Shiva Hotels has defied the current climate to open two hotels: the locally inspired Guardsman near Buckingham Palace and the cutting-edge Middle Eight in the heart of Theatreland. Katherine Price finds out how the company has coped and its plans for reopening.
This year has not exactly gone as anticipated for Shiva Hotels. Plans to launch two new luxury hotels in prime London locations in the spring were scuppered by the first lockdown. Then, just days after finally opening their doors in late October, England was plunged into a second lockdown and the hotels were closed.
But the group remains undeterred. Both teams are looking forward to reopening in December once lockdown restrictions are lifted, and managing director Rishi Sachdev remains confident in the London market.
Shiva, established in 2001, was until recently best known for its portfolio of London-based, Hilton-branded properties: the Lincoln Plaza in Canary Wharf, which operates under Hilton's soft Curio brand; the Hilton Heathrow Airport Terminal 5; the DoubleTree by Hilton Excel; and the Hampton by Hilton Waterloo, as well as another DoubleTree in York. The company has also been vocal in its commitment to tackling modern slavery in the hospitality industry through the Shiva Foundation.
And then last year it announced plans for a 53-bedroom new-build hotel in Westminster called the Guardsman and a collection of luxury boutique properties. News of another hotel in Covent Garden called Middle Eight followed in January this year, and Shiva signed a £62m financing deal with bank Leumi UK towards the development of the property. The Guardsman was due to open in April, Middle Eight in May. The rest, as they say, is history.
"We had started to pick up some business, but we are where we are," says general manager of Middle Eight Christian Graf. "We can't wait [for lockdown] to finish, and hopefully we'll be reopening again the minute it's over."
We can't wait for lockdown to finish, and hopefully we'll be reopening again the minute it's over
Time to prepare
Both he and Eva Mount, general manager of the Guardsman, remain positive, and are using the time to polish off both their properties and operations.
"It's been challenging but we've adapted. Hoteliers can adapt to anything," says Mount.
It's been challenging but we've adapted. Hoteliers can adapt to anything
"It's giving us time to do stuff that we didn't get a chance to do because we opened so quickly between lockdowns. We've finished all of the unpacking we never got round to doing; we've sorted all the storage out. I feel really fortunate that we had 12 days of trading because those 12 days gave us an opportunity to see the business as it is. Now we know operationally what we need to concentrate on during lockdown."
Although she says it was "heart-breaking" having to cancel bookings again – the hotel lost more than £1m worth of business on the books earlier this year following the first lockdown announcement – some have rebooked for December, and both properties are planned to reopen as soon as restrictions are lifted. Although Mount is not taking any chances.
"I haven't even arranged Christmas decorations for the hotel. It's almost like tempting fate," she says. "None of us know what's going to happen at Christmas."
Mount joined the hotel after short stints as general manager at the Harbour Hotel Richmond and the Athenaeum in Mayfair, and around two years as general manager of the Arch in Marylebone. Appointed to join the hotel in July 2019, even then there was a slight hiccup – the Friday before she was due to start work, she broke her foot. She is full of praise for her new employer's understanding: "They moved everything for me… I was mortified."
The Guardsman, which is both owned and operated by Shiva, is an intimate, exclusive experience akin to a private members' club. Guests can choose their rooms or residences, as well as their preferred brand of drinks, menu items or bathroom products to be available on their arrival, with complimentary drinks and snacks available throughout the day.
Spaces for dining and socialising are set over two levels, including an all-day restaurant open only to residents and their guests ("I want to make sure that our guests can always have a table for dinner or can entertain their guests," says Mount), serving British classics such as braised Romney Marsh lamb with parsnip bubble and squeak, and Camden Hells beer-battered haddock with triple-cooked chips, as well as all-time favourites such as Caesar salad and burgers.
Mount says: "We don't have 25 main courses, but we do have something for every- one, and if there isn't something you want, we're more than happy to make it for you.
"It's been really interesting thinking about how we can provide the service that we want with our current restrictions, and also wanting to make it a little bit more homely, because I don't think our kind of guests want a Michelin-starred restaurant."
