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The Hempel evolves

13 October 2005

Michael McBride first visited the Hempel 12 months ago and by the end of his visit he knew he wanted to buy the ultra-chic minimalist hotel. Before leaving, he had already sketched out his plans for transforming the space into what he hopes will become one of the top 50 hotels in the world.

With the first stage of a multimillion-pound refurbishment already in place, the Hempel is being relaunched tonight (13 October) with a glittering celebrity party. It is just six months since McBride bought the 42-bedroom hotel with six apartments in London's Craven Hill Gardens, north of Hyde Park.

"The Hempel is a magical place. It is one of the most beautifully designed hotels anywhere - but there was something missing," says McBride, as he recounts his first visit.

While retaining the integrity of Anouska Hempel's original design from 1997, McBride and a team of designers from Max Bentheim, headed by Stephan Oberwegner, have injected comfort and quality through the subtle use of colour, textured fabrics and expensive furniture.

"We wanted to introduce subtle colours that are more arresting to the eye than a totally monochromatic design," says Oberwegner. "Yellows, reds, bronzes and golds inject understated glamour."

Previously, the stark white Portland stone foyer with its monumental void that soars to the full height of the Georgian building was somewhat soulless. Two sunken seating areas lined with black leather cushions provided little comfort.

Now huge baskets of orchids from Laurels florists of London, where there had previously been a just a single stem or two, provide colour, while the soft fawn suede cushions in the sunken area allow for cosier moments of relaxation. At night, candlelight floods the space.

In the adjoining H Bar, the counter-top in rare black Potoro marble shot through with veins of gold and red, together with the dark tobacco-leaf silk wallpaper, injects a new richness. The new seating provides both comfort and drama, with splashes of jewel-like fiery reds and burnt oranges.

Marocchina easy chairs and Victoria tub chairs come from the Italian furniture maker Casamilano, with BPA International, also in Italy, providing Madison and Andrew sofas - all using coverings from Sina Pearson Fabrics in San Francisco. Crystal-clear Perspex bar stools and custom-designed pendant lights with black silk drum shades and Perspex finials add sparkle to the whole design.

At the opposite end of the foyer, in what was previously a dark, under-used area, a new lounge has been created by knocking through into an old meeting room to allow light from the windows at the front of the hotel to flood in. With furnishings mirroring those in the H Bar, the area is expected to become a welcoming, bustling space where people can take light snacks and enjoy afternoon tea.

The meeting room on the ground floor has eschewed the white starkness of before in favour of hand-woven Chinese grass cloth wallpaper. Existing audiovisual technology has been upgraded.

Situated in the basement, the 60-seat I-Thai restaurant has largely retained its Thai identity. "About 80% of the menu is Thai," says head chef Eric Tavernier, who was previously private chef to Rupert Murdoch. The biggest change to the menu has been a new source of ingredients, with suppliers to the capital's leading restaurants now on board in order to raise the quality of the dishes.

The major alteration to the look of the restaurant has come from the new seat covers - brilliant white replacing the old grey ones, described by McBride as "an excuse to hide stains". Providing a dramatic contrast to the solid-black ash tables, the covers are now removed and dry cleaned once a week.

The bulk of the bedroom refurbishments will take place next year, but in the meantime many of the furnishings have already changed. While McBride loves the individuality and quirkiness of the rooms, he has been frustrated by the look and feel of the finished product.

"We want to introduce a different quality with richness of colour that wasn't there before," he says.

Solid-oak side tables have replaced plywood boxes, Frette linen and extra pillows are on the beds, and Bulgari toiletries are being brought in. At present, white remains the base colour of each room, with just a hint of cream, beige, brown and slate in the furnishings. In the corridors leading to the bedrooms, deep carpets have been laid over the wooden floor to provide a quieter environment more fitting to the peaceful philosophy behind the Orient-inspired interior.

The outside space has not escaped attention either, with the Zen-influenced garden design being sharpened further with square pre-cast concrete pots in black and white replacing willow baskets. In autumn the leaves are swept away three times a day to maintain a pristine look at all times. At night, hundreds of candles flood the area with twinkling light.

