For four decades, the Mandarin Oriental has been Hong Kong Island's sentimental favorite luxury hotel. Its red-carpeted lobbies convey a rare impression of the city's past, from society weddings to business deals whispered over afternoon tea.
But when the Four Seasons opens in October, the Mandarin, with its 524 rooms and suites, will face a rival across the street for the first time. The new harborfront hotel will tout 400 rooms, more than 500 serviced apartments and what is claimed will be a world-class restaurant and spa.
The Four Seasons' debut marks a new era for Hong Kong Island luxury hotels, and is likely to raise the bar even higher for elite accommodation city- wide. To keep up, the Mandarin will undergo a total overhaul for the first time since opening in 1963. Closing in late December, it will re-open at an unspecified date next year, when the US$110 million (HK$858 million) project is finished.
On top of this, Hongkong Land, sister company of Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, will open the Landmark Mandarin in August which it claims is the city's first boutique hotel with 115 trendy rooms near the downtown Landmark shopping center. The impact of the two hotel groups' rivalry will go deeper than fabrics and furniture: it could revitalize the core of downtown Hong Kong.
Bars with drawbridges and floating lotus plants, two-story spas and a trove of valuable Chinese art: these and more will augment Central's opulence and pizzazz. The developments are expected to attract more luxury stores and mainland tourists with disposable income downtown. (Louis Vuitton and Gucci open Asian flagship stores in the Landmark this year.) As Central goes even more upmarket, hotel prices in Hong Kong are expected to rise.
To compete in a city renowned for the exacting standards of its luxury hotels is a test even for Four Seasons. The fastidiousness of Hong Kong five- stars harks back to the colonial era, when expatriates looked to the Peninsula Hotel and the Mandarin for reliable fine dining. Other particularities guests expect, such as Rolls-Royce limousines waiting at the airport, also draw on this colonial tradition. But the Four Seasons has adapted its international business model to Hong Kong's quirks.
General manager William Mackay has hired one French and another Chinese designer to decorate rooms in contrasting styles. The hotel has purchased artwork mostly from the mainland. It will boast "the best urban spa Asia has," a five-star French restaurant, and service that enraptures guests, promises Mackay.
The Mandarin and Four Seasons each have their strengths. For the Mandarin, it is heritage. "We understand our oriental heritage," says Michael Hobson, the Mandarin's sales and marketing director. "This oriental heritage is very different from vanilla luxury or luxury that's consistent from location to location. We like to have chocolate sauce on our vanilla luxury."
Recently, though, customers have begun to gripe about its aging interior. The renovation will enclose balconies and enlarge guestrooms. But Hobson insists the lobby and restaurants will not be allowed to lose their antique feel.
"Clearly with the new hotel opening, it's time to refurbish our hotel," he says.
"Where we may have been criticized for having an aging footprint, this will no longer be an issue after the refurbishment."
As for the new Landmark Mandarin, it will be as bold as the Mandarin is refined. Its rooms will feature plasma TV screens and large bathrooms with two sinks and a television. The first-floor bar will have a relaxing "zen-like" feel during the day. At night, it will morph into one of Hong Kong's hippest, "sexiest" clubs.
The 21,000-square-foot multi-story spa will offer more sauna techniques than any spa this side of Turkey, says general manager Susanne Hatje. She is confident that, given the penchant of international travelers for small "boutique" hotels, the concept will catch on here, just as it has in New York and London.
In contrast to the Mandarin, the Four Seasons has no historic foothold in Hong Kong. Instead, it will bank on its international customer base and reputation for superlative service. Sight unseen, guests have already booked its two unfinished ballrooms through the end of the year, says Mackay.
Some investment banks and law firms that have long-term relationships with Four Seasons have switched their Hong Kong corporate packages away from other hotels. Mackay anticipates nearly full occupancy immediately.
"There's an evolving aspirational middle class in China that will increasingly look for high-end experiences, and this includes luxury travel. We believe we are a brand that an aspiring Chinese person would want to stay in." The two new developments are emerging as Hong Kong hotels boast record occupancies. Tourism from the mainland and international business travel are the key drivers. Last year, the territory had more than 21.8 million visitors, up from 16.5 million in 2003.
Hotel owners also anticipate new developments such as Disney and Asia World Expo near the airport will propel sustained visitor growth.
"We haven't seen any new hotels in the market for more than 10 years. I think there's definitely capacity," says Nigel Summers, director at hotel management consulting firm Horwath. The Four Seasons should also push up five- star hotel rates across the city, he says. When the Grand Hyatt opened in Shanghai last year, its high price ceiling prompted hotels across the city to raise their room rates. As their rivalry escalates, however, management at the Mandarin and Four Seasons seem more excited than nervous.
Each expresses confidence that the competition, while intense, will not hamper business prospects.
"I really believe the cake is growing so much that there are enough slices for all of us," says Hobson.
"Competition helps everybody," says Mackay. "It is quite true that our arrival, as well as Disney's, will be refreshing the market. We're not here to kill anybody. We're here to do a thing and do it well. It's not going to be a case of survival of the fittest.
"I came here with a laptop and no one else working with me. By August 1, there will be 875 employees.
"[Opening day] is a very powerful moment. For so long the hotel exists in your head, then that dream becomes a reality." firstname.lastname@example.org