Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
Anthony Lee, the May Fair hotel's new general manager, tells ABTN about the whirlwind of developments he has planned to take the hotel to the next level of luxury.
You took over at the hotel on September 6 last year, after leaving the Connaught. What have been the most interesting aspects of the past few months?
I would say the fun of an incredible hotel in a very dangerous location. Within one minute of going out the front door you can do a lot of damage financially to yourself, but the most important thing is you have fun doing it. The location is incredible.
We’ve got a really exciting hotel, that has gone through an extraordinary metamorphosis from the Intercontinental days. When it was bought in 2002, £75 million was spent on it, over a period of four years. By the end of 2006 it had finished that process. Four and a half years on it is consolidated and settled and has made its mark on the world stage.
At a certain point, which I feel we are at now, there is another layer that we can add to it. It won’t take a lot, but the excitement of where it could be now as we raise the bar is what does it for me.
What were the main changes made by the owner when he bought it?
The previous owners had run it into the ground, is my understanding. The morale of the team was down, the investment in the hotel was appalling, over a period of time. It was a great freehold property, in a prime location, and it just needed the right person to come in and breathe life into it again. And our owner has done exactly that.
What did you inherit when you arrived last year?
I’ve inherited a hotel that has been restored right the way through. The rooms, all of the public areas, the power, the plumbing, all of the back end stuff, has been redone. It’s in very good shape. But, four and a half years on, in a very fast changing world, plus a settling down process, we’re now ready to look at something else.
As an example, the May Fair Bar is a phenomenon. It’s probably one of the most successful bars in London. It’s full, all the time. (I went with some friends during what I call the silly season, just before christmas, and I couldn’t get in!) To take it to the next level, the lower section of the bar has been revamped, and we’ve just launched 150 at the May Fair, which is a sub-section of the main bar. We’ve got low-lying settees, coffee tables and a fire place.
150 at the May Fair is a vintage magnum champagne experience. You’ll be able to have a Dom Perignon Vintage 2000, a Dom Perignon Rosé 1998, or something from Krug, Moet and Belvedere. If you go for a Dom Perignon experience Silvena Rowe, who is our new chef, will be doing the food pairings. You can book in 12 friends or colleagues, get together – it’s about an experience. I think that’s going to go very well. It’s only just been launched. In the coming months it will be much more on people’s radar.
The May Fair Bar is also quite a celebrity hang out – how do you find that?
It’s great. It’s part and parcel of the fun of it.
What else is coming up at the May Fair?
The Amba Bar and Grill will close in mid-March and reopen towards the end of April under a new name. We have a designer coming in, called Martin Brudniski. He did Dean Street Townhouse, Soho House, Scott's, amongst many others. He's a great guy. He picked up on our head chef Silvana's passion and cooking style. I know the design going in there is just going to be awesome. We're going to knock out a direct front entrance onto the street, onto Stratton Street, and landscape it out there. We'll put some heaters, tables and canopies out there, to give it a real presence.
Silvana's cooking is incredible. Her style and background is very different to what is in London now. Her cooking style is very eastern Mediterranean, with almost a tint of Lebanese. Very healthy, with incredible flavours and colours. We're having china made for that restaurant, to reflect her dishes.
If we talk about luxury, I think less is more. Take a simple thing like rice – the way that she prepares it and the way that our china is going to be designed specifically to get the best from the aroma when it comes to the table. I'm very excited with her being on board. I haven't seen anything else that is quite the same, certainly not at the same level that she is going to produce. The new restaurant will be called Quince.
And in the bedrooms?
The wonderful thing about the May Fair is when you walk into the lobby you don't feel it is a massively big hotel, but we have 406 rooms. I hate these places where you can die and they would probably find you two days later.
We've got another 25 suites being created this year. Not more rooms, because we have enough of those. We have quite a lot of deluxe doubles with an outside terrace. If you're in LA, that's great, but over here they're hardly ever used. So, we're going to incorporate the terrace into the deluxe doubles and create new suites. That will produce 25 new junior suites this year.
