Despite Lenny Henry’s best efforts, hotels have always represented a key role in our nation’s psyche.
To many, hotels mean a gateway to hedonism: a space to indulge your Hotel California fantasies which, more often than not, actually means drinking four miniatures from the mini-bar of an Ibis, feeling woozy and nicking off the following day with a towel and a Gideon Bible.
To some, hotels can be an otherworldly gateway to hell: metaphorically if you’ve been watching Jack Nicholson gurn his way around the Overlook Hotel in ‘The Shining’, literally if you’ve stayed at the Doncaster North service station on the M18.
To lots of people though, whether for business or for pleasure, they’re primarily a symbol of luxurious freedom: a chance to let someone else take the strain of cleaning, cooking and tidying. A space to treat oneself. A space to drink. A space to think.
For me personally, I’m happy if business luxury means the bathroom boasts a bar of soap and I can check out at 12pm, not 11am. I’m a man who, when staying in London for work in pre-recessionary times, chose to spend a night in an easyHotel. It was a revelation – like walking into a reverse Tardis, the room’s dimensions defied expectation, convention and, to be frank, physics. There wasn’t room to swing a cat. There wasn’t room to swing the tail of a cat. If I’d felt ambitious, I could’ve successfully slept, showered, shaved and (let’s be blunt here) cleared my inner runways (OK, I could’ve been blunter) without taking a solitary step in any direction. It was like an overnight stay in a Ryanair toilet, but considerably more orange.
However, it was facilitating a glitzy night of corporate, cliché-justifying schmoozing, so it was good enough for a lowly PR drone like me. Other business folk usually need a little more pampering which, by and large, they can get when staying in Birmingham. But, whereas my London-based clients would insist on staying in five star hotels, those staying in Birmingham have to set their sights lower than five star…because there’s no such thing as a five star hotel in the city.
Birmingham seems to be pulling in the visitors – recent figures suggest that Birmingham’s visitor economy is now worth £4.9 billion, with 33.5 million people visiting the city last year and increasing numbers anticipated since the Olympics have demonstrated the UK is more than just a home to Euro-shirking stodge-munchers with dismal dental regimes. The Conservatives and the UKIPs are amongst those conferencing here later this year. But where are these people staying? And where are they staying if they require refinement?
We know our four-star hotels are pretty good. The Radisson, the Malmaison and Hotel Du Vin are all of a high standard – indeed, the Hotel Du Vin is the one for star-spotting, thus in my eyes immediately lending the establishment a sense of near five-star stature. You want proof? I saw Stephen Mulhern there once. Aye, Stephen Mulhern. He’s on the telly. Well, he was recently. ITV it was. Well, ITV2. It’s still the telly, alright?
Other contenders have also joined the fray. Frustratingly though, none of our hotels can claim to be five star establishments: they don’t offer the seductive adornments that make an “ah, this is nice” into an “Oh. My. God! I could so get used to this! I’m Living La Vida Loca! I’m Keeping Up With The Kardashians! I might bump into a naked Prince Harry! etc”. Concierge, valet parking, gym, spa – our hotels may have some of these, but generally not all. They’re even less likely to have other desirables like 24 hour reception, concierge, housekeeping and room service; or ultra-expensive furnishings; or a staff-to-guest ration of more than 2:1; or a casino; or even a pet concierge. Actually, it’s better that Brum’s hotels don’t have pet concierges, but some five stars do and presumably you see my point.
The new entrants to the market have at least added an element of competition, though a trusted source tells me the superficial appeal of one should be classed as ‘all fur and no knickers’.
It’s unfortunate that another prospective market newcomer, the proposed Westin Hotel and Spa, fell victim to the global economic malaise; the Snow Hill development was destined to be the city’s first five star hotel. Its potential effect on the demand for prestige accommodation remains just that – potential.
However, as a man who’s survived the easyHotel experience, I should probably look at this differently: maybe it’s right Birmingham doesn’t have a five star accommodation. We’re a city where notions of ostentation, flamboyance and servitude don’t sit well with Brum’s ingrained sensibilities of self-deprecation, understatement and humility.
Perhaps we should be patient, and assume we’ll eventually have the five-star hotels that would complement the undoubted five-star restaurants (well, one-star restaurants, but as those stars are Michelins, there’s no need to be churlish) the city boasts. No doubt this development would be welcomed by the business fraternity, who already have one over their Northern counterparts by being able to schmooze clients, prospects and dignitaries at Purnells or Simpsons (in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, I have it on good authority that most client lunches take place at Subway).
Or could we shout louder about our accommodation that might not qualify as five-star, but is eye-catching in its own right? In this regard, arguably the height of city style is the Staying Cool serviced apartments in the Rotunda - it may not be a hotel, but it has an exemplary design and tech spec combined with gasp-inducing views of Birmingham. Although the pet concierge is notable by its absence, I’m still confident in saying it feels five-star.
So, we have no five-star hotels at the moment. That’ll surely change – not because Birmingham desperately needs them, but demand is eventually going to make it a necessity. In the meantime, we should appreciate what we have (which is pretty good), before our streets are punctuated with eager looking gentlemen, lurking outside a foyer’s revolving doors, offering to park your car for you. Remember – if they’re wearing a natty suit and a ready smile, it’s probably valet parking. If not, call the police.
* Keith Gabriel is a Birmingham-based PR executive