At least £60m has been lavished during a 19-month refurbishment in which every component of the five-red-AA-star hotel has been stripped out and replaced. Janet Harmer reports
On returning to the five-red-AA-star, 93-bedroom Lanesborough hotel following its 19-month renovation, one's first impression is how little has changed.
But look closer and it becomes apparent that everything is new and the attention to detail is pitched at such a high level that it surpasses anything that the hotel's managing director Geoffrey Gelardi has ever experienced during his 40 years in the hospitality industry.
And, of course, what you can't see is what is hidden behind the scenes: every element of the infrastructure has been stripped out and replaced.
"We needed to do some fairly major upgrades in order to stay at the top of the five-star market as the competition got better and better," explains Gelardi. "It would have taken up to three and a half years to carry out the improvements on a piecemeal basis, during which time we would have annoyed the guests when inevitably we lost power or the lifts were taken out of action. The best way to handle such a situation was to shut down altogether."
Hence, the doors of the Lanesborough closed in December 2013, officially opening once again on Wednesday 15 July with the interior created by the late Alberto Pinto on full display.
It is a design, alongside exceptional service levels and cutting-edge technology, that Gelardi believes will put the Lanesborough head and shoulders above its competitors in London. While he won't confirm the exact amount spent, he indicates that it was somewhere between £60m and £80m - less than the £1m per bedroom it originally cost to convert the property, from what was previously St George's Hospital, into a hotel in 1991.
Pinto, best known for his designs within private residences and on board yachts, was given a brief in 2011 to lighten and modernise the interior while retaining the Regency feel of the Grade-II listed property. The original look of the hotel, created by Julian Reed of Ezra Attia Associates, was also faithful to the period in which the property was originally built, but was heavier, darker and more masculine than the interiors today.
Gelardi says that he didn't get involved directly with the design - the finer details were agreed between Pinto (and later his sister Linda and lead designer Amr Mandour after Pinto's death in 2012) and the Lanesborough's owner, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA). "One minor issue I did get involved in surrounded discussions around Pinto's plans to reconfigure the Library Bar and position the bar to one side of the room. I believed that, as one of the highest revenue bars per seat in London, the bar, which is a nice, private space, should remain exactly as it was - and it has."
Elsewhere, a few minor changes to the layout include the addition of a pantry off the Withdrawing Room, which helps operationally in serving afternoon teas; the creation of a boardroom - the only new public space in the hotel - from former store rooms; and the repositioning of the concierge desk.
What makes the redesign stand out is the phenomenal decorative detailing that has been introduced, which is more akin to what might be found in a historical house or palace owned by the National Trust than in a 21st-century hotel. It is strikingly impressive, but Gelardi admits it will be tough to maintain. Hence the need for a team of 22 engineering staff, 24 full-time housekeepers, 10 cleaners on zero-hour contracts and a team from contract cleaning company Casna who come into the hotel at night.
Indeed, Gelardi says, the intention is that guests should not feel that they are staying in a hotel, but rather that they are in a private, albeit very grand, home. There is nothing commercial on display - no tent cards, no sales literature. "Our clientele don't want to see it or read it," says Gelardi. "If we have something special to say, we tell our guests."
Building up a great relationship with its guests has always been central to the Lanesborough's service philosophy, as highlighted by the 24-hour personal butler service it has offered from day one to all its patrons. The 23-strong butler team is part of the total staff complement of more than 300, which equates to one of the highest staff to guest ratios in the capital.
While a core team of 26 were retained during the closure, a third of the staff who were made redundant in 2013 have returned to the hotel. Among them are several who made up the original opening team in 1991, including doorperson Dominic Mullan, financial accountant Matilda Lizarondo, cloakroom attendant Paul Pavlov, night manager Bobby Janda and in-room dining order taker Lina Quejado.
To ensure the most efficient and personable service is in place, Gelardi says that the hotel's standard operating procedures (SOPs) are fully backed up with training, equipment and personnel. "Most new hotels will have SOPs, but often they don't get the necessary support," he says. "It is my job to make sure that all three elements are in place so that I can push harder and ensure we succeed."