Design-wise, the major exterior change is the installation of four cabanas, reminiscent of a luxury African safari. Sumptuously decorated, with seating in a biscuit-coloured outdoor fabric from Osborne & Little and scatter cushions in lime-green silk taffeta, latte natural silk and chocolate suede, the outdoor rooms provide an innovative space for a private business meeting or romantic pre-dinner drinks.

McBride describes the housekeeping needs of the Hempel as "totally unforgiving". The white walls of the main lobby, restaurant, cloakrooms and bedrooms show every mark and knock. "Proper maintenance is essential to the design, which is why I'm insisting that the Portland stone in the lobby is thoroughly cleaned every six months," he says. "I've also employed a man to continuously repaint areas where scuffs occur."

Led by general manager Carl Morgan, the management carries out spot checks of the hotel three times a day, covering a multitude of areas including maintenance and decoration, staff clothing, music and temperature levels. "If anything is out of place, there should be no reason why it is not put right immediately," says McBride. "I get very disappointed if the same item appears on the check list twice in a row."

He considers the look of the staff particularly important. McBride searched 14 Bond Street stores to find the right clothing, eschewing outfits from Giorgio Armani in favour of the couture collection from Zenga, at £2,000 per suit. In the bar, female staff wear black dresses, while in reception they join their male colleagues in wearing brown suits. Meanwhile, the housekeepers are dressed in Prada black T-shirts and trousers.

Having the right uniforms, though, is not enough. McBride has brought in a stylist to show the staff how they should wear their new clothing, as well as demonstrate how to hang their suits and dresses at the end of each day.

McBride is undoubtedly striving for perfection in every aspect of the hotel's look and operation. A spa in the basement of the hotel and further acquisitions are in the pipeline. The Hempel is just the first of a planned group of hotels to come under the banner of Hempel Hotels.

"I would like to be strong and firm here in London with, perhaps, three properties," he says, indicating that he is close to signing a deal on a second hotel. "Then we will look further afield - to New York, Los Angeles and Miami."

Michael McBride - The Hotelier

Born in County Donegal, 35-year-old Michael McBride started his hotel career at the London Hilton on Park Lane, where he trained for five years.

His career has taken him to the Imperial hotel, Blackpool; the H™tel George V, Paris; and most recently the Herbert Park hotel in Dublin, where he was general manager.

"Then I became tired of working and making money for other people and started looking to buy my own hotel," he says.

Supported by a silent business partner, McBride bought the Hempel in March for an undisclosed sum from O&H Properties. The hotel had been sold to O&H in 2003 by its original owner and founder, Anouska Hempel.

Ready and eager to talk about every other element of the hotel, its price is the one thing McBride will not discuss, although he admits that it was well in excess of the £16.5m that was widely reported at the time.

McBride's approach to hotelkeeping is definitely unstinting: "I am an operator, and my job and that of my senior staff is to be out front. I employ accountants to look after the figures," he says. "It might be a rather old-fashioned way of running hotels, but it is the only way of ensuring the personal service that is required to make the Hempel a truly luxurious haven."

There is nothing old-fashioned, though, about the kind of service that McBride advocates. While it is abundant - with a 3:1 staff-to-guest ratio, one of the highest in London - it is not fawning or stifling. What he wants to see are happy staff who, in turn, will brighten the day for every guest. "No one has time here to be miserable, and I tell staff that a day without laughter is a day wasted."

Upbeat staff is a key element in creating the kind of buzz that McBride is striving to achieve. "It is essential in helping us increase our repeat business," he says. When McBride bought the Hempel, repeat bookings accounted for only 5% of business. Now it is 40%, and his intention is to take it up to 60%. He describes the current occupancy figures as "robust", having increased by 30% year-on-year since he became the new owner.

Although he has brought in 14 staff he has previously worked with elsewhere, he is very keen on promoting from within. Carl Morgan, the former deputy general manager, for instance, was promoted to general manager three months ago. "It is so important to nurture and support good staff," says McBride. "It is also important to listen to their needs and ideas, whoever they are."

The Hempel

  • 31-35 Craven Hill Gardens, London W2 3EA
  • Tel: 020 7298 9000
  • Website:www.the-hemel.co.uk
  • Managing director: Michael McBride
  • General manager: Carl Morgan
  • Interior designer: Max Bentheim
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