Raising the Bar

30th November 2005 (Last Updated November 30th, 2005 18:30)

Hotel bars are attracting a younger, more discerning urban clientele in addition to their guests. Rebecca Burgess samples this new wave of hotel bars, which are offering serious competition to their cosmopolitan city counterparts.

Raising the Bar

It has been voted one of the best nights out in London and among the top 100 bars in the world, yet the Sky Bar is set in the noisy environment of Europe’s busiest airport. The bar is the brainchild of hotel manager Flavio Bucciarelli and the centrepiece of the 350-bedroom Sheraton Skyline Hotel at Heathrow.

Since opening in 2002 the bar has doubled the hotel’s beverage sales, and it now attracts several hundred visitors at weekends. Built around the swimming pool, the bar is an oasis of warmth, friendliness and calm flanked by palm trees, situated in a high-ceilinged complex at the heart of the hotel.

Bucciarelli spotted the complex’s potential as soon as he was appointed general manager three years ago: “When I arrived there was nothing, just the swimming pool. But I began to hear stories of how there had been a bar once that had been "the place to be". One day I visited a local car dealer who told me he had met his wife in the bar and I decided that it was my mission to do something about it. I could see we had this unique space which no-one else in London had.”

He knew hotel bars could be successful, having transformed a garden at the Sheraton Hotel in Milan into one of the city’s favourite hangouts.

Despite initial opposition from managers, Bucciarelli persuaded drink supplier Diageo to support his concept and within two months the Sky Bar was open for business. Initially, it opened for four nights a week and within a month it was profitable.

The next step was to launch Mumbai Nights, an Asian-themed extravaganza on Fridays aimed at the Asian community in West London. With food provided by top Indian restaurant Madhu, it regularly attracts more than 700 visitors, and its reputation as an Asian meeting place has resulted in bookings for the launch of BMI’s flight to Mumbai, the London Chamber of Commerce’s Asian export conference and several Bollywood films. “We have built a reputation in Heathrow as a gateway into and out of Asia,” adds Bucciarelli.

“Since opening in 2002 the bar has doubled the hotel’s beverage sales, and it now attracts several hundred visitors at weekends.”

The bar’s popularity has also had a knock-on effect on the restaurant and room bookings, which are consistently above 90%.

“There are two ways to win against your competition,” explains Bucciarelli. “You can go head to head with amenities, but a good bed can be replicated, so it is a battle with no winners. In our bar, we have something unique which we use as a centre to recreate a lifestyle outside of the hotel.

“Our success proves if you offer a seductive venue with premium cocktails and great music you can be outside central London and still attract the party crowd.”

EXPENSIVE AND EXCLUSIVE

Meanwhile, in the illustrious surroundings of Chelsea Harbour, hotel manager Keith Allerdice has also succeeded in luring the right people out of central London to his bar in the Conrad Hotel.

The Aquasia Bar has been voted number two in Time Out’s top 20 hotel bars, and counts singer Robbie Williams, media mogul Piers Morgan and footballer Frank Lampard among its regular clientele.

When Allerdice took over the hotel four years ago, the bar was a classical, Laura Ashley-style meeting place. Following a £2m refurbishment, including a glass frontage opening up the view of the harbour, it is now the place to be seen for London’s smart set.

The 154-suite hotel is part of the luxury arm of the Hilton family of hotels, and the robust security of the harbour development provides a safe environment in an increasingly nervous capital city.

“When I arrived,” explains Allerdice, “I wanted to change the hotel structurally to take in the view, and create a place where a diverse group of people would want to hang out.”

Having spent several years managing hotels in Hong Kong, Allerdice wanted the Conrad to be more like Asian hotels, where the bar is a focus for the community: “In this country we wouldn’t naturally think of going to a hotel bar or restaurant for an evening, but we are beginning to change that, and Aquasia now attracts a lot of clients from outside the hotel. The local community here is very wealthy, and they use the hotel as an extension of their kitchen. We have also attracted a younger audience from Kensington and Chelsea who don’t necessarily want to travel into central London.”

The bar has carved out its niche with a host of unique, extravagant cocktails and bar food created by bar manager Dan Cave, former manager at the Sanderson bar.

The Aquasia’s coup de grace is the Classily Bling cocktail, which will set you back £150 and consists of a sugar cube soaked in Angostura bitters and Louis XIII cognac topped with Cristal Roederer champagne and garnished with gold leaf and a lemon twirl. The bar sells an average of two a week.