Today's market, according to Gelardi, no longer demands technically perfect service, such as the correct positioning of the knife and fork. "Much more important is the attitude of the staff. The butlers need to read the guests' body language and know when a guest wants to chat or when they want as little communication as possible. We train very heavily on this and as a result we are more willing to take on people now who have great enthusiasm, a presence, confidence and the ability to make people feel happy, whether or not they have the technical skills."
The final part of the picture to ensure a seamless stay for guests is the technology, which is intended to be quiet and discreet, but most importantly, also easy and workable. Gigabit fibre-optic cabling in each bedroom - believed to be the first within a UK hotel - will ensure the Wi-Fi works "as good as anybody's, if not better", says Gelardi. Wi-Fi, as it has always been at the Lanesborough, is free, as are all telephone calls within the UK and to Europe and the US.
A guest's stay will be enhanced by three touch points in the bedrooms. A small table next to the bed will control all the systems in the room including the lighting, air conditioning, curtains, do not disturb sign and butler contact. A larger tablet on the desk contains the hotel compendium, room service menus, information on events in London, and internet access. Meanwhile, the television will be a pure entertainment facility with internet radio and free movies. "It is very simple to use - just nine buttons in addition to the OK button," says Gelardi. "I didn't want guests to need a degree in engineering to be able to use it."
While all annoying lights on TVs and smoke detectors can be removed at night, a series of lights leading the way to the bathroom will come on as soon as a guest's feet hit the floor.
The Lanesborough has worked hard through its closure to ensure regular guests have been looked after, with cars and chauffeurs on hand, along with a concierge service, personal introductions to other hotels and a 24/7 switchboard.
The hope is that Oetker Collection, the newly appointed management company, will not only be welcoming back as many of these guests as possible, but also driving business from new destinations such as Asia and Australasia. Traditionally, over 50% of guests come from the USA, 30% from Europe and the rest from the Middle East. Oetker Collection will be the third management company to work with the Lanesborough, following Rosewood and more recently Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which operated the hotel under its luxury St Regis brand.
Frank Marrenbach, chief executive of Oetker Collection, says that the addition of the Lanesborough provides a perfect match to the group's other eight hotels and resorts in Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean. "It is a fantastic property to offer our guests, many of whom already travel to London regularly and know the hotel well."
The family-owned Oetker Collection hopes to expand into Rome, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore with a total of 15 hotels by around 2020.
Gelardi would not reveal the average rates or occupancy figures he hopes the Lanesborough will achieve, but his intention is that they will be high. "That may be presumptuous, but we are competitive." Oetker is expected to drive rates upwards, with Marrenbach predicting at least the same average rate of just over â¬1,000 (£718) that the group achieves across its other properties.
Meanwhile, with no place to expand within the Lanesborough itself, the long-held desire to open a hotel spa will come to fruition in summer 2016 when an office building owned by ADIA is converted into the Lanesborough Club for hotel guests. The 20,000 sq ft spa will feature six treatment rooms and a gym.
It will further enhance the reputation of the hotel which, Gelardi hopes, will return the Lanesborough to the very top echelon of London's hotels.
Address Hyde Park Corner, London SW1X 7TA
Contact 020 7259 5599, lanesborough.com
Owner Abu Dhabi Investment Authority
Managing director Geoffrey Gelardi
Management company Oetker Collection
Bedrooms 93, including 43 suites
Food and beverage Céleste restaurant, two bars (the Library Bar and the Garden Room) and seven private dining rooms
Opening room rate £715
Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, Geoffrey Gelardi, the Lanesborough's managing director is a third-generation hotelier. His grandfather, Commendatore Giulio Gelardi, simultaneously held the position of general manager of Claridge's, London, and the Waldorf Astoria Towers, New York, when the latter hotel opened in 1931. His father, Albert Gelardi, was president of Trust House Forte North America.
Having himself started in hospitality as a trainee at the Waldorf Astoria, Geoffrey went on to enjoy a 25-year career in the US, including stints as managing director at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and the Sorrento hotel in Seattle.
He arrived in London in 1990 to oversee the opening of the Lanesborough the following year, initially intending to stay for just three years. Why has he remained for so long? "I love it and it is my home away from home," he says.
"I believe the new design has longevity, and I hope the hotel will remain in this guise for the next 24 years. I don't expect to still be here after that time, but intend to still be here for another 10 years or so."
