We have 11 luxury hotels. We're working on a further three in Germany, a golf resort in Sicily, and we've just signed a deal in Prague to do a hotel there. I don't know if this is busiest period of my life, but it certainly seems like it - but it's fun. It's interesting because we're a small company. As we expand, we've got to adapt and change the way we do things. It's a continual challenge.
Each hotel has an individual feel to it, so that it doesn't feel like part of a chain. The brand aims to give a reassurance of quality and a level of service delivery. Many travel agents now recommend our hotels even before they're open. They're happy to put them on their lists because they're confident in the service standards we deliver.
We bought Browns Hotel in Mayfair, London, in July 2003 and we'll be reopening on 12 December. We knew the hotel needed to be renovated. But until you get into the detail of a hotel, it's difficult to know both what you're going to do and the extent of the work. It was certainly old-fashioned, run-down and hadn't had any money spent on it for eight years. It was in desperate need of renovation.
With a luxury hotel I think to some degree that the sense of identity is dictated by its location and its public areas. Browns is not a big hotel in terms of the latter; it's largely made up of a restaurant, lounge and bar on the ground floor. There was a lot of wood panelling, which we have left and restored. But it had a chintzy decor in the bedrooms, and many of the bathrooms were quite pokey. There weren't a lot of suites and many of the bedrooms were small - those are all things we changed. We've ended up with the same number of rooms - 117 keys - but we've added suites. All the bathrooms are now very large.
I work closely with my sister, Olga Polizzi, who's head of design in the company. She takes complete charge of the design and decoration of the hotel. I will get involved early on, looking at the space plan and the organisation, but she has the inspiration for what she wants to do with the hotel. Clearly, Browns must have an English feel because it's quintessentially an English hotel in London, and one has to retain that flavour. It is also quite a cosy hotel. While the furnishings are quite modern in style, Olga has attained a certain warmth in the decoration and a cosiness that was there before, which I think is important. There's nothing way out and nothing that does not fit in. I am pleased with the results and I think it will work really well.
There's a broad cross-section of people who use luxury hotels now and you don't want to restrict yourself in your appeal to just a few. With all my hotels, the atmosphere is less formal than would have been the case in the past. I hate the sort of stuffy atmosphere that certain luxury hotels used to engender; some still do.
Service is the most important part of a luxury hotel. You can have the most beautifully appointed establishment, but if the service is bad, no one's going to come and stay there for very long. I think that has much to do with the failure of the so-called design hotels. They don't sustain success because they don't get the service side of things right. It can be written up as "the new place" and everybody wants to go and see it. Then people go and finds they're uncomfortable there, so they don't go back. Service has to be of a very high standard, as well as being personalised to the needs of the guests.
I do stay in other people's hotels, although much of my travelling is taken up with visiting my own hotels. I go and look at new hotels, particularly if they are in a city where I'm already represented.
On the design side, my sister goes to all the furniture fairs. She's looking at magazines all the time in an attempt to develop her ideas. But Browns will probably be the last hotel that she'll actually do herself because we're expanding so fast, it's impossible for her to do the decor on all of them. We're starting to use outside designers, whom she directs and supervises.
The restaurant is part of the whole atmosphere that a hotel possesses. If you employ an outside chef to control it, although the restaurant might be successful, it's not necessarily going to attract the same clientele as the hotel clientele and therefore there's a clash. I think it's better to have two restaurants and then there's no reason why an outside chef shouldn't be brought in to handle one of them. A hotel kitchen has to deal with the restaurant, room service, banquets and bar food so it's quite a different operation from running a normal restaurant.
Luxury hotels don't have a strict dress code any more, but I think you have to draw the line somewhere. People don't like wearing a tie nowadays, so smart-casual is all right, but it's quite difficult to define. You don't want people in T-shirts and trainers traipsing around.
