Heralding heritage hotels

SINGAPORE - When you're constantly assaulted by the non-stop crowds and frenetic tourist activity on Paris's most famous drag - Champs Elysees - it's easy to walk right past your hotel without even noticing it. Especially when the only hint you have that it's a hotel is the tiny gilded entrance and an even more discreet sign that says Le Claridge.

There isn't even a sign to say that it's a Fraser Suite or any hint that the upscale boutique hotel/serviced apartment is part of Frasers Hospitality's European portfolio, because its heritage status doesn't allow for it, says the Singapore company's CEO, Choe Peng Sum.

While Asian-owned or managed hotel properties isn't a new phenomenon, the concept of a Singapore hotel group which takes an active role in conserving its heritage properties in Europe is less well-known. But it seems to be a growing trend led by Frasers Hospitality, which has taken crumbling old buildings in Paris, London, Glasgow and Edinburgh and restored them to their former glory, turning them into elegant hotels in the process.

It's not an easy job, and the 53-year-old Mr Choe has some quirky tales to prove how heritage conservation has inadvertently become one of Frasers' core areas of expertise, aside from its bread-and-butter hotel management services.

Take the Fraser Suites Edinburgh, which Mr Choe says was the most challenging, but most satisfying, project of the four heritage projects they have.

"It was an 18th century building right in the city centre. It was used as an office by the city council, but there was a plan for all government offices to move out of the city so we bought it. But even before the city council was using it, it was an old printing press. When the council moved in, they boarded up a lot of the original stained glass, spiral staircases and even the ceiling cornices. But we didn't know that until we started tearing things down for the renovation." The discovery turned out to be a major historical find and the responsibility - and expense - of preserving it fell on Frasers' lap.

"There are six suites on the ground floor which have very high ceilings, with the cornices. Within each suite, we created a room within a room (with walls that ended just below the original ceiling so that the cornices remained intact). It took a long time to do - we could easily have just left them covered up but we decided to report it (to the heritage board) and conserve it. Now, the suites are the most popular, and people appreciate it because you can see the intricate cornices."

Heritage conservation was not a deliberate goal for Frasers, Mr Choe points out. Rather, it's the location. "For example, Le Claridge is an ideal location. We were looking around in Paris for a long time and this was an opportunity we came across, so of course we need to make sure we do the renovation.

"In London, it was also the location. I was actually looking for another property, further down the road from Kensington. But then I saw this property which was called Stanhope Gardens. We had limited funds then so we joined up with Halifax Bank and LaSalle investment. But we recently bought it over 100 per cent. The same with Queen's Gate opposite. We were previously running it as it was owned by Irish bank investors. But Ireland was going through a bad financial patch so again we thought it was a good opportunity because it was the location we wanted."

Renovation, however, was a big headache structurally and financially. The plan was for Queen's Gate to be completely gutted and refurbished. "We got the consultants, we had our budget and the board of directors approved it." But once they started tearing things down, "We found that the entire electrical and fire safety systems were in very bad shape, and the floors were so thin - we had to reinforce them and redo the entire fire safety and electrical systems. That cost a big unbudgetted amount but we had to do it."

Of course, the temptation was always to just feign ignorance. "There were design consultants who told us not to report what we found - for example in Edinburgh, no one would know about the boarded up stained glass windows and cornices, and in Queen's Gate the the fire safety system is behind the wall, no one would see it. But no, we couldn't do it. We're in this business for the long term - we want to own this forever."

But it's tough. "It's cheaper and faster to just rebuild. To conserve you have to be very careful, and after everything you have to get the local heritage board to inspect it. They make sure nothing is damaged and then they pass it. It's a long process."

Plus you need to be sensitive to the feelings of the local communities too.

In the case of Le Claridge, which Frasers has a management agreement with, "we couldn't use the name Fraser Suites Le Claridge because the name Le Claridge itself is listed, not just the building," he explains. "So we had to call it Le Claridge by Frasers - we were so envious because the Marriott next door has such a big sign but that building isn't listed. And we can't even explain why we can't put up our signage."

It was the same with Fraser Suites Kensington and Fraser Suites Queen's Gate. "The council and the people around the neighbourhood were so sensitive about our signage. At first we put up a nice big Fraser Suites sign and we were so proud of it. And then we received a letter so we kwai kwai took it down and put up a small one. Our board of directors paid a visit and asked why there was no branding - we had to tell them the whole story."

Still, it's all worth it in the end, as the local residents can see that "we are reconditioning the buildings back to their former glory". And Frasers wants to be known as a responsible company that can be trusted with a city's beloved buildings. "In the end, we sleep easy knowing we've done the right thing," he says, adding that if all goes well, Frasers might add another heritage building in Munich in the near future.

Of course, "It's not always nice to go back to the board to ask for more money, but I'm very thankful that when I say it's a must, they say ok. In a way, you can't run away because in many of these cities the central location is already built up, unless you go outside. I'm glad the board is supportive but of course they say, 'then earn more money'," he laughs.


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