Operationally, the most significant change at the newly reopened Lanesborough hotel is the appointment of multi-Michelin-starred French chef Eric Frechon to oversee the property's food and beverage operation.
Frechon is taking on his new responsibilities alongside his existing role as executive chef at Oetker Collection's Le Bristol in Paris where he was awarded his first Michelin star in the same year that he joined the hotel - 1999. Today Le Bristol's Epicure restaurant has three stars, while its luxury brasserie 114 Faubourg holds one star.
With Frechon moving between Paris and London, the kitchen at the Lanesborough will be headed on a day-to-day basis by the hotel's new executive chef Florian Favario, who has spent five years as sous chef at Le Bristol.
Frechon and Favario are responsible for all food and beverage areas in the Lanesborough. Prior to the hotel's closure, Apsleys restaurant was overseen by Italian three-Michelin-star chef Heinz Beck, and the rest of the hotel was looked after by Paul Gayler, who was executive chef of the hotel since the original opening.
Now renamed Céleste, the restaurant has undergone various incarnations throughout its 24-year history.
It initially launched as the Conservatory, with towering palm trees and chinoiserie details throughout, inspired by George IV's Brighton Pavilion. Then in 2008 it was transformed by designer Adam Tihany, with the space dominated by three flat-bottomed chandeliers and a modern version of a Renaissance painting in the form of a giant collage by Simon Casson.
Today, the 110-cover Céleste, with a private dining room for up to 14, has returned to a classic Regency look, dating back to the period when the property first opened in the early 19th century. The original sky dome, which allows light to flood into the restaurant during the day, is now surrounded by 250 historical mouldings, with crystal chandeliers dominating the central space.
Combining British ingredients with "the savoir-faire of French cooking", the menu includes Cornish turbot poached in lemongrass butter, baby pak choi, carrot and ginger purée, fresh herb jus (£38); Welsh lamb - grilled chops, roasted saddle, braised sweetbread, courgette, Israeli couscous, homemade harissa (£28); and white and yellow peach, verbena, redcurrant, ginger cold consommé, sorbet and fresh almonds (£15).
2,100 books of 231/4-carat gold leaf: the anatomy of a refurbishment
Studio Alberto Pinto was briefed to create a fresh and light interior design that honoured the origins of the building, which dates back to 1827.
The technical aspects of the refurbishment and improvements to back-of-house and the exterior were undertaken by architects ReardonSmith. These included the installation of a thermally efficient roof and an upgraded staff restaurant.
More than 300 people were involved in the transformation of the hotel, including craftsmen specialising in embroidery, cabinet making, lacquering, gilding, plasterwork and decorative trimmings.
Elaborate decorative ceilings are one of the key new features of the redesign. Where there were once plain surfaces, there are now ceiling roses, coffers, cornices and fresco paintings in the style of Robert Adam. Artisan specialist in plaster Locker & Riley led this work, which used 2,100 books of 231/4-carat gold leaf.
Some 5,500 original stencils, involving 2,000 hours of painstaking work, were hand-painted by Dolby & Taylor throughout the 93 bedrooms and Library Bar, while hand-painted trompe l'oeil features include marbling in the Withdrawing Room and a grand tent depicted on the ceiling of the Queen Anne entrance.
Dark mahogany panelling in the Library Bar has been stripped back to reveal a warmer, mid-toned timber, which sits alongside wallpaper hand-painted in Italy.
While the majority of the suppliers are British - including Bennison fabrics, George Smith furniture and Brintons carpets - fabrics also came from Braquenié, Le Manach, Pierre Frey and Linge au Coeur in France. Meanwhile, the Italian marble which features in all the bathrooms has been specifically cut and positioned to ensure the precise matching of grains.
Wilkinson, the Kent-based specialist in lead-crystal, has created 54 chandeliers, the largest of which - in Céleste - weighs 200kg.
The bedrooms are grouped into five design schemes, with each group consisting of three rich colourways. A total of 14 different types of bed canopy have been used, while more than three million hand stitches are found in the embroidered bed covers.
The Royal Suite has been extended from the original one in place before the refurbishment and now features seven bedrooms and bathrooms across 450 square metres, with two living rooms and a dining room. Costing £26,000 a night, it is believed to be the most expensive suite in London.