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Restoring the dream at the Savoy hotel

14 October 2010 by

The Savoy is open again after one of the most ambitious hotel restoration programmes in history. General manager Kiaran MacDonald talks to Janet Harmer about its protracted refurbishment and what the new-look hotel will be offering guests.

The refurbishment of the Savoy was originally scheduled to take 16 months and cost £100m. How did it end up taking nearly three years and costing £220m?

First and foremost, our focus was always to restore the Savoy to its former glory and we expected to do that within the £100m budget. But there was only a certain amount of investigative work we could do to ascertain the extent of the work required on the infrastructure while the hotel was still functioning. The opportunity to turn the plumbing off and cut into walls was very limited. We believed we had identified all the problems but once the hotel closed and we started peeling away the layers of the building, its condition was far worse than we had imagined.

For instance, one of the major structural changes involved moving the bathrooms in the riverside rooms from their position alongside the outside wall to the corridor side of the rooms, in order to open up the river view for guests. In doing so, we discovered that the flooring where the bathrooms had been were originally balconies built at the time of the hotel's opening in 1889. The balconies were enclosed in 1910 when the bathrooms were added and we found the flooring to be in a dreadful state. As a result, new floors had to be laid from top to bottom on the river side of the building.

What will visitors and guests to the Savoy expect to see at the new-look hotel?

If they know the hotel, they will see it is still very recognisably the Savoy. The forecourt, the front hall and American Bar are all very much the same as they were, but even more beautiful than before. I am confident that many of our regular guests will breathe a sigh of relief as everything is very familiar, something which is important when you have an emotional attachment to a building.

We have respected the past, and we have given a new lease of life to some areas, such as the Beaufort Bar - it was once used for BBC cabaret broadcasts, but they died away decades ago. In recent years, it has been used as a function room. Now we've installed a very chic Champagne bar on the original stage. It will be a night-time space which will open at 6pm. We are holding cabaret there from Thursday to Saturday evenings and I imagine it will become well known as somewhere to go for a late-night drink and entertainment. It is a chic, more youthful alternative to the classic American Bar.

Reintroducing the new-look River restaurant is also very exciting as it closed in 2004, three years before the refurbishment started. It still occupies the same beautiful position overlooking the river, but it has been transformed and given a new lease of life. Its modern French menu will contrast well with the classic British menu in the Savoy Grill - it is important to have a level of differentiation between the two.

Are you disappointed that the Savoy Grill has not reopened at the same time as the rest of the hotel?

I'm actually kind of secretly happy as it is giving us a window of time to relaunch the River restaurant. But, I do understand that guests will want to have the choice between the two.

Will guests recognise any of the staff from before the Savoy's closure?

Yes, they will. A core team of about 15 staff were retained throughout the refurbishment, and we have recruited a further 75 or so from the old team. It is fantastic to have them back with us and we probably would have had more if it had not been for the delayed refurbishment. Understandably, many of the former staff have become settled in new jobs. We have virtually the same team on the door, which is great as they really represent the face of the Savoy. There are still some final members of staff who we are recruiting, before we reach our full team of 670.

How did you ensure the staff would be ready for the big opening?

It would be lovely for guests to appreciate that the staff need some time to bed in, but the reality is that the staff will be judged from day one. But it is difficult, as even though all the staff have undergone intense training in recent weeks, dealing with real guests always throws everything into another realm. We are, therefore, limiting the number of guests who are coming through the doors at the beginning to enable us to iron out any kinks in service. We are selling around 100 bedrooms a night at the moment and after six to eight weeks, all 268 bedrooms will be available.

How confident are you that guests - who have been looked after by other hotels for nearly three years - will return to the Savoy?The level of interest in the Savoy's reopening has been very, very high and we have seen since the opening of our booking lines that people want to come back. We sold out the bedrooms for the first few days after the reopening very quickly and took 700 reservations during the first two days that our restaurant booking line was open. The important thing is that we manage the interest properly in order to meet guests' great expectations. We would do our guests a tremendous disservice if we didn't control our capacity in the first few weeks.

It was important that we continued to look after valued guests, even when we were closed. So we guided them to hotels in London where we knew they would be looked after in the same way they were accustomed to at the Savoy. We also stayed in regular contact with them, keeping them updated on the progress of the work.

The reality is that we had, in fact, lost many of our loyal guests in the few years before the hotel closed in 2007. The Savoy had been losing its way for some time because of its infrastructure. We had many issues with the plumbing and air conditioning, which fell short, and did not make for the perfect stay which guests are entitled to expect when staying in a top, luxury hotel. That has all changed. As well as looking beautiful, the Savoy will now provide guests with a totally comfortable experience.

Who is the typical Savoy guest?

North America is our biggest market historically, providing us with 40 to 45% of guests. That proportion has remained constant for some considerable time, even holding up throughout the Gulf War and other difficult times. The UK market - particularly the home counties - is our second largest, providing us with 30 to 35% of guests. We expect to remain strong in these core markets, but are also looking to new markets in the Middle East, Russia and Asia, where we already have a tremendous amount of recognition through Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

Traditionally, the Savoy has always been as busy at weekends as it is during the week, with a 60:40 split between leisure and business, and we expect that to remain the same. It is a very classic hotel, but in transforming the hotel we believe we will have become a very attractive offering for everyone, but particularly for 40-year-olds and above. With the opening of the Beaufort Bar, there is definitely more here for the younger guests than there was before.

Rumours circulated during the Savoy's closure that the hotel's owner, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, was planning to sell the property? Are there any plans to do so?

Any hotel is for sale at the right price, but I believe the ownership of the Savoy is totally secure. All the communications I receive show there is full support for the hotel and I'm certain the owner regards it as a long-term asset.

What have you been most looking forward to about running the Savoy operationally again?

I have been terribly proud to be general manager and spearhead the restoration of the Savoy. But now we are back doing what we do best, which is running a great hotel and, most importantly, breathing life again into this wonderful property. I'm enjoying introducing the Savoy to the London market again, and doing so with great pride.

THE SAVOYReopened: 10 October 2010
Owner: Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's Kingdom Holding Company and HBOS, now part of Lloyds Banking Group. It is managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
General manager: Kiaran MacDonald
Executive chef: Bernhard Mayer
Bedrooms: 268, including 62 suites
The design: Pierre-Yves Rochon has combined the Edwardian style of the original buildings, dating from 1889 and 1904, with the art deco elements which were introduced in the late 1920s and 30s.
Room rate: opening rates start at £350, with suites starting at £1,300, going up to £10,000 for the two-bedroom, 3,350sq ft Royal Suite
Forecast occupancy: 80%
Restaurants and bars: River restaurant (modern French), Savoy Grill (traditional British), Thames Foyer (informal all-day dining including afternoon tea), Savoy Tea (pâtisseries and teas), the American Bar (traditional cocktails), Beaufort Bar (Champagnes).
Other facilities: 12 function rooms for four to 440 people, swimming pool, fitness gallery, Savoy Butlers providing personalised service to all suites.

The Savoy, Strand, London WC2R 0EU
Tel: 020 7836 4343
www.fairmont.com/savoy

Inside the new-look Savoy hotel >>

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