Starting at its sister hotel The Berkeley 20 years ago, Paula Fitzherbert Group Director of Communications knows Claridge’s better than most. Here, she reveals the inner workings of a national treasure.
Quintessentially: You’ve been with the Maybourne Group, which owns Claridge’s, for 20 years. Can you describe the hotel when you first arrived?
Paula Fitzherbert: Around 20 years ago, it was a much sleepier ‘Grande Dame’. Gordon Ramsay hadn’t opened at the hotel, and so it had a slower pace of life.
How does it compare to today?
The arrival of Gordon Ramsay changed everything. He was the ‘enfant terrible’ of the time, and he brought a whole new energy and excitement. Then Claridge’s Bar opened as the beginning of the ‘hotel bar culture’ was stirring, too. Twenty years ago, nobody who lived in London went to hotel bars – they were seen as the haunt of tourists or as venues for your granny’s birthday. We’ve seen a huge shift as locals now use the hotels, and the bars are a big part of that.
What do you think appeals to Londoners now?
We don’t specifically cater to locals as such, but creating a place where people want to be is something we work hard to maintain. That’s welcoming everyone from locals, guests and people travelling for afternoon tea, to those who want an after-work drink or just to be seen at Claridge’s.
You’ve also brought in exciting outside brands, too…
Seven years ago, during the 2012 Olympics, [Copenhagen restaurant] Noma, came here. We’d been lucky enough to meet the chef René Redzepi before, and we had an empty ballroom, so we decided to create a ‘pop-up’. The idea of bringing a chef famous for foraging in Denmark to the ballroom at Claridge’s seemed so wrong but felt so right. People were eating live ants at Claridge’s!
What’s the food offering like now?
This summer, Daniel Humm and Will Guidara’s restaurant Davies & Brook is opening. When they were here a few years ago for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, they actually won for the first time for Eleven Madison Park. They had a party, but instead of us putting champagne and flowers in their room, we filled it with beers and pies! They realised they wanted a partnership with us after that.
And you’ve embraced a more fluid way of dealing with celebrity…
Previously, we were told that nobody could take any photos: famous guests were not to be disturbed in any shape or form – quite rightly so, as discretion is extremely important. But visitors do feel a little cheated if they don’t see some paparazzi action or stumble upon a photoshoot in the main lobby with a beautiful model gliding down the stairs in her ballgown. It’s the magic of Claridge’s.
Ten years ago, we were handling the premiere of the first Sex And The City film, and all the girls stayed here. Sarah Jessica Parker descended the stairs wearing a Philip Treacy hat and an Alexander McQueen ballgown, and everyone having afternoon tea stood up and cheered! Only at Claridge’s...
Of the three Maybourne Group hotels, Claridge’s seems to be the one that people come to for that sort of glamour…
Honestly, people assume that Claridge’s is my favourite for that reason, but The Berkeley and The Connaught also have amazing qualities. But, yes, for a full-on heady moment, come to Claridge’s. Things happen here: you suddenly see Clint Eastwood in one corner or Matt Damon in another! You don’t know where to look sometimes. Saying that, “Look away” is always the correct course of action in those circumstances.
Your job seems to entail keeping this magic alive…
In the past, it was all about writing press releases. Nowadays, my role is to present the best public image of the group. This could be through social media, print or even just in the local community. I feel like the hotel’s storyteller. We’re not an intimidating hotel strictly for millionaires, but an open place with welcoming doormen, fascinating stories and lots of options to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.
What’s your favourite hidden part of the hotel?
A few little places: the Art Deco ‘Telephones Corner’ in the lobby; the ladies’ bathrooms are unexpectedly beautiful, but my favourite spot at the moment is our archive room. We’re in the process of reviewing Claridge’s archives and how we can share them. We’re also buying more pieces from our history, too. Recently, we sourced fans from the 1920s with ‘Claridge’s’ written on them – they were an advert. We actually used to advertise the hotel on fans! We’ve also had all our arrivals ledgers digitised, so we can see the types of guests that have stayed here over the years. We’re custodians of the hotel really.
Will the public ever get to see the archive?
Not at the moment, but soon we’ll be showcasing a lot of the pieces in a revolving exhibition – kicking off with the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the 1920s in the coming months.
It will be a living exhibition, not a museum as such, but a set for people to come and visit. They used to have ‘Martini Hour’ in the hotel, so every night at 6pm the bartender from the Fumoir will bring over a real Martini to place in the exhibition. The archives are wonderful because they tell stories people don’t know about. In the 1950s, Katharine Hepburn wasn’t allowed through the front entrance wearing trousers, for example!
Do you have any Claridge’s secrets?
Way too many, and I’m keeping them all for my memoirs.
What do you miss about the old days?
The pace. It was sleepier, and much easier, but having said that, I don’t miss it so much because we’re embracing the world of today. You can see from our social media presence that we’re never commercial, we never speak about the guests, and yet we have one of the most followed accounts of any London hotel.
I think it’s because we focus on the storytelling aspect, which shows a real day in the life of Claridge’s, whether it’s a film star descending the staircase or a long-serving staff member polishing the last manned lift in London. We even seal our welcome notes with a special Claridge’s waxed seal and people love that. It harks back to days when things were more elegant and beautiful. That doesn’t mean we’re not up to date though: a lot of our VIP guests now come from Silicon Valley, so high-level technology is a must!
Does that mean you’ve had to relax your dress code?
Totally. We’ve been reducing our dress code over a number of years – 20 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to come in without a jacket and a tie. Now, we have no dress code at all. If there’s a major problem, we’ll deal with it.
Do you ever socialise at the bar?
People laughed at this question in the office. David Downton, our artist in-residence, jokes that Table Four is his office. I think people might often accuse me of the same! But it is true, we are in the business of hospitality, and therefore quite often you will find me at the bar. When everything is now discussed over email, the power of personal connection is so important. I love to welcome people for a glass of something chilled while the piano tinkles in the background and they enjoy the ‘magic hour’. The Fumoir really is the heart of the hotel’s Art Deco side, and David always jokes, “It’s midnight at noon” once you enter.
So, we’ve been to the bar, and now we’re booking a room. Is there any specific room that stands out for you?
It’s a tricky one because the hotel reflects rooms from the Edwardian, Victorian and Art Deco eras. We’re always re-doing and introducing new things, so no two rooms are the same. For me, I love the Art Deco rooms – they really take you back to a different time. They still have buttons for waiters, valets and maids, located in the baths, perfect for when you needed someone to wash your back. I really love the tradition.
Do you make friends with the regulars?
Absolutely. We talk about the Claridge’s family that includes all the staff and the regular guests. Our chef Martyn Nail; Roman Proboziak on the door; Martin Ballard on concierge – all these long-term staff members will have seen generations of guests come through, often for the milestones of their lives, like weddings, christenings and anniversaries. They see all their children growing up – it’s wonderful.
Describe a perfect day at Claridge’s…
It sounds like a cliché, but every day is a perfect day. You’re dealing with a living, breathing thing here, and nothing is ever the same. But ideally, it starts with a coffee in the Foyer & Reading Room and ends with a Martini in the Fumoir.
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