Cultivating concierges at the best hotels has its rewards when a crisis ensues.
The Critical Choices
AFR | 2011
by Marion Hume
There are various choices one must make in a crisis. For me, as the privileged holder of two passports, the first might be “what nationality am I today?”. I know this is a cliché but, were I in a situation which required guts and muscle (these possessed not by me of course, but instead by some taciturn yet decent bloke, possibly to be played in the true-life movie by Russell Crowe) then I’d be Australian. I suppose if the crisis required sneaky diplomacy issued with velvety vowels, I’d be British. After all, they do say the greatest skill of British diplomats is they can tell people to go to hell and make them believe they will enjoy the trip.
In a smaller crisis; which is to say one not involving fleeing to an embassy and being helicoptered off the roof, there are also choices to be made. Mine, if possible, is “head for nearest five-star hotel”. Now, to be clear, I do budget. I’m the expert in ‘charming’ hotels where I have to haul my suitcase up the 18th century stairs to the attic. But, when budget allows, I’m there at the desk making a friend of the five-star concierge with four crossed keys on his lapels.
The elite, global band of Les Clefs d’Or concierges was founded by the 11 concierges of the grand Paris hotels in 1929. Today, members must pass challenges far trickier than getting you a table at a restaurant or tickets to a show. A micro-crisis, such as volcano ash, brings Europe to a standstill? The concierge at the Gritti Palace, Venice, not only booked every minivan in northern Italy to transport guests home, he worked out who would get on with whom with the skill of a society hostess planning a gala, packed posh picnics and made those who had arrived via the splendour of the Orient Express believe three days in a van would be an awfully big adventure.
Suddenly stranded in Hong Kong? The concierge at Lanson Place (a surprisingly tranquil and intimate hotel despite being housed in a 26-storey skyscraper) won’t just tell you a morning walk will help you get things in perspective, he will literarily lead the way – the hotel offers ‘wow walks’ free of charge or tip, to help guests feel at home in the neighbourhood.
So when my flight home from Geneva was cancelled recently, the first thing I did was phone the concierge at the lovely Le Richemond. “We’re completely full but don’t worry,” Emanuel soothed. The queue to get any flight information was long, the atmosphere charged – not surprising given airspace was closed due to an electrical storm. At times like this the choice is to behave well or not. Showing how not to do it, the bloke with the Brietling watch flashed his frequentflier gold card, even though this was Geneva where everyone is wealthy and frequent fliers are thick on the ground.
When the woman in front of me finally reached the desk, she did the ‘sobbing act’, protesting she could not possibly fund another hotel night (for which she would be refunded) and where could she sleep at the airport, sob sob? The tantrum didn’t wash with me. This season’s Celine, Manolos and a Roger Vivier handbag, and you don’t have a credit card? OK, so I was surprised I couldn’t get on any flight for 24 hours, but just then Emanuel called, a reservation had been cancelled, I had a room as well as a dinner booking somewhere not expensive “because perhaps you had not budgeted for this evening?” And as to my surprise free day? Les Bains des Paquis, entrance fee €2, is at the end of a pier in the middle of Lake Leman. You can swim then enjoy a set lunch. That I got to dry off on plush mongrammed towels kindly lent by Le Richemond was a very nice touch.
Stop, Revive, Survive
Singapore + Bangkok
Harpers Bazaar | September 2011
Breaking up (the journey) is not hard to do with BAZAAR’s guide to the cities worth a trip beyond the transit lounge
by Marion Hume
Reborn as Cool: Singapore
If you still think Singapore is dull, you’ve evidently not sipped a Southside (Tanqueray 10, fresh mint, fresh lime) while lounging at Lantern, the jaw-droppingly fabulous poolside bar which sits atop the Fullerton BayHotel.
Lantern derives its moniker from the old Chinese name for Singapore’s historical Clifford Pier: Red Lantern Pier. But that’s the only old-fashioned thing about this joint. Old Singapore? Forget it. The people here have, except in the city’s excellent museums. As for the 21st-century city, where else can you find a cathedral of commerce to rival the newest Louis Vuitton megastore accessed by bridge to its very own island?
