“We want guests to feel we are on their side…with sincerity. Let’s talk about exciting things. Things we can do for you.” Jonathan Raggett, CEO Red Carnation Hotel Collection
I refuse to let you travel to London in Jolly Old England and stay in a generic, corporate-branded hotel. When lodging in London, you simply must experience a British sense of place with not only the location of your hotel but with its style, surrounds, history, trappings and comforts.
The Red Carnation Hotel Collection ensures a very royal stylestay inside and outside its six boutique London properties:
Hotel 41, in Westminster, “Tops on Trip Advisor for 10 years,” said Red Carnation CEO Jonathan Raggett.
The Rubens at The Palace, “Closest to Buckingham Palace,” Raggett reminded.
The Egerton House Hotel, “On the doorstep of Harrod’s historic department store,” Raggett said. “We see lots of Harrod’s green and gold bags coming back to our hotel.”
Milestone Hotel and Residences in Kensington is not far from Harrod’s either. “We have a view of Kensington Palace and the Royal Albert Hall is blocks away,” said Andrew Pike, who has been Milestone’s general manager for 20 years.
The Montague on the Gardens is a Georgian townhouse in Bloomsbury/Soho, near the British Museum. “We can get the curator to open the British Museum early and show you around,” Pike offered.
Raggett Explains Red Carnation
A red carnation, on the lapel of a gentleman or in a centerpiece on a table, is an elegant, comforting and yet subtle accoutrement. A red carnation was the signature flower worn by Stanley, the husband of Red Carnation Hotels Collections founder Beatrice Tollman. You will spot red carnations in gentle spots throughout the hotels and proudly worn by each team member, but not placed out front in the name of their hotels, as you might with Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons, or corporate brands.
“We do not hide the name Red Carnation, but we believe the individuality of the hotel comes first. The brand name comes after,” Raggett revealed, and then explained other Red Carnation differences. “We are a family-owned business. This differentiates us from the larger brands. Everything we do, we care about. We are not after every year making a certain share price. Red Carnation Hotels are five-star properties that are not trying to gouge guests. We respect value. Our repeat factor is almost 70-percent of people coming back. Our word of mouth is important.”
Raggett would be happy to know I experienced some of this Red Carnation “word of mouth” when I overheard some Texans in the Milestone Hotel lounge talking before a meeting they were going to take with some Saudis.
“I don’t know how you found this hotel in a town with thousands of them, but there is no reason to go anywhere else,” one of the Texans said to the other. “One thing I admire about the British is how they embrace comfort. Their furniture is comfortable. Their automobiles are comfortable. In a place that can be cold and damp in winter, they provide comfort.”
Where are We?
Just after my Delta flight landed, I followed the signs and rolled my suitcase on to the convenient, affordable and speedy Heathrow Express train, which, in 20 minutes, delivered me into pleasant Paddington Station, where I climbed into one of London’s iconic black cabs for the short taxi ride through Hyde Park to the historic 1923 Milestone Hotel.
“There is an ancient mile marker in front of the hotel that’s been there for 450 years,” Pike would later tell me of the property previously owned by aristocrats. The sumptuous Milestone boutique hotel, one of 18 luxurious Red Carnation Collection properties worldwide, including Ashford Castle in my beloved Ireland and one of my all-time favorite hotels, The Oyster Box, in Durban, South Africa, is across the street from Kensington Palace.
I was treated, upon arrival, like royalty.
British comfort at the Milestone came in the form of a smoked local whiskey theatrically prepared by an Argentinian mixologist named Victoria and served by the Romanian bartender. And I do not think I have experienced a better, more elegant, traditional English breakfast anywhere in the United Kingdom. Which had me thinking of British tradition…
What Travelers to Blighty Expect From a London Experience
Raggett and Pike, Red Carnation colleagues and pals, were kind enough to engage with me in a “free association” session tossing around some traditional, if cliched, perceptions of London experiences and English culture. As a Yankee, I gave them a British blitz:
Getting a Suit Made on Saville Row
“We send a number of our guests there to enjoy the very nice experience,” said Raggett. “There is a saying: ‘After you’ve had a suit made on Saville Row, it’s like boarding an airplane: Once you get used to turning left, you never want to go back to turning right.’”
