The Ritz London has ambitious plans to keep up with stiff competition in the world of luxury travel. Under new ownership, the iconic hotel is to undergo a £300m refurbishment project to ensure it remains the hotel of dreams. Janet Harmer speaks to those making it happen.
A plethora of new luxury hotels in London are set to start welcoming guests over the next couple of years. As the likes of Raffles London at the OWO, or Old War Office Building, the Peninsula London and Chancery Rosewood open their doors, long-standing properties cannot afford to rest on their laurels. The new owner of the Ritz London is only too well aware of this.
In order to stay at the very top of its expanding competitor set and to remain relevant to a young and increasingly demanding clientele, he has not hesitated in agreeing to spend at least £300m on an extensive expansion of one of the capital's grand dame hotels, introducing leisure facilities for the first time in the property's history. The investment is intended to help position the Ritz London as one of the most luxurious five-star hotels in the world.
Building the future
Plans to extend the Grade-II*-listed hotel have actually been on the cards ever since César Ritz founded the hotel in 1906. The scheme was set to go ahead under former owners, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, but never proceeded. Following the acquisition of the hotel in March 2020 by Qatari tycoon Adbulhadi Mana Al-Hajri for around £700m, the project is now full steam ahead.
"Our new owner's commitment to delivering what is a sustainable vision for the future of the Ritz London is uncompromising and unsparing in its attention to detail," says general manager Sal Gowili. "Luxury travel has changed. The expectation of today's guests is that wherever they stay, they want technology to be at the forefront, combined with beautiful design and service excellence."
The process of expanding the hotel began in May with the deconstruction of 22 Arlington Street, the 1970s office block adjacent to the hotel, where the extension will be built. Forming phase one of the project, the new building will comprise a second entrance, a winter garden housing a second restaurant, a second bar, a spa with between eight and 18 treatment rooms, a swimming pool and state-of-the-art gym, additional bedrooms, which will take the room count from 136 up to an as yet undecided number between 145 and 155, and landscaping for alfresco dining. The hotel's operations will be vastly improved by a new back of house flow and loading bay, and by positioning all machinery and VIP car parking underground.
Following completion of phase one in around 2026, phase two will see the hotel closed and fully refurbished, with the current style of decor enhanced but not changed. The total project – expected to be completed by 2028 – is being overseen by exterior and historic architect Purcell and EPR Architects, which will deliver the interiors, mirroring the collaboration of the original team of Charles Mewès and Arthur Davies in the early 20th century. Additionally, the interiors will see the involvement of three companies: David Collins Studio, Pierre-Yves Rochon and Studio Ashby.
Additional space could be added to the hotel following the decision by the new owner not to reopen the casino on the lower ground floor following lockdown. From 10 January 2022, the hotel's former ballroom in the Ritz Club will serve afternoon tea for just one year while a decision is made about the future of the space.
As part of the wider responsibility of the Ritz London towards reducing its impact on the environment, the property is seeking to be what is believed to be the first Grade-II*-hotel to achieve a new build and refurbishment rating of Excellent from BREEM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method). It is also pursuing numerous steps to achieve net zero carbon, including enhancing insulation properties of the building and working with Transport for London to extract heat from nearby Green Park tube station.
Just as important as ensuring that guests get to stay in a hotel that seamlessly combines the richness of a 115-year-old building with an extension that is at the forefront of architectural design, is having in place a top-notch team.
"The main consideration of our owner as we went into enforced lockdown just after the acquisition was to protect the business, which meant protecting our people," says Gowili.
Whether it is an A-list celebrity or someone coming to the hotel for the first time for a celebratory afternoon tea, you treat everyone the same
"As a result, we were probably one of the few hotel businesses that did not make any redundancies. We also paid all our team members their full salaries throughout the hotel's closure. It meant that when we reopened, we were in a very strong position."
The commitment to investing in staff has been at the forefront of Gowili's management style ever since he was promoted to general manager in 2016. He arrived at the hotel in 2011 as front of house manager, having spent the previous eight years working his way up from management trainee to rooms division manager at Red Carnation Hotels, a period during which he is grateful for the support he received from managing director Jonathan Raggett and the founders of the company, the late Stanley Tollman and his wife Bea.
