Philippe Leboeuf, managing director of Raffles London at The OWO, shows us round the magnificent new hotel
Words: Jonathan Whiley
Sir Winston Churchill is trying to catch my eye. In the office of Philippe Leboeuf, the French managing director of Raffles London at The OWO, a small porcelain figure of the former PM is perched on a shelf behind his desk.
“I’m quite an Anglophile,” he says, sipping an espresso in front of a rain-soaked window that reveals a view to the hotel’s courtyard. “It was given to me by a friend before I worked here. In Paris, my home, I have a bookshelf full of books on Churchill so it’s funny that I’m now here.”
It was here, in this very building at 57 Whitehall, where Churchill had an office during the Second World War (now the Haldane Suite), where he would address his staff from the first-floor balcony, where he would routinely touch the mane of a lion’s head at the foot of the grand staircase (for luck) and where he would plan the D-Day landings.
This is a quite extraordinary place with a history to match. Built on the site of the old Whitehall Palace – royal residence to monarchs, including Henry VIII – it was originally built for the British Army (in Edwardian Baroque splendour) in 1906. Grade II-listed, it has since witnessed world-changing events as the office of political and military leaders from David Lloyd George to Lord Kitchener.
Spies and intrigue abound. It was here (in the Haldane Suite) that Secretary of State for War John Profumo entertained 19-year-old Christine Keeler. It was here that the Secret Service Bureau was founded in 1909 – the origins for M15 and M16 – headed by Captain Mansfield Cumming, the man who would become the inspiration for Bond’s ‘M’ (he would test whether recruits flinched by plunging a paper-knife into his wooden leg).
Ian Fleming was inspired to write Bond after his time working as an officer in the Naval Intelligence department here and the building itself has featured in five Bond films since (at the end of Skyfall, Daniel Craig overlooks London from one of The OWO’s turrets).
This delicious dossier has been incorporated into the hotel experience brilliantly. As part of the billion-pound project – an eight-year restoration masterminded by the Hinduja Group after they bought the lease from the Ministry of Defence – there are five ‘heritage suites’ (once offices of some of the country’s leading leaders and politicians, from Churchill to spy Christine Granville) and eight corner suites named after notable women and female spies (from Nancy Astor to Christian Lamb, a Wren Intelligence officer).
The latter is Philippe’s favourite in the entire 120-room hotel. “It’s part of the turret and prime space, they are circular and kind of sexier. It’s important to bring a bit of femininity because with the army, it was quite a male environment. It’s a suite that we are finding commercially very successful.”
Despite a glittering launch – with a performance by tenor Andrea Bocelli and Lord Andrew Webber in front of royals such as Princess Anne – the moment that 101-year-old Lamb, one of the last surviving Wren Offices, came to The OWO remains a highlight for Philippe.
“She came and opened her suite and it was one of the three most important moments in my career,” he says. The other two? Meeting the Dalai Lama (“I felt like he was psychoanalysing me… the handshake, which was more than 20 years ago, left a big impression) and spending time with Michael Jackson (“This was at The Carlyle and it was like being with someone from out of space. I had to go to his suite and he had five of the same leather jackets and five all-black boots; I’ve never met anyone so meticulous”.)
Philippe’s hospitality pedigree is impressive with a CV that includes senior positions as Hotel Crillon in Paris, Mandarin Oriental Group, The Carlyle in New York and three years as general manager of Claridge’s.
Where does this particular role sit for him? “It’s a lifetime project,” he says. “This is something quite unique. There are so many facets and so many examples of things I have never seen [elsewhere].”
Is there pressure and how does he deal with that? “Yes it’s a pressure of course. I exercise a lot; I cycle, I swim. I’m lucky that now the hotel is open I’ve made a deal with the owners and I’ve moved into one of the residences [there are 85 in total, Michael Bloomberg owns one] so I have my independence on the residences’ side, so if I want to wear jeans then I can. But also, if you call me last-minute and you have a royal highness that wants to come in, then I’ll be here. And it happens – today I had the president of one of the major four banks in the world who came in to see if he can do his board meeting here.”
Despite the international interest, how important is the local market of Westminster and Whitehall? “Extremely,” he says. “We have nine restaurants for Londoners and even wellness with Pillar [a training and health brand founded by elite performance coach Harry Jameson with yearly membership available] is to bring in Londoners. People want to come to hotels with locals.”
Philippe’s day usually starts at 8am – but can runs from 6am to 11pm – and features a daily 9.15am briefing, “a bit military-style with about 20 of us.”
“We review the day and the day before and if we have big things, the day after. We review revenue figures, arrivals, the main events and the something that’s called ‘opportunities’.
An opportunity could be spilling coffee on the carpet and ruining your shoes. I don’t like to call them glitches. If we have stained your shoes, how do we recover? There is no standard answer. In some cases we have to buy new shoes. I had a client yesterday who wanted running shoes so I proposed some brands and then you add what is not expected; so I added two pairs of socks. A little extra I call the five per cent.”
Philippe says that the most exciting thing is being able to build a team and work with young talent. “I’m hiring on attitude versus aptitude. If you don’t know how to make good coffee, I can teach you, but if you are talented but don’t have the attitude then maybe you have to look at different hotels.” It’s a fitting line in these hallowed halls for it was Churchill that remarked that “attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”
Still to come
Opening in February, Creative Restaurant Group and Michelin-starred chef and sushi master Endo Kazutoshi will open a high-end Japanese rooftop restaurant. A sake bar will be located on the ground floor, while an eight-seat private dining room will be located in a turret.
Italian fine dining with the promise of “some of the best seafood experiences in London”. Philippe hopes it will be open by May.
25 million bricks
27,000 sq ft
Guerlain Spa spanning four floors
Considered the biggest hotel pool in London
Including three restaurants led by renowned chef Mauro Colagreco
Including The Spy Bar – an invite-only, unmarked speakeasy in rooms once used by M15 that features a full-sized Aston Martin DB5 behind the bar. Try the London Sling – a take on Raffles’ famed Singapore Sling or a Vesper Martini, naturally. Strictly no pictures.
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