Some 30 years ago, Abraham Bejerano spotted a row of townhouses near Marble Arch in London and thought they would make a great setting for a hotel. This week his fantasy has been realised with the opening of the Arch, a five-star hotel with a difference. Janet Harmer reports
Abraham Bejerano is proof that through hard work, determination and sheer blind faith, dreams really can come true. In 1979 Bejerano spotted a row of townhouses on his regular drive home along Great Cumberland Place, London, towards Hampstead, from his job as deputy general manager at the Cumberland Hotel. He immediately thought the properties would make a wonderful setting for a hotel.
"It seemed to be a great location - quiet, yet near the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street," he says. "The idea, though, that I would personally open my own hotel, was just a dream; a fantasy."
Now, more than 30 years later, the fantasy has been realised with the official opening this week by Bejerano's company, AB Hotels, of the Arch, an 82-bedroom property that intends to inject something a little different into the capital's five-star hotel market.
With its quirky artwork, inclusion of extras that attract a charge elsewhere, and attention to detail - whether it be in its selection of afternoon teas or in-room toiletries - the Arch wants its guests to feel cosseted, cosy and totally at ease.
While luxury abounds throughout, there is nothing imposing or ostentatious about the hotel, which has been created at a cost of £25m by knocking through what were two former two-star properties, the Concorde and Branston Court, with seven Georgian grade II listed townhouses and two mews homes. With the addition of an extension, the new hotel that has emerged now measures some 55,000sq ft.
The project has been a long time in development. Having agreed to the purchase of the multiple properties in September 2001, Bejerano took possession of them the following year. Planning permission was received from Westminster Council in 2004 and building work eventually got underway in 2007.
The gutting and reconfiguration of the property was a long and arduous affair, in the middle of which the main building contractor went bust, leaving Bejerano and his team at AB Hotels to project manage the development themselves.
Now with the difficulties of the past eight or so years behind him, Bejerano, together with the chairman of AB Hotels, Willy Bauer, shows me around the completed property with enthusiasm and pride.
The pair - who first met when Bauer was general manager at the Hyde Park (now the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park) hotel and Bejerano was working at Trusthouse Forte's contract catering division, Ring & Brymer - make a formidable team.
Bejerano loves to create and has his eye on the bigger picture, as well as being fastidious at controlling costs, while Bauer, the recent winner of the Hotel Catey Lifetime Achievement award, is fanatical about detail and tends to be more generous in spending the cash.
Bauer retired from full-time work on leaving the Wentworth Group as chief executive in 2001, but then joined the board of AB Hotels - which also owns Sopwell House in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and Five Lakes hotel, golf, country club and spa in Maldon, Essex - on a part-time basis.
Gradually his involvement in the business increased and he was appointed chairman in 2002, agreeing to take over the reins of the company when Bejerano is away pursuing his passion for travel.
"I now spend around one day a week working for AB Hotels and regularly visit all the properties, but in recent months have spent more time at the Arch," says Bauer.
Despite opening in what is still a difficult economic climate, both Bejerano and Bauer are confident that the uniqueness of the Arch will ensure the hotel will achieve its projected occupancy for 2010 of 70%.
"We don't believe there is anywhere else quite like it in London," says Bejerano.
"As well as being in a fantastic location, it offers a fresh and exciting design that will especially appeal to young people, and is somewhere you instantly feel comfortable, as though you are in a private home as opposed to a public space. We believe women will particularly feel at ease here."
DECOR WITH A DIIFFERENCE
Striking items of modern British art in the entrance lobby - including New Shoes, a 2m tall technicolour silhouette of a woman by artist Vincent Poople, which reflects the culture of the surrounding location, and a video wall with artscapes that depict the time of day above the reception desk - is the first indication that this is not a hotel that does bland contemporary interiors.
Designed by RDD, the decor is colourful and stylish and is packed with interesting details, ensuring guests will want to linger.
HUNter 486 bar and restaurant, which takes its name from the 1950s district dialling code for Marylebone, is a case in point. Customers can sit at the cocktail bar, with its pewter bar top, Philippe Starck stools and pressed tin ceiling, or in the salon de Champagne under a graffiti ceiling, featuring tasting notes from Veuve Clicquot, by illustrator Sara Fanelli.
Meanwhile, the restaurant, which has an open plan kitchen with a wood-fired oven, offers high-backed circular leather banquettes for those wanting discrete dining, as well as rustic refectory tables for diners who would prefer to be part of a more sociable eating experience.
In creating the Arch's food and beverages area, Robbie Bargh of the Gorgeous Group says he wanted to retain the feel and intimacy of the original townhouses in which the hotel has been developed.
"I wanted there to be lots of different areas of interest that are glamorous and indulgent, that offer honest, affordable food," he says.
