Customers may need their sea-legs if they want to stay at the Sunborn. Mick Whitworth reports on London's first upmarket floating hotel and asks if this is the answer to the capital's chronic land shortage.
It is not the world's first floating hotel - that distinction is claimed by the five-star Saigon Floating Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City - but the 104-room Sunborn Yacht Hotel, firmly bolted to the quay alongside the ExCel exhibition centre in London's Docklands since April, is the first upscale floating hotel and restaurant in the capital, and delivers what some see as the logical solution to a chronic shortage of new sites in the city.
Consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has recently completed research into the supply and demand for London hotels on behalf of a Government body. One recommendation, according to Stephen Broome, an assistant director in PwC's hospitality and leisure group, is that floating hotels should be considered "simply because of the [lack of] availability of suitable land".
The Sunborn's sweeping lines have the look of a scaled-down cruise ship, and it was marketed in just those terms during its first three years of operation in the Finnish resort of Naantali. Now, at its new berth in the Royal Victoria Dock, the emphasis is firmly on high-end corporate business, with weekday rack rates starting at £225 for a single suite.
But there is another difference from a conventional cruise ship - the Sunborn has no engine. Two barges were required to tow it across the Baltic and the North Sea to the Thames. Its hull and superstructure required a coat of paint after the journey, but the interior has not been refurbished and shows relatively little wear and tear, considering it has been in operation since 1998.
"If a hotel had been trading for three years, you'd be thinking of changing the carpets by now," says newly appointed general manager Martin Watson, a veteran of several London hotels including the Rathbone, Kensington Park and Cranleigh. "But this looks nearly new. It was part of a large resort, so I think people were going on to dry land for a lot of their facilities."
Yacht hotel trademark
Sunborn International has trademarked the designation "yacht hotel" and is adamant that the concept is unique. "There are lots of floating barges and hotels but nothing that is purpose-built like this," says Hans Niemi, director of the company's UK subsidiary. "If you talk to most people about ships, the first thing they think of is small cabins and crowded restaurants. We've started from scratch and built a hotel around the yacht concept."
Once inside the Sunborn there is little to distinguish it from a conventional hotel. The average bedroom size is 30sq m - bigger than many four-star rooms in central London - and they are all described as "yacht suites" to press home the point. The curve of the hull means that while the upper rooms have a balcony, this space has had to be absorbed into the rooms on the lower decks. Baths have been forfeited throughout. Instead, every room has a shower, including the two spacious £350-a-night Royal Suites, which also benefit from private saunas and private terraces at the bow.
The scope for sun terraces has been fully exploited. The Yacht Club Bar at the stern of the third deck has a terrace, as does the Captain's Bar at the other end of the vessel. This bar can be hired for private functions, as can the communal sauna that adjoins it. Two conference rooms on the fourth deck provide theatre-style seating for about 40 people each and spill out on to a terrace if necessary.
While the vessel was trading in Finland, its fifth deck was left open as a sun deck and bar. The move to London prompted alterations to create a 70-cover indoor restaurant, with further sheltered seating in a lobby area that allows as many as 100 covers during breakfast or other busy periods. Catering has been handed over to Restaurant Associates, the fine-dining division of Compass, which also has a relationship with the ExCel complex. Prices are mid-range - a three-course lunch costs £23.75, while evening à la carte main courses range from £14.75 to £23.75. Business diners hoping to escape the confines of the ExCel centre are a clear target.
Sunborn International has signed a 20-year joint marketing agreement with ExCel, which has suffered in its early stages from a dearth of suitable accommodation for delegates and exhibitors. Several developers announced their intention to build hotels in the area before work started on ExCel, but only one has so far opened - the upmarket Custom House at Excel hotel. "The Sunborn Yacht is a quick fix," says Niemi, "although, frankly, 100 rooms doesn't make a great deal of difference."
ExCel itself says construction has begun on five of seven planned hotels, including the Holiday Inn, Novotel, Ibis, Country Inns & Suites and Travel Inn, which should make 1,000 more two- and three-star rooms available by late 2003. But the Sunborn management has already concluded that ExCel may not be their biggest source of business, at least in the short term. Since the yacht hotel opened in May, corporate events have outstripped business from ExCel.
One useful facility is a small auditorium built over two decks in the bow of the Sunborn. With banked seating and space for a small bar, it can seat 30, with up to 45 standing, and has already been used by local businesses to host clients for England's early morning World Cup games and the late-night Lennox Lewis versus Mike Tyson boxing match.
With more City firms moving into Docklands and 1.5 million people flying into City Airport every year, there should be plenty of business to go for. And if business fails to materialise soon enough, the Sunborn could always weigh anchor and move on. "If it doesn't work out in five years' time, we can always review the business," says Niemi. "But you spend a lot of money marketing the business where it is, so if you move on you're really starting again with an empty table."
He refuses to give occupancy figures at this stage and is cagey about costs. Mooring fees, he says, are subject to negotiation, just like rates. But PwC's Broome believes that local authorities will be "pretty wised up" to the need to treat floating hotels just like any other and to base rates on revenue-generating capacity.
Niemi says that construction costs alone for the Sunborn would have been double those of a conventional hotel, but he says that the Finnish parent company already has a second yacht hotel close to completion and a further four planned for "major European cities".
So far, the Sunborn is benefiting from its clear novelty value, plus some keen introductory offers that have seen room rates as low as £99 at the weekends. Whether the shine will wear off on a dismal winter's day, when the sun terraces are out of action and the wind is whipping up the Thames, remains to be seen.
But compared with the scruffy barge hotels that line the Rhine alongside Germany's Cologne Messe exhibition complex, the Sunborn is a princely palace. Deborah Griffin, a director in the hospitality consulting group at Andersen, points out that floating hotels have been talked about in the UK for years, especially in Docklands, but says that investors have been reluctant to risk the cash on "something quite that unique and innovative". In the end, it has required a Finn to take the plunge on our behalf.
ExCel, Royal Victoria Dock, London E16 1SL
Tel: 020 7059 9100
Web site: www.sunbornhotels.com
Restaurant: 70 covers (plus 30 in lounge area)
Rack rates: single yacht suite, £225; double yacht suite, £235; Royal Suite, £350; weekends (Fri-Sun), single £125, twin £135
Typical corporate rate: £180 (single)
Number of staff: 45 full-time, plus an average of 15 in catering run by Restaurant Associates