How two siblings turned the former home of Princess Victoria into a hi-tech hotel
Eccleston Square Hotel in London not only has a posh location on the edge of Belgravia, just five minutes from Victoria station. It also has excellent pedigree - the structure was once the home of Queen Victoria's granddaughter Princess Victoria, two doors from where wartime prime minister Winston Churchill lived.
"They used to know each other, but apparently they had a bit of an argument because he borrowed a book from her and he never gave it back," says Olivia Byrne, the 27-year-old hotel co-owner. "And we think Queen Victoria visited her granddaughter often and had afternoon tea."
The historical building has grade-two heritage status, but inside is a contemporary colour scheme of grey, black and white, with crystal chandeliers, and "the Rolls Royce of beds", handmade by luxury Swedish brand Hastens, with layers of horsehair in the mattress to ensure a good night's sleep. It's got a massage function, too.
Byrne was recently in Hong Kong to spread the word about the privately owned hotel - which has been dubbed "hi-tech" - that she and her brother launched in 2011.
"We didn't think about opening a hi-tech hotel, we just naturally like to have new technology in our home and felt that's what people expect."
While iPads are now commonplace in hotels, Eccleston Square Hotel was one of the first in London to develop a smartphone app so that guests can use concierge services, look up local dining recommendations, request movies and even read newspapers online.
Another feature is the 46-inch Panasonic 3D TVs in every room, a first for a London hotel. "We didn't know the direction it would take, but we thought it's a new technology. It's a great marketing incentive because not a lot of people have 3D at home." Guests have access to a library of some 200 3D movies.
The technology expands to the loo as well. A press of a button turns the bathroom's glass walls opaque, thanks to electric currents that run through the glass.
Byrne says the hotel strives to anticipate a guest's needs, down to the details, such as international plugs under the television, complimentary local calls, and high-speed Wi-fi. She says it was important for the technology in the rooms to not be too intrusive, and that it can be used by those who are not techies.
Another challenge designing the 39 rooms, as not all were configured to have suites. "The challenge in London is space. How do you use the space to optimise the room? So we went to yachting shows because the challenge on boats is space so we got a lot of inspiration from them," she says.
Born in Paris to an English father and French mother, Byrne got into the hotel business through watching her father run two three-star hotels (Hotel Queen Mary and Hotel du Bois) in the French capital.
She studied in France, Britain and Switzerland, and then interned at several hotels in Monaco and Miami - including a stint in a Joël Robuchon kitchen. Two years before graduating in 2009, she had a serious talk with her father about opening a family-run hotel. "I have the passion for it and my father has so much experience - working knowledge that he wanted to pass on to us."
Before the Byrnes took over, the structure had operated as a budget hotel that took a year and £7 million (HK$81 million) to refurbish. "We couldn't touch the facades, the staircases or cornices, but we had to reconfigure the entire building. We levelled the flooring, levelled the walls. In the end it was basically a shell. It was really interesting when it was built; you can't see it, but behind the walls you can see the technology and wiring like an umbilical cord for each room because every room is controlled by a control point."
When the hotel first opened, technology was something people in the industry didn't really understand, she says.
"They were a bit perplexed by our approach, investing so much in technology, and they thought we were too gadget heavy. "But I feel, this year especially, technology is all they are talking about - almost too much. You want technology that's easy to use that helps the client, not something that will be complicated and be out of date in a couple of months," Byrne says. "The technology we invested in is still relevant today. But it's really interesting at the moment. There's a big U-turn in technology, especially in London."
Byrne says she and her 23-year-old brother, James, are perfectionists by nature.
"We never give up. We are constantly protecting and improving our business, reacting to client feedback; it's never-ending. It's more than what I expected, but I like the challenge. We're learning all aspects of the business, but we also have the freedom to make decisions without dealing with hierarchy."
While she has the hospitality skills, Byrne says her brother bring a more aggressive, forward-thinking business perspective. "He's also good at negotiating when it comes to suppliers," she adds.
"I'm lucky because we're complementary. It's very natural how we separated our tasks. Brother and sister relationships can be rocky sometimes, but at work we get along quite well," she says.
Looking ahead, Byrne believes TVs will continue to be important in hotel rooms, where clients will want to be able to stream their own content in their rooms. "At the moment we're backwards in terms of offering more channels and choice with international travellers. We should be offering more on-demand shows that have happened. It's giving that flexibility to the client."
At the back end, however, Byrne hopes to streamline the booking process so that it's easier for clients to make reservations.
"Hotel booking engines are so old school. They need to learn from online travel agencies."