Historic events at hotels

20 December 2007
Historic events at hotels

There's no getting away from it - "stuff happens" in hotels. Here, we look at 10 properties that have witnessed historic events - some that their general managers want to shout about, and others that they'd rather forget Nic Paton reports

The power of the pen
The Balmoral, Edinburgh

Room 652 of Edinburgh's Balmoral hotel is now famous worldwide as the place where Harry Potter author JK Rowling completed her seven-book saga about the boy wizard.

Rowling scribbled a note in black marker pen on the back of a marble bust saying: "JK Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this room (652) on 11 Jan 2007." The room has since been renamed the JK Rowling Suite and the bust is on display in a glass case, says Jessica Trotter, marketing executive at the 168-bedroom hotel.

"We had a lot of interest when the book was launched," she says, "but it is not something that we actively go out and sell. When people book, there are number of suites that fall into the same category that they can be put into.

"A lot of people booked in for the night of the launch, and a midnight reading session was organised by one of the Harry Potter fan websites."

The importance of being marketed
The Cadogan, London

Knightsbridge's Cadogan hotel was not even a decade old when it achieved fame - or, perhaps more accurately, notoriety. In 1895, playwright Oscar Wilde, who was staying in room 118, was arrested at the hotel, although he was actually in the bar at the time, says general manager Fabio Gallo. The affair was immortalised by John Betjeman in his poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel.

The hotel is also famous as having been lived in by Victorian actress, beauty and cour­tesan Lillie Langtry, who courted Prince Edward, the future King Edward VII, there.

The hotel uses the Wilde connection strongly as a marketing and promotional tool, says Gallo. "We have gay packages for St Valentine's Day and we do use the Oscar Wilde room as a PR tool and capitalise on our history," he explains. "I'd say we have at least 30 bookings a year solely for the Oscar Wilde room. Normally, it's either writers or playwrights, gay couples and fans. We also recently held a launch in it for a new book about his life, and had a medium who booked in to do some meditation there."

A very public affair

Home to the Astors and frequented by, among others, Queen Victoria, Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Harold Macmillan, Cliveden has more than a little history to draw on, says marketing and PR director Henrietta Brooker-Bird.

But the 39-bedroom hotel, owned by Von Essen Hotels and which still doubles as a stately home, achieved notoriety in 1961 as the place where then-Secretary of State for War John Profumo met call girl Christine Keeler, starting an affair that left his career in tatters and contributed to the collapse of the Tory government three years later.

"We do get a lot of people who have heard of Cliveden because of the Profumo affair," says Brooker-Bird, "but it is not something we promote directly. There is so much other history associated with the hotel. When we show people around the hotel, we take them into the walled garden and they can see the outdoor pool, which is where Keeler and Profumo first met. A lot of people do recognise that. And people can stay in Spring Cottage, where Keeler was staying at the time."

Celluloid sex sells in the sticks
Crown hotel, Amersham

The Queen Elizabeth I honeymoon suite is the reason for the fame of the 37-bedroom Crown hotel in Amersham.

The four-poster bed was used by Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell in the hit 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral and, to this day, generates interest, although the association is less of a draw than it once was, says Berna Sermet, brand manager for owner Dhillon Hotels. "We don't now do a huge amount of extra business any more on the Four Weddings and a Funeral association, because it is now quite a few years since the film came out," she explains. "However, there are still people who come and ask about the film and want to stay in that bedroom."

The suite has a plaque on the door recording the fact that it was used for the film. The hotel has also been used as a location for other films, including the BBC2 drama The Line of Beauty. Sernet says: "We do still get quite a lot of wedding couples who get married here and will ask for that room for the night."

Trapped in a tragedy
The Ritz, Paris

"Unfortunately we do not wish to communicate about Dodi and Diana," is the single, official line from the Ritz's hotel's attaché de presse, Matthieu Goffard.

On its "legend of the Ritz" section on its website, the hotel also, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes no mention of being where Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed had their last meal before that fateful crash in the road tunnel at Place de l'Alma in 1997.

But make a quick check on the internet and it becomes clear that, whether the Ritz welcomes it or not, the hotel, which is also closely linked to writer Marcel Proust and fashion designer Coco Chanel, among others, is now very much on the Diana tourist trail.

Ten years on, Diana fans and tourists will still stop by to drink Champagne cocktails in the hotel's Hemingway Bar (named after patron Ernest Hemingway), before walking out on to Place Vendôme through the now-famous revolving door used by Diana and Dodi as they left the hotel.

