of how it looked before we reopened. The Terry O’Neill portraits are back up on the walls, the white grand piano has returned and even the signature cocktail (Harry Craddock’s White Lady) remains the same. But the American Bar is joined by a new Beaufort Bar with a sexy black-and-gold interior that is all about cocktails and cabaret. But even this does pay homage to the history of the room, with the bar placed on the original cabaret stage.”A suite at The Dorchester

Other changes include the absence of a dress code for dinner. “However, we’ve found that people do dress up to come to The Savoy—there’s still a sense of occasion pulling up to the entrance,” notes MacDonald. “But some of the essential reasons that people check in to a hotel have remained the same—people come to hotels to be looked after, entertained and also for a good night’s sleep. A good hotel keeps these central to the guest experience. One of the other major changes is that people’s time has become even more precious. It’s a fast-paced world, so service has to be efficient while retaining the personal touch.”

When it opened in 1889, MacDonald continues, The Savoy was a hotel of many firsts: “It was the first true luxury hotel in London and the first to be lit by electricity. It was the first to have ‘ascending rooms,’ or ‘lifts’ as they are now known. [Of course, “lifts” are “elevators” in America.] Rooms were connected to the valet, maid and floor waiter by innovative speaking tubes, and The Savoy later became the first hotel to provide en-suite bathrooms. These are all now taken for granted, but caused quite a stir when the hotel opened.” Today, he adds, the definition of a luxury experience revolves around personal service: “Automated check-ins, which are considered innovative in airports and in some hotels, would never happen at The Savoy. For us, a true luxury experience is being warmly welcomed by a member of staff with everything organized in advance for your stay.”

When The Savoy closed in December 2007, it was the first time in the hotel’s 120-year history that it had done so. Parts of the hotel had been updated and renovated over the years (for example, when en-suite bathrooms were added to rooms, which entailed turning the balconies into rooms), but this most recent restoration stripped the building back to the bare bones. “It has allowed us to update essentials such as plumbing and wiring,” says MacDonald. “This restoration really did breathe a new life into the whole hotel, and it has given it a new energy while retaining an old-fashioned glamour.”

But, he adds, the hotel is still “very much The Savoy,” although one guest commented that “it was as if we’d switched the lights on.”

For special requests at The Savoy, agents should reach out to Director of Sales Simon Gilkes ([email protected]). The Connaught

Leaving a Legacy

A slightly younger property, The Dorchester opened in 1931 and will mark its 80th anniversary next year. As part of celebrations, the hotel’s team is planting trees around London. “Our intention is to invest money in a way that will have an integral impact on the London landscape and will leave a legacy for people to enjoy for years to come,” says Roland Fasel, the hotel’s general manager.

Like MacDonald, Fasel acknowledges the challenges in balancing heritage and modern tastes: “The building is an iconic part of British heritage and the London cityscape, but once inside, the bars and restaurants are very much of the moment.

“The crucial factor,” he continues, “is respecting our responsibility to protect the heritage while consistently innovating to stay relevant.” To that end, the hotel introduced several restaurants—China Tang at The Dorchester and three-Michelin star Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, currently the only UK hotel restaurant to hold this accolade—and refurbished The Dorchester Spa in 2009.

One of the biggest differences Fasel notes is the immediacy of guest expectations. “We need to be flexible to respond to our guests’ ever-changing needs. There are much shorter lead times, as everything is more immediate than it was. Technology plays its part, too. There are changes in equipment and the services we provide to respond to this. For example, we’ve recently introduced eButlers to assist guests requiring technical assistance.”

Twenty years ago, The Dorchester closed for two years for a complete refurbishment. Since then, various areas have been refreshed by designers such as Thierry Despont, who redesigned The Promenade in 2005, The Grill at The Dorchester and The Bar at The Dorchester in 2006.

The hotel also added a spa, three contemporary roof suites and redesigned the chef’s table, The Krug Room at The Dorchester. 



Agent Advice

Binnie Coppersmith of Travelworld has been a travel agent for more than 40 years, specializing in custom international travel. “When I started in the industry, air bookings were made by calling the originating carrier, who then conveyed the other legs of space to the down-line carriers; tickets were handwritten, and if you were as lucky as I was, and had terrible handwriting, you weren’t allowed to write the tickets,” she says. “Agencies were paid decent commissions, agents were poorly paid, and travel was elegant.

“On one of my first trips to London, I had tea at Brown’s and was hooked, both by historical hotels and British teas. Brown’s continues to be my first five-star choice of hotels in London, and 40 years later, all my London itineraries suggest tea—at Brown’s of course!

“The Goring is a good four–star, family-run, historical choice. The hotel is 100 years old, but now displays British chic in its stylishly decorated public and guest rooms, and suites.

“The charm and elegance of the historical hotels in London in any star category gives the traveler the feeling of what gracious travel in years gone by was all about.”

Indy Kullar, president of VIP Travel in Canada, says her two favorite London hotels are The Savoy and The Waldorf. “Their locations are excellent and carry that Old World charm!” she says. “They have kept up with the pace and offer modern amenities like Wi-Fi.”

Kullar adds: “The biggest and best invention for the industry has been electronic tickets, documents and vouchers. This change, together with e-mails, lets us serve potential clients around the globe with ease.”



Agents should reach out to Area Director of Sales Rachel Louis ([email protected]) with queries.

Modern Touches

The Connaught was built in 1897 and originally named The Coburg Hotel, after Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, the late husband of Queen Victoria. In 1917, the hotel was renamed after Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught.

Inside, the Coburg Bar still stands today and, along with the Connaught bar, was designed by New Age designers India Mahdavi and David Collins to give a contemporary feel to the hotel’s architecture and design.

The Connaught recently underwent a restoration, and a new wing was unveiled with a decidedly modern design by Guy Oliver. Two of the hotel’s guest rooms, The Apartment and The Prince’s Lodge, now have a modern design. The hotel also has a new spa.

Nathalie Seiler-Hayez, the new general manager at the Connaught, says the hotel is “regarded by many of our guests as their London residence. With the recent restoration program, we have enhanced the hotel while acknowledging its cherished legacy.” She also notes that by remaining popular for so many years, the hotel has gained a following in families. “It is very special to see generations of families return to the hotel time and again for more than a century,” she says.

The travel agent liaison at the Connaught is Patricia Senft ([email protected]).

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About the Author

Jena Tesse Fox
Jena Tesse Fox covers Europe, Africa, Australia/South Pacific and business travel for the Questex Travel Group's publications. The daughter of history teachers, she can spend...

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