Arora Group has opened a Windsor hotel that will be the crowning jewel of its collection. Janet Harmer speaks to father and son Surinder and Sanjay Arora about how they created a resort fit for a queen
The first hotel opening of 2022 pulls no punches. Set within a 150-acre estate, the 251-bedroom Fairmont Windsor Park is a sprawling new build offering seven food and beverage outlets as well as a spa and wellbeing clinic that includes a range of treatments unique to the UK. Once an extensive range of outdoor pursuits open up later in the year, the hotel will be a fully-fledged resort that has few rivals in England.
Today the company that sits within the wider Arora Group operates 10 airport hotels under franchise agreements with Accor, Hilton, IHG Hotels & Resorts and Marriott International, one city centre hotel, the InterContinental London – the O2, and what was its first country house hotel, located on the edge of Windsor Great Park. A second country house hotel, the 228-bedroom Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf & Spa in Bedfordshire joined the portfolio last month following its acquisition from Elite Hotels.
The official launch of the £200m Fairmont Windsor Park on 1 January is the latest hotel development from Arora Hotels and marks the most difficult undertaking for the company's founder Surinder Arora since he launched the Arora International Heathrow in 1999.
"This has probably been my toughest project because of the pandemic," says Surinder. "We had delays with materials and had to close the site on a number of occasions due to outbreaks of Covid."
Surinder has been joined in overseeing the development of the hotel by his 32-year-old son, Sanjay Arora, director of strategy with the company. Sanjay, a MBA graduate, arrived in the business six years ago from a role in corporate finance with KPMG. "I learned the fundamentals of the hotel business from a very young age by observing Dad and working throughout summer holidays as a waiter, concierge, receptionist and in reservations," says Sanjay.
Surinder enthusiastically praises his son's contribution to the Fairmont project. "I used to think I had a great eye for detail, but in the final stages of the construction of the hotel, Sanjay has been better than me."
Originally due to open in June 2020, Fairmont Windsor Park stands on the footprint of the former 144-bedroom Savill Court Hotel & Spa, bought by Arora Hotels in 2014. The original hotel – built 200 years ago as a Jacobean-style mansion house – was at one time the home of the Schroder banking family and more recently Galen Weston, the former owner of Selfridges' department stores. It was demolished in 2017 to make way for the new hotel, with a design – by Glasgow-based architect firm Umum – inspired by the original building. The construction of the property has been undertaken by Grove Developments, the construction arm of Arora Group, and the interior created by in-house designer Margaret Morgan.
"It is a very different location for us, but it is less than 10 minutes from where I live and I thought it would be good to look at something new," says Surinder. "Originally, the intention was to spend a few pennies on decorating the hotel and to keep it as it was."
But, then as Arora Hotels snapped up adjoining properties and land, and in doing so increased the estate from 22 to 150 acres, so the dream grew to create something which Surinder knew could be "very special". The fact that Savill Court was not listed, and the local authority Runnymede Borough Council was keen to see the development of a five-star hotel in the locality, ensured the planning process was straightforward.
While Arora Hotels manages its other hotels under franchise agreements, Fairmont Windsor Park is the first of its properties to be operated under a "manchise", which involves Accor, the brand owner, and Arora working together as equal operating partners. Surinder says the agreement is an indication of a long-standing and trusted partnership between the two parties. Arora Hotels was the first company to be allowed to run hotels under Accor's Sofitel brand; Accor had not previously franchised its luxury brands. "We've recently extended our franchise agreement with Accor for the two Sofitel properties at Heathrow and Gatwick for a further 25 years," adds Surinder.
Fairmont was originally launched when Canadian Pacific Hotels Resorts joined forces with Fairmont to open its first hotel in San Francisco in 1907. Today the brand, which Accor bought in 2016, has 85 properties worldwide, including three in the UK: the Savoy in London, the Fairmont St Andrews, and now Fairmont Windsor Park. Having the connection to the Savoy particularly appealed to Surinder. "Like Coworth Park [in nearby Ascot], which has the Dorchester as its sister hotel in London, Fairmont gives us a sister hotel in London at the Savoy," he says.
The link to the Savoy has been fundamental in the training of Fairmont Windsor Park's pre-opening team, with staff spending time at the West End hotel in the run-up to the opening. General manager Andrew Brown, who previously headed up the management team at Savill Court, started working with the Savoy two years ago and has also spent time at other Fairmont properties. "The training is focused on the highest level of luxury and is based on emotional engagement with the guest," says Brown. Accor aims to turn its employees into "heartists", a word which combines heart and artist and highlights the philosophy of creating a genuine connection to guests.
