On Tuesday last week, I woke up in Winston Churchill’s office. His bust glowered down from a mantlepiece; a brass compass and a globe sat on the leather-topped mahogany desk.
For decades, Britain’s imperial military machine — a machine that at the time held sway over a quarter of the world’s landmass — was controlled from this room, in what was the War Office, at the heart of Whitehall. This month it begins an unlikely new life as the most prestigious suite in a hotel that heralds a new era of super-luxury hospitality in London, one of billion-pound hotels where even the smallest rooms go for more than £1,000 per night. I was its first guest.
Later I would eat breakfast beneath a thicket of miniature orange and lemon bushes and have my hands rubbed with hot and cold towels infused with a scent composed for Empress Eugénie in 1853. I would work out with the trainer who helped Boris Johnson bounce back from Covid, and eat a seven-course £195 feast inspired by Sir Francis Bacon and cooked by a celebrity chef from Argentina.
For now, I drew aside the heavy curtains (by the touch of tablet screen) to watch the soldiers in Horse Guards forking morning hay for their steeds, the red double-deckers passing up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square. I poured myself a coffee and imagined the prime minister doing the same in Downing Street, 200 metres from where I stood in my towelling robe.
This week, the hotel — formally Raffles London at The Old War Office — will host a grand party attended by royals, politicians and film stars, then finally open to the public on September 29, a year late and nine years after the sale of the building was announced by the Ministry of Defence. The War Office, built between 1899 and 1906, was vast to begin with: imperial overconfidence solidified in 26,000 tonnes of Portland stone and 25mn bricks. Inside were 1,100 rooms and two-and-a-half miles of corridors; at its peak almost 3,000 people worked here.
And yet if anything the new project is even more extravagant, expanding the footprint from 580,000 sq ft to more than 800,000 sq ft, with three new floors excavated underneath to create a glittering ballroom and a 20m swimming pool beneath soaring marble arches. There are 120 hotel rooms, 85 residential apartments, nine restaurants, three bars, a spa and gym. Construction of the original building cost £1,229,128 — £123mn today; the new project has cost £1.4bn.
I asked Philippe Leboeuf, the hotel’s French managing director (whose CV includes managing the “three Cs”: Claridge’s, the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris and The Carlyle in New York) if he could think of a precedent. “I think really you’d have to go back to The Ritz and The Savoy,” he said. Given those opened in 1906 and 1889 respectively, it might sound like hyperbole, but I think he’s probably right.
What is perhaps even stranger — and doubly so in this era of inflationary pain and financial pressure for the vast majority of the population — is that Raffles at The OWO is not a complete outlier but part of a larger trend in London. This month, another £1bn project, The Peninsula, opened on Hyde Park Corner and, unlike The OWO, that figure doesn’t include the cost of buying the site. From the turret suite at The OWO you look down on Downing Street. From the rooftop bar at the newly built Peninsula, you look down into the back garden of Buckingham Palace.
This autumn a new Mandarin Oriental, the capital’s second, will open in Mayfair; The Emory, a new sister hotel to Claridge’s, is due to open opposite Hyde Park early next year; the former US embassy in Grosvenor Square is in the process of being converted to a Rosewood; London’s first Six Senses hotel is due to open in the second half of 2024.
Room rates are unprecedented. Prices for the smallest rooms at Raffles officially start at £1,100; the cheapest room at The Peninsula is £1,300 — and, apart from a special offer that runs until November, that doesn’t include breakfast (a full English will add £41 per head). Not to be outdone, existing hotels are upping their game, and rates — The Dorchester is in the middle of a phased renovation, due to be completed next year; rooms now start at £1,200.
“It feels eye-watering,” says Robin Hutson, a veteran hotelier who started working at The Savoy and went on to found the Hotel du Vin and Pig chains, as well as the Lime Wood Group. “The idea of room rates starting in four figures . . . it’s something we wouldn’t have dreamt of a few years ago.”
Privately those in the industry admit there is an element of one-upmanship: these are the ultimate Veblen goods, conferring ample prestige and status but with zero-lasting value once checkout time comes around the next morning.
And bigger rooms cost much more. The OWO has only 10 of those £1,100-per-night “classic rooms”; about a quarter of the rooms cost more than £3,500. My room, the Haldane Suite, costs somewhere between £18,000 and £25,000 per night — about £20 per minute, I calculate, as I lie awake on the six huge pillows, staring up at the 5.5m high ceiling.