“The robust security of the harbour development provides a safe environment in an increasingly nervous capital city.”

Another first is the delicious ‘edible cocktails’ created by Cave and chef Michael Gressli. The Tuna Martini, Smoked Duck Vodka Martini and Scallop Capirinha are served either in the bar or as starters in the restaurant. Then there’s the Bling String Thing, which is served with a pair of free diamante pants.

With marketing through Harpers & Queen, Vogue and the Evening Standard, the bar has attracted a wealthy elite clientele, while steering clear of the mass celebrity market. And it is paying off, with the bar exceeding its revenue projections by nearly a quarter.

GO EAST

Another city hotel bar leading the way can be found in the East Hotel in Hamburg. The 103-bedroom design hotel was opened by Christoph Strenger, Marc Ciunis and Anne-Marie Bauer in November 2004 in a former iron foundry. They spent €3m alone on the interior, including the Yakshi’s Bar and Lounge.

The bar was designed to be a meeting place for the cream of Hamburg’s cosmopolitan crowd, and it is proving to be just that. It is filled with business people, partygoers and visitors to Hamburg, who choose from a menu of more than 250 cocktails, spirits, wines and champagnes.

According to deputy general manager Kathrin Beulshausen: “The East is the first place in Hamburg to be known as a restaurant and bar and not particularly as a hotel. It is one of the hot spots in town.” The bar and lounge also double as conference venues during the day to maximise revenue.

Designer Jordan Mozer has transformed the building with futuristic shapes to create a variety of spaces in a key location, the St Pauli quarter.

“The bar adds revenue to the hotel because people stay on in the rooms and recommend the East to their colleagues,” says Beulshausen, ‘which [in turn] builds up its reputation as a place to go.’

Its success can be attributed to a combination of friendly staff and a warm and inviting atmosphere, which, as Beulshausen points out, is something you don’t find in every bar in Germany.

COOL CUSTOMERS

Not so warm is the Ice Bar in Sweden’s Nordic Sea Hotel, which has proved so successful that ice bars have now opened in Milan and London.

The bar is made entirely of ice and the dress code is a standard issue insulating cape, gloves and boots.

Although it can only hold about 30 people, turnover is rapid because of the below freezing temperatures – even the drinks are served in glasses made of ice.

In its first year in 2002, the bar attracted more than 70,000 visitors, a figure which rose by 20% in its second year. To celebrate its second birthday, the bar commissioned ice sculptor Mats Indseth to create a cow sculpture, to acknowledge the fact the bar is not a passing novelty.

“People look for new experiences,” explains Einar Soder, owner of Nordic Hotels, “and ice and snow have long been underestimated by the industry in Sweden. We were able to offer something unique and authentic.”

Maintenance is costly, as the ice has to be replaced twice a year with new sculptures and counters, but revenue is high, with an entrance fee of 140 SEK per person

“For the best bars in the city, it seems that more discerning drinkers should head straight for the nearest luxury hotel.”

The hotel itself is less like an igloo, and its 367 rooms are filled with tourists visiting the Ice Bar.

Having realised the profitability and popularity of lifestyle bars, the chain recently opened the Martini Bar in the Nordic Light Hotel, serving more than 200 combinations of dry Martini.

According to managing director Anders Johansson: “The idea behind the Martini Bar is to do something that hasn’t been done before – quite simply, offering a bar with an experience.”

The bar is aimed at hotel guests, but also offers after-work drinks for the over 30s and pre-evening drinks for the over 40s and fashion-conscious Swedes.

A SENSE OF STYLE

Discerning Spaniards are flocking to another hotel bar for their after-work drinks: the Hotel Omm in Barcelona.

“The group which owns the hotel already had restaurants which are fashionable and sociable, and we wanted our first hotel to be something like that,” explains sales manager Clementina Mila.

“It’s unusual to have bars like ours, but our idea was to create something very open to the city.” The hotel is in a very central location, and the majority of its visitors are not guests of the 59-bedroom hotel.

“The bar is a very important part of the hotel,” says Mila. “Uniquely, the front entrance goes directly to the bar with the reception to one side so you don’t have the feeling of being in a hotel.”

The bar features cutting-edge designs, with sofas and a fire for extra comfort. “It’s a place where people are happy to be at any time of the day, whoever they are with and whatever the purpose,” says Mila.

“It really is the place to be in Barcelona at the moment, so much so that we have to turn people away.”

So, for the best bars in the city, it seems that more discerning drinkers should head straight for the nearest luxury hotel.