Staff with a heart
When it came to recruitment, looking for team members that would be able to adopt the "heartist" approach was key. This, together with the challenges created by the current staff shortages across the hospitality sector, encouraged Brown to look beyond experienced hotel staff. "The great training systems in place with Fairmont have enabled us to recruit on personality rather than experience, we can train pretty much anyone to a very high standard who is willing to go through the process," he says.
As well as appointing people from the Savoy and other luxury hotels, Brown has offered positions to the likes of a former postman of 25 years' standing. "This man's personality is radiant and we have trained him to be a doorman," says Brown. "He has passion and is dedicated to giving great service. The guests love him."
The hotel opened with 300 staff, with a view to increasing numbers to around 450 as occupancy hopefully increases towards the spring and summer, Covid permitting. Recruitment has been helped to some extent by offering staff accommodation, some based at Heathrow, within a number of houses across the estate and at a nearby pub, recently acquired with a view to being converted into staff flats.
The big challenge now is to get guests and customers through the doors, something that has increasingly become difficult across the rest of the Arora portfolio. With a vast slice of business connected to the airports, the impact of the Omicron variant has been devastating for the company. "The opening up of travel to the US on 8 November was great news and we, along with the major airlines were predicting that airline travel into Heathrow would be back to 80%-90% of pre-Covid schedules by Christmas, but then we were hit by a left hook out of nowhere and sadly that prediction changed," says Surinder.
Some of the airport hotels – Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn Express at Heathrow's Terminal 4, Sofitel Gatwick and Novotel Stanstead – have clawed back some business via the government's quarantine programme.
The huge advantage of Fairmont Windsor Park over the airport hotels is that it appeals to more varied markets. While international bookings may have slowed down, it is expected that there will eventually be a significant number of overseas guests, particularly from North America, where there is wide interest in the royal connection provided by the hotel's proximity to Windsor. Corporate meetings and events are also expected to be slow during the first quarter of the year. But in the long-term, the wide variety of event spaces, including the largest hotel ballroom outside of London in a rural setting, will attract award dinners, product launches and celebratory parties. Weddings are already strong for this year, with more than 30 booked in so far.
The focus for now is very much on domestic leisure business, with both hotel and local guests drawn in by the restaurants, bars and spa facilities (see panels). Additional outdoor facilities, such as archery, falconry and horse-riding that make use of the wider estate, will be introduced later in the year, while further accommodation will be added in the grounds with the development of six tree house suites, each featuring two bedrooms, an outdoor dining area and hot tub.
Much is being made of the easy access to the hotel, located just 10 minutes' drive from Heathrow Terminal 5 and close to London, while the property also enjoys the benefits of being adjacent to Windsor Great Park, which provides some of the best walking opportunities in the south east of England.
"One of the most unique experiences we will be offering is a horse and carriage ride, which will take guests into the Great Park and along the Long Walk to Windsor Castle with a picnic served along the way," says Brown.
Being able to offer such an exclusive event is a highlight for Surinder, who has experienced highs and lows since the development of his first hotel. Most difficult of all was the financial crisis of 2008 during which he had "lots of sleepless nights" as a result of long-term lender Allied Irish Bank selling the company's £200m debt to a US hedge fund. In contrast, Surinder is very happy with Singapore-based United Overseas Bank, the group's partner on the Fairmont Windsor Park project.
While the addition of Fairmont Windsor Park and Luton Hoo marks Arora Group's diversification of its hotel portfolio, the company is also more willing to sell assets since the arrival of Sanjay into the business. Deals have included the likes of the sale and leaseback of Sofitel Gatwick.
"I think it is good during these difficult times to sit on cash as you never know what is creeping around the corner," says Sanjay.
Meanwhile, the company intends to consolidate its existing portfolio over the next few years. "There are always plans for expansion, but we will never put too much pressure on the day-to-day business," concludes Surinder. "We want to make sure we get everything right from a customer point of view before moving on to the next project."
