A serene Japanese ethos is at the heart of the new Prince Akatoki luxury hotel brand, with the first of what is intended to be a global brand now established in London. Janet Harmer pays a visit
The transformation of the quintessentially British Arch London hotel could not be starker.
The hotel, originally owned by the Bejerano family's AB Hotels group, was sold in November 2018 to Tokyo-based Seibu Holdings. Ten months later, it was relaunched under the Prince Akatoki brand as the first of what is going to be a global brand of luxury hotels. The intention is to open a further 10 properties, featuring a very distinct Japanese aesthetic, over the next five years.
Seibu Holdings incorporates a portfolio of nearly 80 subsidiary companies within Japan, comprising railways, construction, property and the 49-strong Prince Hotels portfolio. The group's ambition to create a global hotel brand is being realised through its acquisition of the Australian-based Staywell Holdings, which has a network of 28 hotels.
The Prince Akatoki London is located within seven adjoining Georgian townhouses on Great Cumberland Place, a stone's throw from Marble Arch. The hotel is set to be the benchmark for the Prince Hotels brand, which will open its second site in Guangzhou, China, at the end of the year, and a third hotel in New York in 2021. Further locations are being sought in Paris, Rome, Berlin, Vietnam, Singapore and Sydney.
Ray Goertz has played a key role in the renovation and rebranding of the hotel. The general manager was appointed to run the Arch a year before its sale from the same role at the Courthouse in Shoreditch.
"The difference between the Arch and Prince Akatoki is night and day," says Goertz. "The Arch was a really nice hotel with a cosy, family, intimate feel. With the creation of Prince Akatoki, the property has been brought into the modern era, with an increase in room rate matching the product we are now offering."
The average room rate has risen from £230 to £300, with an occupancy of 90% and 80% recorded in December and January respectively. The upgraded design has resulted in the hotel moving into what Goertz calls "a more inspirational" competitive set, that includes the Beaumont, Chiltern Firehouse and the Connaught hotels.
The name Akatoki, which stems from the Japanese word Akatsuki, meaning "sunrise, before dawn", has informed the interior design. The new look and philosophy of the hotel was created by global branding consultancy Interbrand, which came up with the name and visual identity, as well as the colour palette of an orange sunrise, which is on display in every touchpoint throughout the property.
London Bridge-based company B3 Designers, which has previously created the interiors for restaurants such as Roka, Cinnamon Club and Bubbledogs, was selected to put Interbrand's concept into practice.
According to Interbrand, the purpose of Prince Akatoki is all about "the optimism and positivity for the day ahead" with the aim of providing an environment in which guests will "wake up relaxed, rejuvenated, and ready for the possibilities of the day ahead".
The aim of the simple and calming design, which focuses on natural materials and sensory elements, is to create a feeling of wellbeing among guests.
Guests walking through the entrance of the Prince Akatoki London are immediately transported into a tranquil sanctuary, with a muted colour scheme of shades of cream and grey evoking a feeling of calm.
Three reception desks clad with blond slatted wood form the focus of the space, while to one side behind a wooden screen the Sanctuary provides a place for new arrivals to enjoy a glass of sake. To the other side of the front door, a former private dining space has been opened up with a communal table where guests can sit with their laptops. Simple shelving holds a minimal selection of carefully curated artworks with clean, simple lines.
There is minimal clutter at the Prince Akatoki. "We didn't want to take anything away from the attention of the design of the building," explains Goertz.
While the immediate impression is of being whisked into an Eastern environment, the intention is that the experience of Prince Akatoki is not totally Japanese. "It is very important to understand that the hotel is built by the Japanese, not for the Japanese," says Goertz. "We have a lot of Westerners staying with us and they wouldn't necessarily want an overly Japanese culture thrown in their face. They just want to relax and be calm."
The new ownership and rebranding, however, has resulted in a boost to visitor numbers from Japan – up from about 1% in the Arch days to 15% today.
The Malt lounge and bar
Throughout the hotel, traditional Japanese fusama panels have been given a contemporary interpretation, and the sliding vertical panels are opened or closed during the day to redefine the purpose of each room.
In the dark, wood-panelled Malt bar, reminiscent of many a Tokyo izakaya, the panels are opened late in the afternoon to reveal a serious selection of 150 whiskies, 70 of which are Japanese with the rest from Scotland, Ireland, the US and, even, India. A 1984 Karuizawa sherry cask tops the list at £7,400.
The state-of-the-art Hoshizaki air-cooled compact ice-maker here is one of several water filtration systems used throughout the hotel. The ice machine has a closed water circuit preventing any impurities from entering the ice-making process, resulting in crystal-clear branded cubes that melt very slowly. The other machines are used in the restaurant for making tea, cooking sushi rice and for making batter on the tempura station.
