When I was ten, one of my classmates invited me to his birthday party at the Dorchester. Nothing overly surprising about that (the school was Hill House) but it turned out not to be in the ballroom or whatever, but rather in the penthouse suite, which his family permanently occupied. The idea made a big and highly favourable impression on me, to the extent that ever since it’s been my ambition to live in a plush hotel.
Well, it’s been a long time coming, but a chap called Johnny Sandelson might just have come up with an idea which allows me to achieve my goal (sort of). I joined Johnny in his box at Lord’s (for the first day of the South Africa test), and he explained how it all works. You buy a 999-year lease in a room at one of the hotels owned by his company, GuestInvest, and this allows you to stay there for up to 52 days a year. When you’re not there, you take half the income the room generates from other guests. It’s buy-to-let with visiting rights, and no contact with testy tenants, loathsome letting agents or problematic plumbing.
I live in Rome most of the time, and when in London I usually stay with my parents. This in itself is a bit like being at a hotel (although in some ways not quite as good — even my devoted mother draws the line at serving me breakfast in bed). Getting on to that property ladder that everybody keeps talking about, and having a smart London bolthole as a bonus, would suit me down to the ground. Anyway, it all sounds rather fun.
‘We want to capture creative people, offering fewer services but more spirit,’ Johnny tells me (as Cook cunningly nudges another delivery past the slips). He uses the lovely phrase, ‘cultural canapés’ to refer to bite-size exhibitions and performances to be staged at the hotels. But this is no Reader’s Digest, culture-lite option — partners include the V&A and the ICA. There’s even an entertaining blog, purportedly written by one of the rooms at the gorgeously restored Jones Hotel. This Bayswater building started life as a baronial funhouse for Edward VII, and the ‘room with a blog’ claims to be Lillie Langtry’s old boudoir.
If you’re worried all this sounds a bit artsy and silly for serious investment consideration in these troubling times, it should be noted that the management crew includes Caroline King, formerly head honcho of Home House. Then, for true commercial gravitas, there’s Sir Mark Weinberg. He’s come on board with the substantial stake taken by GuestInvest in Blakes, the hotel previously owned, of course, by him and his wife, Anouska Hempel. This is the first opportunity to buy a room at an established operation — indeed, at the boutique hotel par excellence, founded decades before that phrase had even been invented. Lady Weinberg herself is now overseeing a massive refurbishment. Unfortunately, however, it’s being offered only to those who have proved their loyalty as regular Blakes guests over the years, something I have failed to do. The price is a little out of my grasp too, with rooms at about £1 million each.
At the other four GuestInvest hotels the cost is about £300,000, and for that you get a guaranteed return of 6 per cent in the first year. A pilot venture opened in 2004 has established some form, with both returns and capital appreciation (based on a handful of resales) currently between 8 and 9 per cent. Indeed, London hotel occupancy levels and room rates do tend to be remarkably robust; the August after the 7/7 bomb attacks, for example, was very buoyant, and our nascent recession has had very little effect. That situation may not last for ever, of course, and while ‘condo-hotels’ are well established in the States, it must be said that in this country it is all rather new.
No little uncertainties, however, have stopped my father from edging me towards investing in a room, despite his ultra-conservative attitude towards unproven investments. He tells me how much he enjoyed living at the old Hotel Splendide in Piccadilly as a child, where he and my grandparents were on good terms with fellow long-term resident Tallulah Bankhead. I can’t help feeling, however, that he just wants to stop me treating the family home like a hotel.