When Dubai's Jumeirah Group began upgrading its central London hotel, The Carlton Tower Jumeirah, in November 2019, it expected to wrap up the project within 12 months.
Then the pandemic hit and the resulting lockdowns gave the Knightsbridge venue, Jumeirah’s flagship hotel in Europe, a unique opportunity to take the refurbishment to a whole new level.
The result is a £100 million ($141.5m) transformation, the hotel’s most extensive remodel in its 60-year history, with every corner of the 17-storey, five-star hotel redesigned.
"In hindsight, we couldn't have chosen a better time to do a refurbishment," Aaron Kaupp, regional vice president of Jumeirah's London Properties and Jumeirah Frankfurt, told The National ahead of the hotel's reopening next week.
“One of the decisions that delayed the reopening was definitely down to Covid. The world went on full shutdown and so did our construction site on March 23 of 2020. Our site closed for two-and-a-half months before workers started coming back, and then it took some time – because we were all coming out of this – to see how the supply chains came along, and how the construction side could slowly ramp up again.”
The extra time, however, proved a surprise bonus as it gave the Dubai hospitality group, which has 23 branded properties in eight countries, “a little more time” to fine-tune the renovation.
“At the same time, we didn't displace any revenue, because there was no business anyway,” said Mr Kaupp, from Germany, who relocated to London with his wife and daughter from Europe in November 2019 to join the hotel and lead the renovation.
The hotel has picked June 5 to unveil its grand transformation with the timing tying in with London emerging from its latest lockdown.
“We were hoping that international travel would be open by then and we wanted to add a little more excitement to England after a sad five months in lockdown so it was a good moment to celebrate,” said Mr Kaupp.
While the hotel is now in the final testing phase before the grand reveal, like all luxury hotels in London it faces a big challenge – the lack of international tourists.
Britain has suffered the highest death toll in Europe from the Covid-19 pandemic, causing the government to impose tight restrictions on international travel.
The country's traffic light system – with green, amber and red categories governing travel into the UK – placed the UAE and other Gulf countries on the red list, which stipulates that passengers must quarantine in an airport hotel for 10 days.
As a result, the Carlton Tower’s reservations for June are “very low” at under 10 per cent, with travellers unwilling to commit to a trip to London until they can move more freely.
“We have single-digit occupancy for June but that's in line with all W1 hotels. If you don't have international travellers you will not get those high double-digit bookings,” said Mr Kaupp.
“It's just part of the current world situation that we live in, but the minute [travel] opens up there will be a lot of pent-up demand for London from the US, the Middle East and Asia. It’s not a destination you go to once like Rome or Paris, you go every year, or every other year.”
London has long been a favourite for Middle East travellers, who have a penchant for the hotel’s location in Knightsbridge, where designer stores and luxury boutiques lining nearby Sloane Street cater to the region’s love of luxury shopping.
Go back to 2018 and the hotel’s Middle East guests made up 42 per cent of all bookings for the year, reflecting the brand's strong association with its home in Dubai, famous for the Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotel.
Now the brand wants to attract clientele from London’s other key markets – the US, China and Europe – as it looks to make The Carlton Tower one of the five best hotels in the UK capital within three years.
“In the past, based on our brand and the on the area of Knightsbridge, we were very Middle Eastern-centric, which is a good thing. We obviously have a strong footprint in the Middle East but we also would like to be more known as a global operator,” Mr Kaupp said.
The low bookings in June will see the hotel open in two phases, with 56 rooms ready for June 5 and the full 186 by July 1.
With room rates starting from £540 including VAT, the hotel has reduced the number of rooms from 216 to offer guests more space, with 50 per cent now suites and 87 offering balconies.
“Because the hotel was built in the 1960s, they were very minuscule rooms, so we wanted to have a bigger suite inventory to drive a higher ADR [average daily rate] and at the same time attract a different clientele,” he said.
However, attracting guests from any market is a challenge at the moment with the UK's green list including just 12 destinations.