Rather than sheep, I count the accoutrements: taking both lounge and bedroom together, there are 18 chairs and two three-seat sofas. Seven colossal windows look out over Whitehall (there’s a small terrace outside, but guests are not allowed to use it “for security reasons”, according to my butler — presumably because of the perfect sniper’s vantage point it provides). I count 16 lamps before I finally drift off, wondering what such numbers say about the travel industry, the city and the country.
Whereas most hotels and luxury brands clutch desperately at any available strands of history, Raffles at The OWO has, if anything, a surfeit. The British secret services were established here, the result of a series of meetings in October 1909. There are tales of espionage involving Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, rumours of hidden tunnels.
The Haldane was occupied by successive Secretaries of State for War, not just Churchill, but Kitchener, Lloyd George, Eden, Profumo and more. (The real Profumo scandal, I learn, was that at his wife’s request he painted over the oak panelling in Wedgwood blue and white, an intervention later painstakingly reversed.) TE Lawrence worked in the building and was put out by its rigid demarcations of status — the office ceilings lowered according to rank, the panelling gave way to bare walls, oak doors to pine. In 1914 he wrote to a friend to complain “the marble stairs are only for Field Marshals and charwomen”.
It is also freighted with symbolism. The hotel opens on September 29 — coincidentally 100 years to the day since the British empire reached its zenith in terms of territory overseen, as described in Matthew Parker’s new book One Fine Day. That precise century has witnessed the perfect about turn: the War Office, designed to direct conflicts and impose the will of the empire, is now a temple to ease and luxury, eager to please visitors from around the world. The original Raffles, which catered to wealthy expats and colonial officials, was dubbed “the Savoy of Singapore”. Now a building that was at the heart of the imperial machine is literally the “Raffles of London”.
Overseeing the War Office’s transformation is its new owner, a company founded in colonial India. Parmanand Hinduja established his family business in Mumbai in 1914, initially trading carpets, saffron, dried fruits and textiles. It is still headquartered there, although the Hinduja Group has grown to be a global conglomerate employing some 200,000 people.
Two of Parmanand Hinduja’s sons settled in London, but in 1990 their applications for citizenship were declined. A second application was successful but prompted the so-called cash-for-passports affair, in which cabinet minister Peter Mandelson was forced to resign over allegations he had intervened on behalf of the late Srichand Hinduja in return for a £1mn donation to support London’s Millennium Dome (the Hindujas were never accused of wrongdoing). For the last five years the family has topped the Sunday Times Rich List; owning such a trophy asset, right on Downing Street’s doorstep, cements their position at the heart of the establishment. “The OWO will be my greatest legacy to London,” says Gopichand Hinduja, 83, the group’s chair.
Like newspapers and football clubs, London’s grand hotels have always been trophies. In 2020, The Ritz passed from the Barclay Brothers to Qatari businessman Abdulhadi Mana Al-Hajri; the Sultan of Brunei bought the Dorchester in 1985; The Savoy is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and the Qatar Investment Authority.
But whereas those properties have kept their foreign ownership in the background, the new super-luxe hotels are keen to emphasise their Asian heritage. Peninsula, Rosewood and Mandarin Oriental are all based in Hong Kong; Six Senses is headquartered in Bangkok; Raffles has its roots in Singapore (even if it is now part of French giant Accor). As well as trading on enviable reputations for service and standards, it also makes sense to use brands that are already well-known in a region expected to drive the biggest growth in luxury tourism.
“We’ve got a strong brand presence in Asia — we’d be mad not to put a hotel in this part of the world,” says Sonja Vodusek, managing director of The Peninsula London. “Asia is a big market that is growing exponentially. Look at China — 1.4bn people — and they are going to unleash very soon.”
Such a glut of new openings has led to an arms race not just in terms of rates, but in the luxury offerings necessary to command them. “To my mind, a lot of wealth has been created in the world in the last 20 or 30 years and that wealth has become more discerning and is demanding a better and better product,” says Clement Kwok, chief executive of The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, The Peninsula’s parent.
I ask for an example. “People talk about using marble in the bathrooms. Well, marble wasn’t good enough for us — we have onyx!”
Raffles has liveried Range Rovers with white leather interiors; The Peninsula’s fleet includes Rolls-Royces and Bentley Bentaygas. Mounted above its “speakeasy” Spy Bar (accessed via an unmarked door in a subterranean corridor), Raffles has a slightly scaled down DB5, specially made by Aston Martin. Better still, in the lobby of its restaurant, The Peninsula has the original 1933 Napier-Railton, a one-of-a-kind 24-litre monster that is the first of a rolling series of loans from Brooklands Museum in Surrey.