STAY: The waterfront conversion, (calling this project “ambitious” would be ridiculous understatement) is at last complete. What that means to the stopover visitor is not just glittering views but also a safe circuit that you can walk, or run at 4 am, should you choose.
Come to your senses and enjoy a leisurely breakfast on your balcony instead (scrambled eggs and shaved black truffles, for instance). The Fullerton Bay Hotel is the 100-room groovy little sister of the stately old dame The Fullerton, the latter a grand treat that can wait until you have gray hair.
Think twice before staying at the much-talked-about Marina Bay Sands, with its three, 55-storey towers topped by a jetsons-style SkyPark and an outpost of Bali icon Ku De Ta. When I visited, the line to check in for a sneak peak was longer than the line at the airport. Which is not to say this massive complex, which seems to rise out of the South China Sea, isn’t awesome to admire from a distance.
If your budget is tight, rest your head in a room so dinky, you’ll marvel how they fitted in the power shower and Nespresso machine. Blue Monday is painted blue, from ceiling to skirting board, and is teeny. It is a room on the first floor of Wanderlust, where every room is named and colour-coded (surprisingly useful when you are jet-lagged). Wanderlust is a gem in Little India, the last still-authentic neighborhood on a tiny island that is no stranger to change. But think carefully before checking in to the third floor where rooms are themed after monsters (strange, but true). The Typewriter room features a keyboard straight out of an acid trip by American novelist William Burroughs. Having spent my life on a nightmare of deadlines, I’ll pass on that one, thanks. You might like the tree monster room, though; an enchanted forest with a mezzanine bed.
Singapore is designed for stopping over. There’s the easy-peasy train link from Changhi Airport, from whence you can store your luggage and venture into town with just an overnighter. Free WiFi, local calls and non-alcoholic drinks are often standard in hotel rooms, as are iPod docks and great toiletries by the likes of Molton Brown and Kiehl’s. And toothpaste. Useful if you’ve left that in the big bag at the airport. The Quincy, my favorite stopover hotel on earth, also offers free laundry of a couple of items a day and hearty, hot, breakfast, lunch, dinner included in the room rate plus an infinity pool open all hours.
SHOP: Stopovers from Australia usually arrive in the evening, so once you’ve spend your first night at Lantern, it’s up early for shopping. The waterfront has all the luxury brands you’d expect but if you want bargains, head to Mall 313 on Orchard Road (the main shopping nexus). 313 isn’t the shiniest mall, but it stocks local brands (don’t bother unless you are of nearest Asian proportions) and the fabulous Uniqlo (which fits all).
PLAY: What to do in Singapore? The answer used to be eat then eat more, and that has stayed the same. What’s changed is the scope, which now includes Cocotte, a French brasserie at least as good as any in Paris. Cocotte is at Wanderlust. You don’t have to check in to enjoy a “pissaladiere”, one of those nicoise-style onion and anchovy tarts that are perfect for lunch.
The sights? I lived in Singapore years ago, when they were busy bulldozing most of those and I have to say, having stayed in a traditional wooden slatted home and been eaten alive by mosquitoes, I’m not sorry it’s changed. The Singapore I remember is preserved in the Chinatown Heritage Centre on Pagoda Street. Do dash in. It’s authentic except for the air-con.
Otherwise you can come to this frenetic city and just relax. The Tanjong Beach Club (day membership available) is a sexy beachside enclave of pool, volleyball, bar and cabana just a stone’s throw from the heart of the city and is the perfect place to spend a sun-soaked afternoon. Twenty-four hours in Singapore? You could just throw the bikini in your hand luggage and chil here sipping mai tais until your night flight to Europe.
Bang For Your Buck: Bangkok
Unlike Singapore, Bangkok is not a easy city to grasp fast, so keep things simple. What’s required for a 48-hour jaunt is a peaceful place to stay, a few fantastic restaurants and after some great shopping, a wonderful massage. And as little time spent in traffic jams as possible.
