Issue 23 - March / April 2009
What started as a cross Channel road trip with a hotel guide book and a sheaf of Post–It notes has developed into Von Essen Hotels’ thirty strong portfolio of luxury hotels. With its first newbuild – Hotel Verta at Battersea Heliport – under development, Catherine Chetwynd met the group’s creative director to find out more.
Given the exigencies of the current economic climate, creative director and development architect of Von Essen hotels Andrew Onraet must feel like a pig in clover with £50 million to spend on acquisitions, developments and refurbishments.
That said, ten years ago, Von Essen barely existed. “[Owner and chairman] Andrew Davis was buying derelict estates and renovating them into private residences or residential splits. There were two hotels and they were part of his property portfolio,” says Onraet, who has been seminal in the creation of Von Essen. He and Davis met in 1998 and Davis asked him if he wanted to put together a collection of hotels. Onraet had doubts. “My hunting ground was Berlin, London and New York and I wondered whether I could operate in the country,” he says.
Clearly, he made the right decision. Von Essen now comprises 30 properties and the collection is divided into Classic, Country, Family, Continental and Metropolitan sets – the latter two consisting of one hotel each. “Some years ago, Andrew Davis and I went through England and France with a Johanssens and marked it with Post-its,” says Onraet. “I found it recently: we own the ones we had targeted. It was like an archive.”
Onraet trained at Kent Institute of Art and Design, which he describes as “the last architecture school in England” and graduated from the RCA with an MA. He worked with Nigel Coates on projects for the Welsh Opera House and on exhibition designs for the Whitney Museum in New York before establishing AEON Architects. “My practice was at the cutting edge of loft conversion before Manhattan lofts came across the Pond,” he says.
All of which is a far cry from tarting up country house hotels. “It was a bit of a shock,” he says. “There was a lot to do around creating Von Essen, putting in the standard bearer for what it was to become.” Onraet emphasises that he tries hard to stand back so that he is not imposing his style on all the properties.
Washbourne Court (Country Set) and Lower Slaughter Manor (Classic), both in Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds, are good examples. Washbourne Court had just been renovated when three months later, it was devastated by floods and had to be closed. “We had originally done it piecemeal because we had to keep the hotel open but once it was shut, we took it further in the direction it was going anyway.
“It is outlandish, metropolitan, Chelsea in the Cotswolds,” he says. “It is as contemporary we could go without being hostile to the building, a former 17th century grain store,” says Onraet. “Lower Slaughter Manor is more cosmopolitan in flavour and slightly more refined. It is not intimidating or stuffy but has manicured striped lawns, topiary. Everything is considered, down to the salt and pepper.”
He is conscious of the need to move the brand on to attract new customers but of one thing he is adamant: “We do not want to be following fashion,” he says. “We are trying to get back to a more genteel experience but one relevant to today’s lifestyle.”
Onraet’s current major project is rolling out the Von Essen spa brands. Aquea Sulis (water of the gods) is the Luxury Family range and Bath House Spa, which started at The Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath, is now also installed at New Park Manor in the New Forest.
“We acquired Culpepper last year, and Bath House and Culpepper have similar philosophies – inspired by herbs, holistic, organic – and we will develop that into our spa range to replace von Essen’s Numbers range,” he says. “The first Culpepper Spa will be at Washbourne Court, hopefully by December this year. It also has a life outside the hotels, with retail shops, and we will supply it as a spa or amenity offering in other hotels.”
The jury is out as to whether Culpepper Spa will take over from Bath House or whether the two will run alongside each other as in Bath House by Culpepper or something similar. Meanwhile, the Culpepper experience is being crafted as I write.
Onraet has a small team working at the company’s West Country head office. “You get caught up with the idea that everything happens in the city and this is where all the cool dudes are but you are in a clique and when you leave, you are much more open and receptive to the people you come across. The West Country has a huge number of people we work with – it is about bringing craftsmen back into design,” he says.
“And we have a master craftsman in-house, Steve Edgar. He takes a piece of wood, shuts himself away and the most amazing piece of furniture comes out of it – as though the fairy has been overnight. He takes enormous pride in his work.”
The next step in the development of Von Essen is the opening of the 70-bed Hotel Verta in London in June this year and with that, the Metropolitan Set is born. “It is a departure for Von Essen but for me, it is coming home,” says Andrew Onraet. It is the first hotel at the London Heliport at Battersea Reach, which Von Essen also owns, and includes 250 apartments.
And the design? “We are going back to the glamour of early aviation, Sunderland flying boats, a woman with a mink stole. We are looking at having staff trained by Singapore Airlines and at having a Voncièrge.” There is also the possibility that a luxury design house may sponsor the heliport.
And with the naming of Hotel Verta, Onraet is also proud to contribute a phrase to the English language. “This is the only place in central London where you can land commercially. It is London’s vertical gateway. We coined that.”