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Saturday, April 12, 2008

The elegance of E&O

Well-placed lights emphasise the beautiful structures of the hotel

The sun gently slips into the cloudy horizon, casting a pearly pink over the greyish blue waters. The waves lapped gently against the low stone wall which divides the lawn from the Straits of Malacca. Swimmers leisurely lose their calories in their laps in swimming pool.

At Sarkies Corner, waiters lay out the evening’s fare with anticipation. Will the restaurant have another full house this evening? As in yesteday’s evening? Executive chef Bob Lee checks out the Peking duck, giving his efferverscent smile as he welcomes his guests.

Welcome to the famed E&O Hotel in Penang, which boasts of having the longest sea-lined lawn in the country.

Although the famed E&O Hotel in Penang is once again undergoing another round of refurbishment, the movements are hardly noticeable. Unlike its massive restoration programme in 1996, this time around, discretion is the key.

“It’s business as usual. The guests would not even notice it,” says general manager Michael Saxon.

Saxon: Maintenance is an ongoing proce

And how true! One could hear a pin drop as one walks along the corridor to seek the solace of one’s temporary sanctuary. Nary a bang nor the whisper of a drill.

After spending some RM60mil in an 18-month restoration programme, Malaysia’s only heritage hotel is being refurbished for a smaller amount of RM5mil, which also includes training and software, for several reasons.

Says Saxon: “As in any properties, maintenance is an ongoing process. We also want to make sure the hotel stays in pristine condition.”

The other reason is the business the hotel has been garnering of late. For the past 18 months or so, business has increased dramatically, both in terms of occupancy and food and beverage (F&B).

While the rule of thumb in most hotels is 70:30, with revenue from F&B contributing the smaller portion, it is 60:40 over at E&O. Out of eight months in a year, the hotel does about 20 weddings a month.

For a 101-suite hotel, Saxon says there have been times when he counted more than 2,000 guests in the hotel.

Leveraging on its marque as the grande dame of heritage hotels, the E&O Hotel in Farquhar Street has been most popular with foreigners from Britain, USA, Australia and Japan. About 70% of its guests are Westerners.

So far, about 10 suites in the 100-suite hotel have been refurbished and given an all-new modernity set along heritage lines. New carpets and upholstery, new curtains and a more localised use of pictures are being used. Each of the rooms are being upgraded one by one to keep up with the times.

“The move is necessary as the hotel would like to continue garnering premium room rates in today’s competitive hospitality industry,” says Saxon.

Beginning April this year, average room rates increased to RM500, compared with RM250 the last three to five years.

He says the industrial norm is a 10% increase annually, but they have doubled their average room rate in three years.

“But within these three years, there have been a lot of improvements,” he said.

E&O suite tariff vary extensively. A superior suite is about RM900 while the E&O suite is RM10,000. The hotel, which dates back 1885, has several types of suites.

The Rudyard Kipling suite, for example, has been given tastefully austere interiors, with taupe walls and jute rugs on timber floors, predominantly dark stained teak furniture, including an imposing four-poster bed. For contrast, two wicker chairs and a comfortable sofa in a bold black and white floral print.

Says Malaysian interior decorator Mimi Merican: “The challenge for me was to draw inspiration from what we know of Kipling the man, writer and traveller, and have that set the style for the suite.”

The Rudyand Kipling suite

To complete the ambience, a specially commissioned portrait of the man himself, aptly bearing the lines from his book From sea to sea and other sketches: Letters of travel.

Since the E&O group took over Malaysia’s one and only heritage hotel in the late 1990s, the turnaround in terms of look, ambience and maintenance has been dramatic.

“We would like to keep the momentum,” he says.

There have been times when it is fully occupied and the owner Datuk (Terry) Tham has to stay in another hotel.

Its F&B business has been so good that they have set out tents to promote outdoor dining on the Esplanade.

“Sarkies Corner was simply not big enough. So we set up tents outside last year. We did not want to turn away guests. So this current round of refurbishing is really important. It will enable us to have proper set-up for outdoor dining,” says Saxon.

“We upped our prices, guests complained and after two weeks, they were back as before. We are not complaining at all. We are delighted with the situation,” he says.

“In terms of service, we always listen to our guests. There was a time when a guest dining at its fine dining restaurant 1885 requested his table to be taken outdoors under the huge Java tree on the lawn which overlook the Straits of Malacca.

“He wanted to savour both the food and the ambience. We obliged. Another time a former British soldier in the 80s came and asked about the old lift, whether it still worked. He stayed here decades ago and I personally accompanied him on that lift ride. There were tears in his eyes when he got off,” says Saxon.

With Penang becoming a popular spot for medical tourism of late, guest-patients are provided total in-suite service until they are confident enough to leave their sanctuary.

“E&O is not just another hotel. It is history, service, ambience and romance all packaged together under the tropical sky on an island that has become well-known around the world,” says Saxon.

By The Star (by Thean Lee Cheng)

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