Beyond Luxury

A Texas company has shocked London by taking over one of the world’s most expensive hotels—only a block from Buckingham Palace.

On December 31, 1991, after great hype and speculation, the Lanesborough, London’s most expensive hotel, held its long-awaited opening. London society was properly abuzz. Not only was the hotel on historic Hyde Park Corner, one of the most exclusive addresses in the world, but it was already heralding itself as “beyond luxury.” A simple room for two would cost $396 a night, a regular suite would go for $1,035, and the Royal Suite (a three-bedroom apartment with a drawing room, dining room, personal butler, round-the-clock chauffeur, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the gardens of Buckingham Palace) would set you back a mere $4,500.

The big news about the Lanesborough, however, was not its spectacular prices. It was that the hotel was being run by … Texans! And not just any Texans. These Texans were from Dallas, which all of England knew as the setting of the notorious soap opera starring Larry Hagman. Stuffy Londoners were not particularly amused. Where, they wanted to know, did a bunch of commoners get the nerve to think they could create a hotel that would become, as one of its publicity brochures claimed, “London’s foremost address for discriminating travelers”? London, after all, was the hotel capital of the world, home to such five-star institutions as the Ritz, the Savoy, the Connaught, and Claridge’s. Some had been operating long before Dallas even existed. More than a few critics wondered if the Lanesborough would become a British version of Southfork Ranch—or, as the Evening Standard put it, “a soap star’s mansion.”

In the international hotel industry, a number of elite hoteliers were also dumbfounded that the management contract of the most coveted new luxury hotel property in Europe was given to an unknown Dallas company called Rosewood Hotels and Resorts. It was known that Rosewood owned and operated two Dallas hotels, the Mansion on Turtle Creek and Hotel Crescent Court. Both regularly chalked up awards in the United States. But so what? This was England—and what did Rosewood know about England?

“Ah, yes,” sighed Rosewood president Atef Mankarios as he sat one afternoon in his office near downtown Dallas. He adjusted one of the sleeves of his perfectly tailored Versace suit. “Everyone still thinks we’re a bunch of cutthroat cowboys and oilmen.”

Frankly, I too had to wonder how a group of young Texas baby boomers—Mankarios, at age 43, is the eldest of Rosewood’s eighteen executives—won the rights to run a hotel five thousand miles away, one block from Buckingham Palace, the home of kings and queens. After spending an afternoon at the Rosewood offices, watching buttoned-down workaholics sip Diet Cokes and say things to one another like “Hey, FYI, we got new sales figures coming in today,” I decided I had to visit the Lanesborough. The hotel was about to throw a critically important party for some of the most prestigious members of London society and royalty. I wanted to see how they would react.

In Dallas society , of course, Rosewood is treated with almost godlike reverence. With part of the money she received as beneficiary of a trust established by her late father, oilman H. L. Hunt, Caroline Rose Hunt founded the company in 1979 to create small, elegant hotels. Her first effort was the Mansion on Turtle Creek, which garnered a national reputation: It received the coveted Mobil Travel Guide Five Star Award in 1990, and last year it was named by the U.S. Zagat survey as the best hotel in the country. The always-packed Mansion Restaurant alone has taught the sometimes rowdy Dallas rich more about fine wine and haute cuisine than any other establishment in the history of the city. Social climbers have been known to bribe the maître d’ to be seated at the restaurant’s highly visible front tables.

In the mid-eighties, Rosewood expanded to acquire the famous Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, the Hotel Hana-Maui in Hawaii, and the Remington in Houston, but after selling all three a few years later, the company seemed to retrench to its Dallas roots. The dapper, ambitious Atef Mankarios, however, had other ideas. Born in Egypt, Mankarios began working as a night concierge at a tiny one-star Paris hotel when he was 22. He worked in hotels throughout Europe, moved to the U.S. to work for the Four Seasons company, then was hired as the Mansion’s resident manager in 1985. In 1989 he was named Rosewood’s president, and right away he started looking for internationally prominent hotels for Rosewood to manage (though not necessarily to purchase).

Almost immediately, he had his chance. In October 1989 a consortium from the Middle Eastern sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi, which had bought the old St. George’s Hospital on Hyde Park Corner, announced it wanted to turn the building into the most renowned hotel in London. Money was no object. Suddenly, every great hotelier in the world was bidding for the project. In all, 42 hotel companies—among them such well-known names as Ritz-Carlton, Kempinski, Inter-Continental, Regent, Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental—made pitches to win the contract.

Rosewood was so far removed from the international scene that Mankarios didn’t even hear about the London project until three days before the bids were to close. Frantic, he and a vice president flew to London to give a one-hour slide presentation to the owners’ representatives. The reps had only vaguely heard of Rosewood’s hotels; the name “Caroline Hunt” meant nothing to them. But Mankarios talked about the company’s excellence. He said he wanted to create London’s first “six-star” hotel. In a spontaneous (some might say slightly crazed) burst of inspiration, he added that he wanted each guest to have his or her own English butler. No other London hotel provided a butler for all of its guests. The owners were duly impressed. A few weeks later, Rosewood was named as one of the seven hotel companies still in the running. Each was told to report back in a month with a full presentation on its ideas for the London hotel.

Rosewood was considered a

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