The man behind the most spectacular makeover in Claridge’s history
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
I think it fair to say that it is unusual for the boss of one of the world’s top luxury-hotel groups to cite the Viet Cong as chief among his sources of inspiration. But then it is equally fair to say that slightly built, softly spoken 65-year-old Paddy McKillen is an unusual hotel boss. If you are a regular guest at The Connaught, The Berkeley or Claridge’s, you will surely have seen him; he likes to work the lobby. But he is so low-key that you just haven’t noticed him.
Even so, standing on the windy, rainswept roof of Claridge’s, listening to him describe what will become a £50,000-plus per night penthouse supersuite occupying the entire footprint of the hotel, it is hard to take your eyes off him, even though he is competing for your attention with compelling 360-degree views of the London skyline. His blue eyes shine with enthusiasm as, in his gently lilting voice, he enumerates its features: three suites, ornamental lake, half an acre of landscaped garden, rooftop swimming pool and two glass-sided pavilions (one with a grand piano, the other a fitness and meditation space). When it opens next year, this sprawling apartment with its megalomania-inducing vistas will be the crowning triumph of his five-year refurbishment of Claridge’s. When I say that I don’t think that there will be anything like it in London, he murmurs, almost apologetically, “I don’t think there will be anything like it in the world”.
And that includes all the other hotels that Belfast-born McKillen is opening. Instead of allowing Covid to delay an ambitious programme to expand the Maybourne Hotel Group, McKillen has accelerated it: in late 2021, The Emory – the work of his friend Richard Rogers – will open in London; and by May of next year, there will be The Maybourne Riviera, a hotel on the Grande Corniche overlooking Cap Martin, with a cantilevered pool jutting out over the cliffs. The first Maybourne, in Beverly Hills, opened in August. And there’s a private project, a contemporary Kyoto ryokan designed by one of his architectural heroes, Tadao Ando.
But the renewal of Claridge’s is different; it is a renewal of his commitment to London, “one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest, on Earth”. As well as the effects of Covid, “Brexit is obviously a massive concern for us. It just doesn’t fit that we’re leaving Europe.” He is also worried about plans by Rishi Sunak to end the VAT-refund scheme for visiting shoppers.
“Any idea that deflects or attracts guests away from London to Paris is a serious concern; absolutely we want our guests to shop in Bond Street and get their tax breaks. But I think overall, post-Brexit and the virus, London will come back. We’re just going to have to work harder.”
It is no exaggeration to say that for McKillen, relaunching Claridge’s is much more than just another lavish hotel refurb – it is a near-sacred task. “It’s special; it’s very special. Claridge’s will soon be 210 years old. I think it’s as important to London as Buckingham Palace.” And almost as royal. Claridge’s is about as blue-blooded as hotels get: Queen Victoria used to come here to visit Empress Eugenie of France; at the last coronation, 11 royal families checked in; handsome framed photos around its art deco lobby testify to the patronage of Winston Churchill (who came here after his shock electoral defeat in 1945) and the Duke of Windsor (who gave up Buckingham Palace to hold café-society court at Claridge’s).
But although its grandeur was never in doubt, its standing as a 21st-century luxury hotel was slipping. While you could get away with describing the creaking lift as charming, the hotel had neither spa nor pool and, when the ballroom hosted anything noisier than a Quaker gathering, guests in the rooms above complained and had to be placated with room changes or discounts. Claridge’s facilities did not exactly keep pace with the times.
McKillen and a consortium of investors bought what was then the Savoy Group in 2004. Arriving jetlagged one evening after a fortnight in Japan, he went straight to his Dublin office to catch up with his correspondence where, at about 8pm, to his surprise his office phone rang. Within 10 minutes, a man was in his office selling him The Savoy, The Connaught, The Berkeley and the grande dame, Claridge’s. He didn’t need much persuading, but he did need “£750m by Friday, which was in two days’ time. It was a very unusual deal, that,” he says matter-of-factly.
It happened so quickly that he only got to see the hotels after their purchase. He decided that The Savoy alone required £250m spending on it – and besides, he did not like the location, so he sold it for that same amount to concentrate on the three other hotels.
