As I came to the end of a pleasant chat with the CEO of the Langham Hospitality Group, responsible for the self-same hotels, I had a brief but intensely memorable insight into the life of someone in the public eye.
Appearing like smoke from around the side of the bar, a gaggle of otherwise respectable middle-aged ladies lunged towards our table with phones outstretched. They certainly weren’t after me and (respected hotelier though Bob Warman certainly is) they didn’t want to pap him either.
‘Sorry!’ said one of the new arrivals. ‘Lady Gaga will be here in a minute, and we’re not allowed to go outside.’ However briefly, Warman was held prisoner inside his own hotel.
It was an explanation of sorts, but not one that made a great deal of sense. Following our new companions’ eyelines out of the window and onto the elegant drive of The Langham, I noted several things that seemed out of the ordinary: a huge cake in the shape of the hotel itself; a Cinderella carriage complete with two fractious horses; an immense green Rolls Royce; a hundred or so bedraggled teenagers.
As it turned out, only the cake and the carriage were planned parts of The Langham’s 150th birthday event – Lady Gaga’s short journey from the hotel’s Infinity Suite to the waiting Roller was merely a pleasant accident. For sheer surreal splendour, though, an appearance from Gaga couldn’t match up to the rest of the morning – or Langham’s plans for the future.
Langham, which is owned by Chinese real estate company Great Eagle Holdings, currently operates some twenty hotels, most of them making use of the Langham name. Last Wednesday marked 150 years since the original Langham was opened by the future Edward VII, and the company is using this anniversary as the springboard for an almost unbelievable project.
Over the next five years, Warman plans to quintuple the Langham portfolio, building or acquiring 80 new hotels – that’s one every 22.8 days, or an even sixteen per calendar year.
Having committed to perhaps the most optimistic expansion plan since Spain waved off Christopher Columbus, Langham is now adopting a can-do attitude to various other challenges. Launch London’s biggest suite, the six-bedroom Sterling? No problem! Open a huge, airport-style club lounge? Done – and no communal area is complete without a colossal collage of a bulldog.
And when it came to something as important as the original Langham hotel’s birthday party, there was evidently no room at the table for naysayers.
Wandering round the Artesian bar with me and the Gaga squad were three imposing figures in green cloaks and Robin Hood hats with huge, blunt, conspicuously unsheathed weapons. They turned out to be from the Confrérie du Sabre d’Or, a clan who pride themselves on perpetuating the Napoleonic cavalry tradition of opening bottles of champagne with their swords. (It certainly startled the horses, let me tell you.)
Combined with an address by the marvellously robed town crier of Newport, this display of sabrage was the apex of the event. Warman and the Lord Mayor of Westminster took turns cutting the cake for the cameras before a huge net of Langham-pink balloons was released into the waiting clouds (also frightening the poor horses). The last remaining Gaga fans gamely waved their pennants.
It all sounds rather odd in retrospect, but after an hour or so of pomp and circumstance (plus Langham’s own sparkling rosé), this eccentric display made for a very pleasant end to the morning. And although the combination of attractions may have looked as odd on paper as, say, a plan to open 80 new hotels by 2020, both the party and the proposal were compelling in person.
Warman has an impressive faith in Langham Hospitality Group’s ability to launch 1.3 hotels every month until the next election — recent expansion drives have seen the company double its American portfolio, win TripAdvisor’s award for the best hotel in the US (the Langham Chicago) and make plans for an initial presence of four hotels in the Middle East.
With a reported $1 billion set aside by Great Eagle to cover the first year of the Great Endeavour, there’s plenty of boardroom confidence in Langham’s proposed growth.
The flock of new Langham hotels will be accompanied by new sub-brands Cordis (named after the chairman’s former field of cardiology) and Eaton (a lifestyle offering that runs the gamut ‘from work to play to social to living’), both set to make waves this year in the company’s home of Hong Kong.
As far as Warman is concerned, the plans aren’t ambitious so much as necessary. ‘In today’s environment, our customers are becoming more and more global and so it’s important that we have locations for that customer to stay at in order to stay relevant.’
A town crier is perhaps not the international symbol of relevance, but if Langham can pull off this colossal plan then the company – madcap parties and all – will be laughing all the way to the bank.