Inside The Set Collection’s iconic London hotel, Hotel Café Royal, Editor Hamish Kilburn meets legendary hotelier and Executive Director Jean-Luc Naret to discuss hotel development, the definition of luxury and how (and why) the collection is expanding…
In the heart of London – straddled between the well-to-do neighbourhood of Mayfair and the exuberant quarters of Soho – sits the iconic Hotel Café Royal, which for many is the epitome of luxury hospitality with its bold, voguish design that meets the height of quality service.
“If only walls could talk,” I say to myself when walking through the paired-back, minimalist corridors being told tales of the building’s former existence, when it was, as the name suggests, a café. But not just any café in London. It was a place where the rich and famous were seen rubbing shoulders. Patrons include the likes of Mohamed Ali, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor and Diana, Princess of Wales.
In 2008, the hotel closed for an extensive renovation, which was led by David Chipperfield Architects and Donald Insall Associates. The task was to transform the building into a thriving luxury hotel, while also being sensitive to the building’s long and storied heritage.
Hotel Café Royal emerged in 2012 from its building site to reveal a modern five-star hotel. The second hotel of what was then The Set, its sister hotels include the Conservatorium in Amsterdam and Hotel Lutetia in Paris.
A decade on from that spectacular opening party, I am back here, inside the Regent Suite that casts an unparalleled view over Piccadilly Circus, to meet Jean-Luc Naret, the Executive Director of The Set Collection, which is made up of a cluster of iconic hotels in spectacular locations.
Prior to starting his journey with The Set Collection, Naret took the global hospitality industry by storm. He was the Director General of the Michelin Guide and also managed luxury hotels worldwide, in destinations such a Mauritius, the Maldives, Barbados and also become CEO of La Réserve Hoetls & Spas, where he was at the helm of a collection of six hotels and five private residences.
His latest mission is to sensitively expand The Set Collection’s small cluster of award-winning luxury hotels, to welcome new members that speak the same design and hospitality language. “The Set Collection launched a few years ago during the pandemic,” he tells me. “We started with four properties in Europe (the original members, if you like). From there, we wanted to expand and that’s where our search for unique design-led hotels began.”
When it comes to selection process of which hotels will be sheltered under The Set Collection umbrella, Naret and his team are looking for properties that sit in a class all on their own and have a strong and meaningful sense-of-place, both in the design as well as hospitality. “We are not looking for more than one hotel per destination,” Naret explains. “We want to avoid our hotels feeling like they are competing against each other. Therefore, we are looking for a properties that are leading luxury hotels within their neighbourhoods. Each of the hotels that are already in the collection – Lutetia in Paris, the Conservatorium in Amsterdam, the Mamilla in Jerusalem and Hotel Café Royal in London – are based locally. Take this hotel, for example, you have one foot in Soho and one foot in Mayfair.”
The latest news is that The House Collective will be joining The Set Collection, which will add a further four properties to the mix. “Like our founding members in Europe and Israel, The House Collective’s properties have made an impact on their market and the luxury traveller’s collective consciousness that is far greater than their relatively small footprint would suggest,” Naret said in a press release that was issued a day before our meeting. “It is a privilege to work with these expert hoteliers, not only to offer them the myriad benefits that being a part of The Set Collection offers but also to learn and grow together in new and exciting markets during these unique times.”
Hamish Kilburn: So, you currently have properties in London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Paris, Beijing, Chengdu, Jerusalem and Amsterdam… If you had to chose one destination answer where you choose to party, live and work?
Jean-Luc Naret: Party in Paris, live in Amsterdam and work in London
HK: Is there such thing as an unachievable guest demand? What’s the most outrageous one you have heard of?
JLN: No. A guest once requested 1,000 rose petals to be floating in an Olympic-size swimming pool
HK: What’s the last item that shows up on your credit card transactions?
JLN: Last night’s dinner with my team.
HK: Number one item you cannot travel without?
JLN: My phone. What would we do without them?
HK: Incredible food with a sleepless night or an incredible sleep with a standard F&B experience?
JLN: Food every time.
HK: Define luxury for you in 2022?
JLN: Luxury is defined by quality service, in my opinion.
Given Naret’s experience working on the operational and management corner of luxury hospitality, I am keen to understand where design, in his opinion, sits when it comes to the new era of luxury travel. “The hospitality businesses that set themselves aside from others, such as Club Med, One&Only, Rosewood and others, will create their own style that will be replicated by other brands,” he says. “Design plays a vital role. Ian Schräger is a fantastic example of someone who challenged what was then the conventional way of designing hospitality spaces. He poured his energy into the public spaces so that the guestrooms and suites were almost secondary, and that completely transformed the hotel market in the luxury sector. In the luxury business, we used to be – dare I say it – boring. Today, people like to do things differently, and have bold ideas for the future of luxury travellers.”
As we wrap up our morning meeting, and Naret prepares to leave for the airport to travel to The States for more meetings, and no-doubt interviews about The Set Collection, I am keen to understand where he sees the next big movement in luxury hotels and hospitality. “For me, I have been keeping an eye on the fashion industry’s launch into hospitality,” he says, “and that’s an interesting concept that I think will further change the landscape.”
Off the record, I am told that The Set Collection, currently with eight properties as members, is not planning on procrastinating, with Naret and his time moving towards the ambitious goal of having 25 – 30 hotels under its umbrella by 2023. Following the destruction the pandemic caused on the independent hospitality sector in particular, it is refreshing to see a brand that is working to celebrate the essence of luxury hospitality by collaborating with hotels that channel deep senses of place and purpose.
Main image credit: The Set Collection