London Travel Guide
Your understanding of cultural nuance and the current business climate are key for business travelers in London.
Last October, Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, justified pumping an extra $120 billion into Britain’s ailing economy by claiming the country was in the deepest slump since the Great Depression. The drop in the country’s output after the subprime mortgage crisis appears to have been almost on a par with the shrinkage following the Wall Street crash of 1929. In September, the European Economic Commission downgraded its 2011 growth forecast for the U.K. to just 1.1 percent, the same month that the Retail Price Index put inflation at 5.6 percent.
But what does all this mean in real terms for doing business in London? Mike Betesh, a partner in a wealth management firm who came to London from New York nine years ago, says there is a great sense of denial among most Londoners. “They don’t understand the credit crunch in the way Americans do. The idea of mortgages and banks drying up are things that Americans have had to contend with for the past couple of years, whereas in the U.K. even a student can still get a mortgage on 50 percent loan to capital—something that would be impossible in the U.S.”
Alexandria Palamountain, head of business development and marketing at the law firm Bristows, feels the biggest impact has been in the realm of regulation. “The economic climate has made a big difference to the way people are doing business in the U.K., and an increase in regulation in the banking and international services area is the biggest change,” she explains. “The way you used to do business might now fall under the Bribery Act and might be illegal.”
The Bribery Act is new legislation that came into force in July 2011, and although bona fide hospitality is not likely to invoke the act, it could be enforced if someone were guilty of seeking to influence a decision-maker by giving some kind of extra benefit rather than using the legitimate tender process. “It’s tricky,” says Palamountain, an American who has been splitting her time between the U.S. and London for the past eight years and has now decided to move to London. “Companies need to show that they have measures in place to prevent employees from committing acts of bribery.”
However, despite the downturn and the increased regulations, hotel owner Bev King says business is booming. “I think London hotels are going to report their best year yet,” he predicts. “Most hotels are operating at 85 percent occupancy, and because of the high demand they are able to charge high prices.” His start-up, Z Hotels, has opened its first property in Soho, Central London. “I admit it wasn’t easy setting up a business in the current climate,” King says. “Mainly because the old model of financing a hotel using bank debt just isn’t available.” King has financed his idea of providing affordable luxury in central locations using private and personal investment. “I didn’t find it hard to attract investors,” says King. “We have a good business model, and there is still money to be made in this city.”
On the streets of London, in the shops, bars, pubs and restaurants, there is little sign of a downturn. The city is as fast and furious as ever; the sidewalks are congested with locals, tourists and business visitors all jostling to get from one place to another, while on the roads, vehicles—including the iconic red buses and black cabs—move at a snail’s pace. “One of my top tips for business visitors is to always allow double the time you think it will take when assessing the journey time to a meeting,” says King. “Don’t even think of hiring a car. London has a hefty congestion charge for driving in the central zone, and next year, when the Olympic routes come into place, getting around by road will become even more difficult.” King recommends finding a hotel as close as possible to your key meetings and to use the underground metro (the Tube) whenever possible.
Punctuality is expected for meetings, although a delay of 10 minutes can often be blamed on the transport—and Brits really aren’t as uptight as their stereotype might have you believe. “I used to generalize everything and put all the Brits in one little box and say this is what the Brits are,” says Betesh. “But I know now that it is not like that at all. Americans still wear mainly shirts and ties, whereas in England you will find many people without ties. They will wear a nice pressed shirt, they’ll look very clean-cut, but they won’t be wearing ties. Americans have a misconception of the Brits and how they dress—they have the tailors of Savile Row in their head. But it’s not really like that anymore.”
However, Palamountain says there are certain stereotypes that do hold true. “I’m in an organization where I’m one of three or four Americans, and we do have a bit of a reputation for being in really early or working really late. As an American you just go and go and go. Whereas our British colleagues leave in the evening to spend time with their families.”
She also warns that there are more public holidays in the U.K. than the States and to bear this in mind when booking your trip. “In London they take Good Friday and Easter Monday off, and there are all sorts of other public holidays in the year when everything closes,” she advises. “It also comes as a shock to many Americans that London isn’t a 24/7 environment. The Tube stops at midnight, shops close in the early evening and people honor weekends. When I first got here I thought something was wrong with my BlackBerry because it stopped beeping at the weekend!”
But if you find you can’t do business every day of your trip, you’ll find plenty in the city that vies for your leisure time. Betesh recommends the restaurants: “The food here is spectacular—just as good as New York. Americans often think that British food is terrible, but London is full of unbelievable ethnic restaurants and it is tremendously more cosmopolitan than New York. Get out and eat. Don’t just stick to the hotel restaurant.” He also suggests venturing into the East End and sampling one of the many curry houses on Brick Lane or some of the boho places around Spitalfields Market. Palamountain suggests a walk across London Bridge to Borough market in Southwark, a bustling food market on the bank of the Thames, where you can pick up pastries from artisan bakers, specialty cheeses or bottles of organic cider. She also recommends allowing yourself time to just explore. “London is a city of nooks and crannies, full of things you never knew existed that might be just behind a wall, or just down an alley, and I think you do need to just absorb that.”
Most flights from the U.S. land at Heathrow Airport, which is served by excellent transport links to Central London. Think about taking a taxi only if money is no concern (about $110 to the center) and you don’t mind being stuck in traffic (the road is seldom clear and the journey can take more than an hour). The remaining options are the Heathrow Express train and the Tube, and which you choose depends very much on your destination and your budget. The Heathrow Express is a fast service into Paddington Station (about 20 minutes) and costs about $28 for a single journey. The Tube takes longer (an hour to Piccadilly Circus), but serves many stops where hotels are situated (Earls Court, Hyde Park Corner, Russell Square, etc.), so it can work out quicker in the long run if it means you don’t have to change. The Tube is also much cheaper, at about $8 for a single ticket.
Within the airport you will find a large number of shops and eateries, but unfortunately there is no free wireless Internet. You can connect instead through its provider, Boingo (boingo.com), which has a pay-as-you-go option. You will also find computers with a wired Internet connection at each terminal, but these come with a charge. Alternatively, you can pay to access an executive lounge.
London Travel Guide: STAY
Andaz Liverpool Street
40 Liverpool St.; +44 20 7961 1234
A five-star hotel in the heart of the financial district with five restaurants to choose from, ranging from an intimate Japanese to a flashy oyster bar.
St. Pancras Renaissance
Euston Road; +44 20 7841 3540
Step out of this grand Gothic building directly onto the platform of St. Pancras Station for the high-speed Eurostar train to continental Europe.
Dolphin Square, Chichester Street; +44 20 7798 8000
Ideal for longer stays, these luxury serviced apartments set in landscaped gardens on the banks of the Thames have an onsite pool, gym, tennis courts, croquet lawn and new Moroccan-themed spa.
London Travel Guide: EAT
101 Buckingham Palace Rd.; +44 20 7821 8898
This newly opened Cantonese restaurant serves food to rival the best of Chinatown but in a sedate, formal environment close to Victoria Station.
6-10 Bruton St., Mayfair; +44 20 7495 7100
Well deserving of its two Michelin stars, The Square serves chef Philip Howard’s elegant, flavorsome dishes in a refined dining room.
33 King St., Covent Garden; +44 20 7379 9696
Fine French food in an atmospheric setting in the heart of the West End. Log fires, wood paneling and an excellent wine list transport you to Provence.