The all-day dining menu is dominated by hearty, British dishes such as creamed celeriac soup with truffle oil and Parmesan crisp (£5.50), slow-braised lamb shank with pan-roasted root vegetables (£14.50) and steamed bread and butter pudding with hot custard (£7.50), as well as freshly baked pizzas and home-made burgers. Such a user-friendly menu is expected to be an important factor in attracting neighbouring residents, as well as encouraging hotel guests to stay in to eat.
The Martini Library is expected to become renowned for its service of afternoon tea in which toasted crumpets and a selection of homemade eclairs are the speciality. There is a choice of savoury eclairs (foie gras and Sauternes or crab and crème fraîche) as well as sweet ones (wild strawberry and Veuve Cliquot, chocolate and green tea, Amalfi lemon and biscotti, white chocolate and violet or coconut and camfia lime leaf).
A wide choice of Jing teas served in Jing glass teaware is intended to make the service of the beverage an occasion to be savoured. At night, the service of martinis - there is a choice of five - becomes the library's speciality.
The 82 bedrooms have 12 different colour schemes, with the wall on which the bed is positioned decorated in a bold, statement paper. Here the Arch has gone out of its way to offer added value, as well as provide supreme comfort.
The hotel is believed to be the first in London in which each room has its own Sky box offering complimentary access to a full Sky HD package, as well as providing CD/DVD player with a free in-house film library featuring the Best Oscar movie from each of the last 50 years, free wireless internet, an iPod docking station and an internet radio with more than 10,000 channels.
In-room refreshments include complimentary soft drinks from the mini bar, the same Jing teas as those served downstairs and freshly made coffee from a Nespresso machine.
"All these add-ons have created a lot of interest and excitement," says Bauer. "People are saying that it is generous and refreshing."
The bathrooms, which all feature in-built flat screen TVs above the bath, are introducing to UK hotels for the first time a range of natural toiletries from a family-owned apothecary in New York, Malin & Goetz.
With everything now in place to attract the guests, the challenge will be to keep them. This will be achieved, says Bauer, by constant staff training and checking to ensure top notch service at all times.
Two marketing consortiums - Small Luxury Hotels and Pride of Britain - have been appointed to help deliver business.
"Small Luxury Hotels is exactly what we are and, with more than 500 hotels worldwide, will help bring in international business and, in turn, we will bring a freshness to the group," says Bejerano.
"And we've chosen Pride of Britain as it is the best association for capturing the home market. It represents top quality individual hotels with a similar philosophy to the Arch. We complement the Goring - the only other Pride of Britain hotel in London - as it is much more traditional than us."
With the Arch now welcoming its first guests, Bejerano is thinking about opening a second hotel in central London.
"It is not easy to find the right location, but I would be interested in doing another one, which will have to have at least 50 bedrooms to be cost effective," he says.
Bauer agrees that it makes sense to expand in the capital. "There is always room for another hotel in London," he concludes.
50 Great Cumberland Place, Marble Arch, London W1
020 7724 4700www.thearchlondon.com
Owner AB Hotels
Interior designer RDD
Owner, AB Hotels Abraham Bejerano
Chairman, AB Hotels Willy Bauer
Operations director, AB Hotels Charles Morgan
Group food and beverage manager, AB Hotels Ian Powrie
General manager Beccy Gunn
Head chef Shane Pearson
Restaurant manager Alastair Burgess
Executive housekeeper Jennifer Kennedy
Opening room rate (until April 2010) £195, excluding VAT and including breakfast on standard, superior, deluxe and executive rooms. From April 2010, deluxe rooms start at £250, excluding VAT and breakfast.
Forecast occupancy for 2010 70%
Sister properties Sopwell House country house hotel, St Albans, Hertfordshire; and Five Lakes hotel, golf, country club and spa, Maldon, Essex
THE GROWTH OF AB HOTELS
Abraham Bejerano launched AB Hotels in 1981 when he bought the George Hotel in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. He sold the George in 1983 and bought the Chesterfield Hotel in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, which he then sold in 1988.
In 1986 Bejerano bought Sopwell House, which was then a 28-bedroom property in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and set about what he loves doing best - creating a sumptuous hotel from bare bones.
Today Sopwell House is a four-star 129-bedroom country house hotel with leisure and conference facilities, a country club with 1,200 members and two restaurants, one of which has two AA rosettes.
In 1994 Bejerano bought Five Lakes, Maldon, Essex, which had been built on a green field site in 1990 and had gone into receivership before opening. He spent a year completing and improving the property before welcoming the first guests in 1995.
The four star 194-bedroom hotel, golf, country club and spa now has extensive leisure facilities including two 18-hole golf courses - one of which is a PGA championship course - and two restaurants. The Camelot restaurant holds one AA rosette.
Bejerano's development of the Arch began in 2002 with his purchase of the various properties that today make up the hotel, and culminated in its official opening this week.