The Caterer interview: Luca Virgilio, general manager of the Dorchester

17 May 2023 by

The general manager of the Dorchester is overseeing a huge renovation of the grande dame hotel, treading gently between history and modernity

You joined the Dorchester in December 2021 at the tail end of the pandemic. Was that a daunting time to join when so much was unknown about the future of travel?

It was an odd time as we had a moment of hope and then the pandemic hit again. But the fact that I'd been working with the company for a while [as general manager at the Dorchester Collection's Hotel Eden in Rome] meant I was very much in tune with what was happening. We have a weekly meeting with all general managers across the business, so for me it was an easier transition because I didn't come blindfolded.

I knew I was going to make sure we took advantage of this time to go through a massive renovation. It was already pre-planned and organised by my predecessor [Robert Whitfield], so for me it was just time to go into execution mode.

How different was it coming from Hotel Eden in Rome?

If you're managing a hotel, whether it's 100 rooms or 250 rooms, the principles are the same. Hotel Eden was on a more intimate scale and I felt in tune with everything – I'm not saying I'm a control freak, but I like to have the pulse on a hotel. This is a bigger operation with almost three times the staff, so my main challenge was how can I do what I did at Eden here at the Dorchester. I need to have the bigger picture while being in tune with the guests and the team.

My chief executive [Chris Cowdray] knows my strengths and my weaknesses, so if he put me here it was because of my strengths. Since we're an intimate company, I already knew many people, but it was more about getting to know them as professionals. For me, it was making sure my method was understood, as it was a little different from my predecessor.

Did you restructure the team?

I like the principle of one team. Everyone has direct responsibilities and looks at their own garden – be it rooms division, food and beverage or sales and marketing – but I wanted them to work for the greater good of the hotel. Otherwise, everyone makes decisions that are good for them rather than the wider business. If we are aligned it's clear for everyone where we need to go.

It's not just a refurbishment, it's a full rebranding and repositioning. We need to keep relevant and keep speaking today's language without losing the history of the property. We are still established and sophisticated, so want to attract people who love us today and become exciting for the people who up to now haven't considered us. That guides everything: the branding, the uniforms, the hiring, the language.

What was the mission statement?

To be the London address for the people who make the world turn.

The Promenade and Artists' Bar are now quite modern spaces in a significant update on the style of the property. Did it feel like a risk to go a little edgy?

If you think of it before, there was no art, and that was the brief. In the Promenade the inspiration for the designer and the artwork is a walk in the park. If you look at the colour palette it's like a spring day in the English countryside.

We commissioned British artists and asked them for their interpretation of the English countryside and mother nature. The idea was to make it eclectic, so some have used traditional techniques and some are more contemporary. We wanted that vibrancy and something different.

It's all about our place in London, so we also have a beautiful piece by Ann Carrington inspired by the Queen Elizabeth II postage stamp. It's a large-scale silhouette of the late Queen using only mother of pearl buttons. We've received the Queen on a few occasions so there's a strong link with the royal family.

In the Vesper Bar we have original pieces by Cecil Beaton, who was a regular patron of the hotel. Art helps us tell our story and it follows through in our rooms, which will have the same quirkiness and eclecticism.

As you say you've relaunched the Vesper bar. It this with a view to appealing to a younger crowd?

We decided to work with design studio Martin Brudnizki as we wanted to make sure each area had a strong identity. He is flamboyant and fun in his design and he really nailed it. This hotel was built in 1931, so he brought that period back into the Vesper Bar – adult fun, adult entertainment, prohibition – but when you walk in you feel like it could have been there forever. It's fresh, captivating and sexy. We even have the DJ in the evening so it's a totally different story to the Artists' Bar.

The Vesper Bar
The Vesper Bar

How do you straddle appealing to the next generation of guests while keeping existing customers happy?

It's not about age or nationality, it's more about appealing to those who appreciate and like the same things. We want to appeal to people who enjoy the spirit of a city like London. With our elegance and sophistication we want to create something that has that vibrancy. If you look at the most successful hotels you'll find somebody my age and somebody younger, but we all make sense together because we enjoy the same things.