Chefs are another sparring ground. While The Peninsula’s restaurant will be overseen by Claude Bosi, whose Bibendum in London has two Michelin stars, Raffles has the Argentine Mauro Colagreco, whose Mirazur in Menton, France, has three. Then there is art: The Peninsula commissioned more than 200 landscapes from 40 British artists at the Royal Drawing School; among a large and varied collection, Raffles has a 6m-high sculpture by Saad Qureshi and a 5m-wide oil painting, “Naval Officers of World War I” by Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.
It all adds up to what some in the industry are calling the “urban resort” — the idea that a city hotel, even one in an old building, can offer everything a sprawling holiday getaway does (especially attractive with recent lockdowns still in people’s minds).
The massive budgets required to create such resorts are being enabled in part by the relatively new phenomenon of “branded residences”, privately owned apartments with access to the hotel amenities, that allow initial outlays to be recouped more quickly. The OWO has so far sold about half of its 85 residences, which start at £4mn for a one-bedroom, with buyers including Michael Bloomberg, Todd Leland, the president of Goldman Sachs International, and David Malm of Boston-based Webster Equity Partners. The five-bedroom penthouse, with interiors by the yacht and private jet specialist Winch Design, remains available — at £100mn.
Can London sustain so many super-luxe hotel rooms and such rates? For all the economic uncertainties, the industry seems bullish. “The market is bifurcating, with the truly affluent moving up and willing to pay more, while the upper middle, middle and lower middle are beginning to feel squeezed, and thus are trading down,” says Clayton Reid, executive chair of hospitality marketing agency MMGY Global.
Whereas once the British middle classes might have saved up to spend a birthday or anniversary in a big-name London hotel, today such treats are well out of reach. When The Savoy reopened in 2010 after an, at the time, unprecedented £220mn refurbishment, room rates started at £350, or £512 today, allowing for inflation.
Fashions have changed too. In the 1990s and 2000s, London’s five-stars were seen as dreary backwaters, good only for elderly tourists to sit in dull corporate restaurants — the hipsters were all at warehouse parties in Hackney Wick. Meanwhile, the blossoming “experiential travel” movement preached the shallowness of conventional luxury: rather than gold taps, true value was found in meaningful experiences, such as watching dawn over Tikal or hearing the chanting of Bhutanese monks.
Instagram seems to have changed all that. Maximalism is back in London restaurants; full-on luxury is an experience in itself, especially if shareable on social. The visible signifiers of luxury hotels — the liveried butlers, valets and concierges, the cars and bellboys — are coming back (the Peninsula even has “pages” dressed all in white and with white gloves and pillbox hats). “A 40-year-old today will probably never have seen that kind of thing before, so I can understand why someone might be very impressed,” says Hutson, who has made a career of “de-fluffing” smart hotels in favour of a more laid-back approach.
And while the bedrooms of these super-luxe hotels might be out of reach of almost everyone, their restaurants and bars provide a window on an exotic world. Previously, entry to the War Office always required security clearance; now its multiple bars and restaurants will all be open to the public. Conscious that Whitehall can be less than vibrant at night, the owners are desperate to encourage the idea of The OWO as a destination, in the way the rejuvenated Battersea Power Station has become.
Those who do come on September 29 and in the weeks that follow will enter the deliberately narrow, relatively discreet entrance on Whitehall to find the remarkable staircase that so miffed Lawrence of Arabia. Its Italian Piastraccia marble is gleaming again, the orange-pink alabaster balusters polished and translucent, the shuttering removed so that, for the first time in the building’s life, light pours in from the cupola above. No other London hotel can offer the combination of such grandeur and such genuine heritage.
I might have been the first guest but during my visit the hotel was full of staff and their families posing as customers in order to trial the facilities and hone their service. Along the corridor from the grand staircase in the Guards Bar, I found the waiters proudly showing off a bespoke red-leather trolley crowned with a Mathusalem (six litres) of Rémy Martin Louis XIII cognac in a crystal decanter — a sort of moveable shrine to the religion of luxury. One 50ml glass costs £290. The staff expect it won’t last until Christmas.
Tom Robbins was a guest of Raffles London at The OWO (raffles.com)
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