The opening of Nobu Hotel London Portman Square has been long in the making. With the original July launch pushed back due to the first national lockdown, the hotel's restaurant got off to a flying start in December – before being forced to close yet again. Janet Harmer finds out how the team is preparing for whatever the future may bring.
There was never an expectation that many bedrooms would be booked when the Nobu Hotel London Portman Square opened its doors on 3 December, immediately after the second lockdown in England came to an end. In fact only 7% (18 rooms) of the 249 keys were made available, with domestic leisure guests driving business.
The restaurant, though, was a different story. From the first night, when 167 covers were served across two sittings, the hotel's Nobu restaurant was fully booked every evening all the way through to 15 December, when the hotel closed its doors to guests and customers as London entered Tier 3, promptly followed by Tier 4.
It was no real surprise that the restaurant performed so well, albeit for just 13 days. The renowned Nobu brand, which has a global presence, combined with the pent-up demand of people wanting to eat out following lockdown and a curiosity of visiting a new hotel resulted in a rash of early bookings. On the morning after the opening, general manager Grant Campbell said it was "magical" to see the restaurant staff, the majority of whom had not worked for eight months, to be operating with such high energy levels: "They moved straight into fifth gear and the relief of guests' faces at being able to eat out again was clearly visible."
Now, a month later, with business across the key Christmas and New Year period wiped out, Campbell says he is deeply disappointed that the hotel had to close so quickly after its launch, having got off to such a strong start. However, he understands the need for the lockdown, with Covid-19 cases in recent weeks having risen at such a rapid rate.
"We were blown away by how busy we were during those two weeks in December, with many long-standing customers of Nobu coming to visit us and some even returning two or three times," he explains. "In fact, we had slightly underestimated the demand and were in the process of taking on extra staff when we had to close again.
"The team did a superb job, successfully adapting from not working for a long period to being at the centre of a super-busy opening. They had begun to gain momentum. It was a huge disappointment that we then had to close. They are, of course, feeling very unsettled and worried about the long term."
The opening of the hotel on 3 December was delayed from its original launch date in July as construction slowed down during the first national lockdown, with the number of contractors dropping from 250 to 70 to allow for social distancing. The pandemic also resulted in delays in receiving supplies of equipment and furnishing to the property, which underwent a total refurbishment, both front and back of house.
Originally opened as the Portman hotel in 1969, the building has operated under a number of different brands, including InterContinental and most recently Radisson Blu. It was sold in 2013 to private investment group L+R Hotels, owned by brothers Ian and Richard Livingstone, and closed in April 2019 for the renovation work to get under way. L+R Hotels owns a hotel portfolio with more than 17,000 bedrooms across the UK, Europe, the US and the Caribbean, which includes the Iconic Luxury Hotel Collection, comprising the likes of Chewton Glen, Cliveden and the Mayfair Townhouse, which coincidentally opened on the same day as Nobu Hotel London Portman Square.
The decision by the brothers to add the Nobu moniker to their acquisition on the prime Portman Square site, just north of Oxford Street, has resulted in London becoming the first city in the world to host two Nobu hotels. The hotel joins its Shoreditch sister, which opened in 2017 under the ownership of the Willow Corporation.
Today there are a total of 13 hotels and 48 restaurants operating under the Nobu brand, which was founded by Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa when he opened his first restaurant in partnership with actor Robert de Niro and former film producer Meir Teper in 1994 in New York. The first Nobu hotel opened in 2013 in Las Vegas, with further launches planned for Riyadh, Toronto, São Paulo, Atlanta, Tel Aviv and Marrakech.
The Livingstone brothers have long been fans of the brand – they are part owners of Nobu Hotel Ibiza Bay, while their Fairmont Monte Carlo property hosts a Nobu restaurant. "They have previously had small bites of the Nobu apple, but this hotel is their first full-blown Nobu business," says Campbell.
The somewhat previous bland interior of the property has been reinvented with a sleek and sophisticated look from the creative teams of David Collins Studio across the public areas and Make Architects in the bedrooms. As expected, the Japanese aesthetic is strong throughout, with guests arriving into a newly created double-height atrium, from which hangs a five-metre rotating sculpture from British artist Ivan Black. Art, curated by Minda Dowling Art Consultants, is an important feature throughout the hotel, from the sculptural cloud statement light by freehand glass blower Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert above the reception desk to the bold black-and-white prints in the bedrooms.
