The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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This Is Manchester's Moment
September 2, 2004 -- It's hard to get Americans to focus on any English city other than London, but this is actually Manchester's moment.
The northern English city has a top-notch airport, good rail connections, nonstop flights from the United States thanks to the airline formerly known as British Midland and a booming hotel market.
"You can't get a room from Monday to Friday in Manchester," says Stephen Miles, the general manager of the Radisson Edwardian hotel that opened in June. "The city has regenerated itself."
Miles' property, a 263-room hotel across from Manchester's convention center, joins Rocco Forte's highly regarded Lowry Hotel; the slick and hip Malmaison; and a brand new Renaissance.
"I don't know how many Americans will come," says Miles. "Perhaps 5-10 percent. But I do know that their money goes a lot further in Manchester and Northwest England than it does in London."
Case in point? The Radisson Edwardian's introductory opening rate was 100 pounds a night (not including value-added tax) and it is still available for another week or so.
The Radisson Edwardian has already made waves in a city that was once the center of the world's cotton industry. Opened in a sleek, ultra-modern, 16-story tower, the hotel is tucked behind and connected to the façade of one of the world's great buildings, the Manchester Free Trade Hall.
Built in 1856, the Free Trade Hall façade is all arches and columns and warm stone and ormolu. The hotel is all angles and lines and glass and cutting-edge modernity. The guestrooms and suites are aggressively, almost uncomfortably, fashion-forward. The bathrooms are clad in marble and slate and have walk-in showers. The workspace in each guestroom is also ultra-modern, with high-speed Internet access, European plugs rather than the bulky, old-style British plugs and phones that bypass the central switchboard. Each room also has a Bang & Olufsen entertainment center. The hotel offers two dining rooms, a spa and lots of meeting space, as befits its goal of being a convention-venue property.
The bottom line? You won't fall in love at first sight with the design of the rooms. For instance, I couldn't find the hidden toiletries cabinet and the free-standing sinks inexplicably have no place for soap. But you will be impressed with the style. And the merger of the ultra-modern with the Victorian Free Trade Hall is impressive and, ultimately, effective.
In fact, I'd rather stay at the Radisson Edwardian than the self-satisfied Lowry, located just across the River Irwell in Salford. It is as aggressively modern as the Radisson Edwardian--it opened in 2001 and has already been featured in Architectural Digest--but it just doesn't seem like a comfortable place.
And I must say I'd gotten used to being comfortable after arriving in Manchester on bmi. You are forgiven if you don't recognize the moniker bmi and didn't know that it is the third British airline offering transatlantic service.
Bmi used to be called British Midland before changing to the diminutive (and lower case) bmi in February, 2001. That's the same month it launched transatlantic service from Manchester to Washington/Dulles and Chicago/O'Hare. It's due to add a third U.S. gateway, Las Vegas, on October 31.
It took me three years to catch up with bmi's front cabin, a business class awkwardly named "the business," and I now regret the delay. My roundtrip between Dulles and Manchester Airport--a blissfully calm alternative to London/Heathrow if you're headed to northern England, Wales or Edinburgh, Scotland--was extremely comfortable and lots of fun.
Fun? Yup. Fun. Why? An onboard chef does lovely in-flight cuisine and will customize meals for you during the journey. And the concept works nicely. I deliberately threw the chef a few curves on one of my flights and he didn't flinch. He even prepares fresh eggs--eggs right from the shell, I mean--for the morning arrival meal on eastbound flights. Westbound, there is a lavish afternoon tea service: Passengers are presented with a personal Lazy Susan brimming with sandwiches, scones, tarts and cakes.
Does an onboard chef actually make the in-flight dining any better? A little bit, I think. But the concept is also a bit of bmi marketing flash. The chefs are actually flight attendants who have received culinary training, so expect the meals to vary based on the skill and the passion the individual flight attendant. I will admit, however, that it's hard not to smile when the chef ostentatiously parades a crate of fresh eggs from the galley behind "the business" up the aisle to the prep station in the galley at the front of the cabin.
Unlike its better-known British competitors, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, bmi does not offer lie-flat beds in "the business." Instead, business class on the airline's Airbus A330s is outfitted with wide, comfy armchairs that recline 160 degrees and have 60 inches of seat pitch. They are great as chairs and extremely comfortable perches on which to sleep. There are laptop power ports at every chair as well as 9-inch personal video monitors offering 16 audio and 20 video channels and a raft of popular video games. Passengers can also access video feeds of cameras mounted on the nose and belly of the aircraft.
And if you're a fan of classically attired flight crews, you'll love bmi's uniforms for its female flight attendants. The retro outfits are complete with pillbox hats.
If bmi has a problem, it's the Star Alliance tie-up with United Airlines, which guarantees that bmi's check-in facilities at Dulles are all but invisible. (I'm told bmi is somewhat better served at O'Hare.) But the United deal also has its benefits for bmi, which is partially owned by Lufthansa, another Star Alliance carrier
"We're still a small international player and we need United's presence in the U.S. market," insists chief executive Austin Reed. "It's been a love-hate relationship with United and it's taken longer than we thought to get to profitability with these flights, but people who find us are very pleasantly surprised with what we offer."
A note to readers: The Rocco Forte group sold The Lowry in 2014. It now operates as an independent property and is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. As for bmi, it dropped the U.S. flights to Manchester one by one in the late 2000s and in 2012 the airline was sold to IAG, the parent company of British Airways. Although routes come and go and sometimes operate seasonally, Manchester has nonstops to the United States from the three major U.S. airlines. Thomas Cook Airlines, a British discount carrier, also flies from Manchester to the United States.
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