Airline awards take off without Branson

People & Business
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The Independent Online
The Business Traveller Awards at the Savoy Hotel became a battle of the airline giants yesterday with Lord Young, Sir Freddie Laker and Richard Branson all in attendance. Sir Freddie had been lined up to present the award for best business class to Virgin. But the bearded wonder failed to show in time and Sir Freddie was left on the podium to accept the award on his behalf.

Lord Archer had already stepped up to present the next batch of awards when in a flurry of doors and linen garments, in walked the delayed Branson. He strode to the front table, sat in the wrong seat and had to be moved. "You just can't get the slots these days," quipped the compere.

Lord Archer could not resist poking fun as well. "You've just missed everything," he told the grinning Virgin chief. "There will now be a small hiss for the late Richard Branson," he said and the assembled throng duly obliged.

To add insult to injury, Branson then had to sit by while Lord Archer handed the rest of the airline awards to his bete noire, British Airways. BA chief executive Robert Ayling, who had managed to touch down at the Savoy in time and was sat on Branson's table, was able to scoop the awards while no doubt revelling in his rival's discomfort.

Sir Freddie Laker was on good form at the Business Traveller event, pleased as punch with the performance of his new transatlantic airline, which he launched in April. A business class will be added early next year. (He hopes to take the award from Virgin in '97.) Further routes are also planned. "I'm loving it. It's great fun," he said.

But he expressed surprise when told that his old enemy Lord King was also at the event and even more surprise when he found they were seated at adjoining tables. "I've never met him," the former Skytrain king said. Lord King was also keen to play down past battles. "We're all trying to earn a living."

Ann Iverson, the Laura Ashley chief executive, is refusing to rise to the bait of Ikea's latest advertising, which extolls furniture buyers to "chuck out the chintz". Resplendent in a tres fashionable and un-chintzy "New Black" (brown) dress and matching "chocolate kisses" nail varnish, she said Laura Ashley would remain forever England. And if that means chintz then so be it. "It's a free world," she said. "Our customer research shows that they like the quintessentially English look. It's romantic. It's comfortable. It's part of our culture. Are we going to throw that away? I don't think so."

Harrods Bank is upping the stakes in the private client banking world by targeting more women customers. General manger John Simmons is due to regale the London Ladies club next month with a grandly titled talk on "red carpet retail banking". For the bargain price of pounds 5, ladies who lunch get to hear all about the grace and favour of posh banking where, in Harrods' case, there are no bank charges as long as your deposit does not dip below the poverty line. That means pounds 1,000.

Harrods Bank is also co-sponsoring a recital at the Wigmore Hall, London by forte-pianist Melvyn Tan. The sponsorship is part of a deal between Harrods and the bank to promote the bank's musical instrument loan scheme and a new piano called the Knightsbridge being sold exclusively by the top store. With the Harrods coat of arms in gold plate, the piano costs a tuneful pounds 7,000.

Sir John Gray, who retires as Britain's ambassador to Belgium next month, is to join IMC Consulting Group of Cardiff as associate director. He has held a number of senior diplomatic posts with a strong commercial emphasis in London, the Middle East and Europe.