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Top of the world

01 December 2004 by
Top of the world

Checking out sir? Trust you enjoyed your stay. Two nights? That will be £23,000 plus VAT. How will you be settling your account?

No, it's not a hotel on the moon, but the latest suites of rooms in London's Dorchester hotel, which are going for £11,500 per night - making them London's most expensive accommodation. The Seri & Suri suites on the eighth and ninth floors of the Dorchester have fantastic views over London's Hyde Park, not to mention four bedrooms, two drawing rooms, two dining rooms and a screening room. Furniture is all made in Italy, with Italian marble used in the bathrooms, and there is real gold thread woven into many of the carpets.

And whereas it might not be exactly a steal, it is certainly affordable, according to the Dorchester's general manager, Christopher Cowdray.

"There are plenty of people who are prepared to pay for seclusion and luxury," he says. "It's part of the image of the hotel. The suites have always sold well and occupancy of them is high. The more suites you have, the more profitable you can be and they will significantly help your yield."

Like everything else penthouses, or as the dictionary definition goes "a luxurious apartment or set of rooms at the top of a hotel or tall building", go in and out of fashion. Before the invention of the lift in the middle of the 19th century, the space at the top of the building was unfashionable. The higher you went, the cheaper rooms became. But as the lift took off, so too did the penthouse, setting the scene for high society 1920s and 1930s living in glitzy American cities. They fell away a bit during the utilitarian architecture era of the 1960s but have come back into vogue over the past 30 years with the rise of the celebrity culture and the get-rich-quick set.

Expensive they may be, but pricing is a critical piece of the penthouse jigsaw. Too cheap and you might not attract the right clientele. One of London's newest properties, the Soho Hotel, has an impressive one-bedroom penthouse with dining room, kitchen and wrap-around terraces that give wonderful views of London. At £2,500 a night, excluding VAT, the 1,800sq ft penthouse is the most expensive product in owner Firmdale's portfolio. But it also guarantees that the clientele at whom it is aimed will look at it. "If it were £900 a night then it would not attract the right people. A penthouse has to appear exclusive," says Craig Markham, director of marketing and public relations.

Business mix
Not everyone calls them penthouses. Robin Hutson, founder of the Hotel du Vin chain, which has just been sold to Malmaison owners MWB, prefers to refer to his ethereal spaces as loft suites and believes that they are an important part of the overall business mix.

"In each hotel we have included one real show-off suite," he says. It's important as an aspirational part of the product. The quality of fittings is the same but there are a few more bells and whistles in the bigger suites. We do quite a lot of celebrity business and it's important to have something to offer for this sector."

Most hoteliers agree that when business is brisk, penthouses are good news. Successful people want to make an impression, stay at the best address, or use the suite for entertaining. In times of recession, however, they can be difficult to sell, and many hoteliers welcome permanent residents who pay the bills throughout the year. The Merrion Hotel in Dublin has been trading for seven years now but has only just allowed its penthouse to be booked, because for the past three years it has been occupied by a permanent resident. General manager Peter MacCann says he hopes to sell the penthouse for 80 nights of the year at a rack rate of a2,200 (£1,486) per night.

On other nights the penthouse will be used to attract groups, for example upgrading a chief executive when a number of rooms are taken by a company. The Merrion penthouse comprises 2,800sq ft split across two floors and a separate 1,000sq ft rooftop terrace complete with cedarwood hot tub. Guests have access to the penthouse via a private lift.

When you're charging top whack you need to keep your penthouse offering fresh, even including the views of regular guests when it comes to refurbishment time. At the Sheraton Park Tower in London's Knightsbridge, general manager Anne Scott has done just that. "We have a guest who comes to stay in one of our Presidential suites and we have incorporated his preferences into the design," she says. "For example, where we had wooden floors and rugs, we have now carpeted the suite throughout because this particular guest prefers carpets."

The three one-bedroom suites at the Park Tower cost from £2,200 per suite per night, while the two two-bedroom suites are from £3,000. The busiest periods are from May to September. For quieter periods the hotel has developed a Penthouse Dining concept, where Pascal Proyart, the chef from restaurant One-O-One, will create an exclusive meal for groups of between two and 10 people. So far this year the presidential suites have been occupied 70% of the time.