One of our projects is a golf and spa resort in Sicily, which covers 550 acres of land with more than a mile of coastline. We're doing two championship golf courses, 18 holes each, a nine-hole par three, a spa of 3,500 sqm, a 200-bedroom hotel, which will be spread out, and 60 villas for sale. I have planning for many more than 60 villas, but I don't want to cover the place with concrete. Many golf resorts you go to, you're playing golf down an avenue of houses, so I don't want to do that. All our houses are on the hillside overlooking the course. I think we'll open early in 2008. I was there recently and the temperature was 80F at midday, which was wonderful.
I want to try to create luxury golf. You can get it in some private clubs which have a very small membership, but it's hard to get it in a resort location. I don't think there's anywhere in the Mediterranean that really offers it.
My strategy is to create the European luxury hotel group with representation in all the major cities. The cities I need to be in but have yet to establish the company are Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Milan and Moscow. Those are important. Obviously, Paris has plenty of grand and successful hotels, but I think Milan has a shortage of good hotels, as do Madrid, Barcelona and also Moscow. That's why they are particularly attractive to me.
View from the rooms: An insider's guide
A COMFY BED, A BIG BATH
When I started up, my customers used to say to me: "The beds here are very comfortable." I'd assumed comfortable beds were a given. Luxury is about big bathrooms. You want long bathtubs you can lie in full length, a good shower and plenty of space to put all your get-up.
THE COST OF ROOM SERVICE
Some hotels charge a premium price for room service and you'll probably pay more for a meal in-room than you would in the restaurant. Some hotels make a trade charge, which means that if you order something via room service, there's a minimum charge. I think that's unnecessary.
ELEPHANTS AND STONES
A guest wanted to get an elephant delivered as a Christmas present. We managed it! We built a special shower for Pavarotti because he's rather a big man. The Rolling Stones wanted an inter-connecting suite, so we knocked a hole in the wall. We did it before they arrived, of course.
MASSAGE THE FIGURES
People want exercise facilities and spas, although few guests actually use them. I'm an exercise freak so I wouldn't go to a hotel that didn't have a gym. People want a good massage and that's not just somebody who rubs you over with a bit of oil. You want someone who understands what massage is.
THE FUTURE'S ONLINE
The internet still does not take a huge proportion of the bookings for luxury hotels. But a lot of people visit websites to get information about hotels and then book up through a travel agent. But direct bookings through the internet are growing. Internet connection is essential in all rooms now.
KEEP MUSIC LIVE
I like being able to walk into a hotel and hear live music, but it's hard to get canned music right. I generally don't like it and think it's unnecessary. People sometimes have it playing in empty restaurants. Firstly, the restaurant should not be empty, and even if it is, it's worse with piped music.
SPOT THE CELEBRITY
Celebrities like staying in the best hotel in town and obviously people follow celebrities, so it encourages them to go and visit that hotel as well. The press tends to find out where celebs are staying. Part of being a celebrity is having a service that's discreet: they want to be there quietly and privately.
My favourite view
I'm sitting in my hotel, the Amigo, in Brussels, at the moment, in the penthouse suite, and there's a wonderful terrace outside so you get a very good view of Brussels. The view from the suites in The Balmoral across to Edinburgh Castle (above) is fantastic. I was in New Zealand two years ago for the World Triathlon Championships in Queenstown and stayed at Eichardt's Private Hotel at the end of the lake. I was in a suite with big glass windows. It looked down on the lake with the hills behind it. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite as beautiful as that.
My favourite luxuries
I hate chocolates on the pillow so we don't do that. Chocolate is the last thing you need at night after you've cleaned your teeth! For me, it's all a question of the welcome and the service. You want to feel that you're recognised. A very nice fruit display in the room is as welcoming as a full bar. I returned to a hotel in Paris I hadn't been to in a long time, and it had my favourite Eau de Cologne in the bathroom. A nice touch. And at one of the hotels I used to own in New York, I remember going down to breakfast in the morning, coming back 20 minutes later, and my room had been serviced. I was spotted when I'd gone down to breakfast so I came back to a completely fresh room. Touches like that are special. But it's difficult to deliver them to all the guests in a hotel.Reuse content