archivelogo
 The Brancatelli File

joe THE FUTURE
OF BUSINESS TRAVEL


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

May 8, 2003 -- Stick with me while I spin this business-travel fantasy.

You fly to a major world capital and land at its distant airport. You make your way through customs, grab your luggage, then step aboard a high-speed train that whisks you to the city center. Without ever leaving the station, you take an escalator to the lobby of your deluxe hotel, check in, and plop down on your bed less than 30 minutes after you collected your bags back at the airport.

A few steps from your hotel is the most extensive meeting and convention space in the country. A few streets away is a major department store and a neighborhood with great, inexpensive ethnic restaurants. Any business you need to do in town is easily managed via an extensive and efficient mass-transit system.

And since we're weaving a business-travel fantasy, let's go for broke. Two hours before your flight home, you check out of your deluxe hotel and take that escalator down to the station. At the foot of the escalator is your airline's check-in facilities. You check in for your flight, deposit your luggage and get your boarding card. You hop on the train, get whisked back to that distant airport, walk to your departure gate, board the flight and take off for home.

Think we're through the looking glass here? Think I've resorted to inventing implausible, impractical, impossible scenarios for my own frequent-flying amusement?

On my honor, fellow travelers, I have seen these things. In fact, I have seen nothing less than the future of business travel. It is real. It is in London. Other cities have operable chunks of this business-travel fantasy, but only London has pulled off the entire airport-to-city-to-hotel connection.

The five-year-old Heathrow Express shuttles you between Heathrow Airport's four terminals and London's Paddington Station in as little as 15 minutes. Remote airline check-in desks opened at Paddington in 1999 and a dozen carriers operate there, including British Airways, Air Canada and bmi British Midland. Only have carry-on luggage? Appear at Paddington as little as an hour before flight time, grab your boarding pass, then hop the Heathrow Express to your departure gate.

Paddington's connections to the London Underground are also in place: Four tube lines link the rejuvenated station to all parts of the British capital. The streets around Paddington aren't as stylish as Park Lane, but they bristle with activity and are heading upmarket at a heady clip. A branch of the Marks & Spencer department store is just three blocks away on the Edgware Road, where dozens of terrific Indian, Arab, Persian and Asian restaurants coexist with everyday retail services. A 15-year redevelopment of the Paddington neighborhood also envisions a slew of new mixed-use buildings and even restoration of the long-abandoned, nearly forgotten Paddington Basin.

All that was needed to complete the fantasy were the hotels. That's where Hilton International comes in. The British branch of the global hotel family has finally finished work on two properties that could turn Paddington into the business traveler's home away from home in London.

For starters, Hilton and a local hotel ownership company called Muirgold threw about $95 million at the old Great Western Hotel adjacent to Paddington Station. The Great Western was a dive with a storied past when Hilton began work on the project in 1998. Now it has been revived as a 4-star property with 355 rooms, 20 suites, a fitness center, a business center, a restaurant and a hot bar. Posted nightly room rates at the renamed Hilton London Paddington are about $265, but I scored a room on a recent sold-out night for $170 and a quick search of the Hilton.com site today showed last-minute availability at $145. Needless to say, all these rates are incredible bargains by the standards of top-line London hotels.

The Paddington Hilton project has been in the hands of Neil Mathieson, a 35-year Hilton veteran who was most recently general manager of Hilton's Heathrow hotel.

"Having been at the airport for four years, I think I know what business travelers want," Mathieson says. "You arrive on the Heathrow Express and take an escalator right up to the lobby. When you check out, the bellman will carry your bags to the airline check-in desks at Paddington. In a way, this is an extension of the airport."

Or, more accurately, the Paddington Hilton turns Heathrow into an extension of London. I recently rode the Heathrow Express and arrived at Paddington and the Paddington Hilton in less time than it took to ride the airport shuttle bus to an outlying airport hotel. Given the choice of being at a good hotel in London, what business traveler would choose to stay at Heathrow?

The Paddington Hilton, which pointedly markets itself as "London's Best Connected Hotel," boasts slick, Art Deco accents everywhere and more than a few restored architectural touches from the old Great Western Hotel. Rooms are spacious, with coffeemakers, minibars, work desks and first-rate bath-rooms stocked with sumptuous Penhaligon toiletries. The hotel's Brasserie Restaurant turns out solid continental fare, room service operates 24 hours a day and the fitness and business centers are up to international snuff.

Meanwhile, two blocks from Paddington, Hilton International has also finished a $150 million overhaul of the 30-year-old Metropole Hotel. The renamed Hilton London Metropole offers 1,050 rooms, two restaurants, a café and a 44,000-square-foot conference center. That isn't huge by U.S. standards, but the Metropole is Britain's largest convention hotel and maybe the largest in Europe. Back at the Paddington Hilton, there are 15 meeting and board rooms, all named after famous steam engines that once called at Paddington Station.

"The Heathrow link gives us an advantage over every other hotel in London," says Mathieson, who has been with the Paddington Hilton since it was taken down to its frame for rebuilding, then lived through 15 months of construction delays and finally got the property open in March, 2002. "The Heathrow Express is changing the face of London. It makes visitors look again at where they stay and where they'll work."

Mathieson's point is a good one. With London's most extensive conference facility and an upscale hotel at the city end of the Heathrow Express, frequent flyers may soon realize that it's wiser to make their London headquarters on the Paddington Station side of Hyde Park. Across the park, in the West End, Soho, The City, Mayfair and Chelsea, street traffic is hopelessly snarled and dining and hotel prices astronomically high. Besides, those neighborhoods are now much farther away from Heathrow than the district around Paddington.

How far? A cab ride from Heathrow to The Strand during London's morning rush hour recently consumed two hours and $83. By contrast, one-way tickets on the Heathrow Express can cost as little as $19 and the train deposits you at Paddington and the escalator to the Hilton's lobby in as little as 15 minutes.

But the Paddington Hilton isn't getting it all right, especially for a hotel that caters to global business travelers. The restaurant doesn't operate around the clock. There's no in-room guest directory and the televised guest-services menu is woefully inadequate and clumsy to operate. Guestrooms don't offer high-speed Internet access, an unforgivable oversight in a 15-month-old hotel. Phone rates are unconscionable; even toll-free calls cost about $2.40. There's only one available power outlet near the desk and it requires the clunky, UK-style plug adapter. All these technical quirks led me to abandon my room and my laptop and wander across the street to Reload, a stylish Internet cafe offering computers outfitted with Microsoft Office and high-speed Net access for about $3.25 an hour.

Those are small quibbles, however. The big picture is a nearly perfect business-travel fantasy: a truly seamless connection between the world's busiest international airport, a global business and financial capital and its city-center infrastructure.

That sounds like the future of business travel to me.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.