I reminded Raggett that Englishman Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Airways refers to first class seats as “Upper Class.”
James Bond British MI6 007 on His Majesties Secret Service:
“The franchise and fascination with it continue,” said Pike. “At the Milestone, we have connected with some James Bond experts and have created presentations including a “James Bond Night” dinner at which we had some of the James Bond actors who played the villains come and tell stories after dinner about what it was like working with Sean Connery or Roger Moore.”
British Luxury and Sports Cars Such as Aston Martin; Bentley; Rolls Royce; and Jaguar.
“The busses and trains and taxis in London work exceptionally well,” said Raggett, who is cyclist. “No need for a car here in Central London.”
Pike said, “I got a hankering recently to make a trip to Liverpool. That city has such a buzz. Every street has a karaoke bar. Some people staying with us might be crazy about the Beatles, so we can arrange for them an Abbey Road studio tour.”
“Over the past few years afternoon tea has become extremely popular,” Raggett admitted. “All of our Red Carnation Hotels start around midday and go right through 7 p.m. with two-hour slots. People come and have as many sandwiches and cakes and scones as they want while they drink cups of tea and take away anything they cannot eat in a box. They have a jolly good time. The only negative is we do not do much lunch anymore. Afternoon tea has taken over. And its jolly delicious.”
Pike pointed out that Noel Coward’s portrait is presented in the lounge during tea. Coward, one of the most creative writers and performers in England’s history, once said, “Wouldn’t it be dreadful to live in a country where they didn’t have tea?”
Speaking of portraits, Pike revealed, “We have a lovely lady, Shelley Levy, who is our resident artist at The Milestone. She a portrait artist and while you enjoy afternoon tea or on special occasions, she can discreetly paint your portrait.”
Second World War History
“The Churchill War Rooms are in the top-five requests we get. Guests tell us they are fascinated by the little details of being in the spot where it all happened,” said Pike. “Another great experience is the Secret Underground, in an unused underground station close to Mayfair. Churchill used to keep a stash of cigars and champagne if there was a heavy air raid he could carry on operations.”
The Royal Family
“We often have television crews covering the royals staying with us at the Rubens Hotel near Buckingham Palace,” said Pike, who, at the Milestone, has royal encounters. “Given our proximity across the street from Kensington Palace, we have had members of the royal family – two of the younger members in pre-wedding days in particular who used to come and have dinner with us. We have a beautiful little private room downstairs called ‘The Oratory’ that used to be the chapel for the house. We used to discreetly let them in the side door, and they were absolutely sweet and charming.”
Pike admitted they tread a discreet line in respecting the royal family, but their concierge and barman can help guests with all the information they need.
“Prince William and Princess Kate have a residence just across from the Palace even though their permanent home is in Windsor. Stephen, our head doorman over the years, got to know the sounds of when the royal motorcade is coming up the road. If he knows we have guests in who are royal fans, he will give them a little call and get them to stand in front of the hotel. William and Kate know Stephen, so they will wave to Stephen, and the guests think they are waving at them. It is a magic moment that could only happen here because of the man we have at the door and our proximity to the palace.”
Raggett, also, is an admirer of the monarchy. “The Royal Family does an amazing job for this country. As a hotelier, it is amazing the amount of business that comes to London because of the royal family. All things ‘royal’ are good for business.”
Red Carnation’s Royal Treatment…But With Sincerity
Raggett, as Red Carnation CEO, is a hospitality industry leader. But his demeanor is warm and genuine. “We understand customers have different needs. We want guests to feel we are on their side…with sincerity,” he insisted. “The question that drives me nuts is when you arrive at the front door and some asks you, ‘How was your trip?’ We all know your trip was alright because you are standing there. And we all know how traumatic it is arriving at the airport and putting your bags through and it is not really a subject you want to talk about. Instead, let’s talk about exciting things. Things we can do for you.”
