The Plaza NYC

Sophie Toh examines the role of the Grande Dame hotel during the pandemic and considers the increasingly uncertain future of these much-loved luxury institutions. 

The Plaza, The Savoy, Le Bristol…like any icon, the reputation of the Grande Dame precedes them. Magnetic places of memory and connection; these are more than hotels. They are stage sets for a series of life’s milestones, from heady first encounters to poignant farewells. However, the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 and the ongoing challenges of closure and rolling restrictions has thrown an unprecedented curveball to the luxury hospitality industry, placing the Grande Dame in its most precarious business environment in more than a generation.

As enduring icons of resilience that not even two World Wars could shake, our most famous hotels showed an impeccable interpretation of hospitality at the start of the pandemic. We were inspired by the graceful response from the Dorchester Collection, who took the extraordinary step of guaranteeing salaries to all of its 3,600 employees, no matter the length of the crisis. Claridge’s also led by example, offering free rooms to NHS workers in April, despite being forced to close for the first time in its 200-year history. And, as the summer provided some cautious respite and planned re-openings, some breathed a sigh of relief that perhaps the worst was over.

However, things did not improve by autumn, with the onset of the dreaded second wave, a setback that has left luxury hotels in an increasingly uncertain position. As Brian Gore, Vice President of Brand for The Set Hotels, including Café Royal, London, The Lutetia, Paris and The Conservatorium, Amsterdam states, ‘I don’t think that any one of us would have imagined quite what a profound impact COVID-19 was going to have on the luxury hotel market back in March. No contingency or crisis planning could have prepared us for what was to come for the rest of 2020.’ And now, as the bleak reality of a second lockdown bites across Europe and the vast majority of discerning travellers are forced to stay put, it is becoming harder and harder to make the economics add up. With staff counts in the hundreds, and occupancy in the low twenties, how does a sense of exquisite luxury balance with financial stability?

The Savoy, London
The Savoy, London

Amidst such rapid change and evolution, it seems that the name of the game is flexibility, to allow the Grande Dame to pivot gracefully through the pandemic and to continue to stay relevant in whatever altered landscape we find on the other side.

A pragmatic option is to increasingly cater to the remaining domestic audience, many of whom will have overlooked such hotels in the past for being ostentatious, and out of step with their modern lives. Here, a relaxing of prices and a sense of exclusiveness is required, despite going against the grain of the Grande Dame spirit. However, needs must, and hotels are trying to project a more accessible charm. The Hôtel de Crillon in Paris has stated that it is trying to attract a younger crowd and launched a vintage Citroën truck proffering gourmet ice creams as a way to connect with locals during the summer. La Réserve has overhauled its image with take-out meals and a ‘staycation’ offer, while The Set Hotels has also completely rebuilt its ethos, transforming each property into an ‘Urban Resort’, featuring cinema rooms and kids’ clubs, wine tasting sessions and live music in outlets. For the first time, the team also introduced work-from-hotel packages and culinary staycations, for guests looking for luxurious experiences close to home.

The second option is to retrench into the super-luxury sector and continue to offer what these hotels do best; unadulterated privacy and supreme isolation. Those with deep pockets who are untethered to the normal day-to-day are already investigating multi-month hotel bookings to cope with a Covid-filled winter of locked-down living. On the West Coast, both the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air have seen an uptick in 90-day bookings, mainly from LA natives. However, hiding out comes at a price, considering a year-long stay at Rosewood Miramar Beach in California would cost an eye-watering US$1.1 million.

As I write, a ray of hope is on the horizon in the form of successful vaccine rollouts and a new travel corridor between the UAE and the UK. Both are welcome signs of recovery in what has proven to be a draining and dispiriting year. If we are allowed to hope, an influx of affluent travellers from the region, known for their generous spends on suites, interconnected rooms, and food and beverage, will help London hotels when they need them most. But the overall outlook for international hotels is cloudy at best, and it is likely that the pandemic of 2020 will prove to be the next big inflection point in the global hospitality industry. For now, all we can do is hope that for the sake of luxury, tradition and taste, these institutions can find a way into the future.

Opening image credit: The Plaza, a Fairmont managed hotel