The property also has six exclusive residences on the top three floors (named after some of the first female MPs: Astor, Summerskill, Wintringham, Copeland, Horsburgh and Bondfield), which Mount is hoping will appeal to the family market this Christmas. Indeed, a lot of thought has gone into appealing to younger guests, with guardsmen sticker books, colouring-in children's menus, and the toast at breakfast is in the shape of guardsmen, as is the gingerbread.
Small touches like this reference the history of the area, with the name, of course, a nod to the iconic, red-attired Queen's guard patrolling the gates of Buckingham Palace nearby. Its private dining space has been named after Cornelius Van Dun, the 16th-century yeoman of the guard, who served under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, and is buried at Westminster Abbey not far away, and also after the street on which the hotel is situated, Vandon.
Sachdev says: "When you're building lifestyle, experiential hotels, that are not branded, it is very much about the independent opportunity of that location, the building, the community around that place. These words have been thrown around the hotel sector quite a lot over the years but they're like taglines, rather than making it the real DNA of what the hotel is. What we've tried to do is make the individual opportunities really integral to what the hotel opportunity is."
What we've tried to do is make the individual opportunities really integral to what the hotel opportunity is
Both hotels opened with smaller teams than initially planned, and on much lower occupancies – the Guardsman was operating at less than 10% in its first two weeks. However, Sachdev hopes that by opening now, by the time the market is starting to recover, the properties will have had the opportunity to gain traction online as well as in reputation, and he feels both concepts will be "very much suited" to the post-pandemic market.
"Opening a hotel is hard and I'll never forget opening this hotel, ever," says Mount. "Nor do I want to, because it's been really, really special. We've seen how people can adapt and how they can work in a better way and be smarter."
Graf is similarly positive but realistic: "London will bounce back, the world will bounce back," he asserts, but he is expecting a "relatively quiet" December, adding, "if business starts to come in and we continue where we just left off before lockdown, that would be fantastic".
Middle Eight was designed for the international market, with expectations of 60% of its guests coming from America, Canada and the Far East. "That is clearly not happening at the moment," acknowledges Graf, and the rate has been adjusted to fit this at £195, although the target rate will be around £300-£350.
"We have to adapt and be realistic," he says. "If we do 10%-15% [occupancy] over the next couple of months, that would be a fantastic result, [although] it's clearly not what we would have been expecting originally."
Graf was previously head of the property when it was the Kingsway Hall hotel. Shiva bought the site from Cola Holdings in 2014 for a reported £96m, and the plan was always to reposition and refurbish it. However, as is often the case, the building required more work than originally anticipated, and so Graf has been overseeing Shiva's DoubleTree by Hilton London Excel since the closure of the Kingsway in December 2017.
"At one point we were talking about a potential closure of one year," he laughs. The building has been completely gutted and undergone a £40m-plus refurbishment to become a 180-bedroom luxury lifestyle hotel.
Interiors are inspired by nature and use materials such as stone and wood, and hundreds of burnished leaves are suspended over the Sycamore bar. The Sycamore Vino Cucina restaurant serves pizzas, dolce and small plates from a cicchetti counter, as well as grilled meats and hand-rolled pasta. The drinks list is focused on wines from Lombardia, Piedmont and Tuscany, Italian draft beers and negronis, as well as wines from US vineyards and a large selection of bourbons and ryes.
Restaurant consultant Des McDonald and head chef Paul Robinson, formerly head chef of Temper and the Coal Shed, designed the concept, inspired by Robinson's time in northern Italy. The more relaxed Balcony, which overlooks Sycamore, offers a globally inspired menu.
Sachdev says a lot of the focus was on improving the public spaces to reposition the property and the focus is on "trying to get people in from outside to experience all those different things that we've created", while the Guardsman is "more intimate", he says. "We're not trying to pull everyone in [there], we're trying to make a much more private, exclusive experience, much more members' club."
The design at Middle Eight also reflects the hotel's commitment to sustainability, with initiatives such as bathrobes made of recycled plastic bottles, and the hotel is a sponsor of charity Food for All, which distributes meals to homeless and disadvantaged people in central London.
Graf says some initiatives have unfortunately had to be put "on hold" due to the pandemic, but are "still very much on the agenda" and the team is hoping to work with local charities and invest both time and profit into social causes.
"That was always high on our agenda, but at the moment it is a little bit more about protecting the business and protecting employees," he explains.
