The Langham London is celebrating her 150th birthday with another round of improvement works and the satisfaction of knowing she's still attracting the rich, the glamorous and even the cutting-edge. Rosalind Mullen found out how this grande dame is building on her past to create a more vibrant future
As the five-star Langham London nears the end of more than a decade of refurbishment works, the man due much of the credit for running the 380-bedroom hotel, while spearheading its return to glory, shows little sign of winding down.
"By June next year, all the projects will have been done and then it will be a case of evolving and fine-tuning," says Duncan Palmer, managing director and regional vice-president Europe of parent company Langham Hospitality Group.
The most pressing issue for the Langham has been to make up lost ground. Unlike other iconic hotels, such as Browns and the Savoy, it ceased trading as a hotel during the Second World War, was then acquired by the BBC, and didn't resume normal service until 1986 when it was bought by Hilton, which ran it for the next 16 years.
While still glamorous, its reputation upon reopening was arguably a far cry from that in 1865, when it started life as Europe's grandest hotel. Back then it was famed for new-fangled innovations such as hydraulic lifts. Its roll-call of guests have included the writer Mark Twain, an exiled Napoleon III, the unconventional playwright Oscar Wilde and prime minister Winston Churchill.
Happily, today it's again up there among the top band of leading hotels in the capital - and it's as much a haunt of outrageous superstars like Lady Gaga as it is of establishment figures. But Palmer's vision is much longer-term.
"The hotel has not been known consistently over the generations. But it is being re-established," he says. "We want to build memories in a unique, historic environment. You might get married at the Langham, so maybe your daughter will get married here too. It's something that the Savoy may have, but for the Langham this sense of tradition was interrupted by its more varied history of ownership."
Palmer was brought on board in 2004 by KS Lo, chairman of Hong Kong-based property firm Great Eagle Holdings, which wholly owns Langham Hospitality Group. Lo had just bought the then Langham Hilton hotel and he gave Palmer - with his 30 years of experience at the Mandarin Oriental in Asia, as well as the Savoy and Connaught - the remit of reconnecting the hotel's reputation with the minds of luxury-seeking globetrotters.
He has certainly revved-up the luxury. In the most recent round of investment, Palmer has just spent £7.5m opening the Regent Wing, with 40 spacious grand executive guestrooms and suites. It also includes the launch of the Langham Club Lounge and the decadent six-bedroom Sterling Suite this month, which cost £2.5m alone.
The Regent Wing reflects changing guest trends. They can come with friends or extended family and take a suite or adjoining rooms. Housed in the building next to the main hotel, there is a separate entrance onto Regent Street, so it's almost a hotel within a hotel. At 33 square metres, the rooms are large, with lots of windows and lighter decor than the main hotel.
The penthouse Sterling Suite has six bedrooms, a media suite and butler, and is yours for £24,000 a night. It can be re-configured and rented out at a lower rate, so it won't stand idle, but without it the hotel wouldn't be able to cater for the increase in those who travel as an extended family. Or for the likes of Taylor Swift, who arrives with an entourage.
"Today's grand hotel has to be able to accommodate a different sort of diva," says Palmer. "And that level of PR rubs off."
The Club Lounge has a restaurant, butler's pantry and drawing room, where Club Room guests can withdraw from the main hubbub of the hotel. It's also available to those in standard rooms at a rate of £75 per person, per day.
Phase two will see the launch of mid-suites next year, which will be sold at £1,000 a night, improving the inventory again.
"Like all iconic hotels, this is a long-term vision. It has been a clever tactic of adjustment to how the hotel industry is changing and what is going on," says Palmer.
In further news, the hotel has announced it is stepping up its relationship with Albert Roux and his son, Michel Roux Jnr. Since 2010, the duo have overseen the hotel's two-AA-rosette Roux at the Landau restaurant. From September, this arrangement will be extended across the hotel's food and beverage portfolio, including the Palm Court, which will offer an alternative menu to the Landau, the 14 banqueting and private dining rooms and the ballroom and the Courtyard marquee, both of which can accommodate 220 for dinner. They will even cover room service.
"It will be great for weddings and repositioning the hotel in history, while room service will help refine and develop consistency across F&B," says Palmer. "It is a unique partnership to work with Chez Roux. Bricks and mortar are one thing, but style, decor, service, innovation and food go the extra mile."
But these recent developments are just the tip of the iceberg. The bulk of the work was done between 2004 and 2009, when Palmer spent what unconfirmed sources say was upwards of £80m to restore the hotel to its former grandeur, adding contemporary touches along the way. "I moved things around drastically," says Palmer. "We needed an up-to-date, progressive view."
Indeed, everything has been carefully orchestrated. The grand entrance was recreated using light Italian marble to respect the patrician building, yet update it. In contrast, the hotel's "service stylists", in chic pink uniforms, welcome guests as if they were at home, acting as a conduit to everything else.
In fact, Palmer has given a lot of thought to the arrival and flow of guests through the hotel. Reception is set through an arch to the right of the entrance hall, giving guests privacy when checking in or settling bills, and the concierge is tucked away beyond that.
