Barnett on Business Travel



June 25, 2001 -- If you're fretting that mad cows are stampeding through Britain and the beefeaters have fled to fowl, here's a reality check. The 101-year-old Queen Mum herself was recently lunching at The Connaught, arguably London's most exalted hotel, enjoying grilled Scottish lobster preceded by her usual, a Dubonnet and gin, in the Drawing Room. But I observed from afar that several of her lunch companions were indeed eating meat.

Her Majesty also did a little noontime networking. Spotting France's former President Giscard D'Estaing across the room, she joined him at a neutral table for a private conversation. The topic? The Connaught's waiters are too discreet to divulge, but it's likely to be the imminent arrival of the euro to the U.K., which has clung stubbornly to sterling.

All of this is good news for visiting Americans, particularly business travelers. In a recent three-day blitz here, I found Londoners upbeat, vibrant and willing to wheel and, God forbid, deal.

The media hype on foot and mouth has frightened off an estimated 16 percent of London's summer visitors and hoteliers and restaurateurs are putting on their best face along with, in some cases, their best prices.

And if the euro replaces the pound as anticipated, Americans will get a more favorable exchange rate, making all of England almost a bargain.

There are already good deals here. While American Airlines' business class was packed, its gratis arrival lounge at Heathrow was virtually empty when I landed. With no distractions, congenial hostess Martina Sheils showered 100 percent of her attention on me. I showered in a private bath, had a shirt ironed, nibbled on fresh fruit, OJ and strong Yankee coffee and emerged invigorated alter the overnight flight.

Arrival lounges may be the brightest new idea in air travel and American's is a warm and well-provisioned way station for travelers.

Historically, the trek from Heathrow to the center of London is slow, expensive or both. A taxi one-way is $70 with tip and the cabbie always fights traffic. The Underground is $7, but is an hour-long hassle if you're hauling luggage up stairs at the tube stops. Airport busses poke along, making frequent hotel stops. Instead, smart travelers book the Heathrow Express, a dedicated train racing non-stop to centrally located Paddington Station in 15 minutes flat for $17 one way. Buy a round-trip ticket and save $3.

The competition for guests among London hotels, always keen, is ferocious today. A rash of faux hip designer hotels such as the Sanderson and One Aldwych have popped up in the past few years, while virtually every traditional hotel is restoring, modernizing and generally sprucing to attract the new generation of in-a-hurry travelers.

Even The Connaught, long the bastion of attentive unobtrusive service and old-world courtesy, is undergoing a restoration and it's not going unnoticed. I was in the lobby when the Queen Mother's small entourage was headed for the Grill and she remarked to a doorman that the old pinkish carpet had been "pulled up," revealing a magnificent Victorian mosaic tile floor that is only two years older than she is.

No, I wasn't just lingering in The Connaught lobby on a royalty watch. I wanted to see for myself if this hospitality legend was true or lore. Actually, with a base rate lower than many New York, Boston and San Francisco luxury hotels -- $425 a night -- it was a comparatively affordable experiment. (The Four Seasons in Washington, D.C., is asking $555 a night for a single room).

Has The Connaught, with just 97 rooms, cut corners to pump up its profit margins in a softening global economy? As loyal guests of generations past check out and in to The Grand Hotel in the Sky, are younger lodgers replacing them? Located on the same quiet corner in the elegant Mayfair district since 1897, the hotel could pass for a rambling London townhouse if it weren't for a top-hatted doorman and small sign on the front.

I expected, for some reason, a stuffy greeting, but got a hearty welcome. Inside, the lobby was hardly an oasis of serenity, but for a good reason. Craftsmen had discovered solid marble columns behind the wood and were revitalizing ornate crown ceiling moldings.

Otherwise, The Connaught has this very quiet, aristocratic 19th-century gentility about it. At a time when five-star expensive hotels are skimping on staff, there were five concierges on duty behind a highly polished counter and six people behind the small front desk, all addressing guests by their last name. I was told there are three staff members for every guest room. They are either well-mannered or well-trained to smile and look you in the eye, and I felt they genuinely were interested in my comfort.

When I asked chief concierge Bradley Jones to try and locate a new type of adapter to connect my laptop computer to American's in-seat power plug, he spent an entire afternoon calling around to stores at London, and was visibly pained to have to tell me he couldn't find it. When I needed help getting online, a duty manager tracked down the computer chief for the entire Savoy Hotel Group to rescue me.

Look around and you can see why The Connaught has stood its ground despite the onslaught of new hotels. The maid spent well over an hour cleaning my room -- scrubbing, straightening. Since most hotels expect room maids to make up 16 rooms on an eight-hour shift, I felt guilty. But the lovely Portuguese woman, who was polishing the marble bathroom floor, said she's encouraged to take her time.

Every time I used the grand, carved mahogany stairway for exercise, someone was polishing it to a high gloss. (A surprisingly spacious $750,000 fitness studio was recently opened.) Instead of minibars, full bottles of liquor are on a sterling silver tray in every room.

Duncan Palmer, who is only The Connaught's sixth general manager in 100 years, thinks of his hotel as simply "your home" in London. Period. And since it is, by any measure, expensive, he has to provide "value and a distinctive experience."

That's why he hires only "friendly, upbeat, quick and efficient people" and pampers employees who've been there up to 38 years. Head chef Michael Boudin, whose signature French restaurant is ranked among the best in the world, has been cooking there for 25 years, and supervising 40 chefs in a kitchen which is as spotless as an operating room.

Palmer, GQ handsome with impeccable manners and a flair for fast cars, says he'll never expand the hotel. However, the clubby American Bar will get a new street entrance and, shockingly, a few outside tables. He's also installed a button panel in every room for summoning a butler, a clothes valet and a bellman.

But some things will never change. If you're too busy or tired to mix your own predinner martini in your room, room service will come up and make it for you, rather than deliver one pre-mixed.

My only fault with The Connaught is the absence of a fully equipped business center and instant, simple, Internet hookups -- although rooms do have an ISDN line. While it can be argued that chief executive officers and heads of state have assistants to surf and search the 'Net and vacationing wealthy families don't care, the fact is, e-mail links the world.

However, that's a small gripe. And I'm that sure somewhere in The Connaught's $150 million restoration budget, Duncan Palmer will find a way to wire his guests.

This column originally appeared in the Fairfield County Business Journal and the Westchester County Business Journal.

Copyright 2001-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.