McKillen saw what Claridge’s needed: spas, pools, a fitness club, a cinema, a subterranean boutique-shopping mall and three new floors of rooms. And that was just the guest-facing stuff; there was also a long list of infrastructural requirements. The hotel lacked such basics as its own laundry and bakery. But he decided to start with The Connaught. And then five years later, just as he was just turning his attention to Brook Street, he had to fight a takeover bid.
During the financial crisis, the Barclay brothers had bought the loans with which the hotels had been acquired. “I left my life and concentrated for five years on that. We lost everything. We never won a case in the courts, not one. They just got tired. They’d admit that now. ‘How did you stick it out? How did you keep going?’ That’s what their words were to me.” On the occasions they encounter each other now, McKillen describes the atmosphere as “very courteous”.
The half-decade battle brought McKillen’s name to the attention of the Qatari Royal Family who, through Constellation Hotels, bought Maybourne and, admiring McKillen’s tenacity, tasked him with overseeing the running and development of its hotels.
And he would need that tenacity for what was to come. Doubling the size of the hotel, he was informed time after time, was an impossibility; a double impossibility, in fact, as he wanted it to remain open throughout. “It would have been impossible to close the hotel,” he insists. “You’d lose all your staff, you’d lose a lot of your guests and the cost of the loss of sales for five years would have been horrendous.” Elucidated in that soft, musical voice it all sounds so reasonable… unless you happen to be an engineer, in charge of the Westminster planning office or heading up Historic England. “We approached the five largest engineering groups in the world to do this hotel while it stayed open. And every one of them more or less kicked us out of their offices, saying it couldn’t be done – that you’d have to drive these big drill rigs into our beautiful lobby, drive 40m piles through the marble and take the whole front of the hotel out.”
It was the Viet Cong who supplied the Archimedean revelation. “I went down the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, outside Saigon. Vietnamese farmers dug these tunnels by hand with spoons. They built hospitals and schools down there. And that’s how they defeated the Americans, with this network of tunnels. I came back and said, ‘Are you saying we don’t have the technology today to do the same under Claridge’s? Of course we have, we must have.’ They all laughed. The only person who really took me seriously was this guy Jim Mackey. And he said, ‘Paddy, you’re not talking about excavation – it’s actually mining’.”
Had Paddy McKillen been project manager of the Cu Chi tunnels, the Vietnam war might have been concluded more swiftly. In October 2015, 75 burly miners arrived from Donegal and started wielding their picks and mattocks. Five years later the project is nearing completion, and throughout 2021 Claridge’s will debut various parts of it without actually ever having closed (even during the first lockdown the hotel hosted health-care workers). The miners went into the building from the back and tunnelled down 33m (at the time, Claridge’s was 30m high), creating a series of 1.8m-wide shafts; these were filled with concrete to create columns capable of stopping the Grade II-listed hotel falling in on itself. Then they started to burrow their way into the thick London clay. (Each room now features a rustic-looking vase made with clay taken from beneath the hotel.)
This is subterranean engineering as spectacle: a three-dimensional multistorey maze that variously resembles the engine room of a giant ocean liner, a Bond villain’s lair and sections of Crossrail and Eurotunnel. It offers seemingly infinite possibilities. Take a right turn and you might end up in a brick-clad, loft-like space with windows cunningly illuminated to mimic daylight, boasting a gnarled, centuries-old olive tree and seating for 100: the staff restaurant. Take a left and you find yourself in an oenophile’s Elysium, with bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti stacked floor to ceiling. Without McKillen as Theseus to guide me through the maze, I would still be trying to find my way out of a warren of kitchens, spas, shops, chef’s tables, cinemas – the scale is bewildering. There are dizzying views from the top of stairwells that corkscrew down 33m beneath the London streets; cavernous concrete halls destined to become swimming pools and treatment rooms; corridors lined with miles of foil-clad pipes stretching off to some distant vanishing point under Davies Street. When work is complete, there will be “engine room” tours.
Every couple of minutes McKillen stops to dilate on some feature. Lovingly patting a congruence of ducting as if it were a favourite family pet, he explains the sophistication of the air-filtration system. “Covid happened as we were putting in the air-conditioning system,” he explains. “This system supplies fresh air to each room individually – sucking it in from outside, cleaning it and piping it direct to each room, so that nobody is breathing somebody else’s air.” Stopping by one of the 63 giant pillars supporting the venerable hotel, he points to a contraption at the top: “That’s our own idea of a jack. It’s really, really novel engineering.” Beaming with pride, he explains how it permits the six-floor building above to settle, millimetre by millimetre, on its new foundations. Or at least, it was six floors; as well as burrowing into 33m of cloying clay below, the air above Brook Street has been claimed by two new floors of guest rooms and the supersuite.
