Note: Dominic Walsh in the UK Times (15th September 2008) wrote this article.
After years of talking about expanding its luxury hotel business, the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA) is finally investing. Having recently added the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and the New York Palace in Manhattan to its exclusive chain, it is preparing to invest almost £100 million converting two more landmark properties in Britain into hotels for the rich and famous.
Christopher Cowdray, the man charged with overseeing the BIA's hotel expansion plan, is casting his eye over trophy hotels throughout Europe and North America with a view to persuading their owners to sell to the BIA or hand over control under a long-term management contract.
Last November, Mr Cowdray, a former managing director of Claridge's, was named chief executive of the Dorchester Collection, the BIA's hotel management business, with a brief to expand from five hotels to fifteen by 2015. “There's an enormous opportunity to grow the Collection,” he said.
Management contracts are a departure for the group, which until now has run properties owned by the BIA, itself ultimately controlled by the Sultan of Brunei. The Bel-Air and New York Palace were both seized by the BIA from Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the Sultan's brother, after a legal battle over state-owned assets.
As well as planning a $200 million (£112 million) revamp of the New York Palace, Mr Cowdray is starting plans to convert two Brunei-owned properties in London and Berkshire into the next part of the Dorchester Collection. The first, due to open in 2010, is the former Playboy Club, next door to The Dorchester itself — but forget the Bunny Girls. The 50-room hotel envisaged under the proposed £40 million refit will create a sophisticated look a million miles from the casino that was closed down in 1982 over suspected gaming irregularities.
Mr Cowdray said that although the hotel, to be called 45 Park Lane, would be run as an adjunct to the Dorchester, it would have a more contemporary feel. “The price-point will be very similar — at the top end — but it will have its own personality. It will be modern rather than traditional and will appeal to a different audience.”
The other project occupying the Zimbabwe-born hotelier's time is Coworth Park, a stately home and 200-acre estate near Ascot acquired by the Sultan a few years ago. Subject to all necessary planning consents, the Georgian house will provide 35 bedrooms and suites and a further 35 rooms will be created from the stables and various cottages.
The Coworth polo centre will become an equestrian complex and polo will still be played. “Most hotels of this sort have golf, but with Wentworth near by there's no point developing a golf course. I want to keep the polo aspect to it because polo tournaments are great fun. It's becoming very popular and brings a unique aspect.”Despite the Dorchester Collection's royal connections, Mr Cowdray rejects any suggestion that it is merely a rich man's plaything. “The hotels all make a good return. You have targets and measurements and staff respond to those. When businesses become very soft and fluid, they lose direction and when you get economic downturns they are not able to respond.”
Despite the economic climate, Mr Cowdray claims that the company has been unaffected so far, with earnings in the first half up 15 per cent at £35.5 million. “We don't seem to have been affected by recession,” he said. “The difference is that the market we deal in is a bit more resilient. It's also shifted, so while the UK and US economies are a bit down, we've got economies such as Russia, the Middle East, China and the Far East that are up.”
The nature of the company's clientele — guests at the Dorchester include Nelson Mandela, Nicole Kidman, the Hollywood actress, and numerous heads of state — mean that even a full recession is likely to have a relatively limited impact as the super-rich and super-famous continue to seek out the most exclusive hotels in the world.