Tony Matharu: Meet the hotelier on a mission to get London back in full force
From the floor-to-ceiling glass of suite 725 at Tony Matharu’s Tower Suites hotel on a sunny October morning, one can see flocks of tourists heading towards the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. It looks for all the world like London is back on its feet, and for Matharu, that’s no surprise.
“Where we sit now, after the Great Fire of London, what we now call the Square Mile, was in cinders and smouldering. Who would have thought that the centre of the world’s insurance industry would emanate from these gleaming office buildings?”
Matharu’s point is that London has always been effective at rebounding from tough times. He should know – first starting and building up Grange Hotels, before launching Blue Orchid Hotels group, with Tower Suites the most recent addition complementing Victoria’s Wellington and Westminster’s Rochester and the 55 Broadway luxury hotel development in St James’s Park, designed and developed with a focus on business travellers. He lists the trials and tribulations of his time running hotels, including IRA bombs to the credit crunch.
But the pandemic was different.
“You realise there are going to be bumps and cycles. But this – was truly unprecedented.”
Timing-wise, it was particularly painful – Tower Suites, built on the edge of the City and opened up just weeks prior to the first lockdown. He says he never regretted it, though, and it’s the recovery he’s more interested in today.
NEVER COUNT OUT THE INNOVATORS
We’re sat with Katherine Fleming, Placemaking and Operations Director for Primera, a consultancy specialising in the development of Business Improvement Districts, including the four currently operating in the Square Mile, who works alongside Matharu in the Central London Alliance, an umbrella grouping of businesses, chambers of commerce, BIDs, transport providers and others founded by the hotelier.
The recovery, she says, was on an encouraging upward trajectory at about “six out of ten” across the capital until a combination of factors including the cost of living crisis began to bite with higher energy bills in April of this year. Fast forward six months and there are still plenty of empty units on what used to be a buzzing Monday-Friday work environment, hit hard by hybrid working. Plenty of the rest of the capital still holds empty office units gathering dust. But while the capital faces some unprecedented challenges, Fleming like Matharu believes that out of adversity comes opportunity.
Matharu – who like almost all entrepreneurs counts himself as an optimist – is guardedly chipper about the capital’s springback into life.
“My instinct, based on experience, suggests that where people have vacated premises, other people will be attracted to move in,” he says, citing the resurgence of the so-called ‘Midtown’ area (stretching from New Oxford Street through Holborn to Chancery Lane) in recent years as one example, with businesses leaving the West End for more space and giving birth to a diverse range of restaurants and coffee shops to support the changing visitor landscape.
Someone will take that space and do something positiveTony Matharu
“I think it’s similar now; whilst there is some empty office space and people aren’t returning to the offices in the same numbers, those buildings aren’t going to fall down and become absolute. Somebody is going to take up that space and do something positive. It may well be less traditional office workers, perhaps tech or other newer sectors that find value in the City that they didn’t necessarily see before,” he says.
Katherine stressed how it’s important for those involved in the stewardship of the capital to consider all the factors that could either pull people back into London, or equally push them away.
“We want to work with our public sector partners to deliver the best possible experience of the City, for workers, visitors and residents. Ensuring people feel safe and welcome, especially when thinking about a thriving night-time economy is vital.”
It isn’t just office workers who need to be pulled back to the office, reckons Matharu. Tourist numbers are still down on pre-pandemic, albeit rebounding steadily – helped in some cases by events combined by the weakness of the pound.
But Matharu wants innovative, flexible thinking to bring them back and retain London’s pre-eminence not just as a top investment location but also as a must-visit city. He’s pleased the capital continues to beam positive images into TV screens across the world – from “events like the tennis at Wimbledon to cricket at Lord’s to the world-class football that’s on every weekend to culture and arts activities in the theatres and museums, and we do them all better than anywhere else – but like many he thinks there is more to be done.
“Do we invest sufficiently in the visitor attraction to London? In my view, not. More collaborative working needs to be done, whether it’s with London and Partners and Visit Britain or others like the Corporation of the City of London with its Destination City initiative. We need to work together in competing with other world cities to promote London’s world leading attractions in a more joined way.”
At the heart of London’s recovery challenge is – unsurprisingly – the cost of living, and the cost of doing business. Whether it’s commuters wanting to come back into work more regularly but are put off by high train fares, or small businesses trying to keep going on smaller footfall but hit with ever-growing business rates bills, there are obstacles everywhere.
Matharu sees two obvious easy-wins for the Chancellor. Root and branch reform of business rates – as promised by successive governments – would remove what he calls the “twenty-first century version of the window tax. Dropping the VAT that hospitality firms pay – as the government did during the pandemic, to the benefit of the Treasury – would give a much-needed stimulus to London’s recovery, says the hotelier.
But Matharu – ever the optimist – remains confident.
When people get here, he believes, “the quality of offering in central London has probably never been better”.
“The quality of hotel bedstock, the quality of venues, the diversity of our food and beverage offering, the way in which we retain our green spaces, the listed buildings, the architecture and cultural heritage is unrivalled.”
“You can’t get that in any other city.”