Business trip: London
Commuters and tourists walk Thameside in the rain across from Big Ben and Parliament. (BBC)
London is bathing in the limelight this year — not only for its permanent position as one of the world’s most important business travel destinations, but also for high-profile events such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (2 to 5 June), and the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, which run for 17 days from 27 July to 12 August. In addition, London remains a relative bright spot in the otherwise gloomy European economy.
All this attention is great news for the capital, but painful for bargain-seeking business travellers who will find the city even more outlandishly expensive than usual, as demand rises for hotels, flights, meals and transport.
Average hotel rates jumped 11% in 2011 and will continue to rise in 2012 — some fear that rates could rise 300% or more during the Olympics. The cash price for a single trip on the London Underground is now a painful £4.30 (all the more reason to use an Oyster card for your trips on public transport). The walk-up fare for the 15-minute ride from the airport to central London on the Heathrow Express recently rose to £19 (up from £15 when the service started in 1998). And last year, value-added taxes in the UK rose from 17.5% to 20%, the highest level ever.
But despite the high prices, business travellers keep coming back to London. A record 69.4 million passengers passed through London’s Heathrow Airport (the world’s third busiest after Atlanta and Beijing) in 2011, breaking the pre-recession high of 67.9 million, set in 2007. Passenger traffic at London Gatwick, which is undergoing a £1 billion revitalization programme, rose 7.3% in 2011. There are already a whopping 110,000 hotel rooms in the metropolitan area, but construction and renovation projects abound.
London City Airport, which saw passenger counts rise by 8% in 2011, expanded to accommodate the many business travellers who prefer its location near booming east London (home to Canary Wharf, the emerging Tech City near Shoreditch and Olympic Park in Stratford). It is also home base for British Airways’ popular all-business-class flights to New York’s John F Kennedy Airport.
London is awash in a wave of new five-star hotels. At the crest is the 294-room Corinthia London Hotel, which opened in April 2011 near Charing Cross and Whitehall in a stately Victorian building that once housed Britain’s Ministry of Defence. While the building is historic, the plush interiors are brand new, with modern touches such as a stunning, two-tonne, LED-illuminated Baccarat crystal chandelier in the lively lobby.
In Mayfair, the 217-room Four Seasons Park Lane re-opened in early 2011 after a three-year renovation. The hotel has brand new interiors (the elevators are trimmed in red leather), and it added a rooftop spa and gym with commanding views of the city. The famous 268-room Savoy hotel re-emerged in late 2010 after shutting its doors for a £220 million down-to-the-studs revamp that preserved its famous Edwardian and Art Deco heritage.
Later this year, a new 250-room InterContinental London Westminster will open near Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. In 2013, a 195-room Shangri-La Hotel will open in The Shard, the cloud-piercing, all-glass tower on the South Bank near London Bridge that will be the tallest building Europe.
If you love Harry Potter as much as Marriott Rewards, check out the new St Pancras Renaissance London, with its looming clock tower, Gothic turrets, arches and grand staircases that look like something straight out of Hogwarts. Located in the north-central Kings Cross area, the hotel opened as the Midland Grand in 1873, was converted to offices and then abandoned in 1985. The hotel’s redevelopment was paired with an update of the entire St Pancras International station, where Eurostar trains depart for Paris and Brussels. While history buffs will enjoy the 38 original Chambers rooms, business travellers may prefer the less expensive, 200-room modern wing.
In February, the Belgraves opened, injecting a bit of bohemian Americana into buttoned-up Belgravia. The 85-room hotel is the first European outpost of fashion-forward, New York City-based Thompson Hotels — look for the hipster doormen in rolled jeans, plaid shirts and ties, welcoming guests to the cosy-chic lobby and adjacent HIX Belgravia restaurant.