It might be a shower with a view or a midnight snack of steamed vegetables — the best hoteliers totally get the little things, says John Arlidge
YOU’VE JUST SPENT sixteen hours on the modern torture rack of business travel and are in the car heading to the hotel. What do you want? Hoteliers never tire of trying to convince us we crave their brand, whether that means a doorman leading us across a silent, shiny marble lobby to our suite or a DJ, a bar and a game of pool at check-in. Few, however, get it right. So, as we prepare to head off for summer, it’s time to salute that rare breed who are innovating in all the right ways.
First up is a newcomer. The muted aesthetic of Giorgio Armani’s first branded hotel, the Armani, in the Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai, may not be to everyone’s taste, but the Italian designer knows that a Maserati to the hotel is the chicest way to arrive and that Spear’s types want a religion-changingly strong cappuccino in the lobby the moment we arrive and we don’t want to fumble for loose change to pay for it.
Armani has also signed one of the canniest franchising deals in hotels, persuading the leading Milanese delicatessen, Peck, to open its first hotel branch. No more rubbish room service. Phone down and they’ll whip up the panino, pasta or insalata you want. Every hotel should have a Peck.
Next up is the grandest of grandes dames — in new finery. La Mamounia in Marrakech reopened earlier this year after a €100 million refurbishment by Jacques Garcia, and it is well worth the wait. If there is a more luxurious and inviting hotel bar in which to drink a mojito and smoke a cigar than the Italian bar, I want to know about it.
The riads in the magnificent eight-acre grounds are better than any villas in any hotel. And the gym is the best I’ve seen. It’s not in the basement — still all too common — but a short jog away from the hotel, set among the palm trees with huge windows that look out over les jardins. Even the blaring Arab techno music is curiously uplifting.
While in Marrakech, a big shout to a modern property that proves if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Amanjena resort, part of the zen Aman group, has not changed a bit since it opened a decade ago and is still the most relaxing, exotic short-haul destination from London. Go in January, when it’s warm enough to have lunch in a T-shirt but so cold at night you sip Casablanca beer next to the braziers. When you get back to your room, there’ll be a log fire burning there, too, to keep you toasty.
The Peninsula continues to be the master of rooms. In Tokyo last year and Shanghai this year, the Hong Kong-based group gets the small things just right. The minibar is at waist height, so you don’t have to grovel for a Coke, and it comes stocked with fresh lemons and limes. The ‘drop box’ — a cupboard next to the door that opens on the inside to the guest and out in the corridor to staff — is the perfect way to give and receive shoes, laundry and newspapers without being disturbed.
Hit the ‘Spa’ button by the bath and the lights dim and the music starts. And it is still one of the few hotel groups that has a master switch by the door and on both sides of the bed to turn off all the lights at once.
THE ULTRA-MODERN NEW Peninsulas and the old-world Connaught in London could not be more different in style, but they share one thing: a sense of occasion. Whether it is the charming and efficient doormen, the grand staircase, the very Mayfair take on an American martini bar or the chic Apartment, wherever you go at the Connaught you feel as if you have stepped on to the grandest stage in London.
All the big hotel groups are chasing Generation Y, the 30- to 45-year-olds who want style at affordable prices. It’s a tough market but one that Hyatt, with its new Andaz brand, serves better than most. Whether it is in West Hollywood, Fifth Avenue or Wall Street, Andaz never forgets that no matter what the price, we want a good location, a room with a view, some outside space and room service that does not miraculously double in price between the time we order it and the time the tray reaches our room.
The greatest compliment you can pay a hotelier is to tell him his hotel does not feel like one. That’s hard to do in a city, but Robert de Niro pulls it off in New York. At the Greenwich, the hotel the actor owns in TriBeCa, even the smallest rooms come with homely wooden floors, an antique desk, sofa and bed, stocked bookshelves and an old-fashioned bathroom. It’s more like a guest room in an upscale Fifth Avenue apartment than a hotel room. The Greenwich is also one of a growing number of hotels that employ personal trainers who give impromptu sessions in the gym.
To the list of life’s unpleasant certainties, check-in can be added to death and taxes. So, a big vote of thanks to Shangri-La, which now offers in-room check-in. Rocco Forte is also raising the bar on service in his small but growing family of perfectly formed hotels. At Brown’s in London you can arrange for a series of tailors, cobblers and designers to visit you with the ideal wardrobe. Do it even if your airline hasn’t lost your luggage.
Sometimes, the humblest of hostelries can teach the big boys a thing or two. We all like burgers but we don’t want one after a long flight, with just a few hours before bed. Nor do we want a club sandwich or a Caesar salad or any of the other high-calorie dishes that clutter up room service menus. But at Holiday Inns — no, really — in Sydney you can pick up the phone and order steamed vegetables from the Hunter Valley which arrive in a natty, white cardboard popcorn-style container, with butter on the side.
What’s on Ultra’s wish list for when the business travel season grinds into action again in September? More natural light, everywhere, especially in the bathroom — you can’t beat a shower with a view. Windows that open. More balconies. Better sound-proofing. TVs that you can figure out how to work even if you’re not a rocket scientist. Proper old-fashioned, easy-to-set alarm clocks on either side of the bed. And free wifi everywhere — even in town. We’ll be travelling and watching…
Top photograph: La Mamounia, Marrakech; bottom photograph: The Peninsula, Tokyo