September 29 2022, Kimpton Fitzroy London
Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
ABTN speaks to Dale MacPhee, the general manager of London’s newly opened Syon Park, a Waldorf Astoria hotel.
How long ago was the idea of a hotel in Syon Park first mooted?
The Duke said it has been eight years. The hotel has been under construction for three years.
What’s special about the location?
I think the most special thing about it is you’re in London and you’re in the middle of the country. In 20 minutes you can get to Harrods. It’s seven miles from Hyde Park Corner and seven miles from Terminal 5.
Are you going to have a dedicated shuttle bus to Heathrow?
No. We have limo companies that we work with in terms of transport.
How does the new building compare to Syon House?
It’s completely different to Syon House. In reference to the estate, they modelled it on one of the stables of Syon House. It’s a three floor building, in four different blocks. When you go into the website and you see Syon House, you see this typical castle, so it is different from that, but it mirrors the outhouses.
How does Syon Park fit in with the Waldord Astoria brand?
The concept behind Waldorf Astoria is an experience in singular places. So we have our own brand identity and our own service values. Every one of our properties is unique.
How has the new Waldorf Astoria achieved this?
There are so many things. The chef has his own vegetable garden and his own orchard, so he will be making his own jams and chutnies. He also has his own herb garden, for the herbs he uses in the hotel – mint, basil, thyme, ec. – and his own greenhouse, where he can host between eight and 10 people for a private dinner, which is a bit different because in most London hotels you’ll see it in the chef’s kitchen. Because we have all this garden space, and because we are able to grow our own vegetables, it makes sense to have it in a greenhouse. That’s unique for a five-star deluxe London hotel.
There’s a trout lake on the estate so guests can go trout fishing and the chef will then cook the trout for them. We also have laser clay pigeon shooting area that guests can go on site. We also have bicycles, if guests want to bike along the Thames to Richmond or Kew Gardens. We also have things like croquet and archery. We also will do butler service picnics in the garden.
And the famous butterflies...
I’m sure we’re the only hotel that has a butterfly keeper on the payroll! Years ago at Syon Park there used to be butterfly house, which was something of a tourist attraction. It has since been gone, but we do have our own version of the butterfly house in the lobby. At the opening, there were approximately 250 live butterflies in this butterfly space, but eventually there will be up to 1,000. It’s environmentally controlled for a butterfly house. They’re all different shapes and colours. Some are huge, others are tiny. I have these visions of adults and children staring at these most amasing colours. They’ll all be flying and fluttering around.
What’s the decor like inside the hotel?
The rooms are very much what you would imagine a five-star deluxe traditional experience would be. There are a number of bespoke elements in reference to hanging glass chandeliers, crystal door handles, heated bathroom floors. The public spaces are a bit more edgy in reference to colour, a bit more contemporary.
And for events?
We have a number of spaces throughout the hotel. We have an events space, which has its own entrance. That can accommodate up to 500 people. There are three rooms in there, that can be divided into seven, all with floor-to-ceiling windows and natural daylight. We have three other rooms in the hotel that are a bit more modern for functions. One is the Duke’s parlour, which is a room for between 12 and 15 people, with a pool table, 55-inch television, and its own terrace looking out over the garden. It could be used for a whisky tasting, perhaps, or a think-tank strategy meeting where you want to be more creative. Another space, next to our roof terrace, is called the Bolt. That’s almost a modern take on a library, a resident’s lounge. That again has a large television, with almost a living room or lounge set-up. Then you have a private dining room for 20 which stares at the most beautiful tree. All of the chairs around the table are different colours.
Do you expect meetings and events to form a large part of the hotel’s business?
We will do a number of weddings. Syon Park is a well-known venue for weddings itself. And we have the most beautiful ballroom with handmade glass chandeliers from Murano, which are extremely striking. Plus you have the gardens which you can go out onto from the ballroom area. I believe for weddings, dinners, meetings, we will be popular.
Heathrow is quite a big driver of meetings and events – and you’re within striking distance...
