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.

June 1992By Comments

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 long shot. It was the only American company that had made the cut; the favorites were long-established firms from Europe or the Far East. Nevertheless, for two days, Man-karios visited twenty top London hotels, peering into rooms, taking notes. Back in Dallas, he gathered his staff for daily seven-in-the-morning brainstorming meetings. Trained in the big American hotel chains, his team had little experience working in European hotels.

Mankarios, however, is one of those people who is obsessed, day and night, with creating the perfect hotel. In his coat pocket he keeps a running list of ways to make hotels better. For all his charm, he is one of the most fastidious men alive—temperamental, a stickler for detail. If he finds one burned-out light bulb in the lobby of one of his hotels, he will go into a small rage, calling the general manager, demanding to know why such a catastrophe has occurred. “If you are my employee and you are not doing well,” he said, explaining his management style, “I’ll come after you. I’ll keep kicking your butt until it hurts.”

Mankarios also has a weird genius for the luxury hotel business. To the uninitiated, every luxury hotel looks grand: There are chocolates on the bed pillows, an extra phone in the bathroom, 24-hour room service, free movies on the television. But for executives like Mankarios, hotel luxury is determined by such minutiae as the fluffiness of the towels, the quality of the marble in the bathrooms, and the thread count of the cotton sheets. Mankarios and his staff debate whether guests’ bathrobes should draw to the left or to the right. He and his creative alter ego at Rosewood, James Brackensick, the 36-year-old vice president of purchasing, have literally gotten into arguments about the size of the dining room “show plates,” those ornate plates that sit on the table and then are taken away right before dinner arrives. On the day I visited the boyish, blond-haired Brackensick, his desk was piled with slippers. “Atef wants the ideal bedroom slipper for the Lanesborough, and everything I’ve shown him he hates,” Brackensick said with a pained expression. “The man is absolutely stubborn.”

With the Lanesborough project, Mankarios got the opportunity to address every pet peeve he harbored about hotels. Because he hated registration desks in hotel lobbies, he decided the Lanesborough should get all the information about guests over the phone before check-in so they could go straight to their rooms. Because it irritated him to call different hotel numbers to reach room service and housekeeping, he decided a guest should have to push only one button to call a butler, who would do everything that was necessary. Because he hated mini-bars (“Those little airline bottles make me crazy”), he wanted crystal decanters filled with different liquors in each room. Because he didn’t like maids inconveniently knocking on his door while he was in his room, he wanted to install electronic motion detectors so that housekeeping would know only to come to the room when the guest was out.

Mankarios also wanted each room to have a private phone line and its own fax machine. He wanted the hotel to provide a 24-hour secretarial service and to print business cards for each guest. He announced that each room should have a climate-control system—a computerized operation that adjusts the temperature and turns off the lights in the room immediately after a guest leaves and then automatically restores the temperature and turns the lights back on when the guest returns. He said the hotel should keep a computerized file on each guest, noting the guest’s preference in everything from wine to music; if an employee overhears the guest say his pillows are too soft, the information is input into the computer so that harder pillows will be provided for the guest the next time he checks in.

As opposed to the other companies who made presentations to the Lanesborough’s owners, Mankarios arrived in London with three leather-bound brief-ing books that described precisely how Rosewood would run the hotel. From the dining room cuisine to the housekeepers’ and limousine drivers’ duties, from the cost of the rooms to what exactly would be in them—it was all there. “What impressed us most,” said John S. Borner, a partner in the London consulting firm that evaluated the competing presentations, “was that Rosewood had presented us with a plan for the most technologically advanced hotel in the world.”

When the Lanesborough’s owners announced in March 1990 that Rosewood had won the contract, other competitors were outraged. One losing European company went so far as to contact the owners and say it had heard the little Texas operation was planning to get out of the hotel business in a few years. “They tried to portray us as a naive, inexperienced company with just two hotels who didn’t know Europe,” sniffed Mankarios. “We remained dignified and refused to answer such insults.”