“Like everything, you make the best out of it. It's not just Carlton Tower’s challenge, it’s everyone's challenge in London currently,” said Mr Kaupp.
Originally opened in 1961 as London’s tallest hotel, The Carlton Tower was taken over by Jumeirah about 20 years ago.
Since then it has only undergone minor upgrades, unlike the latest renovation that saw the exterior of the hotel left untouched while the interior was totally gutted.
A spacious new foyer has been created along with a new health club and Talise spa set across three floors. A new mezzanine level overlooking the 20-metre pool – London’s largest in a hotel with natural daylight - features private cabanas that might have the guests thinking they are in one of the brand’s sunnier settings.
Much of the new interior design reflects Cadogan Gardens, which the hotel overlooks, where guests have access to the private green space and tennis courts.
Another new feature is the Royal Suite on the 10th floor, the hotel’s most exclusive residence featuring up to four bedrooms with guests able to privatise the entire floor with key card access at a cost of £8,000 a night.
While Covid delayed the refurbishment by a few months, it was not the only challenge.
“When you take an old building and you start stripping it, you come across things that were not planned in the project and then Covid obviously hit that made it more challenging because the supply chain stopped. It's not just that our supply came from the UK, it came from all over the world,” Mr Kaupp said.
Hiring new staff to run the hotel after reopening was another hurdle, with hospitality employers across the city struggling to recruit waiters and chefs to fill the 355,000 positions lost during the pandemic.
“Brexit has caused the UK to lose approximately one million workers. The majority of them were in hospitality, so they left and Covid didn't help that because many people were made redundant and went back to their countries,” said Mr Kaupp.
“Today, everyone is recruiting at the same time so it's tough to find people because there's not many around and everyone's looking for the same positions.”
Mr Kaupp said they have managed to have “a good run” to secure staff, who must now follow Covid policies such as wearing masks and being tested twice a week.
The hotel also has thermal imaging cameras that discreetly measure guests' temperatures, with every room left vacant for 48 hours before it is resold and two rooms set aside to isolate guests displaying symptoms.
While Carlton Tower will open next week, the group’s more modestly-priced venue Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel, located just behind Carlton Tower, has been shut since the first lockdown on March 23 with hopes it will reopen in October following a light refurbishment for its lobby area.
“We haven't reopened it because there's no market for it and there was no demand,” said Mr Kaupp.
After deflagging its other London site, Grosvenor Suites, earlier this year, the company is eyeing up other properties in London.
“We’re always interested in a market such as the UK but nothing we have looked at really triggered off our interest,” said Mr Kaupp.
In Europe, however, the brand is more aggressive. The company opened the Capri Palace Jumeirah in Italy last year, with other new locations also on the horizon.
“Europe is on our key list, so we currently have a couple of projects in the pipeline that hopefully will turn into something concrete,” Mr Kaupp said.
Mr Kaupp also manages the brand’s Frankfurt location, which he said is “in the same boat” as London for low bookings.
It was the first Jumeirah hotel in Europe to open after the lockdown last year and has not closed since, but the city is more of a financial destination at a time when business travellers are scarce.
“They're currently running on single-digit occupancy numbers as well,” said Mr Kaupp. “Companies are not travelling as much as they were in the past because of restrictions and Germany has also been going through various phases of lockdown."
Frankfurt’s numbers are more promising for the summer, with Mr Kaupp hoping for a similar uplift in London, though he does not expect the UK travel situation to ease anytime soon.
“Hopefully more countries will come on to the green list, which will bring more people not just from overseas but also European countries," he said.
He does not expect occupancy to return to its pre-pandemic level for three to four years because tourists need time to trust the concept of international travel again.
“It is what it is and we can't change it," he said. "We have to ride the wave like everyone else and we have to keep positive and optimistic.”
Again, Mr Kaupp is positive as low bookings give the hotel time to adjust to housing guests once again.
So for travellers heading to The Carlton Tower soon, will they receive the full “Jumeirah experience” when they check in.
“Definitely - if not better?” said Mr Kaupp.