Interestingly enough, Heathrow has never come on the radar in reference to competing with that market. I think most of the market we’re competing with on the meetings and events side is coming from central London. I was with a client recently, and they were saying that if you are in London your delegates can’t visit the West End shops, so you will retain them. You’re not on a lockdown, but they come here and you know they will stay for the meeting. They will eventually go downtown, but you have more control of your delegates whilst you’re here.
How much has the duke and his family been involved in the development?
They’ve been involved with the planning permission in terms of allowing a hotel to come into the estate. I think he’s very proud of the hotel.
Does he own the hotel?
No, the hotel is owned by the Ability Group, which also owns the Hilton Liverpool and the Doubletrees in Cambridge and Scotland. The land is owned by the Duke.
Do guests get access to the house if they’re staying at the hotel?
Anybody has access to the house because it’s a museum, but we have special prices. We will be running packages with the house. A number of our event clients want to look at doing an event in the house while they’re here as well.
There are a lot of synergies between us and the house, in terms of having a great working relationship and the contrast between the two. And the fact that you can walk out of the hotel and pop over to the estate for a cocktail and come back.
Where were you before joining Syon Park?
I had been on this project for a year, on the day we opened. Before that I was at the Trafalgar for two years, and before that I was at the Hilton on Park Lane.
How will Syon Park compare to your previous hotels?
I think what we’re trying to create here is a very personalised individualistic experience. For me, the biggest thing is service. When we hired the 200-odd team members that are working here, we were looking for personality and commitment and passion. The skills I always felt we could train people up in, but I always felt I wanted the passion so that we could deliver an excellent experience.
I want people to arrive and be taken to their rooms to check in. I don’t want to do a traditional check-in. We’ve got enough different services here to ensure the ultimate stay. Whether it’s the butlers, or a child speaking to the butterfly keeper, or the chef showing guests his garden. It’s a great hotel. Since I’ve been here we’ve moved the goalposts every day. With the advantage of having all this exterior space that you can play with, we can really create something.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of opening the hotel?
I wouldn’t say anything has been that challenging. We wanted to be different, so it’s moving the goalposts and ensuring we’re seen in the right places. Before, a lot of people didn’t know Syon Park. So when you’re over in the States trying to drum up business, you’re selling the hotel but you’re also selling the location. Are you London, are you Heathrow, are you city centre, what are you? It’s ensuring clients understand that we’re everything to everyone. That’s one of the biggest challenges. It’s also about challenging yourself to create something that is new.
The five-star hotel market is incredibly fast-paced. Do you think that pushing the boundaries of luxury is difficult?
I don’t think it’s difficult, I think it’s fun. I have a very passionate team who always challenge themselves and there’s nothing I like better than a good debate. Nothing is difficult. You have your moments, but I think creating something from nothing is the most amasing thing you can do. When I walk through the lobby and see some of these people and how much they’ve flourished, I think it’s amasing.
Do you have lots of staff who are new to hospitality?
Most of my department heads come from a luxury background, as do their assistants. Whether it’s Rocco Forte or Waldorf Astoria, the senior team does have experience, but a lot of the team on the front line don’t. I have this gentleman named Andrew who came from Next, and another one who is a weight-lifting champion. I have a girl who works in the spa who used to work in a hospital. She got made redundant on a Friday morning and came in that afternoon. She is a superstar!
So it’s about finding the people with the attitude, not necessarily all the experience?
Hotel rates have been doing quite well in London recently, but has it been difficult to drum up business, given the difficult past year? Is now the right time to open?
Now is the right time to open. The business leads that have been coming in have surprised me. There is business out there. The luxury market didn’t seem to suffer through the recession. There were a number of hotels that were not open over the past few years. It seems there is an onslaught of five-star hotels at the moment. I can’t speak for any of the other hotels, but we’ve had a lot of interest.
You’re not worried about competition from the other five-star hotels in London?
I think we’re completely different from the other five-star hotels. The others opening now, especially, are a bit more traditional – the Savoy, The Four Seasons, etc. – whereas our theme is playful luxury. It has a little bit of story behind it. Everything has a little bit of theatre behind it.