Thursday, December 15, 2011

A London hotel for the price of chocnut

Recently I had coffee at the Fort with Mark Lankester, CEO of the Tune Hotels, a Malaysia-based budget hotel group that's intent on taking on the world. From the outset, I have to be honest. Personally, budget hotels aren't my first choice -- or my second or third or fourth choice, for that matter -- and I'm the type who would rather scrimp on dinner than on my hotel room, if I had to economize somewhere at all.


Tune Hotel in Penang

But the case Tune Hotels puts forth is quite difficult to ignore, especially in a time of global recession. They have hotels all over Asia and in London, and they're opening early next year in Cebu, Pampanga, downtown Manila and Makati; and in each of their hotels, they're offering a cool setting, a safe environment, great beds, power showers and an a la carte order-as-you-please system for amenities.

"This is the Philippines we're talking about," I reminded him. "Power showers in budget hotels? You must be kidding." These are already a stretch to find even in luxury hotels.


Mark was fairly confident he could deliver. "It's just a matter of equipment and technology," he said. "I'm going to put in the kind of showers that'll give you a full blast of hot water in seconds."

I was also skeptical about his guarantee of spotless and cheap rooms. Spotless five-star deluxe hotel rooms, I can imagine. And again, even that is a challenge. Everyone knows it's easy to open a hotel in the Philippines with the wow factor. The challenge lies in maintaining the wow factor and brand-new quality in terms of infrastructure, cleanliness and service.


And really. Were we talking spotlessly clean hotel rooms in central locations for the price of a so-so lunch in Makati?

Again Mark just smiled at me. Thank goodness we had pitchers of coffee and boxes of these canapé sandwiches to keep us grounded to reality, or I would have assumed he was taking me for a ride. "It's been done everywhere else by us," he said. "I don't see why we can't replicate it in the Philippines."

The Tune Hotels are aiming for a hip, cool and young crowd that will work hard all day, party all night, and just come home for a few hours of shut-eye. So they won't be needing a fancy room as they'll be hanging out at the cool bars and night spots during the times most other people are asleep. So they won't be minding Tune hotel's average floor area of about 14 to 15 square meters if it means they can have more money for a tequila or a vodka cocktail in that jumping bar next door.


"So you're the lower end version of the Hard Rock Hotel?" I asked him. I'd actually stayed at a Hard Rock Hotel once, in Penang, and even if I'm not really into the Beatles or King Crimson, I really enjoyed it. The rooms were very comfortable, I had a wonderful sea view, and I loved the pool that went all over the hotel.

Some ground floor rooms even had staircases attached to their terraces so that you could just wake up and jump straight into the pool. I just had to get used to the rock music everywhere, but that wasn't a big deal. Yeah, I'd stay there again if I was in the area.

He smiled at me for the nth time. "I like that," he said. "I think I'm going to start using that." Then it was my turn to smile at him and say: "I should charge you a marketing consultancy for that."

Perhaps the two most interesting things about Tune Hotels are its a la carte amenities system and its pricing -- which is good news for budget travelers going abroad, especially to expensive London. Tune Hotels also plan to open up in Austria fairly soon.


Your basic room rate at a Tune Hotel gets you a room with a bed and clean sheets, a decent bathroom with a power shower and a ceiling fan. Anything more than these, well, you've got to order it from the menu, but it's a very fair system.

For example, you can buy hours of air-conditioning in increments of 12 or 24 hours and just use it as you please because everything is recorded on a card and computerized. So the clock begins ticking from the time you switch on your air conditioner, and it stops temporarily when you switch it off. So technically, a 24-hour card can be used continuously for a 24-hour day, or you could stretch it out over 4 nights by only using it for six hours a night. That's certainly a novel concept if I ever saw one.

The WiFi and a couple of other things work the same way. Pay and use as you go, and turn it off if you want to extend your usage longer.


As for the usual hotel amenities, this is a bring-your-own-everything hotel. You can rent a towel, buy shampoo or a shower cap, or get an extra blanket all for additional fees. Or you could bring everything in your luggage and have zero extra costs.

There's no restaurant here either, so don't start thinking about ordering room service. But the idea here is that the typical Tune guest is out all night and for most of the day so they're not the types to be looking for a hotel room service menu. And breakfast? Tune people are more likely to be wolfing down a muffin at a fast-food joint at the start of the day, rather than having eggs benedict and freshly squeezed orange juice on a hotel terrace.

Most Tune hotels are conveniently located next to bars, cafes, restaurants and convenience stores so you can just go out and buy the exact meal to suit your preference and budget. That's pretty democratic. If you're hankering for perfectly made eggs benedict, you can just take a cab to the nearest five-star hotel.