The owners stayed loyal to Rosewood, but by now Londoners were intrigued—especially when they heard that the cost of refitting the old hospital into a small 95-room hotel would be a whopping $200 million. But to allay any fears that Rosewood would turn the Lanesborough into a purely American hotel with tent cards on the tables and American waiters introducing themselves with such lines as “Hi, y’all, my name is Steve,” Rosewood executives persuaded the usually reticent Caroline Hunt to conduct a few interviews with the British press. A devoted Anglophile—her Dallas store, Lady Primrose, holds a collection of magnificent British antiques that she finds on her frequent forays through the English countryside—Hunt won over the press with her understated personality. The Financial Times in London described her as the type of woman who would be “happiest making apples pies and being the cosiest of den mothers”—perhaps the first time ever that a member of the legendary swashbuckling Hunt family had been labeled as cozy.

Meanwhile, Mankarios was hard at work behind the scenes. He fought with James Brackensick over the shampoo bottles in the showers. Mankarios wanted to use antique-style glass bottles because they were classier; Brackensick was worried that they would break. (Mankarios won.) Mankarios hired one of the more famous chefs in England to create a never-before-seen modern menu—“British cuisine for the nineties,” he called it. He hired a famous name in the English hotel business, 38-year-old Geoffrey Gelardi, to be the Lanesborough’s managing director. Mankarios wanted primarily British personnel working at the hotel; he then infuriated London’s other luxury hotels by conducting hiring raids on their best talent. If he happened to be having lunch at a competitor’s hotel and he liked the way an employee smiled or waited on him, he would offer that person a job.

Mankarios spent four months in London supervising the training of the staff, teaching them that it was okay to lose some of that notorious English stoic attitude and be friendly to the guests. Every morning, he said, he wanted the staff to study and memorize the hotel’s guest list. The butlers, who typically are trained to avoid looking guests in the eye and to speak only when spoken to, were told to loosen up. “I want dignity, not stuffiness,” he kept repeating.

The interior design contract for the hotel had been separately awarded to a London design company, which was creating a nineteenth-century Regency look. That meant lots of striped couches and overstuffed chairs, dark mahogany paneling, handwoven carpets, lions’ heads with water pouring out of their mouths, and paintings of long-dead, unattractive people. When Mankarios said he wanted bigger, king-size beds in the rooms because the international customers would expect them, the design firm nearly guffawed. The English are quite satisfied with small double beds in their hotel rooms. “The designers were very British,” said Mankarios, “and to every one of our suggestions, they would say,‘Oh, you must be joking.’ The great anxiety was not only that we were Americans but that we were Texans who all lived like the people on the television show.”

To counteract the Brits’ perception that Dallas was the home of the tacky rich, Mankarios flew a group of the designers and architects to Dallas, where he put them up at the Mansion and Hotel Crescent Court and took them to a performance of the Dallas symphony at the Meyerson. Eventually Mankarios got his bigger beds.

A lost art returns to London, trumpeted the headline of the full-page newspaper advertisements that announced the opening of the Lanesborough. And indeed, walking through a series of Roman arched hallways, past a roaring fire in the fireplace, past the head concierge in flowing whiskers and gold-rimmed bifocals, past other employees in gray morning suits, one did feel as if one had entered a great aristocratic home.

But the London newspaper critics—perhaps a bit appalled that such a posh hotel could open in the middle of one of Britain’s worst recessions and certainly put off that such a hotel was being controlled by Texans—had their knives out. A writer for the Independent complained, “There is something so excessive about the Lanesborough that it seems almost bound to foment hyperbole. It strives for grandeur and certainly achieves grandiosity.” The Guardian’s critic snapped that the guest rooms were built with “every conceivable luxury and in the worst possible taste.” The Evening Standard claimed that the concept of electronic monitoring devices was probably the way rich Dallas people monitored guests in their own homes. The Daily Telegraph’s reviewer, apparently taken aback by the colorful wallcoverings and upholstery patterns in the hotel (which are still very tame compared with American decors), wrote, “The Texas influence is evident in the flamboyance of the decor: pink, red, and green predominate, and even the branches used in the main flower arrangement have been sprayed gold.”

The reviews of the restaurant were no better. The Times of London’s reviewer even took the Lanesborough to task for having what he called a “staggeringly long” breakfast menu (actually, it’s shorter than the one at Denny’s). And, of course, the notorious London tabloids got in on the act. On the night of one of the opening parties, at which Caroline Hunt was entertaining former prime minister Margaret Thatcher downstairs, a couple of writers from the scandalous News of the World newspaper rented a room upstairs and took photographs of prostitutes they said had been provided by the hotel staff. (The hotel vehemently denies providing them.)

