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Here I come, ready or not: are hotels killing us softly with this song?

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaIs there a case for soft openings? We wander into a returning Hong Kong luxury icon. And why is no-one terrified of MICE or SMERF?

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Regent Hong Kong gets going again

A smart Regent Hong Kong returns with a... well,... soft footfall. It seems a quieter, tamer version of the old InterCon. We toured a few times to spot luxury touches and to get a feel of the place/ photo: Vijay Verghese

THE TRAVEL industry has a wonderful way of presenting things in confoundingly mysterious ways. Hotels are masters of this black art. Take terms like MICE (meetings), 'unconference' (unstructured meets where participants direct an impromptu discourse), or SMERF (not the villainous Bond SMERSH) that covers group travel for the 'social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal' segment. If flummoxed travellers are scratching their heads and reaching for their wallets, they are forgiven.

Posh terms sound expensive because they are. Stuff you can't understand carries as much mystique as a cosh on the head in a dark street. Think, 'market prices'. This is a fearsome phrase with a feisty penchant for the upper end of an open-ended scale.

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When a menu offers 'gueridon' service by the chef it simply means that a tableside flambé or pan-fry finish will be provided on a serving trolley. This is akin to the physio guy popping around uninvited to your hospital bed to ask if everything is alright. It's an expensive question. I experienced this not too long ago. Various unidentified doctors poked their heads in post-op and waved cheerily from the ICU door. Each one added HK$5,000 or more to my bill, per 'visit'. Thoughtful.

Terms like 'curated' foretell a painful limb amputation at the end of the meal. Cooked with local vegetables (safe). A menu featuring local vegetables curated by our Swiss chef from Grindelwald (scary).

There are other wondrous terms that turn out to be rather different from what you imagined. Consider 'cabaret table' (not for jiggly dancing, but a raised cocktail table), 'island booth' (in an exhibition hall), and 'European plan' (sans seductive countess and meals).

{You wouldn't walk out on the street clad in just your underpants on the assumption that people know you will be fully dressed a week later...

The non-speak goes on. For example, how might a hotel say: "We're not ready folks and don't have the foggiest when we'll get our act together." This seemingly intractable sentence has been reassuringly compressed into two words, 'soft opening'. The term simply means the hotel has not fully opened — in fact most of the stuff doesn't work yet — but it would like to start charging you money. There's genius in this. The 'grand' opening is when the place is actually ready.

It must be asked why any concern would open before it was ready for business? This is not the norm for a nuclear reactor, say, or a factory, or a restaurant (we're open but bring your own noodles). You wouldn't walk out onto the street clad in just your underpants (a recurring nightmare for many) on the assumption that people know you will be fully dressed and presentable a week later. Yet hotels routinely open well before they are ready. It is a shame because first impressions go a long way. And they tend to stick.

Over the years I have sampled scores of hotel soft openings. It was interesting then to walk into the Regent Hong Kong, an icon launched in 1980 by Robert Burns, Adrian Zecha (who went on to found Aman Resorts), and Georg Raphael (another fine hotelier). The brand was acquired by Four Seasons in 1992 and moved to InterCon in 2001. After running as InterContinental Hong Kong for many years the place closed in 2020 for an extensive refit. It has returned once again as the Regent, a proud top-end marque from InterCon.

We popped by for a bite on 2 March 2023, the day after its soft opening. We came back the next day and then again a week later to get some perspective. The stunning harbour view was all there, alluring and invigorating (best viewed at dusk). The lobby was clearly minimalist so as not to intrude on the visual tableau. Sensible. But where were the grand floral arrangements of yore?

The old InterContinental Hong Kong (much awarded by our readers on our annual polls) offered a stunning welcome with a colonnade of tall glass cylinder vases at the entrance sprouting an assortment of flowers. Where were the brisk-footed staff, the welcoming GM and the energetic doormen? At lunchtime peak the lobby felt like a limp handshake, underscoring the problem with large austere zen lobbies. Without the patter of footfall and conversation it is easy to slip from blissful serenity to sepulchral silence.

Where once were large comfy sofas and armchairs, are now ranks of tables and chairs to squeeze in more bodies. The menu is disappointingly limited, featuring a few safe bets. It lacks the range of, say, the Island Shangri-La's lobby lounge menu. The place is smart, more than adequate. But it does not say, luxury. We don't mean marble, gilt, and overwhelming Baroque trim as at the Rosewood next door, which strains to present its posh credentials.

The Regent still lacks that je ne sais quoi. In fairness, the first guest was due to arrive on 16 March and the grand opening was set for June, but… this was a luxury hotel. I returned on 28 March for another walkabout. One floor was open for guests with about 42 rooms online, half of these occupied. Staff were very friendly and welcoming but the place still lacked buzz and the sort of frisson that a grand name would excite.

The elegantly reimagined Lai Ching Heen that reclaims its old name, having for a while motored along — even through the renovations — as Yan Toh Heen, is a wonderful escape. For this Regent, it will ultimately boil down to service, its human capital, and the energy and welcome they impart. Other luxe brands have succeeded with minimalism — take Aman, or the early GHM (powered by the vision and painstaking industry of Swiss hotel alchemist, Hans Jenni).

Across Victoria harbour, the Grand Hyatt (another corporate MICE hotel) exudes dark elegance with stunning floral arrays and fast-stepping black-suited staff who impart a sense of urgency and purpose. The Peninsula Hong Kong serves up a slice of history. The Regent Singapore, an ageing but spry dowager, offers brisk hospitality on rails and is rightly feted. The Regent Taipei serves up one of the best breakfast buffets East of the Suez. The InterContinental Bangkok is a standout conference and leisure property. In this august company, the current Regent Hong Kong will need to work hard to reclaim its former sheen. The PR outreach is excellent. It's the product that needs a perk-up.

As the Robert Frost poem goes, "But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep." We remain cautiously optimistic.

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