Is Raffles losing its shine?

Is Raffles losing its shine?

The iconic image of Raffles Hotel is well-known: A regal, 128-year-old modern institution named after Singapore's British founder, its sprawling colonial architecture harking back to a rich British heritage.

It is also home to the Singapore Sling and hotel to the rich and famous who have passed through our shores, including King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and entertainer Michael Jackson.

But in recent years, the shopping arcade attached to it seems to be letting down its five-star reputation.

The walls are scuffed and paint is peeling off its murals. The marble stairs are unpolished. In the corridors, visitors often chance on random pieces of furniture. In the courtyard, the umbrellas and ledges are streaked with bird poop.

The situation is so dire that some tenants in the 5,000 sq m, three-storey shopping arcade have made their disappointment with the poor maintenance known to the management.

Mr Goh Kim Tuan, general manager of Kim.T Fine Jewellers and Artsseni by Kim T., says: "The Raffles Singapore used to be spotless and staying here was a dream. But now, it's just not that any more. The floors are stained and the toilets are terrible. And the gardens are not fabulous anymore. You should respect the building. Don't treat it like your backyard."

Another long-time tenant has seen the standard of upkeep go south in recent years and says it is "hurting the image of what Raffles is".

"It's a very open place where anyone can use the toilets and roam the building. But if you're going to open it to the public, you should clean up. I stay because I like my shop. After the lights are out, I leave. I don't want to deal with the rest of the building. I pay my rental and do my business," adds the tenant, who declines to be named. Indeed, the shopping arcade (below), unlike the 103-room hotel, is open to the public and gets foot traffic of between 500 and 1,000 tourists and passers-by in a day.

Currently, it has 45 tenants, including international brands such as French fashion house Louis Vuitton, home- grown tailoring label CYC The Custom Shop and lifestyle store Lotus Arts de Vivre, though there are some empty units.

There are also restaurants such as casual diner Ujong, a gift shop and a florist.

On three separate visits to the shopping arcade, Life! found the complaints about the upkeep to be accurate.

Many tenants think the property's owners need to be more committed to preserving the image which many have come to associate with Raffles Singapore - the group name for both the hotel and the arcade.

Ms Jessie Phua, 60, director of fine-dining Chinese restaurant Royal China on the third storey, says: "The problem stems from the frequent change of owners. They don't have the commitment to keep it to the level that Richard Helfer created or maybe they don't know how to. I'm not sure if it's a lack of ability or they just don't care."

She is referring to the hotelier who spearheaded the $160-million restoration and redevelopment of Raffles Hotel in 1989.

Now, both the hotel and shopping arcade are owned by Qatar's Katara Hospitality, previously known as Qatar National Hotels. The property's past owners include US private equity fund Colony Capital, which also bought other hotels under the Raffles brand, a decade ago.

Raffles Singapore's general manager Simon Hirst admits the management has "dropped a ball here and there" in maintaining the arcade.

The British-born Mr Hirst, who has been on the job for 18 months, says: "I'm conscious that this is a hotel not just for travellers, but also for Singaporeans. So, of course, I'm not happy if parts of it are not in the condition they should be.

"With the outdoor elements and the last modernisation being about 25 years ago, it's no secret that we're struggling with some aspects, but we're trying to catch up."

He points out that the hotel spends about $1.5 million a year on maintenance and has recently painted parts of the facade, such as the side facing North Bridge Road and the main entrance of the hotel. The side of the property along Seah Street is slated to be painted next.

The hotel also has a cleaning schedule for the public restrooms in the arcade and brings in a European company every two to three years to touch up California-based mural artist Carlo Marchiori's works on the third storey.

It also has a monthly public area inspection for each floor and the hotel's general manager does random inspection several times a month.

Mr Hirst says: "With such a large public space, increasing yearly repair and maintenance cost and the labour crunch, we acknowledge it is an ongoing challenge. But nonetheless, we are committed as custodians of the iconic Raffles Singapore to continue to work hard on the care and upkeep of the hotel and shopping arcade." There is more pressure on the grand old dame to spruce itself up, especially since older heritage buildings in the area have recently undergone revamps.

Across the street, former convent Chijmes completed a $45-million renovation last year, which saw the lowering of the cloister walls and the addition of new and trendy restaurants.

Later this year, the well-loved 1929 Capitol Theatre in North Bridge Road will open its doors after restoring its interior. It is now an integrated luxury development with residences, a six-star hotel and a mall with upmarket offerings.

Architects and consultants have several suggestions to improve the shopping arcade.

Mr Jeremy Tan, 52, a director at DP Architects who worked on conservation projects such as Hotel Fort Canning, suggests enhancing the existing hard courtyards with more landscaping. This will support vibrant public dining concepts that will get locals to return and also attract tourists.

The management should also look at a more exciting tenant mix such as food and beverage concepts within its picturesque gardens.

He adds: "Unless you are looking to do some shopping or stay at the hotel, there is little to entice visitors. Architects can come up with new hardware to make it look better, but the software, which will draw crowds, needs to come in too."

Ms Kelly Dickinson, founder-owner of The Stripe Collective, a design and brand specialist boutique agency, says the hotel needs to "step up its game" in its F&B offerings. The studio is behind many restaurant interiors such as Wolf, a nose-to-tail Western restaurant in Gemmill Lane, and came up with a new design concept for steak restaurant Jack's Place.

Ms Dickinson, 39, says: "Competition is tough, especially with the independent restaurants doing so well. Raffles has a tricky task ahead to balance its heritage equity with a need for an F&B mix that can go toe to toe with today's contemporary dining expectations.

"Singapore is a sophisticated F&B landscape and is forging ahead like those of London and New York. Big players need to keep up."

But the Raffles brand still has its loyal supporters among the tenants.

Zenith Affair's Esther Ho, 50, a bespoke jewellery consultancy and event planner who has been there since the arcade opened, says: "There used to be a staff member with a paint bucket walking around the premises, ready to paint any dirty spot. That doesn't happen now, but the building still has its charm. They should take care of it, but it's not a small property and there are many entrances.

"I think they are doing the best they can and it's not bad."

natashaz@sph.com.sg

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