The hotel is also inspired by Covent Garden's cultural scene, particularly the multitude of music venues and theatres and the Royal Opera House in the vicinity. Kingsway Hall itself, built in 1912, was originally a Methodist Church, but later became a recording studio and was highly sought-after due to its excellent acoustics.
Although the building was demolished in 1998, the hotel's name nods to the musical past of the site on which it sits. ‘Middle eight' is a musical term and the 12 suites are named after songs famous for their ‘middle eights', including Changes by David Bowie, Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks, and Downtown by Petula Clark.
It is the intention for the site to once again become part of that cultural scene: QT, a ‘speakeasy cum bar, cum event space' in the basement, has been designed to host performances and screenings and will open when Covid restrictions allow.
Building a new brand
Although when they reopen the Guardsman and Middle Eight will be standalone hotels, Shiva also has three new-build hotel developments in the pipeline, including a joint venture with the Reuben Brothers at the former Soho Works site on Great Marlborough Street and Poland Street; Morley House at Holborn Viaduct; and the Welbeck Street car park in Marylebone, which the company bought for £100m in 2016 and secured a £230m financing package from real estate investment firms Cale Street and Crosstree to turn into a 199-bedroom hotel.
Sachdev says the properties will be ‘loosely tied' with their own names and identities inspired by their locations and the opportunities in those areas, looking at the guest profile of people that stay in those locations and what they are there to experience. All three are around two-and-a-half to three years from completion and will fall under the umbrella of a boutique hotel collection, the name of which is yet to be revealed.
Marylebone, for instance, will have a rooftop swimming pool and bar-restaurant, while the Soho property will be focused on its food and beverage, as well as events and music. Morley House will be more akin to social workspaces and will suit Holborn's corporate community.
Plans to form a REIT that were put in motion last year have been put on ice due to Covid and there are no immediate plans for further property acquisitions.
Sachdev says: "The focus is very much on delivering these projects and we will reassess, but we're definitely not looking at acquiring more opportunities now. We've got our hands full delivering the ones we've bought already."
However, Shiva remains committed to the delivery of its existing projects and the London market, and in the long-term aspires to hit New York.
"There's going to be 12 months of disruption for sure – 2021 isn't going to be like 2019," Sachdev acknowledges. "People need a bit of predictability. We've had four years of disruption, we just want a boring year."
He adds: "These things do happen and this is a particularly severe example of what can happen. No one predicted this, but we have to be ready for these dips and unexpected fall-offs in our business models, because they do happen and they will happen. We still very much believe in London and the sector."
No one predicted this, but we have to be ready for these dips and unexpected fall-offs in our business models, because they do happen and they will happen
The Guardsman, St James's
Opened 19 October
General manager Eva Mount
Architect Dexter Moren Associates
Design Tonik Associates
Middle Eight, Covent Garden
Opened 28 October
General manager Christian Graf
Architect Ray Hole
Design Tonik Associates
− Lincoln Plaza London
− Hilton London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5
− DoubleTree by Hilton London Excel
− Hampton by Hilton London Waterloo
− DoubleTree by Hilton York
Projects under development
− Welbeck Street car park, Marylebone
− Former Soho Works site on Great Marlborough Street and Poland Street
− Morley House, Holborn Viaduct
Shiva Hotels timeline
2001 Shiva Hotels is founded by former Lehman Brothers derivatives trader Rishi Sachdev
2011 The Hilton London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 hotel opens
2012 The Shiva Foundation is established by Sachdev and his wife Meenal to tackle modern slavery in the hospitality industry
2014 Shiva buys the Kingsway Hall hotel in Covent Garden from Cola Holdings for a reported £96m and opens the Hampton by Hilton London Gatwick
2016 Shiva buys the Welbeck Street car park in Marylebone for £100m
2017 The former Monk Bar hotel in York relaunches as a DoubleTree by Hilton
January 2019 The Lincoln Plaza London opens in Canary Wharf under Hilton's soft Curio brand
June 2020 Shiva announces it has secured a £230m financing package from real estate investment firms Cale Street and Crosstree to fund the construction of a 199-bedroom luxury lifestyle hotel, replacing the Welbeck Street car park in Marylebone
October 2020 The Guardsman and Middle Eight open. Both are members of Preferred Hotels & Resorts.
Photography by Hasselblad H6D
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