Red Carnation’s Care and Careers
I asked the Milestone Hotel concierge named Dino for logistical routing advice by giving him a list of my points of interest. No printing out Mapquest for him: Dino went above and beyond by bringing me a London map on which he had drawn stars and attached sticky notes with addresses.
“We put a lot of extra money into training our people,” said Raggett who oversees 4,000 employees he said are like family members but told me the story of one: Adam Lake, whom he found working in the linen room of the Chesterfield Hotel – the company’s property in Mayfair.
“He had a twinkle in his eye and was very courteous and nice. I wanted the guests to enjoy him and his smile, so I moved him to reception and got him into training programs. Now he is the general manager.”
Milestone staff know they really can rise to the top. I heard a breakfast server tell some guests, “Next year when I see you, I will be working reception.”
Raggett told me he’d been 40-years a hotelier and started his schooling in Westminster at age 18. “I was fascinated by large spaces, beautiful chandeliers delicious food and wine and drinks,” he admitted. “I would say to any youngster out there if you want a different job every single day, if you want to meet interesting people, if you want to avoid Monday morning blues, this is a wonderful business to be in. But you must be caring and kind with a strong work ethic.”
Red Carnation Collection Hotels’ “TNT:” Tiny, Noticeable Touches”
Pike also revealed some of the Red Carnation hospitality endeavors such as “TNT” – tiny, noticeable touches.
“When we can learn of the London experiences a guest may be enjoying on a given day, we try to leave a surprise in their room for when they return,” Pike explained. “Our kitchen will have prepared a custom candy tray painted in frosting with an imagine of their adventure, whether it be a visit to the Beatles Abbey Road Studios or a trip to Buckingham Palace. We want to show them we understood the importance of their day.”
Red Carnation can help create experiences as well, such as treating guests to foraging, shopping at Barrow Market and cooking locally grown ingredients with the chef.
A Milestone Moment
I wanted to do some “retail foraging,” so was leaving my lodging in the Noël Coward Suite – room 308 with its’ leopard-print carpet, yellow-striped bed, white marble bathroom, and leaded-glass window view of Kensington Palace – headed for Harrods, the historic department store, less than mile away. Harrod’s would be manic, while The Milestone was the opposite: cozy, charming, and elegant in every way.
I got into the Milestone Hotel’s tiny wood-paneled elevator wearing a royal purple blazer and tie. As London phone booth-sized lift went down, the doors opened at the second floor and a woman, in a hurry, was about to step in when she suddenly noticed I was inside. The sight of me startled her.
“I am not a ghost. I am real,” I said. The woman, with pulled-back blonde hair, laughed as I allowed, “But I guess I am a little bit scary.”
She slipped in, and her white shorts, tank top and sneakers she wore were as bright as her smile. She had pulled-back blonde hair.
The doors were closing on the close quarters when she said, in an English accent, “Sorry I just need to push that the button behind you. Button ‘B,’ for the fitness center in the basement.”
I moved out of the way but still pushed the button for her.
“Shouldn’t ‘B’ at this hour of the day stood for “bar?”
She shrugged. “I know. And it is an awfully nice bar too. Have you been in it?”
“The very moment I arrived from Heathrow Airport.” Then I shrugged. “It was morning, but my room was not ready yet.”
“Not a bad situation, really,” I said. “A breakfast beer.”
The door opened to the lobby for me to get out and the bouncy blonde looked up into my eyes as if the person who had startled her in the elevator was now a curiosity of some value. She asked, “You are from America, aren’t you?”
“How did you know? I joked. “California?
“Well, I’m sure you can tell where I am from,” she countered.
I looked at her and squinted. “Hmmmm…India, that’s it. India.”
She burst out with a laugh. Then, with the lift doors closing, she pointed at me with a big smile on her face.
“You…you are funny!”
Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler and contact him at [email protected]
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