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Monday, 23 November 2020
AN historic hotel in Henley is set to re-open just before next year’s royal regatta following a £3 million refurbishment.
The Red Lion has been bought by international hotel consultant Grace Leo in conjunction with Singapore-based shipping entrepreneur and hotel investor Tim Hartnoll.
The pair completed the purchase from MG Hotels on Thursday last week and have already set about renovating the Grade II listed building, which is on the corner of Hart Street and Thames Side.
It will be renamed the Relais Henley after the French word meaning “coaching inn”.
The iconic hotel, which dates back to 1632, was put up on the market for offers in the region of £7.5 million in May.
The new owners plan to add five bedrooms to the current total of 35 and install new bathrooms in all of them. Ms Leo, who has spent her career in the luxury hotel industry, said: “After a prolonged search, Tim and I are delighted to have acquired the Red Lion Hotel.
“We see enormous potential for the property, especially in a post-covid-19 world in which we envisage that domestic tourism will become increasingly important. Changing working patterns mean that properties such as this have the potential to re-establish themselves as important community hubs.
“Now we plan to embark on an extensive refurbishment process, drawing on my years spent in France and England, in order to create a chic and comfortable hotel, an excellent restaurant and a convivial meeting place.
“We’re targeting a soft opening in June in time for Henley Royal Regatta. For me, this hotel is emblematic of the town. The prominence of the location, it is the first building you see when you cross the bridge.
“It is my intention to really bring back that lustre and the positive and dynamic energy. It’s going to benefit the whole of the town.”
Ms Leo said the dining area, which is currently near the entrance, would be moved into the Regatta Suite. The new restaurant would have an open deck into the hotel courtyard, where the chef could grow herbs and vegetables.
The old dining room would become a lounge where guests would be able to work. This might be operated under some kind of membership model.
Ms Leo said: “They can come with their laptops and meet people. I think the whole working pattern has changed since covid and a lot of people are now staying where they live. They are not going to London anymore.
“Hopefully, people who live here and work here need somewhere to go outside of their homes. We will create that environment for them.”
She said rebranding the hotel was not “effacing history” or “deleting the past”, adding: “On the contrary, we will probably keep the name ‘Red Lion Henley’ underneath.
“But basically it’s because, even though the hotel is very well known, if you ‘Google ‘Red Lion’ there are hundreds of places that come up.
“You’ll come in here and there will be no formality of a reception counter. You’ll actually be greeted by someone who will walk towards you like they are receiving you in their home.
“The decor is going to be such that it’s going to be very comfortable. There will be a lot of quality furnishings and it will have a sense of place, which is what I want to create.
“I don’t want it to be a pastiche of anything. It will a fresh interpretation of a market town hotel. You’ll sense it’s English but at the same time quite residential. In a way it’s nice for me to be able to take on this project because I really think Henley is a very special town.
“It’s probably known internationally more for its royal regatta but I think it’s a lot more than that and that’s what I’m hoping is going to come out of our acquisition. Let’s make Henley the place to come all year round.
“I’ve turned around a lot of hotels in my career. I just feel instinctively that this is a good project and I believe I can make that turn round happen. It just needs a lot of TLC to make it beautiful again and I hope that whatever I do, the town will be proud of it.”
The hotel was used to house 12 homeless people during the coronavirus pandemic at the request of South Oxfordshire District Council to safeguard vulnerable people. They have since been moved.
In June, plans were put forward by MG Hotels to turn the Red Lion into a “residential institution”, which would have meant it could become a hospital, nursing home, boarding school, residential college or training centre. However, the plans were withdrawn following strong criticism from Henley Town Council and residents.
Ms Leo, a graduate of Cornell University Hotel School, is the daughter of a Hong Kong hotelier. She launched her career at Inter-Continental Hotels and Sheraton Group.
In 1981, she moved to Paris to join Warwick International Hotels. As vice-president, she was responsible for the group’s expansion in America and Europe that grew from two to 14 hotels in five years. By 1988 she had started her own company. Identifying the small luxury independent hotel sector as an area of huge potential growth, she set up GLA Hotels to offer professional consulting services to investors.
She has been involved, as either owner or operator, in many of the world’s leading hotels, including the Hotel Montalembert and the Hotel Lancaster, both in Paris, the Royal Riviera in Saint Jean Cap-Ferrat, the Clarence in Dublin and the Four Seasons Ten Trinity Square in London.
Mr Hartnoll is executive chairman of X-Press Feeders, part of the Sea Consortium group, a global shipping company based in Singapore. An avid sailor and rower who grew up between England and Singapore, he is a global investor whose hospitality interests include the Bawah Reserve in Indonesia.
19 October 2020
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