In early June last year the FT travel editor emailed to ask if I'd like to review London's most expensive hotel suite. The Mandarin Oriental, he said, had just spent £100 million (€116 million) tarting itself up and its new penthouse suite was available to anyone with £42,000 to spend on a night's shelter.
The very next day, long before I had got used to the idea that a 24-hour stay in a hotel could cost twice my annual gross salary as a trainee teacher, I saw the news on the BBC website: “Mandarin Oriental – Huge blaze at Knightsbridge hotel.”
My night in luxury might have gone up in flames, but all was not lost. Even without having set foot in the place, I had a perfect case study for my year nine economics class. I was trying to explain the concept of Giffen and Veblen goods, which flout the most basic law of economics that says a rise in price is met by a fall in quantity demanded.
With a Veblen good, the pricier the item the more people lust after it - and this suite was the best example I’d ever come across. Its USP was to offer guests the opportunity to spend an additional £10,000 – £20,000 per night over London’s next most expensive suites (at the Lanesborough, Langham, Rosewood and Corinthia) in return for the reassurance of having secured the most costly sleep in the capital.
The response of my 14-year-old students – half of whom qualify for free school meals – to the Veblen suite was interesting. Almost none saw anything wrong in a society where such inequality persists, or anything wrong in the heads of those who wish to spend their money in this way. The consensus was that anyone who made vast sums of money should have vastly expensive things to spend it on. “If I was Jeff Bezos”, said one boy who has every intention of becoming him one day, “I would definitely go there.” The only shame from the students’ point of view was that their teacher didn’t get to try it out.
Ten months later I was offered a second chance. The grand Edwardian pile on Hyde Park had reopened, and the invitation to spend a night in the penthouse suite was renewed.
By then I had worked myself up into such a heightened state about the ways of the super-rich, that as my daughter and I made our way to the hotel I caught a glimpse of us reflected in a Knightsbridge shop window and thought how shabby we looked. Possibly the maroon-coated man at reception in the refurbished splendour of the hotel thought the same thing; but if so he did not let on. Instead a barrage of bonhomie greeted us. He looked momentarily surprised by my luggage, a small canvas shoulder bag that I insisted on carrying myself, but then assured me he always travelled light himself.
Up on the ninth floor, he flung open the door to the suite and I almost collided with a second red-suited man stationed on the threshold, beaming and declaring himself to be my butler.
Behind him stretched the suite. Wow, I said.
The interior, designed by Joyce Wang, gives an instant feeling of sterility, drabness and vulgarity. Everything is textured. The doors are made of what appears to be a dark, corrugated melamine. The theme, I’d learnt, is meant to be Hyde Park. Brass statues of deer wander across the furniture. Ducks fly across textured walls. The metal chandeliers are like clumpy branches of a tree.
Towering flower arrangements and a Carmen-Miranda-style mountain of tropical fruit might have provided distraction from the ugliness, only their colours clashed with the television screen. The latter occupied a large proportion of a wall and was tuned to a lurid screensaver of the hotel façade.
I dispatched the beaming butler with a request for some milk and set about exploring the space. We examined an astonishingly horrid corrugated metallic drinks cabinet and wondered if there was anything in the suite that we would accept if it were given to us for nothing. Eventually we settled on the towelling robes, whose excessive thickness had a £42,000 bounce to them.
Our game was interrupted by the arrival of the FT photographer, who had taken pictures in many luxury hotels. He took one look at the suite, shrugged and said: “It’s oligarch taste.”
In that case, I retract everything I’ve written. Quite possibly there is nothing wrong with the most expensive suite in London: the fault instead lies with me. I simply don’t have the money to appreciate it.
For the rest of the stay I resolved to think like an oligarch to see if I liked it any better. I cracked open the bottle of champagne that was sweating in a silver ice bucket and tried to get into the mood. Oligarchs, I reflected, would love the marble and gilt lamp with its frosted shade and the bronze ducks on the corridor wall. However, I fear they might have been as disappointed as I was by the balcony. It runs the full length of the suite and would have looked directly on to Hyde Park, had not a solid wall obscured the view. Only the tree tops were visible above it.
Oligarchs need a lot of space, and so the three double bedrooms, two sitting rooms, a dining area for eight, three bathrooms, two further loos and two kitchens were just right. They would approve of the dressing room with its three long hanging rails, the wine fridge and two padded leather Aspinal boxes, one for five watches and the other for a considerable jewel collection. No oligarchal valuables could hope for a more comfortable place to pass the night.
Oligarchs and TVs
I don’t know if oligarchs love TVs, but if they do, they are in for a treat. There are eight of them all told, each one the size of a small cinema screen, except for the one built into the marble tiling around the bath.
They might be put out to find no TV in any of the five loos, but they could console themselves by playing with the 12-function toilet control system instead. As a non-oligarch I was floored by it: I pressed one button at random and a powerful jet of water shot up between my legs causing me to cry out in alarm. As I was not wearing my reading glasses I pressed buttons to try to get it to stop but eventually had to call my daughter for help. One of the buttons must have operated a seat heating system, as when I next visited the loo I was further disconcerted to find the seat warm as if someone else had just vacated it.
So who actually stays in this splendour? I put the question to the manager who said it was mainly private families, with a few heads of state thrown in. The only other guest to have occupied the suite since the reopening 10 days earlier was a member of a royal family, who had booked it for five nights - which would set them back £210,000 for the room alone. Everything else is extra, she assured me, even breakfast.
When I asked how they justified charging so much she cited three things - location, (sandwiched between the park and the shops of Knightsbridge); history (the Queen learned to dance there, and Churchill stayed there during the war) and service. The Mandarin Oriental has instilled in all staff three values based on what modern guests really want: competence, energy and - her favourite - kindness. I pointed out that the milk I’d ordered had yet to come; she snatched up the phone and it duly appeared on the double.
Later we had cause to test this kindness when we couldn’t make the bath plug work. A call to reception produced one expert who fixed it by giving it a thump, followed by the butler, who wrung his hands and apologised so profusely and at such length that it was a relief when he finally retreated. When later I couldn’t work out how to turn off the vast telly in my room, I got my daughter to do it instead.
Once in the dark, I didn’t need to be an oligarch to find myself well satisfied. The blackout curtains, operated by a switch from the bed, were surely darker than whatever kept Churchill safe during the war. More remarkable still was the silence. There was no noise from outside. No cars. No dawn chorus. No banging lift shafts and even within the suite sound did not travel: when I called out to my daughter in the next door room she could not hear a thing.
Being in bed was like being in a sensory deprivation chamber. The linen so smooth and the bed so comfortable that I was barely aware of being in one. And if the pillows weren’t precisely to your liking (they were) there was a “pillow menu” from which you could order more.
In the morning we went to the dining room to rough it with regular guests for breakfast. The view of the park from the ground floor is gorgeous. The trees dripped with the fresh green of spring and just outside the window people trotted by on horseback. The food was perfect, and the service was competent, energetic and kind.
The only bad thing was that if I had already paid £42,000 I might take offence at being charged a further £34 a head for continental breakfast. But then I was forgetting, if I were an oligarch I wouldn’t even notice.
* Lucy Kellaway was a guest of Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Double rooms start from £630 per night. Bespoke packages at the Mandarin Oriental Penthouse cost from £42,000 per night. The hotel restaurants, including Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Bar Boulud and Breakfast by Mandarin Oriental, are open to non-residents – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019