by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
So the last plane ride of 2015 was atypical. It was a super-short hop, skip and jump leisure / pleasure trip to London with Rita to visit our daughter and son-in-law. But it was another opportunity to experience one of the world’s great cities as a simple visitor, unencumbered by the hurried rush and single-mindedness of work agendas.
The Streets of London
It’s hard, though, to switch off completely. As we ambled around the streets of London I wondered how this mega-city differed from other mega-cities like New York. One difference I immediately noticed is that early morning commuters in the UK capital tend to beat a focused path to their office desks without the 16oz beverage in hand so ubiquitous on the streets of New York (and in Dublin come to think of it). Maybe drinking coffee in the street is just an un-British thing to do or maybe the ascents and descents up and down the steep steps of the underground make it impractical but, whatever the reason, coffee in the street is conspicuous by its absence!
Park Plaza, Westminster
We stayed at the gargantuan, 1000 guest room Park Plaza at Westminster Bridge. Built on a brown field site only 5 years ago, Park Plaza incorporates all the magic tricks and flourishes of contemporary architecture with an abundance of glass and LED lighting throughout the property. We were in one of the 500+ studio rooms where the bathroom, somewhat counter-intuitively, is located in the centre of the room bound, on the outside, by the wardrobe and a wet-bar complete with microwave. We also had access to the Executive Lounge, a massive voluminous space 12 stories high, with front and centre views of Westminster Bridge, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. I particularly loved the subtle nod to Romanticism (and thus to Wordsworth’s “Upon Westminster Bridge”) in the word art woven into the carpets throughout the hotel. It’s an obscure fragment from John Keats “Asleep! O sleep a little while, white pearl!” For meetings and events Park Plaza is the perfect solution: 31 distinct meeting rooms and 1,200 square metre, pillarless ballroom.
We organised our Saturday night in London via Time Out‘s highly efficient website obtaining great seats to Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and dinner reservations in Homage at the Waldorf Astoria. The 20 minute mid December walk from Westminster took us past a city in celebration with pubs and shops in full festive mood. Dinner at the Waldorf was formal and grand (and surprisingly good value) but poor illumination in the restaurant didn’t show the period detail of the room in the best light. Generic stainless steel cutlery made us wonder, too, whether the family silver had been hocked in hard times?
The 1 minute transfer from table to theatre allowed us time to soak up the full excitement of Saturday at a Show in London – and get our order in for interval drinks. And the show is wonderful. Not quite “Jersey Boys” but not far off either with a seemingly infinite carousel of hits, highly energetic performances and great, uncomplex storyline. We capped our night out with a late night snack and drinks at the still exceedingly cool, design primogenitor of the city, OneAldwych. The Christmas tree in the centre of the lobby bar merits a visit on its own account.
Easy like Sunday Morning
Having experienced Sunday mass in the neo-gothic grandeur of St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York recently, I was anxious to check out Westminster Cathedral in London – reformation historians will know that Westminster Abbey (adjacent to the Bridge) is protestant while the eponymous cathedral is roman catholic. The Cathedral is revivalist byzantine with intricate mosaic detail and dates from the mid-Victorian age. Mass last Sunday morning was a joyous festive celebration, full of the pomp and ceremony that they do so well in England.
After mass we took a stroll over Westminster Bridge to the SouthBank, our progress constantly obstructed by the crowds gathered around the 3 cup tricksters who have colonised the Bridge, and now some of the SouthBank too. We dipped in and out of the various Christmas markets that line the Riverbank and marvelled at the variety of delicious street food on offer, enjoying empanadas and lamb along the way.
At Oxo Tower Wharf we wandered into The Barge House to discovery a venue of extreme grit and edge along with an eclectic exhibition involving fine art, film and live music. We spent an hour over three floors engaging with pieces and installations from 30 emerging artists hailing from 7 different countries concluding that, irrespective of personal likes and dislikes, the fact that such exhibitions take place at all is a wonderful public service, stimulating and elevating conversations, challenging us our of our cocooned comfort zones.
Tea under the Watchful Eye of the Clock
Following the visual stimulation of a challenging but entirely satisfying exhibition we sought refuge for afternoon tea in the hushed quiet of the Executive Lounge at the Park Plaza. It’s a serve-yourself smorgasbord of traditional finger sandwiches, magnificently crafted mixed confectionary and tasty fresh baked scones. We partook of this British tradition under the watchful eye of Big Ben while watching the coming and going on Westminster Bridge on a busy damp December in London.
Before heading back to Heathrow for our flight home we paid a visit to Grosvenor House, that Marriott flagship property so beloved of North American incentive groups. Grosvenor House is London’s only 5 star property with two full sized ballrooms, both with off-street access and one of which can stage banquets for over 2000 guests. Cristian Tanase, Group Sales Manager, at Grosvenor House showed us the refurbished Ballroom which has been magnificently re-imagined and tricked out with the best AV installation possible. Retaining original features like the chandeliers from 1929, the feel is retro-contemporary with amazing carpeting in muted colours playfully alluding to the venue’s original purpose as an ice skating rink. This retro-contemporary feel is carried over to the guest suite refurbishment which is now complete although the remaining guest rooms will be completed in batches over the next number of years.
Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy offering advice on strategy, marketing and training for destinations, venues and hotels.