And all the while this complex multidimensional jigsaw has been being assembled, Claridge’s has continued its business of welcoming 87,000 guests, pouring 43,000 bottles of champagne and serving 22,000 afternoon teas a year. It has even opened a new flagship restaurant, Davies and Brook, helmed by that darling of the gastro jet-set Daniel Humm. Stepping between the two is in effect to enter an analogue version of the Matrix: a simple folding door separates the glittering art deco perfection of the black-and-white lobby from the heavy-duty 21st-century engineering that is, quite literally, keeping it from falling down.
For McKillen, the point was not just to add pastiche to the art deco rooms and historically correct public areas. He views what he is doing as a once-in-a-generation –perhaps a once-in-a-century – opportunity, and he wants to leave the mark of his times on the fabric of Claridge’s: “That’s why all the artists and architects want to collaborate with us, because they feel that they’re adding something to the heritage of this building.” And as his partner gives him carte blanche, this is a spontaneous process, rather than the painful decision-by-committee process characteristic of large public companies.
In October, he came across a space that he felt could do with a Damien Hirst stained-glass window. “I called Damien there and then and asked if he did stained glass. He said, ‘I didn’t, but I do now’.” Opening a massive interior lightwell presented him with the perfect setting for a vast Jean-Michel Othoniel sculpture. When Jony Ive and Marc Newson told him how they had salvaged the Orchid Bar from the demolition of Tokyo’s Okura hotel, he invited them to install it in a speakeasy-style space that he had especially hollowed out of the ground under Brooks Mews.
McKillen likes to surround himself with creative talent, and Ive is among those regular guests who have decorated Christmas trees in the lobby of Claridge’s – a McKillen-era tradition that has seen everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Diane von Furstenberg turn their hands to tree-trimming.
Having the world’s top artists and designers on speed dial, dropping in for a home-cooked supper with Richard and Ruthie Rogers or hanging out with Ed Ruscha in the artist’s garden in LA (where McKillen lives for half the year) is clearly a lifestyle he treasures. “Hearing from them about what they’re up to next is very special because I’m a frustrated artist. I just love being around artists.There’s nothing I love more than spending an afternoon in an artist’s studio.” And when he can’t find an art studio, he can always retreat to Château La Coste, the Provençal vineyard he bought in 2002 and has transformed into a hotel and sculpture park (Serra, Calder, Scully, Bourgeois, Emin et al) with buildings by Ando, Rogers, Piano, Niemeyer and Nouvel. Even the kitchen garden, conceived and laid out by Louis Benech, is a museum-quality work.
It may seem a long way from the beginning of his life as the son of a garage owner, but he says a sense of family is at the heart of what he does. He tells his staff that if in doubt, they should think what their mother would have them do, and he says it was stories of his parents’ honeymoon that have guided his career.
“My mother and father went on their honeymoon to Ashford Castle in the west of Ireland. It was one of the great hotels in Europe, and my father had saved up to go to this amazing hotel, which was way above what they could normally afford. When they arrived, there was a note in the room saying if they wanted to have a picnic on the island during their stay, that could be organised. So off they went down to the lake and there was a lovely old motor launch ticking over and a guy in white, the captain of the boat. They took a walk around the island, a lovely romantic island, while the captain was busy setting up a wee circle of stones and a fire. He boiled a big kettle full of water, opened up this big basket – there was fresh chicken and linen – and put up little stools.
“It was only afterwards that my father and mother realised that the guy on the boat was the owner of the hotel. That has never left my memory; that’s what hospitality is about – that the boss of a hotel can still take the day off to bring this little insignificant couple out on the boat and break the firewood and make them happy. That’s our business. It’s part of our job, to give this amazing experience to our guests, no matter whether they’re from Hollywood or whether they’ve just been saving for their honeymoon.”
This article has been amended to correctly reflect Paddy McKillen’s relationship with Maybourne Hotels at the time of its original publication in December 2020