The strength of the current Ritz London team stems from a mix of longstanding personnel and newer ambitious recruits who are given every support to climb the career ladder. Twenty-one out of a total head count of 394 have completed more than 20 years' service at the hotel, with the assistant manager in the Palm Court, Manuel Perez, better known as Alfie, now in his 54th year at the hotel.
Meanwhile, Antonella Santoni, Koula Michaelides and Spencer Metzger, all featured here, are typical of younger members of the team who have been encouraged to move into key positions of responsibility. Additionally, Robert de Cozar highlights the strong family feel that exists throughout the hotel. "We're committed to training and nurturing talented individuals in order to develop future leaders," says Gowili, highlighting the training programmes the hotel has in place for all levels of staff, while supporting team members to enter external competitions such as the Gold Service Scholarship and Acorn Awards.
However, despite the positive work environment it promotes, the Ritz London is not immune from the current staffing crisis. "It is not a problem specific to the UK – the shortage of staff we're experiencing also exists in Europe and North America. The pandemic has changed people's mindsets about what they want to do," says Gowili.
"It's the front-line positions that we are struggling most to fill – commis chefs, commis waiters, room attendants. We currently have around 70 vacancies."
To cope with the problem, the hotel has capped occupancy at around 60%, climbing up to around 80% at weekends, and reduced the number of covers it serves in the restaurant to 70, down from a maximum of 110. The Palm Court, where afternoon tea is served, has dropped daily covers to 370, down from 420. Post-pandemic, it is unlikely these figures will return to what they were before as customers are now enjoying a better quality of service and interaction with the team.
Creating a better work-life balance is essential to attracting staff. Split shifts are no longer operated, while the aim is to offer at least the London Living Wage (£11.05), as opposed to the National Living Wage (£8.91), explains Gowili. "We're also introducing a service charge for the first time in the hotel's history. Our ethos was always that you shouldn't have to pay for service at the Ritz London, but times have moved on and we need to give greater recognition to our people."
With every step now being taken to move the Ritz London forward, the hotel has once again set the luxury benchmark for the raft of new hotels on the horizon.
Spencer Metzger, head chef, 28
In the 11 years since joining the Ritz London as an apprentice, Spencer Metzger has steadily moved up the career ladder. Five months ago he was promoted to head chef, working under executive chef John Williams who he describes as "the best mentor in the world".
Metzger says the Ritz London helps him to flourish. "Working in a pristine kitchen with the best equipment and best ingredients changes your whole mindset," he says.
"It has encouraged me to step up and I've been rewarded by various promotions." At the same time, Metzger has made a name for himself beyond the Ritz London, always with the hotel's support. He was named Young Chef of the Year in the RACA Annual Awards of Excellence 2014 and travelled to Japan in 2016 to take part in the Seven Samurai Chefs Contest, before going on to win the 2019 Roux Scholarship, which resulted him spending three months in the kitchens of three-Michelin-starred Frantzén in Stockholm.
One year away from the hotel working for Simon Rogan at L'Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria, ignited Metzger's depth of produce knowledge. "I have a true love for cooking food which is routed in classic foundations and elegant in style, but always using the very best of produce grown in a sustainable and ethical way," he says. "The ingredients are front and centre in our mission to drive to the food and menus of the Ritz London forward."
Now he is looking forward to the future development of the hotel. "It looks like it is going to become the hotel of dreams and I'm very excited to be part of it."
Robert de Cozar, concierge, 31
Robert de Cozar's arrival as a member of the hotel's concierge team three months ago felt like moving home. He is the third generation of his family to work at the Ritz London: his grandfather Salvador worked as a room service attendant for 21 years and his father Michael continues to work as head hall porter, while his uncle Luis, after clocking up 48 years at the hotel, has enjoyed 21 years' service as a luggage porter.
