Should you ever find yourself being evacuated from a hotel in an emergency situation, make sure you grab your passport, credit cards and any medication you may have before heading out of the door. That's the advice of Michael Gray, general manager of the Hyatt Regency London - The Churchill and area director UK & Ireland for Hyatt, having dealt with the aftermath of a massive gas explosion at the hotel four-and-a- half months ago.
"The biggest challenge we faced was meeting the needs of the 600 guests who were staying with us," explains Gray, sitting in the foyer of the five-AA-star, 434-bedroom hotel one week after the property opened its doors to guests again last month.
While any fire warden would urge you to leave your room immediately, Gray comments: "Guests were concerned more than anything about being reunited with their passports, credit cards and medication - with those three things you can do anything." It was no easy feat to collect the items. Following the incident, the emergency services cordoned off the hotel, located on Portman Square, close to Oxford Street, allowing no one inside until the cause of the blast was discovered.
It was 11.38pm on Friday 21 November when an explosion - later discovered to be caused by a redundant gas pipe buried in a wall, which had corroded - ripped through the basement of the building, resulting in injuries to 14 staff. Despite the blast causing extensive damage back of house, there was only one person - still recovering today from a broken leg - who was seriously hurt.
"I was in Portsmouth at the time and received a phone call at a quarter to midnight," explains Gray, who immediately jumped in a taxi, which took three hours to reach the hotel. By the time he arrived at the scene all the guests had been evacuated to the nearby Radisson Blu Portman hotel and steps were being taken to check them into alternative hotels. "A major priority revolved around the large number of people taking medication. My advice for any hotel would be to make arrangements with a local pharmacy to be on call at any time of the day or night as part of its emergency plans," says Gray.
Gray praises everyone for the efficient and effective way they dealt with what was a very difficult situation. While there was no damage to the public areas, it soon became clear that the hotel would not be able to operate for some time due to the loss of gas, electricity and water and widespread damage to the main kitchen, staff restaurant Oscars (which had only recently been refurbished) and the staff locker area.
While the hotel team was not officially allowed back into the property immediately, some staff - against official advice - went back into the hotel to start the mammoth task of retrieving the personal items of guests. Many guests had been booked into the hotel for what was one of London's busiest shopping weekends before Christmas, but several were due to fly out of the capital later that day and desperate to retrieve their belongings.
"Everything had to be packed up and the luggage carried downstairs, with staff from all of our departments helping out," says Gray. "I take my hat off to each and every one of them. Not one of them ever complained or looked miserable."
As well as praising the hotel staff, Gray is also extremely grateful for the support and empathy that flooded in from fellow hoteliers in the ensuing days, with gifts arriving from all over, including flasks of coffee from Justin Pinchbeck at the Berkeley hotel and cupcakes from Stuart Bowery at Grosvenor House. Meanwhile, the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel London - Marble Arch opened up its staff restaurant to feed the hotel team "until we'd used up all our Brownie points" and a food truck was hired and parked outside the hotel. "This industry has such a great spirit - it was very moving and wonderful to experience," Gray says.
From the outset of the emergency, Gray says the hotel was extremely fortunate to be able to immediately move into an adjacent building in Berkeley Mews, normally occupied by the human resources and sales and marketing departments.
With a command centre in place, the initial focus was to deal with the evacuated guests' urgent needs. Then, with support from the Hyatt global reservations team and sister property Andaz Liverpool Street London, steps were taken to work through the list of future arrivals to warn them of the need to relocate and make arrangements to move Christmas parties and a host of other events elsewhere.
"Our competitor hotels couldn't have been more helpful - special mention in particular must go to the Hilton on Park Lane, Landmark, Langham, InterContinental and, of course, the Andaz," says Gray. "They were even happy to offer upgrades to our regular guests, as we would have done."
The staff were supported throughout the hotel's closure, where required, by the Employee Assistance Programme at Hospitality Action. Gray says: "We had only recently signed up to the scheme and it proved to be brilliant from day one, with a counsellor arriving at the hotel on the Saturday morning and who has kept in touch since."
For some staff, the closure of the hotel provided an opportunity to undertake work experience at other Hyatt hotels worldwide, including in Paris, Istanbul and Zanzibar. Others used the time for additional training and for innovation, such as the introduction of a gin-based cocktail called Never Give In. The trauma of the explosion and its aftermath has frequently reflected the spirit of the wartime prime minister, who the hotel was named after by its developer Sir Eric Miller in 1970 - a fact that was highlighted by members of the Churchill family, who attended a lunch to mark the reopening of the property. "Over the past four months I've learned how vulnerable we all are, how important it is to have good systems in place in case of an emergency, the necessity of having an alternative operational base, and how wonderful the hotel industry is when it comes to supporting competitors," explains Gray. "Most important of all, I've adopted Churchill's phrase, 'KBO - keep buggering on'."
An opportunity to refurbish
Giorgio Locatelli and Michael Gray
Work is still ongoing to complete a total refurbishment of the Hyatt's main kitchen, alongside creating a new restaurant and locker facilities for employees by June. In the meantime, a satellite kitchen is serving the Montagu restaurant, Churchill Bar & Terrace and room service, with no function bookings being taken until the main kitchen is open again. Meanwhille, Locanda Locatelli, headed by Giorgio Locatelli, is now up and running following repairs to its own kitchen.
One major advantage of the hotel's closure has been the opportunity to put in place a multimillion-pound refurbishment of 240 bedrooms, which follows on from a refit of the Regency Club bedrooms two years ago. Overseeing the new look is DeSallesFlint, run by Simon Flint and Regis DeSalles - the designers behind the recent refurbishment of the Hyatt Regency Birmingham - who have been inspired by the era through which Sir Winston Churchill lived and the man himself to create fresh, contemporary rooms.
Churchill's sartorial style, in particular, is being drawn upon, with the bespoke carpet reflecting a herringbone cloth design and the buttoning on the headboard and valances drawing attention to garment making.
Elsewhere Churchill's eccentric character and relationships with his wife, Clementine, and his pets, together with his myriad quotes, will be reflected in the artwork. The bathrooms will reflect the changing demands of guests, with a number of baths removed and replaced by walk-in power showers.
"Leisure and weekend guests are more likely to choose a bath, but business guests tend to want to rush in and take a shower," explains Gray. The hotel will be left with just 70 baths across its 434 bedrooms.