Handy for ExCeL and The O2, London's superyacht hotel feels more like a retired cruise ship than an adventure playground for the super-rich, writes Herpreet Kaur Grewal.
20 October 2014
The Sunborn yacht hotel is probably one of the more imaginative places to stay in London. Fittingly, a recent famous guest was fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett.
The five-deck, 136-room hotel will primarily attract corporate clients, with its extensive meeting and event space including two auditoriums and various other facilities (see box). Its proximity to ExCeL, the exhibitions and international convention centre, also means it can cater for business clientele frequenting the busy venue. Also nearby are The O2 and the Siemens Crystal building, and it is just a two-minute walk to the The Emirates Air Line cable car.
Karen Thomson, director of hotels for ISS Facility Services, which operates the yacht and provides its TFM services, says it has had a steady flow of guests since it moored in the City's Docklands in the summer.
The new yacht already had a core set of fans owing to the previous Sunborn vessel that was docked in the city until 2008.
Thomson says: "A lot of guests were waiting for us to come back. So we had a lot of people who were here previously and they've come back. Also with the media attention, we've had a lot of people calling up asking when they can book. It's amazing the amount of interest that we've had and it's because it's unique to stay in a yacht and you don't know what to expect. Your journey begins when you are online and booking it."
Once you step on board there are subtle differences compared with a regular hotel, like the porthole windows found in some of the bedrooms. Looking out of these at the River Thames might even make one seasick, depending on your disposition.
"Guests sometimes have the impression the yacht is moving but it's not moving. The yacht is moored and the movement is so little," says Andreas Stys, general manager of the Sunborn.
Stys is responsible for the day-to-day running of the hotel. One of the features his maintenance team is responsible for is ensuring that the mooring arms that keep the vessel in place stay put. He says even though the internal differences between a yacht hotel and a bricks-and-mortar one might be subtle there are definitely distinctions between how both are maintained.
Stys says: "You need an expert. I have in my team a property manager who also managed the previous Sunborn yacht hotel."
One difference, according to Stys, is the setup for the air conditioning.
"Our air conditioning works with water from the Thames, so that is certainly different from a regular building," he says.
"It is powered by electricity but takes water from the Thames to cool the whole system and to cool down the rooms using pipes which the water flows through The water is filtered and we have it cooled down and sent through the pipes of the boat."
The Sunborn was created to offer areas with limited development space an additional 100 to 200-bedroom luxury hotel. Sunborn yachts are designed to meet "very high environmental EU standards", according to ISS, and on board they feature some innovative eco-friendly technology, such as the use of tablets in rooms, so that guests are able to order room service and make table bookings as well as download movies and make purchases of theatre tickets and car hire. Using the tablet also helps the Sunborn to save paper, says Thomson.
The hotel yachts are designed with zero discharge and emission policy and will not be using engines or generators while in mooring. The new Sunborn itself has heated windows, underfloor heating in bathrooms and low-energy bulbs and it recycles the waste cooking oil used in its kitchens into biodiesel.
Thomson says the yacht gets its electricity, water and waste all from ExCeL. "Our power comes from ExCeL to our junction box and then it's wired in here."
Stys says the yacht's many windows pose unique maintenance issues that must be thought through.
"We have so many windows everywhere so we have to find the right temperature depending on the weather," he explains.
"Due to the sun and the reflection of the water it can become like a mirror. The sun reflects to the water and to the boat and the inside can become hot," he says. Turning up the air conditioning, offsets any excess heat and high temperature, but this has to be modified regularly depending on the weather.
"There has to be a constant eye on that aspect by the maintenance team," says Stys.
There is the potential for water damage to the yacht because of its location. "Our yacht is in the water, we need to have it inspected every three months to check whether the conditions are fine, whether there are mussels on it or other damage on the boat, and if it needs cleaning," says Stys.
The windows also have to be cleaned every six to eight weeks. Normally a team is assigned to clean the outside of boat from the top to the bottom, says Stys. Security guards are stationed on top of the boat as well as an emergency team that can provide assistance if any hazardous situation should occur for the cleaners.