TRANSIT TIP: If you arrive on a Sunday, you’ll save an hour on the route in from the airport. Avoid airport transits on a Friday night. While Asia’s other tourist hubs have affordable airport links, Bangkok’s can be a nightmare. Consider that your most extravagant spend should be a limo transfer (pricey, but great are those that meet you at the gate and whisk you past lengthy immigration lines) or get your hotel to send a car.
The problem with Bangkok is that there is no central taxi service hub and no reliable maps of a city growing and changing by the minute. Unless you have girl-scout skills of navigation, it’s wise not to believe the driver who says “near, near” and urges you got get out prematurely. Always carry a card with your hotel number, the phone number of where you are going and the address in Thai and English script, and know that calls on your driver’s local mobile are almost free (tip heavily). It is not unusual for taxi drivers to be remote-phone-navigated to your destination.
STAY: Check in at The Eugenia, an old colonial house with a pool in the central courtyard. But hang on: Thailand has never been colonized, so what’s with this “Indochine” mansion- all dark wood floors, high mahogany beds and copper bathtubs? It’s a fantasy, built just five years ago. Who cares? The details, both antique and repro, and the vast tables of white orchids, are glorious. Stay in the neighborhood until you get your bearings. Ruen Mallika is a wonderful restaurant to Thai-up your tastebuds and just a short taxi ride from the Eugenia.
PLAY: For cocktails, it is Vertigo on the roof of the Banyan tree; aptly named given it is 61 floors up (check online re: the dress code). Or for another way to achieve bliss with no dress code whatever, get a Thai massage at Oasis Spar (they’ll send a car to your hotel and you could leave from here direct to the airport).
EAT: You must go to Nahm, Australian Thai food guru David Thompson’s restaurant in the Metropolitan hotel. Sell the car, rent your house out, do whatever it takes to eat here. What to eat? Frankly, my notes are pathetic, I got as far as ” clear soup with crab meat, scallop salad with grated coconut” before I realised no words of mine could describe the majesty of this food. Simply brilliant.
SHOP: With 48 hours, you’ve just enough time to order a bespoke suit form the Tailor at Sukhumvit Road (try Raja Royal Tailor at Sukhmvit 4, Tanika at Sukumvit 14). For beautiful glassware, go to Lamont at the Four Seasons.
Anatomy of a 5-Star Hotel
By MARION HUME
TIME | 22 October 2008
Size matters, says Sir Rocco Forte, especially when it comes to a hotel bathroom. Forte, 63, should know. Knighted by the Queen of England in 1994 for outstanding service to the U.K. tourism industry, he has spent a lifetime in hospitality: he is the former chairman and ceo of Forte Group PLC, which had more than 800 hotels when it was sold in 1996. In 1997, Sir Rocco acquired the Balmoral in Edinburgh, Scotland, as the cornerstone of what is currently an 11-strong five-star-hotel group called the Rocco Forte Collection, which emphasizes contemporary luxury — no gold taps here. Indeed, the only other job he has ever had was playing a waiter on TV when he was a teenager. Sir Rocco, who collaborates with his sister, interior-design director Olga Polizzi, works on both new constructions and refurbishment projects. 2009 will see the opening of properties in Sicily and Prague, and 2010, expansion beyond Europe into the Middle East and North Africa. His most ambitious renovation has been the reminting of the 1837 London hotel gem Brown’s — where the Roosevelts once stayed and where Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book — which reopened in 2005 after a $24 million remodeling. Walking through Brown’s, he discusses the many aspects that combine to make a great hotel experience.
Meet and Greet
A first-class hotel stay begins long before you lay eyes on your room, Sir Rocco says. Although many prospective guests visit the company’s website, only about 10% book entirely online, the rest preferring to discuss their plans by phone. This gives a friendly staffer the chance to mention the benefits of upgrading to a suite. For convenience, confirmations are sent by e-mail, at guests’ preference, despite Sir Rocco’s favorite — “a beautiful letter on nice paper.”
