It was, in the words of a normally posed upscale hotel general manager, “the brainchild of a dozen people who used to get dirty once a week on Zoom.”
The 12 were London luxury hoteliers who regularly sympathized with stories of low occupancy and falling rates during the pandemic and decided to put competitive differences aside and try to turn the tide.
Vaccination rates have reached 89% of eligible adults in the UK, but Americans, with significantly lower vax rates, have not made it to Britain in significant numbers. Normally, Americans make up about 11% of foreign visitors, but account for 15% of spending. Their absence is particularly painful.
A plan was made at those Zoom meetings: design a familiarization trip to show that the company had truly reopened in the UK, and target those travel advisers who were likely to send them the top-spending American traveler.
All of the hotels were Virtuoso Preferred Suppliers, so it made sense to work with this consortium. But to make it clear that London was open, they knew site inspections alone would not be enough.
Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex reminded the crowd that the UK is much more than London. He is Queen Elizabeth’s fourth and youngest child, and the 13th in line for the throne. Photo credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
NoteWorthy, also a preferred supplier to Virtuoso, differentiates itself from other receptive operators by creating experiences that not only can provide special access, but are often experiences exclusive to NoteWorthy. Its owner, Nicola Butler, doesn’t just cleanse; she creates, building relationships that allow her to separate the experiences her clients receive from all others.
Butler and the hoteliers hired Strategic Vision chairman Peter Bates, who not only advised the group but also set up a program on the last day that included a speech by Prince Edward, Queen Elizabeth’s youngest child. II, as well as VisitBritain CEO Sally Balcombe, World Travel and Tourism Council CEO Julia Simpson and British hotelier Rocco Forte.
Sally Balcombe, CEO of VisitBritain, spoke to the advisors on the last day of the fam. Photo credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
The 41 Virtuoso agents (and CEO Matthew Upchurch) present over the family’s four days were distributed among the suites of the host hotels: Brown’s Hotel, Corinthia, the Dorchester, 45 Park Lane, Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane, the Langham , Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, Claridge’s, the Connaught, the Berkeley, Rosewood London, Shangri-La the Shard and the Savoy.
One thing that many hotels had in common, in addition to their high reputations, was that they could show off improvements since the last time advisers were able to visit. Upchurch pointed out that while the pandemic created the most devastating economic downturn the travel industry has ever seen, the underlying financial strength of many hotel companies was such that they could take advantage of the downtime to renovate, refurbish and rebuild. “They told me they were usually so busy they could never make it, but [during the pandemic], they could, ”he said.
The large balcony of the Corinthia Royal Suite overlooks the River Thames near the London Eye. Officers pose for a pre-lunch photo at Kerridge’s, named after its Michelin-starred chef, Tom Kerridge. Photo credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
The opening night reception at Claridge’s was a good example. The evening began in the ballroom foyer of the property, which had just undergone a $ 30 million restoration, including the ceiling raised almost five feet.
But this engineering challenge was unimportant in the context of the entire Claridge restoration: it rose an additional five stories and dug out another five floors, doubling the property’s square footage on the same footprint.
On the way down, the advisers saw a new wine cellar and a brand new kitchen (with a chef’s table that seats 14); Climbing up to the roof, they saw the imprint of what must be a huge penthouse suite.
Claridge’s Hotel in London was not only renovated during the pandemic, it added five floors above and five floors below, doubling its size, but on the same footprint. A cook’s table has been added along the edge of a new underground kitchen. Photo credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
And in between, they saw a reimagined royal suite with real pearls sewn into the fabric covering the closet doors and a handful of other redesigned suites, some with different designers assigned even within a category. “In other hotels, you choose a room category,” said our attendant Mitch. “At Claridge’s, you choose a room.
After only a day of experiencing NoteWorthy tours, I began to wonder if the name “NoteWorthy” was an intentional British understatement to describe the events offered by Butler’s company. The second evening, she had organized a performance of the Band of the Coldstream Guards, which more generally plays during the official royal ceremonies.
The next morning’s activities included a visit to the Churchill War Rooms. I had visited before and, like most visitors, I looked at the exhibits behind glass. But Butler had arranged for a visit that included a chance to sit in Churchill’s chair and feel the dent in his arm made by the Prime Minister patting his ring.
From the stage at the Apollo Theater in London’s West End, Virtuoso advisers and preferred vendors discussed how best to market London to American luxury travelers. (left to right, Vanessa McGovern, co-founder and sales director of Gifted Travel Network; Nica Burns, co-owner of the Apollo Theater); Lynn Brutman, Regional Vice President and General Manager, Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane; Nicola Butler, founder of NoteWorthy; and Jim Strong of Strong Travel Services in Dallas. Photo credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
I was assigned to stay at the Langham, the oldest grand hotel in London, but which skillfully blends tradition with contemporary sensibility. Its director of sales and marketing, Charlotte Weatherall, said she had noticed a trend: customers were increasingly those who, before the pandemic, only aspired to stay in a luxury hotel in London.
But having saved money during the pandemic and eager to come to London, they are now booking to celebrate special occasions. “A younger generation felt that big hotels were somewhat inaccessible and reserved for the elite. But there is this huge appetite for people to go out and party.”
Stefan Muller, director of sales and marketing for Shangri-La the Shard, confirmed that they traditionally ask if people are celebrating a special occasion. For the moment, it is those who say “no” who are in the minority.
Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch is preparing to ‘receive the salute’ from the rank officer of the Band of the Coldstream Guards, who performed for the Virtuoso advisers. Photo credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
Advisors were busy posting and sharing photos from the trip, and in the middle of day two, Alysia Hopper Steffes of Hopper Travels in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, said a client had booked five nights at Claridge’s, a reservation of $ 17,500.
“I have to post more,” she said.
I was interested to hear from VisitBritain CEO Balcombe’s plan to revive tourism, and during a panel on the last day, Forte asked him what his budget would be next year to attract Americans.
About $ 9.5 million, she said, adding that she hoped to attract an additional $ 27.5 million from partners.
To put that in perspective: To kickstart the 2019 U.S. visitor spending return of $ 5.72 billion, the UK government plans to budget roughly a third of what Claridge’s spent to redo only its ballroom.
Although, if successful, this would represent an incredible return on investment, such budgeting is likely more reflective of the government’s failure to recognize the economic importance of tourism. It’s not Balcombe’s fault – she faces the same problem as tourist boards around the world.
But as the 12 hoteliers demonstrated, private enterprise can often achieve results on its own. London is open, and hospitality and advisors are spreading the word.