We've got 11 feature suites at the moment, which are extraordinary, and a penthouse. Next, we're going to create two more feature suites. We've linked up with the Japanese company Toto for that. They do toilets that do everything for you. When you approach them the seat lifts by itself, the seat is pre-warmed and it will massage your bottom. It does everything. It will dry you as well, and play music for you. For the new suites, we are bringing the bathroom into the bedroom. It will be almost like a spa, with a lot of wood, a lot of bamboo. Toto also have a brand new amenities line, for soaps and so on, which isn't used yet in the UK. It's going to be quite something. We're not sure when they will be completed, but it will be at some point this year.
We've also got permission to develop our penthouse. It's got a great big terrace outside with a music system. You can get up to 150 people up there. It's a fabulous suite, with uninterrupted views over south-east London. We've got a barbeque up there, so you could have a chef creating a nice salad and barbeque lunch. It's a great entertainment suite, and we have permission to develop it. Towards the latter part of this year, we will start work. I can't say any more, but it will be an absolute footprint for London's hot suites. It's going to become a suite that everyone is going to be talking about, that's for sure.
You spoke about elevating the status of the hotel – can you share anything on that?
We're also looking at growing a lot closer links with the arts world. We are the main sponsors for British fashion council and the British film council. We're now looking at working with the Royal Academy of Art, by giving them a white wall in one of our spaces, so that once a month budding young Dali can come along and display their art.
It's about experiences, at the end of the day.That's we want to do. Not only “wow”, but with a twist. Something where you think: “Gosh, I wasn't expecting that! That was fabulous.” That's the feeling we want to give to people.
I've got a fantastic hotel, a freehold property, with an owner that is incredibly supportive, with plenty more money to invest. We're just going to develop what has now become a really great, fun hotel, to yet another level. We're going to build upon what we've got.
And art, fashion and culture are important aspects of that?
Very much so. For instance, during London Fashion Week we will be screening live catwalks onto the wall in the lobby. We've given the British Film Council the penthouse for the week. Art is the same. As people love art, they will get to know once we launch later this year what is hapenning and when. I think we will create quite a following.
How have you found the recession?
You need to be very clear and focused on what is luxury. Stick true to your origins, don't dilute, don't compromise and you will go through hard periods succesfully. I think you also need to be receptive to change all the time. The May Fair has fared very well during the hard times, even though comparatively we're a larger hotel.
What's happening now is that we've positioned ourselves in a very strong way to take full advantage of the market as it's coming back. Not only are we getting the volume business by cementing the relationships that we've kept through the tough times, but we're now looking at another higher end layer that we want to encourage more and more. As we improve the product and the experience, as we add more layers of luxury, which is what I'm doing in every which way, it will attract people from a higher level.
What I want to do is get away from the bucket shop, highly discounted rates that prevailed during certain periods, because as the economy has come back and as we've improved the experience and the product, we can hold firmer, because we're in the right position to be able to do that.
In your opinion, what is luxury today?
In the 80s and 90s when people had a lot of money, luxury was about material goods. People bought everything – every house, every boat, every plane. Clothing, watches, you name it, they wanted everything. Whereas I think today it's very much about experiences. That's what we're here to do. We want to give them unexpected experiences.
When I travel today I like to stay in hotels which are not expected. I find today too many hotels have become what I call cookie-cutter. They are great, they're safe, they're boring. Do they deliver? Yes, but boringly so. You get what you pay for, to a degree.
I love the May Fair. It's an independent hotel, so the decision we make in a morning can be implemented that afternoon. We can move very fast on implementing things and responding to a very fast moving world out there.
Some of the bigger chains that have a global reach, with properties in every city, have a bigger challenge. I think in the 80s they were able to give the consistency in everywhere that they went, but people today want more than that. I think today if you want to go to Mexico or Los Angeles, you want to get a feeling for the local area.
There is still a place for them, but if you're coming to London take a risk. Come and stay at the May Fair with me, because you're going to experience an individual hotel and you're going to experience more London.
I want people to have an exciting experience, and I want them to feel that luxury is within their grasp. I don't want to have luxury so exclusive that only a small minority will ever experience it. The May Fair hotel is reaching out to anyone who wants to experience it. That to me is also, to a degree, luxury. Luxury is not elitist.