"We thought carefully about the positioning of the concierge. They need to spend time with guests and not be distracted by the new arrivals," says Palmer.
As well as renovating 260 bedrooms and launching the glamorous two-bedroom Infinity Suite, all the grand rooms were reinstated during this phase. This included the European-style Palm Court, the award-winning Artesian Bar and the Roux at the Landau restaurant, both of which were designed by David Collins in 2007. Palmer also rejuvenated the ballroom, function rooms and spruced up the Middleton Gardens as a breakout courtyard.
Such was his attention to detail that he even made sure loos were repositioned near the coat-check in the restaurant area, so diners don't have to trek back to reception.
The Artesian bar
The 380 staff were embraced in the new culture, too. Managers and colleagues speak to each other in a respectful, positive style that helps boost confidence. Service is unstuffy and staff are encouraged to take pride in the hotel, which recently attained its Gold EarthCheck certification for five years of sustainability.
During the years of works, Palmer kept the hotel open by closing off different sections. The building's ability to be divided as such has proved a handy quirk that continues to be useful now. Business meetings or functions in the ballroom, for instance, are intentionally confined to one side of the hotel, so they don't interfere with the guests, restaurants or bars.
"It's very important that [corporate business] doesn't detract from the couples' experience," says Palmer. "It has been a priority to make sure the journey is correct for each type of guest."
At 380 bedrooms, he adds that the Langham has the benefit of more stock than many other five-star competitors."It's taken us 10 years, but we can now say we are the grandest because of our size," says Palmer. "We can cater for grand events."
He adds: "It's wrong to say we are equal to the Savoy, but we are on our way to where we think it will be in 2017. Our approach has been to not do it all in one go. We have added what we need for the next five or 10 years."
The hotel's annual turnover is £48m. Achieved room rate at the moment is currently less than £300, with room occupancy at 80%-82%. Long-term, this will drop to 78%-79% because Palmer believes that the rooms cannot be turned around too quickly. Average room rate, however, will rise to £380-£400 within the next three years, with the suites being sold from £1,500 a night. The two-bedroom Infinity Suite sells from £15,600.
"We are running on a good return and, as we add luxury, we will become more profitable. We benchmark ourselves against the competition and ask what else we can do to push the envelope," says Palmer.
A potted history of the Langham
June 1865 The newly built £300,000 Langham hotel is opened by Edward, Prince of Wales
1870s-1880s The hotel becomes well known for innovations such as electric lights, air-conditioning and hydraulic lifts. It's popular with author Mark Twain and multi-millionairess Hetty Green
1871 Napoleon III decamps to the hotel during his exile. Other famous guests over the years include Oscar Wilde, the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson
1940s Serves as a first-aid and military post during World War II
1965 Having lain dormant for 25 years, the hotel is taken over by its neighbour, the BBC.
1986 The BBC sells the property to the Ladbroke Group, which also purchases the non-US arm of Hilton Hotels for £26m
1991 The hotel reopens as the Langham Hilton after a £100m refurbishment. Diana, Princess of Wales, is its first royal visitor
1998-2000 The hotel is extended and refurbished
2004 Acquired by Langham Hotels International, wholly owned by Hong Kong-based company Great Eagle Group, and renamed Langham London
2004-2009 Renovations to restore hotel. The Infinity Suite opens, followed by the David Collins-designed Artesian bar and the Landau restaurant in 2007. In 2009, 260 guestrooms and all public areas are refurbished
2013 Langham Hotels International now spans four continents
2015 A £7.5m investment to mark the 150th anniversary includes refurbishment of 46 bedrooms in the Regent Wing and the launch of the Sterling Suite and Langham Club Lounge
Langham Hospitality Group
Langham Hospitality Group has 22 hotels worldwide and 16 under development. The aim is to hit a target of 30 to 40 properties globally in three to five years and 100 within five to 10 years. Growth is expected to be via management contracts. The company owns three-quarters of its assets and manages a quarter. It is looking to invert those figures.
"When we come to 100 properties we will own 25. We are ready to branch out into management contracts," says Palmer.
The company will grow partly by rolling out three brands. Two are already up and running in Asia - Langham Place, its five-star, boutique-style contemporary brand; and Eaton, a four-star lifestyle brand aimed at arty neighbourhoods. The latter concept includes a gym, with a simpler bar and restaurant compared to the five-star brands.
It is also launching the brand new Cordis Hotels & Resorts, which will focus on wellness and health and be larger, with 300-600 rooms. It will have limited public areas and will therefore, predicts Palmer, be more profitable. The first property is about to open in Hong Kong, with seven more opening across China, Indonesia and Sri Lanka in the next three years. Cities such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Orlando, San Francisco, Dubai, Singapore and Bangkok are also earmarked.
And London is on the target list, too. "We are looking to make an announcement in latter part of the year," says Palmer. "Cordis and Eaton will definitely come to London - and Langham Place if possible."
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