Ringing the changes
Brown's hotel, London

Brown's hotel in Mayfair, part of the Rocco Forte Collection chain, is famous for being where Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book and Agatha Christie wrote At Bertram's Hotel. It was also where Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call (to his assistant, Thomas Watson, in the next room) and where US presidents Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt spent their honeymoons. The 117-bedroom hotel capitalises on all this history and more, says Nina Colls, director of communications.

Following a major refurbishment two years ago, it was decided to brand the suites around its history, she points out. The Christie and Kipling connections in particular bring in business, she says. For instance, when Disney recently issued a limited-edition Jungle Book DVD, it was launched in the Kipling Suite.

Colls says: "We have a package where children can get a Jungle Book goodie bag. The Kipling Suite is probably our most popular."

The English Tea Room advertises that it was here Christie wrote her book, in the process describing some of the panelling, which is still there. And, Colls adds, the Alexander Gra­ham Bell Suite is themed with telephones.

Grim celebrity, happier times
Europa hotel, Belfast

Being known as the most-bombed hotel in Europe might not be something to be particularly proud of, but Belfast's 240-bedroom Europa hotel, while not exactly promoting the fact, recognises that this grim celebrity is an important part of its heritage.

"We don't advertise that the hotel was troubled in the seventies, eighties and nineties - there's no need," says director of marketing Julie Maguire.

The hotel, which became known during the Troubles as the "Hardboard Hotel", because its windows were so often boarded up after explosions, is now part of the Hastings Hotels chain, which, in a nod to its past, describes it on its website as "world famous". In 2003 Maguire and Belfast academic Clive Scoular even published a book documenting the hotel's history, entitled In The Headlines.

"Some people know it and comment about the fact that they are staying in the most-bombed hotel in the world and ask the concierge questions about that," says Maguire. "Others buy the book, or we give it to them, especially journalists - we had a lot of really well-known ones stay and report from it in the 1970s and they all helped contribute."

Sold as a mystery tour
Old Swan hotel, Harrogate

The mysterious disappearance of crime writer Agatha Christe in 1926 is at the heart of the fame of Harrogate's Old Swan hotel.

On 3 December that year, Christie, then at the height of her popularity, left her home and disappeared. Her car was found crashed, aban­doned and hanging on the edge of a chalk pit.

A nationwide search ensued, until Christie was found 10 days later at the then-Swan Hydro, checked in under the name of her husband's mistress, Theresa Neele.

To this day, the Christie connection is a lucrative one, says human resources manager Sandy Brown. The 136-bedroom hotel, now owned by Macdonald Hotels, has an Agatha Christie-themed room, and there are plaques and information around the building and pictures from the 1977 movie about the disappearance, starring Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave, which was filmed on location.

In 2006 the hotel also hosted the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, a convention that alone brought in some £25,000.

Brown adds: "We also do murder mystery weekends and dinners. We get a lot of American, Japanese and French tourists. Agatha Christie is very important to us."

Banking on the rich and famous
The Savoy, London

The Savoy's history is long and august, it having been patronised over the years by the likes of Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Elton John.

The hotel was heavily featured in the 1999 film Notting Hill, where its Lancaster Ballroom was used as the location for the climactic press conference where Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts finally come together.

Although there is no plaque or other physical record to commemorate the film, the hotel still receives an enormous number of film shoot requests, says Julian Haddon, European regional director, sales and marketing, at owner Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

In May the hotel confirmed it is to close this month for 16 months to undergo a £100m-plus refurbishment. Haddon says: "Because of the imminent closure, we are running a ‘Memories of the Savoy' package, which includes a historical tour of the property, pointing out all of the events, film shoots and so on that have taken place in the nooks and crannies of the hotel."

He says this has generated good editorial and driven genuine business results, and explains: "It gave us business to the tune of over £700,000, predominantly over weekends."

Where infamy is an artform
Hotel Chelsea, New York

A punk icon he may be, but the Sid Vicious link to New York's Hotel Chelsea is not one the hotel cares to make a song and dance about.

While the 95-bedroom hotel does record the fact that Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of the Sex Pistols guitarist, was found stabbed to death in his hotel room on 12 October 1978, it makes much greater play of other famous guests, such as musicians Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, poet Dylan Thomas (who died there of alcohol poisoning), and playwrights Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller.

Indeed, when approached by Caterer, a hotel spokesman summed up the attitude by saying: "Why would we celebrate a self-confessed junkie like him when we've had so many other famous people stay here?"

Nevertheless, it is inextricably linked with Vicious who, after the stabbing, was found by police wandering the hotel hallways in tears. There is even a famous "Chelsea Hotel" Sid Vicious print, popular with fans, which shows him sitting on a bed at the hotel in mid-spliff.

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