Is it the Savoy if the frill is gone?: Austerity could threaten that touch of class

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The Independent Online
DO YOU want to be met at Heathrow Airport by men in peaked caps when you are booked into the Savoy Hotel? They will put you into a taxi and phone the hotel to let them know that you are on the way. Very nice, but is it necessary?

What about the butler on each floor of the hotel, who at the press of a bedside button will scurry to your room? Essential, insists the Savoy. Regular guests even ask to be put in a room on the fifth floor because they know the butler by name.

These seemingly trivial issues are at the heart of a philosophical battle over the way to run a luxury hotel. Can these frills be cut while preserving quality? Giles Shepard believes they cannot. He argues that people choose to stay in the Savoy because of them.

But Mr Shepard is on his way out of the Savoy's revolving doors to be replaced as managing director by Ramon Pajares, a man with very different ideas. Mr Pajares made his name as general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel, where he cut costs, boosted occupancy and raised profits.

Mr Pajares has the backing of Rocco Forte, whose Forte Group controls 40 per cent of the shares in the Savoy. Rivalry between Mr Forte and Mr Shepard turned boardroom meetings at the Savoy into a battle, with Mr Forte constantly complaining that the profits were derisory. In the six months to June 1994 the group made pre-tax profits of pounds 575,000 on sales of pounds 43m.

Mr Pajares, along with most managers of luxury hotels, thinks that times are changing. They believe it is possible to cut costs and frills without their mostly business customers noticing or even caring.

John Richards, senior vice- president of the worldwide operations of the Four Seasons Hotel chain, said: 'People want different things from luxury hotels nowadays. They don't care about chocolates on the pillow. What they want is a good consistent service that improves their productivity.

'In the 1980s the product took the front seat. Top hotels spent a lot on improving the product and assumed that the client would continue to come. Many London hotels use too many people to deliver these services. That is something that Ramon (Pajares) has been particularly good at tackling.'

Mr Richards said Four Seasons had been moving towards multi-skilled staffing, where the same person might carry your luggage, assist behind the concierge desk and later serve a tray of champagne to your room.

'I'm not saying that the chef should double up as the shoeshine boy, but running a multi-skilled hotel is the way of the future,' he said.

Hotels in the West End of London have also started to prune the luxuries they offer. It is a delicate calculation, as they are mindful that if they go too far they will ruin their luxury image and lose customers. For this reason the Savoy had stuck to its traditional ways.

'There are always things you can do which the customer will not see,' said Peter Bates, sales and marketing director at Mount Charlotte Thistle and former marketing manager of the Savoy. 'I am not talking about changing the linen to cotton; that will lower standards. But you can cut manning levels and ancillary services, and increase automation.'

David Naylor-Leyland, who runs a group of luxury London hotels which includes the Dukes Hotel in St James's Place, said: 'A prudent hotelier should always be looking at his cost base, but you have to be careful. How many fresh flowers should you have around the hotel? We take the view that they are an essential part of the atmosphere we are trying to create.'

Mr Naylor-Leyland has taken the view that having a restaurant is not essential. 'There are hundreds of dull, empty hotel restaurants in London. Why should anyone eat in them when there are thousands of good restaurants to choose from in central London?'

Now, instead of supplying a 'good but unspectacular' restaurant, Mr Naylor-Leyland spends the money on providing other hotel services. Furthermore, the savings have enabled him to cut room rates. His rooms now start at pounds 120 a night which, he said, was 30 per cent cheaper than rival rates.

'Everyone tries to keep up with the star system. If one hotel puts in a health club, then eveyone has to have one. Then there is the ballroom and air-conditioning, a VIP department and a valet per three rooms. We though it had to stop,' Mr Naylor-Leland said.

The trend is away from the kind of traditional services offered by the Savoy, such as bedside bells for the bulter, valet and maid, and towards more practical business services. A computer socket and instant access to an AT&T operator are the sort of services that modern rich travellers need.

The way that Forte Group runs its 16 most exclusive hotels, which include the Watergate in Washington and the George V in Paris, may be a glimpse into the future for the Savoy, where Rocco Forte remains determined to wrest full control.

'In principle we try to add services, but they are different services from the old days. We don't have private butlers but we offer business centres,' said Stefan Bokaemper, head of Forte's 'exclusive hotels of the world'.

'We are always looking for efficiencies and have to look at every detail. What is the productivity of the chamber maid? How many rooms does she make? All these tiny details are important.'

This sort of pressure from Forte and the arrival of Mr Pajares could mean that staff at the Savoy - who outnumber guests 2.5 to 1 - could be in for a rude awakening.

(Photographs omitted)