The U.K., 89% vaxxed, calls for help. Virtuoso responds with 41 advisors

Arnie Weissmann

It was, in the words of a normally staid upscale hotel general manager, “the brainchild of a dozen people who used to get sloshed once a week over Zoom.”

The 12 were London luxe hoteliers who commiserated regularly over tales of low occupancy and plummeting rates during the pandemic and who decided to put aside competitive differences and try to reverse the trend.

Vaccination rates have reached 89% of eligible adults in the U.K., yet Americans, whose vax rates are appreciably lower, have not been going to Britain in significant numbers. In normal times, Americans represent about 11% of overseas visitors, but account for 15% of the spend. Their absence is particularly painful.

A plan came together during those Zoom meetings: Design a fam trip to show that society had truly reopened in the U.K. and target travel advisors who were likely to send the highest-spending American traveler to them.

All the hotels were preferred suppliers of Virtuoso, so working with that consortium made sense. But to drive home the point that London was open, they knew that site inspections alone would not be enough.

Enter NoteWorthy.

NoteWorthy, also a Virtuoso preferred supplier, differentiates itself from other receptive operators by creating experiences that not only may provide special access but are often experiences that are exclusive to NoteWorthy. Its owner, Nicola Butler, doesn’t merely curate; she creates, building relationships that enable her to separate the experiences her clients receive from all others.

Butler and the hoteliers engaged Strategic Vision president Peter Bates, who not only advised the group but put together a program on the final day that included an address from Prince Edward, Queen Elizabeth II’s youngest child, as well as VisitBritain CEO Sally Balcombe, World Travel and Tourism Council CEO Julia Simpson and knighted British hotelier Rocco Forte.

The 41 Virtuoso agents (and CEO Matthew Upchurch) on the four-day fam were spread among suites at the host hotels: Brown’s Hotel, Corinthia, the Dorchester, 45 Park Lane, Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane, the Langham, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, Claridge’s, the Connaught, the Berkeley, Rosewood London, Shangri-La the Shard and the Savoy.

One thing many of the hotels had in common, in addition to lofty reputations, was that they could show off improvements made since the last time the advisors may have visited. Upchurch pointed out that, although the pandemic created the most devastating economic downturn the travel industry had ever seen, the underlying financial strength of many of the hotel companies was such that they could take advantage of the downtime to renovate, refurbish and rebuild. “They told me they were usually so busy that they could never do this, but [during the pandemic], they could,” he said.

The opening night reception at Claridge’s was a case in point. The evening began in the foyer of the property’s ballroom, which had just undergone a $30 million restoration, including having its ceiling raised almost five feet.

But that engineering challenge was inconsequential in the context of the totality of Claridge’s redo: It went an additional five stories up and dug another five stories down, doubling the square footage of the property on the same footprint.

Descending, advisors saw a new wine cellar and completely new kitchen (with a chef’s table that can seat 14); ascending to the roof, they saw the footprint of what is to be an enormous penthouse suite.

And in between, they saw a reimagined royal suite with real pearls sewn into the cloth covering closet doors and a smattering of other redesigned suites, some with different designers assigned even within a category. “In other hotels, you choose a room category,” our tour leader Mitch said. “In Claridge’s, you choose a room.”

After just one day experiencing the NoteWorthy tours, I began to wonder whether the name “NoteWorthy” was intentional British understatement to describe the events offered by Butler’s company. On the second evening, she had arranged for a performance of the Band of the Coldstream Guards, which more typically plays at official royal ceremonies.

The next morning’s activities included a visit to the Churchill War Rooms. I had visited before and, like most visitors, looked at the exhibits from behind glass windows. But Butler had arranged for a tour that included a chance to sit in Churchill’s chair and feel the dent in the arm made by the prime minister tapping his ring.

I was assigned to stay in the Langham, London’s oldest grand hotel, but one which artfully blends tradition and a contemporary sensibility. Its director of sales and marketing, Charlotte Weatherall, said that she had noticed a trend: Guests were increasingly ones who might have, prior to the pandemic, only aspired to stay at a luxury London hotel.

But having saved money during the pandemic and eager to come to London, they are booking now to celebrate special occasions. “A younger generation felt like grand hotels were somewhat unapproachable and only for the elite. But there’s this huge appetite for people to go out and celebrate.”

Stefan Muller, the director of sales and marketing for Shangri-La the Shard, concurred, saying that they have traditionally asked whether people were celebrating a special occasion. For now, it’s the ones who say “no” who are in the minority.

Advisors were busy posting and sharing photos of the trip, and by the middle of the second day, Alysia Hopper Steffes of Hopper Travels in Fond du Lac, Wis., said a client had reserved five nights at Claridge’s, a $17,500 booking. 

“I need to post more,” she said.

I was interested to hear VisitBritain’s CEO Balcombe’s plan to kick-start tourism, and on a panel on the final day, Forte asked her what her budget would be next year to attract Americans. 

Around $9.5 million, she said, adding she hoped to attract another $27.5 million from partners.

To put that in perspective: To launch the return to the 2019 U.S. visitor spend of $5.72 billion, the U.K. government plans to budget just about a third of what Claridge’s spent to redo just its ballroom.

While, if successful, that would be an amazing return on investment, such budgeting is likely more a reflection of government’s inability to recognize the economic importance of tourism. It’s not Balcombe’s fault — she’s facing the same problem tourist boards around the world face.

But as the 12 hoteliers demonstrated, private enterprise can often get results on its own. London is open, and hospitality and advisors are getting the word out. 

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