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
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.
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
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.
At the brand new 45 Park Lane hotel,
spawn of the stately Dorchester
hotel across the street, guests check in at a sumptuous red leather front desk,
a homage to the hotel’s illustrious past as the location of London’s Playboy
Club. All of the hotel’s 45 rooms overlook Hyde Park and Wolfgang Puck’s CUT
restaurant in the lobby is the celebrity chef’s first foray in Europe. (In case
you are wondering, a new, modern version of the Playboy Club recently opened
just around the corner.)
London’s hip and popular Firmdale
Hotels embody a colourful and eclectic English style that is anything but
stuffy. Currently, there are six across central London; the seventh, the Dorset
Square Hotel in Marylebone, is expected to open later this year.
Since 2008, local restaurateur and food columnist Mark Hix has made deep
inroads into the London dining scene with five eponymous
establishments serving modern British fare in upscale, business-friendly
surroundings. His fresh, locavore menus are stocked with fish and oysters from the
coast, and bone-in steaks and chops from nearby pastures.
Lunch at the Goring
Hotel Dining Room near Buckingham Palace is a quintessentially British
experience that is sure to impress colleagues and provide a glimpse of the
capital’s aristocratic set. Viscount David Linley, son of the late Princess
Margaret, designed the light-filled, cream-coloured, see-and-be-seen room.
Enjoy a glass of claret poured by waiters from crystal decanters, and ask for
the Castle of Mey roast beef, carved and served from a silver cart at your
table. Keep an eye out for the dashing owner, Jeremy Goring, who regularly
makes rounds at lunchtime welcoming royals, stars and business titans.
Brasserie just off Piccadilly, you will feel like you are dining in a
comfortably posh, English home. A smart casual crowd of celebs, execs and
socialites wine and dine on grilled meats, fish and cheeses from a handwritten
menu that changes daily. The Wolseley has
a similar crowd, menu and surroundings — stake out a table on an upper level
for great people watching, especially during its popular power-breakfast hours.
As the weather warms up, join the tailored suit set sipping on Negronis or
nibbling on Italian-inspired, locally sourced dishes on the outdoor patio at Amaranto
in the Four Seasons Park Lane. You will also impress clients if you (or your
concierge) can swing reservations at the perennially unavailable Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (at the
Mandarin Oriental hotel) or Pollen
Street Social (near Oxford Circus).
And since any business trip to London is not complete without at least
one curry, consider entertaining at higher-end spots such as Benares, Cinnamon Kitchen, or Veeraswamy
Off the clock
If you are near Paddington Station in west London, find your way to the Grand
Union Canal and stroll along its refurbished old towpath to Little
Venice. Once there, pop in for drink or a meal at one of many outdoor cafes
such as The Summerhouse
(which is open year round).
If you have time for a proper walk and would prefer to meet up with a
group and a guide, check out London Walks — it
has tours all over the city.
On the South Bank, let your tastebuds guide you through Borough Market, where you can
browse, nibble and buy the UK’s finest and freshest produce, alongside a crowd
of local foodies, chefs and restaurateurs. If you do not plan to cook, have a
meal in Roast, located
inside the market — which may serve the best breakfast in Britain.
Don’t do this!
During spring and summer, when tourists, business travellers and locals
fill the city, do not depend on the ability of its aging transportation
infrastructure to get you to your meetings on time. Black cabs creep slowly through
the traffic of central London. The London Underground, or Tube, is notoriously
unreliable and susceptible to delays, forcing users onto lengthy alternate routes.
To avoid being late in a city that appreciates promptness, always schedule your
meetings with a very large cushion of time in between.