Fairmont Windsor Park
Bishopgate Road, Englefield Green, Egham, Surrey TW20 0YL
Owner Arora Group
Operator Partnership between Arora Group and Accor under the Fairmont brand
General manager Andrew Brown
Executive chef Mark Brega
Director of operations Jessica Podolsky
Director of food and beverage Patrick Madalige
Sales director John Swift
Marketing and communications director Katarina Nielsen
Food and beverage Seven restaurants and bars
Meetings and events Ballroom (500 guests for dinner and 700 theatre-style) plus 15 meeting rooms Leisure Spa & Wellness with 18 treatment rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, indoor and outdoor gyms, three tennis courts, two paddle tennis courts, hair salon and barber shop by Truefitt & Hill
Room rates Start from £525 per night, rising to from £10,000 for the Signature Royal Suite
Spa and wellness
An essential element of creating a true resort experience that will help lengthen the stay of guests at Fairmont Windsor Park is the extensive leisure offering, of which the Spa & Wellness centre is at its heart. "There is nothing else like it in the UK in terms of the size and range of treatments on offer," says marketing and communications director Katarina Nielsen. "It really opens up a different kind of spa tourism offer, for both day customers and hotel guests."
The 2,500sqm spa spans across two floors and features 18 treatment rooms, four wellness rooms, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, indoor and outdoor gyms, three exercise studios, Himalayan salt room, thermal suite, and Moroccan beauty rituals designed by Paris-based La Sultane de Saba.
Among a number of facilities is what is believed to be the UK's largest public cryotherapy chamber, which can accommodate up to six guests. Exposing users to temperatures of up to -110°C for a brief, controlled time, cryotherapy is used as a treatment to boost metabolism, elevate energy, provide anti-inflammatory support and aid muscle recovery.
The Spa & Wellness clinic is also the setting for the Facebible Clinic headed by Dr Raj Arora, Sanjay Arora's wife. Treatments include skin analysis using Skin Visia technology, hydrafacials, and Kin Precision Pro microneedling. "It is a pity that she is not doing hair transplants," says Surinder. "I would definitely have been a customer!".
Just over 150 people have signed up as spa members, with a target limit of 500.
Food and beverage
An extensive range of food and beverage outlets aim to ensure that there is something available to suit every guest at Fairmont Windsor Park. Executive head chef Mark Brega, who joined the hotel in March 2021 from his previous role as executive chef for private jet catering company On Air Dining, oversees the kitchen that services seven restaurants and bars.
The hotel's fine dining restaurant 1215 seats 40 guests and is named after the date that the Magna Carta document was signed in nearby Runnymede.
Head chef Luke Fouracre, previously head chef at the Bottle & Glass Inn, near Henley-on-Thames, has created a seven-course tasting menu for £95 per head featuring produce from the royal farms at Windsor and the hotel's kitchen garden. Dishes include smoked cauliflower, Lancashire cheese, hazelnut and onion tea; Windsor Park venison, hay, celeriac, black pudding, pickled blackberries; and millionaires' shortbread, 64% Manjari chocolate, miso, Berkshire stout ice cream.
Bespoke crockery throughout the hotel is from William Edwards of Mayfair. The adjacent 1215 Bar has a strong focus on Champagne and sparkling wines.
This restaurant serves a fusion of European and Middle Eastern cuisine at lunch and dinner, as well as providing breakfast for the hotel. Main courses feature lamb and chickpea tagine (£18) and bahrat spiced pan-fried sea trout with harissa mash potato, seared bok choy,
girolles and preserved lemon sauce (£19.50) alongside the likes of Shropshire grain-fed chicken breast, carrot purée, hen of the woods mushrooms, pearl barley, chicken croquette (£18.75) and Cornish crab linguine, lobster bisque and caviar (£21).
Head chef Matyas Rigo was previously senior sous chef at InterContinental London – the O2. The 150-seat restaurant features a chef's table and holds pâtisserie and chocolate masterclasses. To one side, Schroders' Botanicals Bar offers a wide selection of artisan and international gins and holds tastings and mixology classes.
Orchid Tea Room
The name of the Orchid Tea Room was inspired by one of the original owners of Savill Court, Baron Schroder, a collector of rare orchids. Here the likes of classic fruit scones and seasonal pastries, such as lemon, thyme and elderflower tart, are included in the £60 per head afternoon tea menu prepared by the pâtisserie team led by pastry sous chef Swapnil Sawant.
Located in the Spa & Wellness centre, Greens Café offers a selection of healthy salads, as well as a range of less healthy options, depending on the experience being sought by customers.
Additionally, the Library Club serves teas and coffees throughout the day and cocktails in the evening. Surinder would eventually like to see a whisky bar here.
A wide range of bespoke products, including a 1215 ale developed with Windsor & Eton Brewery; a Moreish gin created by Silent Pool, based near Guildford; and branded chocolates from Patchi, are all available for sale, alongside the crockery used throughout the property.
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