Going For Gold on the Conde Nast Traveller 2012 Gold List

Like the BAFTAs and the Oscars, there have long been equally prestigious lists of travel excellence being produced on both sides of the pond: in both cases, there’s often some overlap, but each organization has its own particular sensibility that makes both selections worth paying attention to. While the U.S. edition’s Gold List selections are drawn from their massive readers’ survey, to take advantage of their breadth of knowledge, the U.K. edition depends on their editors depth of experience within the industry to discern what’s truly extraordinary.

The 2012 list is divided into eight categories, depending on your priorities, although of course any hotel on this list will excel in all of these things. Among our favorites within the many excellent hotels selected for each are the newly-reopened St. Pancras Renaissance in London as best for location, the eclectic Crosby Street Hotel in New York as best for rooms, and the classic Alvear Palace in Buenos Aires as best for service. Beyond the basic categories, they also selected for more subjective but equally important concerns, including the Bellagio in Las Vegas for best leisure facilities, the Opposite House in Beijing for best food, and Le Royal Monceau Raffles in Paris for best ambience  & design.

Industry Insiders: Harry Handelsman, Renaissance Man

Remember the castle in the Harry Potter movies? Want to see the Grand Staircase from the Spice Girls video Wannabe? Then head to the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, located next to St Pancras Station, which offers high-speed Eurostar trains to Paris and Brussels. We caught up with Harry Handelsman, the hotel’s owner and developer, at an opening- night party in May hosted by Adrien Brody. On that night, heartthrob Ed Westwick stayed in the Royal Suite, which is reputed to be the largest suite in London and costs a whopping $16,000 per night.

BlackBook: The five-star St Pancras is a magnificent undertaking. What’s yet to come? Handelsman: From a point of view of service, the pursuit of excellence doesn’t stop. For me, the question is: What do I do in order to make it a gateway to Europe? How do I become the custodian of this building on behalf of Londoners? How often does one have an opportunity to open a building from the turn of the last century as a hotel? It had lost its halo, so to speak. Now, all of a sudden, we have the opportunity to reawaken it.

What do you have planned for the interior? I just bought at auction a wonderful sculpture of actress Jean Harlow by George Lang, a contemporary of Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein. Decorating the interior is something that I continue to explore.

Another focus is how, from a cultural point of view, can we create a rapport between this building and nearby museums? I’m speaking with representatives at the Tate, the Foundling Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. We are also in conversation with the British Library. The question being considered is: How can we collaborate? How can we create an experience that gives them a memory of London that is special?

Is this hotel is a labor of love? I can see you love the project, and you put so much money in … Far more than I needed to. I recognized I had an unequal opportunity to really reintroduce a masterpiece into London.

How much money did you put into this? A lot, a lot.

Do you expect to make money from it? Not in the short term. But I’m not in it for the short term. I am an atypical hotel developer. The financial motivation isn’t a primary thing.

Where do you – when you’re not at your own property – like to hang out? In London, we are spoiled with restaurants. We have Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, by the Michelin-starred chef who now opened The Gilbert Scott in St Pancras, as well. And Locanda Locatelli, Scott’s, and Hix in Soho. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in the Mandarin Oriental is fantastic. I’m a member of the Groucho Club. It’s where my friends are. It’s where I hang out.

Tell me about your project with Andre Balazs. There is a fire station which I’m going to be converting to a really lovely, boutique hotel in Marylebone in central London. The hotel is going to be very small, but exquisite. It’s due in about two years.

Do you have any other hotels? One that’s going to be a 43-story building in the East End of London with double-height rooms. The order to the architect was: ‘Build me the best new building in Europe, possibly the world.’ It will have a lot of glass.

You’re an hotelier, a developer, a collector. Any category I’m missing? I’ve got a film studio, called Ealing Studios, which is the oldest studio in Britain, possibly the world. It began in 1902. I bought it around 2000. Madonna did her film there, as well as Woody Allen. I’ve got partners that do the creative side. I do more of the commercial side.

Any other new developments? I know that you are the CEO of Manhattan Lofts, which has brought residential loft space to London. I’m looking for another opportunity, but it’s in the very early days. It’s on the Thames and very ambitious. At the moment, it’s just the beginning of a dialogue.