The word toki means time. For Prince Akatoki's restaurant, an additional i has been added to the name, both from a design point of view and to reflect the hotel's desire to give customers extra time to enjoy the Japanese-inspired sharing menus.
A reconfiguration of the previous restaurant and opening up of the kitchen has created more capacity, increasing the number of covers from 42 to 80. Central to the space, the former salon bar has been replaced by a sushi counter lined with Volkanite bricks, made in the Czech Republic from melted lava, each brick weighing 700g-800g and costing £200.
A statement table used for large groups and for sharing has been ethically sourced from UK forests by Wiltshire-based Forest to Home.
The bedrooms are divided into six categories, ranging from a superior room at 21 sq m up to a one-bedroom suite at 47 sq m. Each has something of a Scandinavian aesthetic as much as a Japanese vibe, with blond wood in abundance. Floating bedside tables and midcentury seating provide clean lines, while kimonos, yoga mats and Japanese teapots reflect the origins of the hotel's owners.
Here the fusama panels above the beds reflect one of the four seasons, each set in a different Japanese location and created by London illustrator Matt Murphy. Each illustration is accompanied by a haiku (poem) composed by the Anglo-Japanese team of David McMurray and Jiro Oba.
The bathrooms have not yet undergone renovation, but changes are afoot, with the introduction of top-of-the-range Toto toilets, which open automatically as the guest approaches and are self-cleaning. New Japanese-style taps are also to be installed.
While art is generally eschewed in the hotel, there has been a request from guests for something to enliven the bedrooms and a single canvas for each room is now being considered.
A sensory experience
The intention is to heighten the senses of every guest to Prince Akatoki. The Lutron intuitive lighting system, supplied by UK company Foundry, for instance, reacts automatically to exterior lighting levels. The lights are programmed to start dimming at around 4pm in the winter until it is pitch black outside, when the lights reach their lowest setting.
Similarly, the Music Concierge system is set to provide a tranquil sound during the day, with the beat picking up as the day progresses to create a livelier environment.
Equal consideration has been given to the scent that is wafted throughout the hotel via diffusers from @aroma, a German-based company which has created a bespoke fragrance for the hotel, where the key notes include frankincense, bergamot, patchouli, rosemary, juniper and turmeric, aiming to reflect a restful Japanese environment.
"In essence, the hotel is a living organism that changes throughout the day," says Goertz.
Marketing and PR via traditional and social media has resulted in several reviews, with separate websites and social media accounts for the Malt bar and Tokii restaurant helping to create destinations in their own right.
Meanwhile, an affiliation with Small Luxury Hotels of the World has continued since the Arch days, as the consortium has proved to be a good driver of business from the US. A decision on an application to join Fine Hotels & Resorts, backed by American Express, in 2021, will be made in June.
Last month, the hotel was awarded four stars hotels by the US-based Forbes Travel Guide, becoming one of only 59 hotels in the UK to be listed by the company, including 20 five-star, 25 four-star and 14 recommended hotels. The hotel also holds five AA stars and one AA rosette.
"Receiving four stars from Forbes will add a lot of weight in the industry for us," concludes Goertz.
Contact and details
50 Great Cumberland Place, Marble Arch, London W1H 7FD
- Brand creator Interbrand
- Interior design B3 Designers
- Opened September 2019
- Bedrooms 82
- Restaurant covers 80
- Average room rate £300
- Number of staff 110
- General manager Ray Goertz
Getting the team on-brand
Throwing out one brand and replacing it with one that is so dramatically different has resulted in a major cultural shift for the 110 staff at the Prince Akatoki London.
As a result, all team members have been issued with an 80-page Brand Book, an edited version of the 800-page Brand Compliance Manual, covering every operations detail in the hotel. The book has been compiled by Prince Hotels in conjunction with Interbrand.
Hiroko Aida, reception manager at the Arch for six years, has been appointed to the new role of brand ambassador to ensure all brand standards are in place.
She is one of three Japanese members of staff alongside a receptionist and marketing assistant.
A central part of the ethos of Prince Akatoki is omotenashi, meaning "service from the heart". Goertz explains: "We focus on how we bring Japanese culture to life. It doesn't mean we bow to guests, it is more about the serenity we bring to guests within a calm environment."
- Ice maker Hoshizaki Air-Cooled Compact Ice Maker www.nisbets.co.uk/hoshizakiair-cooled-compact-ice-maker/cy198
- Lutron lighting system Foundry www.foundry.london
- Sound system Music Concierge www.musicconcierge.co.uk
- Room scent @aroma www.at-aroma.com/en
- Communal dining table Forest to Home www.foresttohome.com
- Illustrations above beds Matt Murphy www.mattmurphyillustration.com
- Sanitaryware Toto www.toto.com
Photography by Ben Carpenter
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