The intention in the public areas was to create an environment that would encourage a great atmosphere, from the contemporary lobby lounge with green and burgundy furnishings, though to the moody bar, which in post-Covid times is expected to become a fashionable meeting point where customers will be able to spill out onto the adjacent terrace. Located on the first floor, the predominately grey restaurant is enlivened with splashes of yellow furnishings, while the open-counter kitchen ensures there is a buzz throughout the space at all times. The current capacity of 120 covers to allow for social distancing will eventually grow to 198.
In contrast, the design of the bedrooms, featuring blonde hardwood throughout, is deliberately minimalist to ensure a restful environment. A Japanese tea set is placed alongside the bed to greet guests on their arrival.
The minimalist space is free of any marketing material. Campbell, who joined the hotel in early 2020 from the nearby Sanderson hotel, where he spent the previous six years, including three as general manager, says he learned a lot from working for David Orr, who headed up Mint Hotels. "David believed that guests want to use their room as their own – they don't want a lot of marketing material forced upon them."
Guests want to use their room as their own – they don't want a lot of marketing material forced upon them
Campbell worked closely with Toby Garden, general manager of Nobu Hotel Shoreditch and regional director of Nobu Hospitality, in the run-up to the opening of the hotel. While the two hotels share the Nobu DNA, they look quite different, with the Shoreditch property offering a raw and industrial vibe redolent of its locality, compared to the more refined look of its Portman Square sister. "The properties operate in very different markets, so I don't see them as competitors," says Campbell. "We will work together."
Also playing a key role in creating the hotel were executive chef Mark Edwards, who joined Nobu 24 years ago to open its first restaurant in London at the Como Metropolitan hotel on Old Park Lane and continues to remain at its helm; Tim Theofanou, director of hotel experience, to oversee the cultural side of the business; and Andrew Milne, director of operations, UK and EU at Nobu Restaurant Group. "We're a big family within Nobu," says Campbell.
A huge benefit to the Portman Square branch of the Nobu family is the fact that the majority of the restaurant staff – around 86 – are already well acquainted with the brand, having previously worked together at the Nobu Berkeley Square restaurant, which held a Michelin star from 2006 to 2014 and closed in March after operating for 15 years.
The hotel opened with 190 team members out of an eventual total of 400, with the number largely driven by the high demand for the restaurant. Around 80% of the team are now furloughed as the result of the current national lockdown, with a core team remaining on site to oversee the completion of the unfinished areas of the hotel. It is hoped that following the hotel's reopening, the full complement of staff will gradually build up as more bedrooms are made available, alongside the opening of the event spaces, including a 600-cover ballroom, spa and fitness centre.
Key to the opening team was the concierge department. "Some hotels may not have a concierge on board during these current times, but we think they have an essential role to play, as once we open again guests will need to be guided to where they will be able to go," explains Campbell.
Whereas a new hotel opening in London until 10 months ago would have struggled to find staff, the devastating impact of Covid-19 on the hospitality sector is laid bare by the fact that the hotel received nearly 30,000 applications for around 90 operational roles (the other positions for the opening were filled by the management team appointed prior to the pandemic, and the staff who were transferred from the Berkeley Square restaurant).
"It is a very scary statistic," says Campbell. "There was a high level of desperation among the applicants and we had to turn down people who were completely capable of doing the role, having applied for a role three levels below to what they had previously been working at. We had to consider how everyone would fit into the team for the long-term. It meant we had some very difficult conversations."
We had to turn down people who were completely capable of doing the role, having applied for a role three levels below to what they had previously been working at
Campbell says that he and his management team have lost track of the number of forecasts and budgets they put together prior to the opening, but insists it was right to open the hotel to guests and restaurant customers when they did. "The owners were keen to get the hotel open as soon as possible – they saw the value of sending out a positive message and gaining a presence in the market from which to grow in 2021."
The owners were keen to get open as soon as possible – they saw the value of sending out a positive message and gaining a presence in the market
For Campbell, the Nobu brand is all about engaging, genuine service that will encourage guests to return time and time again. While it is uncertain when guests will be able to once again experience such service, in time the hotel will undoubtedly benefit from the support of a well-established brand name, which it is hoped will be of enormous value as the luxury London hotel market works on rebuilding business in the post-Covid landscape.
Nobu Hotel London Portman Square
22 Portman Square, London W1H 7BG
020 3988 5888
Owner and operator L+R Hotels
General manager Grant Campbell
Interior design Public spaces: David Collins Studio; bedrooms: Make Architects
Key facilities Nobu bar and restaurant, outdoor terrace, 600-seat ballroom, spa and fitness centre
Room rates From £375 for a superior room, to around £6,000 for the Penthouse suite, per night
Photography by Jack Hardy
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