To ensure that a guest feels like No. 1, the optimum number of rooms is 150, the point at which economies of scale really work. With fewer, the ratio of guests to staff at the five-star level requires very high prices; with more, personal service may suffer. (The Rocco Forte hotel in Abu Dhabi will have 270 rooms, made feasible by lower staffing costs in the Middle East.) “You don’t want to get much above 200 rooms in Europe,” says Sir Rocco, “unless you are the Four Seasons, a company I hugely admire.”
Transatlantic arrivals to Europe tend to be in the early morning, requiring an administrative juggling act when check-in isn’t until 2 p.m. Asking guests to reserve a room starting the night before may seem profitable for a hotel, but in fact it results in losses in potential spending on services, restaurant and bar. The better option is to find out guests’ departure and arrival times and schedule housekeeping staff accordingly.
No Cookie-Cutter Design
At the five-star level, rooms should not be identical yet should be in tune with brand identity. Sir Rocco is opposed to “dècor that wows, because it palls just as fast.” He favors instead an equation of contemporary comfort plus details such as well-chosen books to add warmth, attractive art and flourishes of frivolity. “But I leave decoration to my sister and the designers she chooses,” he says. “I will look at the prototype room from a practical view: Is the bedroom reading light well placed and bright enough? Do the windows open? If that is possible, guests like it.”
Old buildings present unique space challenges. The solution is to make one room as big as possible, favoring the bathroom over the bedroom. Double basins appeal, as does a huge bathtub (even if left unused). The travel-size toiletries are gifts to take if you wish. But leave that robe. The practice of chambermaids’ removing robes from departing guests’ luggage has been replaced by the appearance of an extra charge on one’s bill, often before the guest has left the building. (Housekeeping informs the front desk right after you’ve left your room.)
Spacious walk-in closets might have to be wedged into corners in old buildings, yet they signal opulence. A housekeeper to unpack and press when a guest arrives and repack when he or she departs reinforces five-star service, which some guests welcome because “they have people pack for them at home,” Sir Rocco says. “Others are sensitive about someone poking about in their things, so we always ask first.” The optimum number of mahogany hangers is 10: five trouser and five coat hangers.
Hypnose beds — the biggest queen size is 61⁄2 ft. by 61⁄2 ft. (2 m by 2 m) — make for idyllic repose. A choice of 16 different pillows is offered at Brown’s, where the sheets are 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton by the Italian brand Gastaldi. Forget that chocolate on the pillow; turndown means pampering bath oils placed by the tub and a choice of still or sparkling water on a silver tray.
“Achieving a good hotel restaurant is perhaps the most difficult challenge of all,” says Sir Rocco. Success requires a balancing act — or several at once: appropriate grandeur vs. too much formality, service that is attentive yet not intrusive, the needs of hotel guests who may want an off-menu item like a plain omelette after a long journey vs. those of local clientele who want a special feast.
Décor must be rich and warm to work by night but not so gloomy as to depress the lunchtime crowd. Lighting is “most difficult on summer evenings, when it is light outside,” Sir Rocco says. To create the right atmosphere, “you start with the light bright inside and then lower it as the light fades outside — you would think it would be the other way round.” Since many people prefer the security of having their back to a wall, there’s a central column of banquettes at the Albemarle at Brown’s, creating the illusion of a cocooned space in the restaurant’s most open area. And while the art in a hotel’s rooms should be appealing but not bland, restaurant art can be more controversial. “It’s fine if some people dislike it intensely,” says Sir Rocco.
The Lounge Factor
Hotels need cozy spaces, and Sir Rocco likes to add “naughty corners.” At Brown’s, for example, a nook that seats 12 in the Donovan Bar — named for the late photographer Terence Donovan — features his sauciest nudes.
Keeping it Fresh
A hotel needs to look as fresh as the flowers at the front desk, yet the mark of spectacular success — 90% occupancy year-round — necessarily means the premises take “a hell of a beating” and thus require constant refurbs done in a manner the guests won’t notice. Soft-furnishing updates generate little noise, but since polishing marble can be disruptive, “you do it in the middle of the day,” Sir Rocco says, “when most people are out having lunch or haven’t arrived yet.”