The first yacht hotel was also owned by Finnish company Sunborn and managed by ISS, and was sold in 2008. Thomson says: "The yacht is like a car in that it depreciates in value. After 15 years you have to sell a yacht, otherwise you lose money because of the depreciation A buyer came and offered money and we sold it." Thomson said the economic downturn slowed the process of building a new yacht. "There wasn't supposed to be this long a gap," she says.
The last yacht was built for the Finnish market. This posed some problems as details like plug sockets were Finnish, unable to be used by British or other European guests. Also, signage was in Finnish on the old yacht.
But the new Sunborn London has been more suitably tailored for a British clientele. Thomson says it has more baths rather than merely showers, uses LED lights (instead of "brighter lights" used in the previous Finnish design), has the main restaurant at the front of the yacht rather than the previous one that was at the back of the fifth deck).
European and UK sockets are used instead of the Finnish ones on the previous design, and the steps leading into corridors, rooms, bathrooms have been removed. In a normal sea-going vessel, should water enter the interior, the 'steps' stop water sluicing through the entire structure - but for a moored boat this feature is not needed.
ISS has also worked with the East London Business Alliance (ELBA), a social regeneration charity in East London, to recruit specifically from the local area - the London Borough of Newham. It has 27 local resident employees and three apprentices. ISS is one of the first employers in the area to pay hotel staff the London Living Wage. Thomson says they recruited on attitude rather than skills. It shows when you look around the yacht - every employee seems to be smiling.
"With people who are long-term unemployed they perhaps don't have the skills needed to be on reception etc, so we thought if they have the right attitude, we will teach them the skills, if they are willing to learn. During the interviews we gave them games to play and different activities to do, to see what they are like and it came out very well."
But it was not straightforward, admits Thomson. "Some didn't turn up on day one or day two. After a few weeks, some said the work was too hard. But we haven't asked anyone to leave. So we've lost a few - but not many."
As for the future, Thomson envisions more Sunborn yacht hotels popping up in London.
"If the economic climate holds up we can open more Sunborn hotels. If we can get someone to build them and find somewhere to put them, then that's what we will do."
Facts - Facilities
- 136 rooms and suites
- 132 standard & executive rooms and 2 junior suites & 2 executive suites
- Total occupancy - 308
- 4-star rating
- In-room tablet comms system to contact hotel services
- Coffee machines in all rooms and suites
- Saunas in two suites
- Meeting spaces (restaurant, conference room, boardroom, private dining/meeting room)
- Mobile bar (5th floor/deck)
- Spa treatment room
- Outside decks and private terraces (incl Skylounge)
- Total employees: 75
- Number of new recruits: 42
- Local resident employees: 27
- Apprentices: 3
- Sunborn London is a Recognised Living Wage Service Provider
- ISS is one of the first employers in the area to pay hotel staff the London Living Wage
- ISS and East London Business Alliance (ELBA) are partners in a 'Passport to Work' project to recruit staff for Sunborn London; ELBA works with Newham's job brokerage, 'Workplace'
- Restaurant: 80 covers - buffet breakfast & lunch, à la carte dining
- Lounge bar: snacks and drinks
- Wheelhouse: private dining
Meeting & Event space
- Auditorium/private screening room: 50 seats
- Wheelhouse: 12 boardroom-style; with deck up to 80
- Auditorium: 50 seats, theatre-style
- Sky Bar: 100 cocktail-style, 30-50 cabaret-style, 70 theatre-style + deck up to 60
- Restaurant: 150 cocktail-style, 55-80 cabaret seated + outside deck up to 80
- Open-plan meeting: 250 cocktail-style, 200 informal + deck up to 80
- West India Dock 1: 50 cocktail-style, 24 boardroom or 80 theatre-style
- West India Dock 2: 50 cocktail-style, 20 boardroom or 60 theatre-style + balcony
- East India Dock: 50 cocktail-style, 24 boardroom or 80 theatre-style
Photo credit: Photogenics