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12 things that changed hotels

15 June 2006
12 things that changed hotels

What makes a good hotel? For some the answer is simple. One country-house hotelier of the old school says it is two things - "a comfortable bed and a good table". That sounds like an attractive proposition, but it does not exhaust the virtues of modern hotels, and may well not exhaust the merits of hotels in the past, either.

The spa is one example. Neither bed nor board, it has nevertheless played an increasingly significant role in what attracts guests. At Chewton Glen in Hampshire, for example, the spa is a cornerstone of business, alongside the bedrooms and food.

A comfortable bed and good food does not describe budget hotels, either. They might provide a comfortable bed but they do not even try to offer good food. Many have no restaurant.

Some hotels are highly fashion conscious; some are so traditional that they give the impression that they think all change is bad (and many of their guests probably think just that). When London restaurant Wiltons refurbished a couple of years ago some regular diners bemoaned the departure of their well-worn but familiar surroundings. Hoteliers sometimes find similar reactions to any alterations.

But if conservatism abhors change it does not stop it. If you took a look at the British hotel market 50 years ago and looked again now it would look as different as the people staying and working there. Half a century ago there were good hotel restaurants but almost certainly not as many as there are now. Similarly, you could find a good bed in a hotel 50 years ago, but there were also too many ageing mattresses that made booking a room seem like paying to have your back tortured. And while many hotels did have en suite bathrooms in 1956, many did not. In short, even conservative die-hards would probably concede that the British hotel of 2006 is better than it ever has been.

What follows is an effort to identify some of the things that have helped that change come about: some of the notable innovations that have made the British hotel business what it is today.

The list is based on suggestions from a variety of hoteliers in the UK, from country-house proprietors to corporate bosses of large chains. It is not in any particular order - although the first entry, the Internet, was the most mentioned single innovation. After that the most obvious theme was food, represented by both improving hotel restaurants (although some point out that bad food is far from extinct) and celebrity chefs. Drink is obviously also important, with designer bars mentioned by several contributors. One simple piece of technology making the list is the vacu-vin wine bottle sealer, which has enabled hotels to offer a far wider range of quality wines by the glass.

Curiously, nobody mentioned beds, although when prompted nearly all agreed that a comfortable bed was vital in a hotel. The gradual disappearance of the single bed in hotel rooms has nevertheless made the list.

1. The Internet

It is, perhaps, unlikely that JCR Licklider had hoteliers in mind when he conceived his "galactic network" of computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962, but that idea is identified by some as the seed from which the internet grew. Its importance to hotels is not just in bookings and marketing, but also as something that guests now expect. Debbie Taylor, general manager at the Balmoral in Edinburgh, points out that high-speed internet is just one of a series of information technologies that guests now want in their rooms, including interactive television, ISDN lines and videoconferencing facilities. Guests, especially business guests, want the latest technology - and they are getting it.

2. The celebrity chef

Nobody doubts the importance of celebrity chefs, although it is in the nature of things that colourful individuals provoke fierce
passions. Not many have stirred the pot as much as Gordon Ramsay and he has undeniably had a huge influence on the dining rooms of some of London's grandest hotels - including the Savoy, Claridge's, the Connaught and the Berkeley. But there are many others who, whether they have worked in hotels or not, have influenced the food served there: notably the foreigners who adopted Britain (such as the Roux brothers and Nico Ladenis) as well as a string of home-grown chefs, including Marco Pierre White, Alastair Little, Rowley Leigh, Simon Hopkinson, Sally Clarke, Gary Rhodes, Michael Caines, Heston Blumenthal and Paul Heathcote. The list could be very long and British food has been the winner.

3. Better hotel restaurants
Kit Chapman, proprietor of the Castle hotel, Taunton, Somerset, and champion of English cooking, is full of praise for many post-war chefs in this country. But he also says that "you can still find food in many hotels that is execrable". Still, mostly the industry agrees that hotel food has got better, partly because of celebrity chefs (see above) and partly, according to Robin Hutson, co-founder of Hotel du Vin, because cooking has become fashionable and exotic ingredients are more widely available.

David Curry, founding director of Les Routiers in Britain, says: "There is a recognition by the industry and the eating-out public that good food can be served in simple surroundings."

