HRH Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed is spending over US$200m to refurbish the world-famous Savoy Hotel. But will it work?
Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed is a man who likes taking risks - and they almost always pay off. The fact he is the world's richest Arab and one of the world's most successful businessmen ever is proof of that.
So in terms of cash, deciding to renovate the Savoy in London - part of his Fairmont Hotels empire - for US$200m - is small fry. But the effects and consequences could be huge. It is one of the oldest hotels in the world, having built its reputation of elegance, discretion and tradition.
For us, the most important thing was to honour the Art Déco heritage and traditional English design of the hotel.
Celebrities, superstars, world leaders and business leaders have all stayed here. They love it. But this December it will shut down for over a year as it undergoes a total transformation. When it reopens, the Savoy is set to have a new modern look and feel.
According to Kiaran MacDonald, General Manager of The Savoy, extensive planning has gone in to The Savoy project. "For us, the most important thing was to honour the Art Déco heritage and traditional English design of the hotel, while upgrading the property to meet the expectations of today's most discerning guests. When The Savoy reopens we hope to set new British standards for excellence in design, déco and personalised service."
The period when the hotel will not be open for guests is currently anticipated at approximately sixteen months. "It was a difficult decision to cease taking reservations at the hotel, but we could not envisage disrupting our guests on a daily basis", said MacDonald. "A project of this scope could take much longer if the hotel was left open and we wish to stick to a rigorous schedule in order to reopen as quickly as possible. We are confident that our loyal guests, many of whom have a strong attachment to the hotel, will be pleased with the results."
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, the company which currently owns and manages some of the most historic hotels in the world, has chosen designer Pierre-Yves Rochon for The Savoy project. Rochon was chosen for his creativity and proven expertise with luxury hotels throughout North and South America, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Throughout the period of the closure, The Savoy will remain in regular contact with valued guests, event organisers and travel intermediaries regarding the progress on the restoration programme.
They need them to come back, or the US$200m investment will not be recouped.
As for Savoy regulars, there are just over three months left for a chance to sample one of the world's most famous hotels.
The Savoy opened its doors to an eager public in 1889, the brainchild of the Gilbert and Sullivan impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte. Built on the site of a former palace, the hotel took five years and vast expense to complete and incorporated unheard of features, including full electric lighting and what for the time was a startling number of baths: 67 in total.
Richard D' Oyly Carte had laid the foundations for The Savoy's heritage - British style and tradition coupled with innovation.
Masterful timing resulted in a glittering first season and D'Oyly Carte ensured The Savoy's continued success by employing celebrated Swiss hotelier César Ritz to be its manager, accompanied by Maître Chef Auguste Escoffier, and Louis Echenard, a master of wine, as Maître d'hotel. Other notables over the years who had "Savoy" on their resume included Guccio Gucci, who began his professional life at the hotel - as a dishwasher, and Harry Craddock, Head Barman of the American Bar, who helped create cocktail culture in London. Escoffier created dishes for Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry, Dame Nellie Melba and the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII; Ritz instituted the impeccable service, attention to detail and creativity which came to be the hallmark of the hotel.
In the ensuing years the hotel saw numerous expansions, always incorporating the latest amenities and facilities and a degree of self-sufficiency. The Savoy would not rely on the vagaries of the outside world for power or water, or indeed for roasted coffee.
The Savoy has always sparkled with glittering parties. One of the most famous was the Gondola dinner, hosted by Champagne millionaire and Wall Street financier George Kessler, in July 1905. Venice was recreated in the old forecourt, lit by 400 Venetian lamps. The centrepiece was a silk-lined gondola decorated with 12,000 fresh carnations. There was a baby elephant, a five-foot birthday cake and arias sung by the tenor Caruso, who was paid US$910. From these very lavish early beginnings to present day, The Savoy has played host to London's most talked about gatherings. In the coming month, The Savoy will host the South Bank Show Awards and Evening Standard Film Awards. The hotel is also proud to be hotel sponsor and host of the pre-party event for the BAFTA Television Awards.
Other events to watch for this year include the Wimbledon Ball and the announcement of the Samuel Johnson Book Awards. In 1923 the two Savoy dance bands, The Savoy Orpheans and The Savoy Havana Band, became the first to broadcast regularly from a hotel. The BBC's ‘Dance Music from The Savoy Hotel in London' was broadcast to millions worldwide. In the Ballroom Gershwin gave London its first performance of ‘Rhapsody in Blue', and Carroll Gibbons, played nightly.
Today, the Thames Foyer, Strauss conducted, Caruso sang and Pavlova danced in cabaret continues to feature live music, with a resident piano player tickling the ivories during Afternoon Tea service, the evening cocktail hour and the popular Sunday Champagne Brunch.
Always a magnet for the well known and well heeled, by 1914 the hotel and The Savoy Grill had established itself as a rendezvous for leading stars, impresarios and critics. Royalty patronised The Savoy in such numbers that the special bell heralding their arrival had to be abandoned. From the end of the First World War into the thirties, Maharajahs took up residence with glittering retinues, Pavlova danced, the Archbishop of Canterbury attended the cabaret. Eccentricities were catered for without hesitation, including opera singer's Luisa Tetrazzini's crocodile!
Winston Churchill was a famously devoted Savoyard. He visited The Savoy every week when he was in London and was present at the great occasion when Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt was the guest of honour of the Pilgrim Society. The restaurant was closed to the public and a thousand guests attended, including the newly-married Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Other famous newlyweds to visit The Savoy included Elizabeth Taylor and first husband Nicky Hilton, who celebrated their honeymoon here. Past stars of the silver screen such as Cary Grant, James Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier and recent celebrity guests including Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro and Pamela Anderson have long been attracted to The Savoy's Art Déco glamour and understated elegance. Now proudly a Fairmont hotel, the 263-room Savoy offers 19,000 sq ft of distinctive function space, stunning Thames views and an incomparable location steps from Covent Garden, the west end theaters, Trafalgar Square and the city financial district. Its famous features include the Michelin-starred Savoy Grill, the American bar, and one of two rooftop pools in the city.
The end of a very long era is near - let's hope the new Savoy is just as remarkable.
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