Starwood Capital Group will launch its flagship Principal hotel in Russell Square next week, after an £85m refurbishment. Rosalind Mullen finds out what London’s latest luxury hotel is bringing to the market
The 120-year-old hotel that houses the new Principal London has got its mojo back. Spanning an entire block in leafy Russell Square, this imposing purpose-built hotel was designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll in 1898 – you’ll know it as Hotel Russell. In recent decades, however, its grandeur and scale has been undermined by its tired appearance.
Well, that’s all changed. More than two years of building works and an £85m facelift later, the newly christened Principal London has emerged looking more like its beautiful, original self.
Principal’s owner, US private investment company Starwood Capital Group, has painstakingly restored the Grade II-listed hotel, with a generous layering of 21st-century facilities and contemporary luxury on top.
Although several punchy five-star hotels will be launching within iconic buildings across the capital in the next few years – including Raffles in the War Office and Rosewood in the former US embassy – chief operating officer David Taylor is confident that Principal London has an advantage in the market.
“It is one of the last grande-dame hotels in London to be restored to its former glory,” he says. “Rich in history and built to a standard and a specification that’s simply unaffordable in London these days, it will offer something unique given the variety of restaurants and bars and the high specification of the guest rooms and suites.”
Its location in Bloomsbury should help, too. It sits at the heart of a triangle linking the rejuvenated King’s Cross to the north, Clerkenwell and the City to the east and Covent Garden and the West End to the west. Plus, the British Museum is just around the corner, with six million visitors a year, and there are world-class universities and medical facilities nearby.
“There’s something fabulous about Bloomsbury,” says Taylor. “It’s like the Garment District in New York before Ace and the Nomad opened – central, but off the radar.”
The restoration was overseen by EPR Architects. Notably, they have reopened the void in the restored marble entrance by taking out the modern mezzanine offices to create a light-filled double-height space. The original listed marble flooring was repaired with bespoke tiles from Italy, while some 6km of plaster moulding replicates the original – and apparently, you could tile four tennis courts with the Royal Doulton thé-au-lait terracotta stone needed to repair the exterior.
The in-house design team, headed by Laura Hopkinson, worked closely with lead interior designers Tara Bernerd & Partners on the luxurious Palm Court, guest rooms and public areas, while Russell Sage Studio was responsible for the eclectic Neptune restaurant, Fitz’s cocktail bar and the Burr & Co café and bar.
Initially launched in the Principal Edinburgh George Street hotel, Burr & Co is the brand’s café concept, which also offers beer and wine on tap. Gorgeous Group helped work up the food and beverage concepts and Starwood Capital’s chief executive Barry Sternlicht waded in with creative direction.
“The main brief was to retain the architecture, bring integrity back and transform the hotel,” says Hopkinson.
There was also a remit to understand the locality and its history, with a nod to the artistic Bloomsbury Set of yesteryear and to reimagine it for the 20th century. As Bernerd explains: “We wanted to embrace the community – hospitals, artists, students – they are the new Bloomsbury Set.”
Happily, the vast ground floor has allowed for the creation of varied bars and restaurants appealing to locals, guests, different markets or even different moods – all with street access.
“Each space is different,” says Hopkinson. “Burr & Co is come-as-you-are, with lots of sockets and workspaces, pared back to its original panelling with a wooden floor and quirky accessories. It’s for younger customers – maybe students coming in for a reasonably priced coffee. Fitz’s is all about glamour, sparkling under the glitter ball (see panel). Banquettes are rich velvets and there are glamorous sofas. Neptune is vibrant, cool, with apricot walls (see panel). It is an energising room; it’s fun, with a retro-cool theme for a cool crowd. Palm Court is elegant and sophisticated, calming. Perhaps for an older crowd.”
The building’s layout was reconfigured to bring back the Palm Court, but the 80- to 90-seat space won’t be finished until June. It promises a living wall of plants in an outdoor terrace at one end and a winter garden with a cleverly lit glass ceiling at the other. Interior designer Bernerd has avoided an olde worlde style, yet introduced warm touches with wicker chairs and a double-sided fireplace, limestone flagstones, bolster cushions and custom-made iron tables to give a courtyard feeling. The space is designed to transform from day to night, coffee to cocktails.
The bedroom count has been cut from 400 to 334, which allows for roomier than average bathrooms. Room types range from the two-bedroom Principal Suite and 39 suites through to guest rooms and city singles. In-room amenities include Ruark music systems and the Perfumer’s Story toiletries from Azzi Glasser. Quirky touches include a roll-top bath in the turrets of the corner suites opposite the four-poster bed, which adds a classic feel.