4. The boutique hotel

The boutique hotel is difficult to pin down. The Americans sometimes claim the credit for "inventing" it with Morgans on Madison Avenue in New York in 1984, which was created by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. But if the term means chic, individual and independent establishments, then surely Europe has had boutique hotels for centuries. In its modern form in the UK the boutique hotel is represented by the likes of 42 The Calls in Leeds and the Hotel du Vin chain. Some also make claims for Malmaison in this category and Hotel du Vin founder Hutson points to Blakes, the Gore and the Halkin in London.

5. The budget hotel

An idea developed in the USA that is doing rather well over here. In 1992 there were fewer than 10,000 budget hotel rooms in the UK. Today there are more than 70,000, and it is by some margin the fastest-growing hotel sector. This is good news for operators such as Travelodge, whose chief executive, Grant Hearn, enjoys pointing out that the chain sells some rooms today at £10, less than when the brand was launched in 1985 at a headline price of £18.50. Budget hotels have done more than any other part of the industry to make hotels regularly accessible to all, rather than a something that is a special treat or only for the well-off. The budget sector probably uses branding better than anyone.

6. Easy air travel
Many hoteliers recognise the importance of air travel to their business. Richard Blamey, Conrad Hotel's vice-president of marketing, says that everything from the Boeing 747 to today's low-cost airlines "has entirely shaped the global hospitality industry and the demand for both business and leisure travel". You can't offer people board and lodging if they have no way of reaching you and cheap air travel has opened up the world.

7. The spa
Named after a Belgian town, the spa is one of the clearest indications that the modern hotel can be about more than just sleeping and eating. In business hotels health spas might be used to soothe away the aches and pains of hard-working businessmen; in country-house hotels to pamper couples on weekends away. Mark Sainsbury, partner in the Zetter Hotel in Clerkenwell, London, says: "Hotels are becoming more than just a place to sleep. Now it's meet, eat, sleep, watch (events), play, work out, spa and so on. It's a more ‘complete' experience." Simon Hirst, general manager at One Aldwych, also in London, agrees. "A spa experience is the reward at the end of a long flight, after a taxing business meeting or a day of sightseeing," he says. "The health benefits of a great spa experience are now recognised and so treatments for men and women are seen as part of our fitness and wellbeing routine rather than a guilty pleasure."

8. Eastern European labour
Hotels have always needed cheap labour and it has come from various sources. Before the First World War many waiters in London were German - there was even a section of a Soho cemetery especially for the German hospitality staff, which gives an indication of their numbers. Throughout the 20th century French, Italian and other European staff were the backbone of the British hospitality industry. Now that Eastern Europe has opened its gates and let its citizens out there is a new source of workers, and a very welcome one. "Eastern Europe has provided new markets with huge growth potentials," says Malcolm Lewis, owner of Longueville Manor in Jersey and chairman of the British delegation of Relais & Châteaux. "In addition it has provided a valuable new source of labour at a time when the industry is facing a major staff shortage crisis."

9. The death of stiff service
"Top-quality service does not now mean formal service," says Robin Hutson, in an observation echoed by many others. Fifty years ago the world was a more formal place than it is today. Just as starched collars and strict dress codes have gone, so the service in even the grandest hotels has become a little more unbuttoned and relaxed. There are still islands of formality (the Ritz comes to mind) but they are fewer and fewer. Whether this is to be celebrated or regretted is largely a matter of perspective, but that it has happened is undeniable.

10. The high fashion hotel bar
Exemplified by the Met bar at London's Metropolitan hotel, this is another trend that divides opinion. One of the keys to its success is making getting in a little difficult (members or guests) and making sure there are some A-list celebs among those who do get in.

11. The vacuum wine saver
A small object that has had a big influence on the quality of wine by the glass. Invented by Bernd Schneider and his brother, John, in 1983 as the Vacu Vin, it has persuaded thousands of hoteliers that they can afford to open more expensive bottles to sell by the glass because they now make it last a day or two longer.

12. No more single beds
Few people sleep on a single bed at home any more, so it is understandable that the decline has been mirrored in hotels. There can be few more depressing sites on opening a hotel door than a 2ft 6in wide bed overlooking the dustbins. Only the most masochistic nostalgist could regret its passing and hotel rooms are all the better for its impending extinction.

Editor's comment "I wanted to know what makes a great hotel, and I thought about how much hotels have changed in the past 10 years or so. So here are 12 concepts that have changed the face of the industry, according to leading hoteliers. My own concepts include smaller touches, such as duvets, good linen, luxury bathrooms and CD players."

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