If that sounds like a lot of hassle, perhaps you won't be thinking the same way again once you've heard of the prices they charge. It's all based on supply and demand - no rack rates, would you believe? As in, you won't be able to get a brochure with the room prices if you asked for one. The price varies daily depending on how many rooms they still have left to sell when you book.


So you'll get a room dirt cheap if no one else wants one, and you'll get one higher-priced if you're trying to book a room at peak season. Also, it pays to book in advance as the guys who book a Tune hotel room a year in a advance, for example, get fantastic rates. Basically, if you're lucky, you can stay at a Tune hotel in the pretty central and pricey area of Westminster in London for about the price of a can of Coke. Or even less.

Mark tells me that he once sold a room for 2 pence a night. 2 pence will buy you one or two pieces of Chocnut in Manila. And this is a hotel room in London, one of the world's most expensive cities, we're talking about -- and with a power shower and a good bed, because these are two things Tune Hotels is just bursting with pride over.

"My god," I said. "At those prices, I'd stay at a Tune Hotel rather than rent a flat in the outlying areas, if I was an average office worker in the City."


Of course, 2 pence is the fluke here, but it can happen if you book a room a year in advance in low season and you're the first buyer for that day 365 days in advance. It's just like the one time I booked a flight for 2 people from London to Sardinia on Easy Jet.

Now again, I don't really take budget carriers just because I can't stand cramped seating and I always have too much luggage. But I was really going from London to Sardinia and ordinarily I would have taken London-Rome on British Airways and then Rome-Sardinia on Alitalia.

But I just happened to check out the Easy Jet website and when I inputted my destination, the price of the ticket was 25 pence plus taxes. 2 pence! I can't even buy gum for 2 pence in London! So each ticket came out to something like 1.89 pounds. 1.89 pounds from London to Sardinia on a direct flight that would have me in Alghero in two hours, bypassing Rome altogether!

I chucked any apprehensions about budget flights out the window as my British Airways and Alitalia option was 200 pounds on economy class and 35o pounds each for club class. Of course I was taking Easy Jet.

What I didn't realize then was that Easy Jet flies from London Stansted Airport, which is further from Heathrow in another direction. From the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, it cost us 120 pounds for cab fare instead of the usual 60 pounds to Heathrow. And then my luggages cost me 70 pounds extra as Easy Jet only allowed 7 kilos and of course I had 40 kilos with me as usual.

But still, all in all, I was still at 50% of the lowest cost on the traditional carriers for two pax and there was no waiting time in Rome. And I just had the Mandarin pack us very civilized breakfast hampers to eat on board, and that certainly beat any inflight food on any airline.

Since I told everyone I knew about my 1.89 pound ticket to Sardinia from London, other people have tried to book and they haven't been so lucky. Still, they were able to get flights for under 50 pounds, which was still a steal vs the traditional carriers then.


And to go back to the topic of the guy who's found himself a clean and modern one-bedroom studio in central London -- a.k.a. the Tune Hotel. The 2 pence a night is the equivalent of winning a jackpot, I'm guessing. But still, you can probably get a room for the equivalent of a hamburger on many nights. That's more like 5 pounds with the trimmings and the Diet Coke. But, yes, it's been done, but only the most clever and patient are able to do so.

Tune Hotels can only be booked for 10 days in a row, so you'll have to keep trying your luck with Tune's supply and demand system every 10 days to be able to stay at the Tune Hotel for a year. If you walk in looking for a room on the night itself, the price is more likely to be about 60 to 90 pounds if the hotel is fairly full, and that's still a pretty good deal albeit not the same as 2 pence a night.

Mark also assures me that year-round cheap stays have been done. He knows of at least one guest who's been able to stay for around a year by making the most of the system. Another long-staying London guest has a house in the country and he uses the Tune Hotel as a pied-à-terre from Mondays to Fridays when he can book it at a low rate.


This is when I started to slightly capitulate. Just do the math: 2 pence a night vs 400 pounds a night for a hotel room; and it's not like we're talking about sleeping in a cardboard box here. I thought of all the bags or nice trips I could buy for what I'd save on a one-week trip to London in a fancy hotel, and it seemed like a no brainer even to me.

I really like to stay in plush places -- that's my super weak spot. But if I found an expensive dress I really liked in Harvey Nics, yeah, I could now see myself buying it and moving from the five-star deluxe digs across the road from Harvey Nics that I usually stay in, to a Tune Hotel for a few days just to temporarily cancel out my guilt.

To each his own. But either way you have to admit. Two pence a night -- or even 20 pounds a night -- for a London hotel room is very attractive indeed.

Tune Hotels


Travelife Magazine's
Oct-Nov 2011 Issue


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