HB ON THE SCENE: Raffles Singapore to undergo phased restoration

NEW YORK—Few hotels in the world can truly carry off the label of iconic or Grand Dame, but Raffles Hotel Singapore can do both. And by 2018, the heritage property will be able to add another distinct adjective: restored.

Beginning next year, the landmark hotel, which is owned by Qatar-based Katara Hospitality and managed by Raffles Hotels & Resorts, will begin a three-phase restoration that is geared toward enhancing the property while retaining the character and essence of the 1887 hotel that has played host to any number of celebrities and world leaders over the decades—make that centuries.

Here recently to discuss how the phased program will affect and help position the hotel in the 21st Century, Simon Hirst, general manager of Raffles Singapore, stressed it was restoration, not renovation, that was the overriding premise behind the multimillion-dollar investment.

“This is a national monument building and we want to ensure whatever we do retains the essence of what is really beautiful about Raffles: the palpable sense of history, the essence of Asia,” said Hirst during high tea at The Plaza, now a sister property since AccorHotels earlier this year acquired FRHI Holdings Ltd. (FRHI) and its signature brands: Raffles, Swissôtel and Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, which manages The Plaza.

While not quite surrounded by the district’s increasing number of commercial towers, Raffles Singapore is distinct in its relatively low-lying profile, made up of a series of buildings and wings that also includes a three-story arcade—the 19th Century equivalent of a shopping mall—that is a local and tourist destination.

The Raffles Hotel Arcade will be the first area of the 16-month restoration while other areas of the property remain in operation. It offers 40 regional and specialty shops, indoor/outdoor function areas that include The Ballroom and The Lawn, the 388-seat theater venue Jubilee Hall, and a mix of restaurants and bars, including the notable Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling cocktail was created.

“This phase will start in February and run through July/August… We’re going to move the Singapore Sling down to our Bar & Billiard Room. We have to do that otherwise we’d have Singapore’s first rebellion,” laughed Hirst. “This is a huge business for us and one of the great, iconic stories about Raffles.”

He noted approximately 1,200 persons a day go to the Long Bar from 11 a.m. to midnight.

The GM emphasized screening would conceal the restoration activity so as not to intrude on the guest experience. “In fact, we’re going to buffer off 20-25 rooms on the east side of the hotel’s courtyard block just so no one’s overlooking what’s happening over the side, although it’s largely going to be concealed,” he said.

By August, phase two will get underway wherein the main hotel building, its lobby and about half of the 103 individually designed guest suites will be restored.

“We’re going to be working on the Palm Court Suites, so we’re only going to have about half the inventory available for sale, about 50 suites,” said Hirst. He added during this period guests will be checked into the hotel’s East India rooms and the Bar & Billiard Room will transition to an all-day dining restaurant. Twenty-four-hour room service will remain in effect.

Simon Hirst Raffles Singapore

Simon Hirst
Raffles Singapore

“During that period, there’s obviously going to be a significant impact. All of the facilities, of course, will not be available, so our iconic butlers [who provide]our extremely high levels of personal service and engagement, will throw the ‘kitchen sink’ at anybody who stays at the hotel in terms of service,” said Hirst.

Then, by the end of next year, Raffles Hotel Singapore will shutter for the completion of the restoration before a grand reopening, which at press time, was slated for mid-year 2018.

Closing the hotel is not unusual during such a process, noted Hirst. The hotel closed for two-and-a-half years during the last restoration, a $160-million effort conducted from 1989 to 1991.

As a protected building, Hirst noted the architectural exterior of Raffles Singapore may not be altered in any way. “I think everyone would agree that would be the right thing to do anyway. So this will be essentially an interior-design project although some things, like the marble walkways, may be replaced like-for-like, or the terra-cotta tiling could be replaced, but, again, has to be like-for-like. The moldings, cornices, public verandas, balustrades, columns, etc., all that will remain exactly as it is and that, of course, is what gives Raffles so much character,” he said.

Global architecture and design firm Aedas Singapore is leading the overall project, while interiors are being handled by New York-based designer Alexandra Champalimaud and her studio team at Champalimaud.

“I think with Champalimaud’s input on the design, it will be modernized in terms of technology. Our suites, which are famous for their size—they are 600-800 sq. ft. and all have a parlor or separate working/dining area—those are going to be enhanced. TV cabinets will be out; there’ll be wall-mounted televisions. Also, floor-mounted air-conditioning units will be put in ceilings. With 15-ft. ceilings, we can afford to do that. So, there’ll definitely be a sense of spaciousness,” said the GM.

“I think even the traditionalists will recognize that what’s been done is different; it’s bold, but still retains that ‘Golden Age of Travel’ that this hotel stands for,” continued Hirst, who said reaction has been positive from long-standing guests.

“But if you want the bells and whistles of technology, it will be there. Although we’re a little old-fashioned in that respect now—it isn’t really why people stay at Raffles—I think we have to move forward, we have to think about the next generation of travelers and, indeed, the current generation. We all use these gizmos as we travel. But the essence of Raffles—the food and beverage offerings, the suites, the service, the butlers, the wonderful Sikh doormen, the afternoon tea, the Singapore Sling—will live on and be enhanced… This hotel deserves to live on for another 130 years.” HB

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