It's definitely around attracting a younger crowd, but a younger crowd that likes what we are proposing.

Has the food and beverage been overhauled as well to complement the refurbishment?

The food and beverage offering plays an important role in the repositioning. We now have Martin Nail as culinary director, who is overseeing everything and making sure the vibrancy and eclecticism is reflected in every space.

The Promenade was previously known for afternoon tea, but now it serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and after dinner, so we have a very comprehensive menu along with a bit of art and flair coming from the salad trolley and the crêpes Suzette service.

We still have the grill with Tom Booton, now with his name on the door, and it will be a little lighter and a dynamic, fun brasserie that also serves breakfast. We'll even have draught beer at the counter. So we'll have the classics in the Promenade with imperial seafood, something more quirky in the Grill, China Tang and the Vesper bar.

It's a big investment, as having an operation that can support such eclecticism is not simple. But we want our guests to come and have an embarrassment of choice. When we've finished the project with the rooftop, we'll have five restaurants and five bars.

What's happening on the rooftop?

It's too soon to say, but we're going to claim more space than we used before. It will have an open terrace that we can close with a glass roof so it'll be open year round and offer views over London. It will be pretty impressive.

So as well as serving guests who stay here and eat here, you'll be marketing to Londoners too…

Absolutely, this hotel has always been part of the London social scene. After all, 80% of our patrons are from outside London, whether they come to Alain Ducasse, China Tang, the Grill or the Promenade. But to have something that is so attractive to the London crowds also makes us more appealing to guests. When you visit a hotel you want it reflect the energy of that city. We want to encourage a global crowd, not just one nationality.

Are you changing the way you're marketing internationally?

The US market is where we see a big opportunity. We don't want to alienate the Middle Eastern market, but some may prefer spaces that are not so socially active. Some we will lose some along the way, but those that believe in our vision will stay and enjoy us.

The Middle East will still be a big part of our clientele, and of course they're very welcome, but when you walk through the Promenade now you see a more diverse crowd.

How did the hotel perform in 2022?

Every hotel in the Dorchester Collection had a record year. We were running with half of the inventory and with a big renovation the heart of the hotel was missing. But, all considered, it went really well.

What was amazing for me was the amount of love people have for this hotel. No matter what we were going through, they were still very loyal, and they've been part of this journey with us. We've had great feedback too.

Artists' Bar
Artists' Bar

There have been some significant openings in the luxury market in the past two years – is there enough business to go around?

I think there is. One thing nobody can take away from us is our place in London and the world. This hotel proudly stands tall with its history and aura and there are few other London hotels with that history, but when others come it will create a critical mass.

Competition is good as it keeps you on your toes. We went through this big refurbishment because we were aware of what was happening in London and we had to shape up as we don't want to lose our place. For example, if on a street you just had Louis Vuitton that's OK, but if you have Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Gucci, Prada and Chanel, then yes, they compete, but that street also becomes a very important destination. Look at Paris – there are so many palace hotels, but they all do phenomenally well as they all create critical mass.

We all need to tell our own story and attract different people, but it will all help to raise the profile of this city.

London hoteliers are reporting record revenue per available room and expecting the trend to continue well into 2023. Do you see any signs of demand slowing?

It's huge. The average rate is impressive and we're reaching levels we didn't dream of. We're seeing over £1,000 and it's not just us, the new openings are putting themselves in that bracket too and they will raise the bar even further. Business won't be driven by discounts, it will be driven by delivering quality.

We all steal from each other, but in the bigger picture the competition helps the whole destination.

Luca Virgilio's CV

2022-present General manager, the Dorchester

2014 -2022 General manager, Hotel Eden, the Dorchester Collection

2012-2014 Area general manager, Baglioni hotel, London and Regina hotel, Baglioni, Rome

2010-2012 General manager, Baglioni hotel, London

2008-2009 General manager, Hotel Metropole, Monte-Carlo

2004-2008 General manager, Baglioni hotel, London

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