Once upon a time, if you wanted to stay in a decent hotel in London, you had one choice: the West End. Back in the early 1980s, there was practically nothing in the City (the Great Eastern was really showing its age, before being refurbished in 1996), nothing at all in the East End or Docklands or South Bank, and relatively few hotels in mid-town (the Howard, in Temple Place, the Waldorf in Aldwych).
That layout hadn’t evolved a great deal since 1906, when the great hotels at London railway termini, the Langham, Savoy, and Claridge’s, were joined by the Ritz. Later investment stayed close to the West End heartland. It wasn’t until 1998 that the first five-star south of the river opened: the Marriott County Hall Hotel.
From the 1970s onwards, Kensington became a sought-after destination; Blakes opened in 1978, then the Hempel off Bayswater Road. Still, that was just a slight westwards deviation, as if someone had inked in the West End hotels in red and then smudged the ink with the tip of a finger.
In the last ten years or so though, the London hotel map has moved from looking like a tiny red blot to a sprawling red octopus. There have been two really huge trends: a move eastwards, into the City, the East End and Docklands, and a move south, beyond the river and along its banks. At the same time, the centre has been filled in more densely, with more hotels mid-town, in Covent Garden, Aldwych, Soho, and Fitzrovia.
Part of the eastwards trend has been targeted at serving the dual centres of international finance in the City and Docklands. In the City, we’ve seen both five star hotels – Threadneedles (2002), Grange City Hotel, Grange St Pauls (2010) and Montcalm At The Brewery – and budget and mid-price chains (notably Tune Liverpool Street which opened in 2010).
Considering the Docklands Development Corporation started under Mrs Thatcher, it’s quite surprising that the area didn’t get a five star hotel till 1999 (Four Seasons Canary Wharf).
It now has a second, the Marriott West India Quay (2006) – together with a plethora of other hotels, many opened specifically for the London Olympics in 2012.
But there’s been a second wave of eastern openings that has nothing to do with men in suits – it’s more focused on the media and IT sector, and instead of the City or Canary Wharf, its centre of gravity is Hoxton and ‘Silicon Roundabout’. The Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green is the furthest east. There’s the Ace Hotel, Hoxton Hotel, and a whole load of openings planned for the next year or two.
South London used to be terra incognita. Then the South Bank became trendy, though still a bit rough. Now, it’s rapidly becoming a chic destination. In Westminster, the conversion of part of County Hall into a Marriott, and then the annexe into Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, has started the ball rolling.
Battersea, long known only for its power station, has become a luxury destination with the openings of the Rafayel in 2009, and Pestana Chelsea Bridge (but it’s really in Battersea) and Verta in 2010. Most recently, London Bridge has shed its down-at-heel label to host the Shangri-La at the Shard.
What’s behind this dramatic shift in the location of London hotels? I think there are several factors at play. One is that the West End has become both very full and very expensive. There are lower property prices but, equally importantly, more vacant lots or buildings available for redevelopment elsewhere. It’s interesting that a very high percentage of openings for the past decade or so have been in buildings with a different original purpose – insurance offices, courthouses, town halls. Now we’re looking at repurposing schools, courthouses and car parks.
Secondly, large redevelopment schemes have brought hotels in their wake. For instance, the huge redevelopment of Bow and Stratford for the 2012 Olympics, the massive investment in Canary Wharf, and major mixed use developments such as Heron Tower and the Shard.
And then of course there’s the question of cool – you can actually see a “map of cool” at Mapping London. Generation Y is headed for the East End rather than the West End, so in the same way that the City lost its monopoly on finance in the 1990s, the West End will lose its monopoly on luxury in the next decade.
So what will come next? What will London look like hotel-wise in another ten years’ time?
There will be a lot more hotels in the east, particularly Shoreditch and Hoxton, and they’ll be moving upmarket, and probably becoming less quirky and a bit more mainstream. I predict we’ll see more hotels along the river, but I doubt whether the South Bank will deepen very much from its existing thin ribbon along the Thames. We may not see five stars in New Cross, Clapham or Brixton for a while.
But I think what could be very interesting is the space between the City and the huge redevelopment at King’s Cross – the seedy bit of Islington. There’s a lot going on there in property development, the transport links are great and it’s on the edge of some very desirable areas.
What’s certain is that the map of London hotels in ten years’ time will look much more sprawling, and the eastern extension will more than balance the westwards openings in Kensington and Chelsea. Traditionalists may still be staying in the West End – but you’ll have far more choice of which neighbourhood you want to pitch up in.
Photo credits: nonanet, Blakes London, Four Seasons Canary Wharf, Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, Andaz Liverpool Street.