Hopkinson describes the rooms as: “Calming and cool, but also cosy – a home from home. Not corporate. The colour schemes are neutral, but there are added depths of colour with plum and aubergine, and some rooms are deep navy.”
Working alongside the designers and architects was brand director Simon Willis, whose challenge was to “layer [the design] to make it a Principal hotel – to create a hotel that celebrated British heritage, with a fresh, relevant spirit.”
Heritage is the cornerstone of Principal’s 10 hotels in eight cities because, while it sets out to create individual properties that reflect their environments, brand identity is crucial, too. For instance, Principal Edinburgh Charlotte Square in Georgian townhouses has a residential, private feel, while Manchester, in the former Refuge Assurance Company HQ, is raw and quirky with a swagger in its step. But they are all part of the same family.
This comes across subtly with the signature pops of red in the portfolio’s in-room telephones and vintage lobby postboxes. And all staff are trained in professional informality.
Core brand values also embrace generosity. So a shop in all hotel lobbies sells nibbles and necessities at a fair price, and instead of minibars, each room has a complementary tuckbox with, in London’s case, British favourites such as crisps, chocolate, tea and coffee – all aimed at making guests feel at home.
And it is also attractive to the international market. “People like points of difference that say something about the country. It’s not just a brand,” adds Willis. “It’s not slavish Britishness, but it celebrates the national identity. Our focus groups relaxed when they saw we didn’t have Union Jacks and so on.”
As the company flagship, London is expected to generate an awareness of the brand across the UK and internationally. To hit the ground running, general manager Paul Walters has launched the hotel with a room rate of £225 for a double, about £100 less than competitors.
“We want to get to try the hotel because once they try it they will love it,” says Walters. “The rate is to go out to market. It is not forever. By the end of the year it will reflect the London market.”
The same goes for occupancy, which is expected to start hitting 80%-90% by September, while there will be a 65%:35% rooms versus food and drink projected revenue split. Initially, Walters is expecting to appeal to the domestic market, drawing on Principal customers and the fact it is close to rail links. The ballroom for up to 450 people and eight meetings rooms are poised to attract bookings from local companies.
Walters, formerly with InterContinental hotel in Sydney and the Langham London, is kicking off with 200 staff and is undaunted about Brexit. “All markets are cyclical, but business continues to be done here,” he says. Taylor concurs: “Recruitment is more challenging, but the weaker pound means more international visitors. We set out to create a brand that’s not just appealing to guests but also a great place to work. Having a collection of exceptional hotels across the UK helps with training, development and succession planning. We’re not complacent, but we believe London is still, on balance, the most creative, diverse and exciting city in the world and people will always want to work and stay here.”
Taylor is also confident the group will “meet and exceed annual budgeted revenues and profits this year”, fuelled by the new flagship hotel. “The competition in London is greater, but so potentially are the returns on investment. The profile of our London guests and the reach we think the brand will have through them, as well as PR, social media and general buzz, will benefit not just the hotel in London but the brand as a whole,” says Taylor.
And the brand will keep growing, with Liverpool in the pipeline and Birmingham scheduled to open in 2019.
● At the time of writing, the French hotel giant Foncière des Régions confirmed that it is in exclusive discussions to acquire the Principal brand for £750m.
Fitz’s cocktail bar
Fitz’s, set across two rooms, is all about velvet chairs, leather, dark walls, mirrors, glamour and a scene-stealing glitterball. It’s a salon for the 21st century and a nod to the Bloomsbury Set, thanks to the input of Gorgeous Group founder Robbie Bargh.
Bargh, who creates F&B concepts worldwide, explains: “My dream bar needed to have an element of escapism – a feel of what was happening [here] when it was built with the Bloomsbury Set. We needed to look back in order to look forward. The wow factor is the glitter ball and the backlit bar. It’s glamorous, cosy and comfortable. We looked at US bars and modern bars and amalgamated styles.”
He also worked with Starwood Capital and designer Russell Sage to make it relevant both to the local community and to hotel guests.
“We wanted to create the next generation of hotel bar where you can meet, drink or party. Bankers, actors, photographers – they can all meet and have an interesting time. The best parties have a mix,” says Bargh.