Penthouse memories by Ron Jones, former general manager at Claridge's.

We had two penthouses at Claridge's. The chairman lived in one (except for the short period post-war when he lent it to Winston Churchill). The other was retained year-round by Greek shipping millionaire Stavros Niarchos.

He used it maybe twice a year for brief visits. Very occasionally he would lend it to friends such as Yul Bryner's widow. His instructions were that the suite was to be ready at all times in case of his arrival - at two hours' notice. Art treasures hung on the wall. We had strict orders not to move or throw out anything he left in the suite pending his next visit.

His awesome array of medications was permanently laid out on the night tables and bathroom cabinets. He even kept a huge supply of his favourite biscuits. When on my first inspection I spied weevils in the biscuits and noted half the minerals were past their sell-by dates, I threw them out and replaced them with fresh supplies.

Only once did my wife and I sneak up to the Niarchos penthouse for a spot of Sunday sun-bathing on the terrace (the two penthouse suites had unusually spacious roof gardens). Eve was uncomfortable from the start and refused to don her swimsuit. I had no such qualms and we settled into deckchairs with the Sunday papers. Eve, as is the habit of wives everywhere, was proved right. Ten minutes after we arrived there was the sound of keys being tried, followed by loud knocking on the (double-locked) door: the florist had come to renew the flower arrangements. We scrambled up in double-quick time, dressed, grabbed notebooks and pencils from the sitting-room desk, then opened the door and explained to the puzzled florist that we were doing a little "snagging" to make sure everything was in order. I don't think she believed me.

When I was general manager of the Royal Garden Hotel in London there were two penthouses - what was then called the Royal Suite overlooking Kensington Palace and Gardens, and the other overlooking Kensington High Street. That one was decorated in the style of Mae West's boudoir: rooms done out in gold, ivory and mirrors, and a bathroom with sunken bath and gold swan-neck taps. It was often used for "love in the afternoon". A businessman, for example, used to entertain his mistress there every three weeks. The second suite was the favourite of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, always surrounded by secretaries and aides.

When the suites were unoccupied they were in constant demand for luncheons, dinners and special parties. The two adjoining bedrooms could be locked off and let separately, thereby increasing revenue. In the 1970s those two suites were very profitable indeed. We stayed recently in what is now the Royal Garden Suite. Though huge by modern standards, it had been much reduced by the restaurant extension.

Penthouse favourites
If you're thinking of adding a penthouse to your hotel, you might want to check out one of the following…

Metropolitan, London £2,100 per night, excluding VAT
State-of-the-art technology, contemporary design, and always booked. There is one bedroom and an adjoining suite can extend it to two bedrooms. The bathroom is a highlight, with glass-walled shower and huge bath tub overlooking Hyde Park.

Dukes Hotel, London
£550 a night, excluding VAT
Not many of London's townhouse hotels offer a penthouse, but Dukes has a classic traditional suite with outdoor terrace, drawing room and bedroom.

The Zetter, London £255 to £275 a night, including VAT
There are seven Rooftop Studios at this new and acclaimed hotel in Clerkenwell, all with sweeping roof terraces looking toward the city skyline. It's London's affordable alternative to penthouse living.

42 The Calls, Leeds £372 a night, including VAT
A stylish apartment that retains many features of the former riverside cornmill that the hotel now occupies, such as beams and iron pulleys. Decorated in an atmospheric, modern style, there is a hallway, drawing room, bedroom and spacious bathroom.

Scotsman, Edinburgh £1,200 a night, including VAT
It has its own lift, library, sauna, dining room and roof terrace - as well as bedroom and bathroom. Totally self-contained for guaranteed privacy.

Cambridge Belfry £112 per person per night with upgrade to penthouse apartment £100 per room per night
Six individually styled penthouse suites at Marston Hotels' new £15m Cambridge Belfry. Access via a private landing. Each suite has an entrance hall, separate drawing room, bedroom and bathroom with Jacuzzi baths.

The Square, Brighton, £1,000 for the weekend
A new, contemporary townhouse hotel featuring a reverse penthouse - ie, on the ground floor - costing £1,000 for the weekend. Guests can order in dinner for their own dinner party or a chef can be provided for the whole weekend.

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