To add to the insult, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, was forced to cancel a visit to another opening party for the Lanesborough in February because of the hotel’s Texas connection. Buckingham Palace ordered her to stay away from the Lanesborough because she didn’t need any further publicity about her association with Texans—namely Steve Wyatt, who was allegedly helping to bring about the end of her marriage. Palace Dallas Ban on Fergie, proclaimed the London Daily Mail.

Rosewood executives, who had received minimal negative coverage in America in the past decade, were obviously dismayed. Though it was doubtful that any of this news was affecting the American traveler (who the Lanesborough expects will make up about 60 percent of its business), what bothered Rosewood was the impact the publicity would have on London society. If the restaurant and bar didn’t become the haunt of the wealthy in the way that the Mansion drew Dallas’ monied crowd, the hotel would never be a great success. It was imperative that the Lanesborough lure away part of the crowd that normally goes to that most upper crust of London’s distinguished hotels, Claridge’s, which happens to be the very place where the British royalty holds some of its own parties.

And so, in mid-March, I watched the Lanesborough host its black-tie dinner for the London elite. The guest list was drawn up by Lady Elizabeth Anson, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth’s, and the place was crawling with people who had such titles before their names as lord, sir, lady, countess, and viscount. Television host David Frost came with his wife, Lady Carina. Prince Michael of Kent (another cousin of the queen’s) arrived, as did Princess Margaret (the queen’s sister). The princess was very nice to everyone and seemed especially interested in meeting the few Texans there. When I was introduced to her, she gave me a long, thoughtful look.

“Skip?” she asked. “You said your name is Skip?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” I replied, my heart pounding. Did she know me? Had she recognized my byline? Would she ask me to dance? Would I be the next Steve Wyatt?

“The word ‘skip’ is actually a name?” Princess Margaret asked. I had the distinct impression that she was trying not to giggle.

Later, I saw her with a man who looked just like Larry Hagman. I stepped closer. Good Lord! It was Larry Hagman. He was wearing a tuxedo with a sort of beaded necktie that looked like the kind of Indian belt you used to buy at Stuckey’s when you were a kid. He was talking to everyone in his best Texas accent.

“That’s it,” I thought, “the party’s over.” Right here in the midst of these people is J. R. Ewing, the one man who has come to symbolize everything bad about Texas.

But Hagman, oddly, seemed to be the hit of the party. Everyone did double-takes when they saw him. I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Do you think you could introduce Mr. Hagman to me?” one bespectacled man humbly asked me. “We once briefly took acting classes together when we were very young.” The man, it turned out, was the titled son of a prominent earl, no doubt richer than chocolate, the kind of guy who goes out on his 10,000-acre estate for a little fox hunting in the morning and then sips tea with Prince Charles. I realized that no matter how much the English might criticize Texans, they will always be fascinated by us.

As if being in a “Texas” hotel made everything less strict, the proper British partygoers let their hair down on this night. After dinner they swept into the hotel’s Conservatory, an ornate, glass-ceilinged restaurant that is anchored by a pair of two-ton, ten-foot-tall classical urns. Champagne was everywhere. Everyone danced until late in the evening, and then a small group hung around the piano and sang Cole Porter tunes until four in the morning. “What a smashing party,” one of the ladies said. “We’d never be allowed to have this much fun at Claridge’s.”

That kind of statement is like music to the ears of Rosewood executives. The Lanesborough might not become London’s most beloved hotel overnight, but Londoners—well, those who’ve got the fat checkbooks—won’t be able to ignore it. I’ll never forget the words of one young man, an employee of Christie’s, as he stood watching the party. I had just come off the dance floor after my incredibly embarrassing attempt to perform a waltz turned into something that resembled a fraternity-boy shimmy dance. “I’ve always wanted to come try this place out,” he said. “I suspected you Texas chaps knew how to have a good time.”

For a moment, I thought he might slap me on the back. But then, his reserve appropriately took over, and he raised his glass in a silent cheer.

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