With free spirits in mind, the 18-strong team have been recruited for personality. “The key to a great bar is the people who work there. Today, people can buy great takeaway food and eat at home, but it’s hard to replicate a bar at home. It needs to be memorable,” says Bargh. “We’ve hired people that we wouldn’t mind being stuck in a lift with to attract the right audience.”
So, one of the bar team is a Norwegian magician, and head of bars Sean Fennelly has been recruited from chilled Soho hangout Milk & Honey. Describing his former employer as producing the “fighter pilots of the drinks industry,” he is bringing former colleague Ollie Kritzler over to help seed good training, along with head bartender Carey Hanlon, from Callooh Callay in east London.
Guests have to be seated in the 120-seat bar, but the vibe will be relaxed, with drinks supplied by “weird and wonderful small producers and spirit makers”, such as Bloomsbury Distillery. Executive chef Roger Olsson will produce a menu of bar snacks “that don’t require a knife and fork”.
“It will never feel like a restaurant,” says Fennelly. “It’s food you can dance with.”
He adds: “Fitz’s is a destination bar. It’s the cornerstone to drive business to the hotel in the evenings. This is the flagship hotel so we are pitching it against the best bars in the world.”
The Neptune restaurant
Designed by Russell Sage Studio, Neptune’s unexpected salmon-coloured walls are offset by green velvet banquettes, orange-red chairs and a lack of pretension. As with all Principal hotels, this is no ordinary hotel restaurant and it’s as much for the locals as for the guests.
Behind the concept are colourful restaurant entrepreneurs chef Brett Redman and front of house star Margaret Crow, who run Elliot’s in London’s Borough Market and previously operated the Richmond gastropub in Hackney. They realised when working up the Neptune concept that their ideals for “a great local place – a casual, cool environment with great music” haven’t changed. So they shut the pub to concentrate on enhancing their vision.
“The Neptune is more advanced and mature, with a similar menu but more space to produce it,” says Redman, referencing the oyster bar, which now has the space to take centre stage.
The British-led cuisine will feature raw and chilled seafood and Redman’s signature wood-fired dishes, alongside an “accessible and fun” caviar service. He’s also adding a raw seafood platter to the menu, with hard-shell clams, dill granité and buttermilk or scallop carpaccio. “It will be our signature ‘wow’ dish,” says Redman.
Main courses average £18-£26, with large sharing steaks priced £50-£60. Oysters are £2.50-£3.50 a pop.
The 130-cover restaurant will have a rota of 20-plus chefs, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. “People will be looking for breakfast and brunch – possibly an oyster shooter or smoked fish,” says Redman. “At weekends we will look to attract locals and families. The family market will be new for us. Brunch will be a fun and accessible option. This area doesn’t have that.”
Crow, a stylist who honed her front of house skills by “being a good customer of restaurants” wants to create a “warm and inviting vibe with no rules, and no stuffy, overbearing service. It’s like a house party where you can spill a drink and not worry.”
That said, Neptune will be evolving the duo’s philosophy. “Our general manager Sam Jewel worked at the Ivy for seven years and opened Balthazar, so he will bring sophistication with him. He will polish things,” says Crow. “Neptune will be a mish-mash of us and Sam and we are really happy.”
Brand director Simon Willis concurs: “Neptune is the antithesis of a hotel restaurant and will be fabulous to have on the local doorstep. The profile has been driven by Mags and Brett and it’s my job to ensure that they don’t get caught up in other hotel stuff. Restaurateurs and hoteliers don’t cross over well on the whole.”
The foundations of the Principal Hotel Company
1984 Principal Hotels launches
1994 Tony Troy leads a management buy-out of the group, which 13 years later becomes the Principal Hayley Group
1999 Troy buys the hotel that is now Principal London from Granada for £60m
2013 American private investment firm Starwood Capital Group buys Principal Hayley Group’s 22 four-star hotels for £365m, De Vere Venues for £231m, Four Pillars for £90m and two hotels in Scotland
2016 Starwood consolidates the group and creates two brands under Principal Hotel Company – Principal, which embraces the city hotels, and De Vere, the country house division.
Chief executive Tony Troy
Chief operating officer David Taylor
Brand director Simon Willis
The hotels Principal London, Principal Manchester; Principal St David’s; Principal Edinburgh Charlotte Square; Principal Edinburgh George Street; Principal York; Principal Glasgow Blythswood Square; Principal Grand Central Hotel; Principal Met (Leeds); and Principal Oxford Spires
In the pipeline Principal Birmingham and Principal Liverpool