De Cozar is now loving working alongside his dad after 10 years at the Lanesborough. "I've brought along a great knowledge of technology, while I've learned from dad how to interact with people," he says. "It doesn't matter who you are dealing with, whether it is an A-list celebrity or someone coming to the hotel for the first time for a celebratory afternoon tea, you treat everyone the same."
Equally important attributes of a concierge are having a good memory – "remembering people's names is the magic factor", and being able to multi-task – "being on two phones at one time is a trademark!"
De Cozar explains that no task is too small or too large for the concierge team. "One minute I could be ordering coffee and newspapers, the next it might be a private jet. The job is never boring. A few weeks ago, I found myself on the red carpet of the James Bond premiere at the Royal Albert Hall after a high-profile client left their tickets in their room and I had to take them down there."
Ultimately, for de Cozar, the hotel offers the pinnacle of service, where "everyone supports one another; everyone is in a happy place." Could a fourth generation of the family join the hotel? "There could well be," he says, referring to his 15-month-old daughter.
Antonella Santoni, director of rooms, 35
As director of rooms, Antonella Santoni oversees a team of 108 staff covering the front office, porters, butlers, housekeeping guest relations and duty managers. "I have been given the opportunity to grow here," she says. "To be the one person in charge of the rooms division is a big deal."
Santoni arrived at the Ritz London from the Lanesborough in 2014, starting in guest relations, before being promoted to reception manager, transferring to the reservations team and then moving to her current role. She is grateful for what she says is the "trust" her managers have placed in her to overcome many challenges.
"They respect my opinion and give me the freedom to implement changes, which makes me feel valued. I very much feel an individual within a family environment. There is always someone you can talk to vent your frustration or ease the pressure of a difficult day. That is something I really treasure."
A big focus in recent years for the rooms division is to take steps to ensure the hotel is made welcoming to a younger audience, particularly families with young children. "This is very much the journey we are on," says Santoni. "It is all about engaging with our guests and making the hotel somewhere where all generations feel at home."
Building a strong connection with guests is central to what makes the Ritz London such a special place to work for Santoni. This is something that has been heightened by the pandemic and the eagerness for regulars to return. "Lockdown made us realise how loyal our guests have been and how important the hotel is in their lives."
Koula Michaelides, food and beverage manager, 29
Kuola Michaelides switched to a career in food and beverage three years into a criminology degree at Florida International University.
She identified the Ritz London as the place she wanted to work and joined the hotel in 2012 as a hostess in the restaurant. The hotel has backed her ambition to climb the career ladder, which has seen her move through the ranks via restaurant co-ordinator, food and beverage co-ordinator, assistant food and beverage manager, and food and beverage operations manager.
In her current role within the 213-strong food and beverage division, Michaelides provides a supportive role for the operations team, which involves overseeing projects, budgeting and yielding the business. She says the Ritz London is all about accessible luxury. "We offer modern trends, whether that is through the presentation of dishes or the matching of unusual food and wines, while respecting the legacy of the hotel with the retention of guéridon service. Meanwhile, the style of service is traditional, but not rigid. We've always been encouraged to convey our personality," she adds.
One custom that the hotel continues and is unlikely to change is a dress code where no jeans or sportswear are allowed in the restaurant or Palm Court, and men are expected to wear a jacket and tie. "It is what sets us apart and I don't think the guests expect anything less," says Michaelides.
Working at the Ritz London has seen Michaelides thrive both professionally and personally, thanks to the team's guidance.
"I have made mistakes, but it has always been explained to me what went wrong and what can be done to rectify it. To have that support promotes loyalty to the brand."
At the same time, Michaelides has expanded her network of hotel operators beyond the Ritz London through the hotel's backing of her involvement in the Master Innholders' Aspiring Leaders Diploma, also undertaken by Santoni. "Sharing ideas with others outside the hotel is brilliant for creative minds."
About the Ritz London
- The Ritz London, 150 Piccadilly, London W1J 9BR
- 020 7493 8181
- General manager Sal Gowili
- Executive chef John Williams
- Bedrooms 133
- Staff 394
- Starting room rate £635