InterContinental - The O2 / Arora Hotels has opened a hotel and conference centre with the largest pillar-free ballroom in Europe on London’s Greenwich Peninsula.

Sleeper Magazine
Sleeper Mag

By Matt Turner

Greenwich peninsula is no stranger to controversial developments. The Millennium Dome was beset with criticism from public, politicians and press alike, before finding a more financially viable future as The O2 Arena. The £60m cable-car crossing from the Peninsula to Royal Victoria Dock – now known as the Emirates Air Line thanks to its Dubai-based benefactors – was seen as a similarly contentious use of public funds. And the progress of the overarching vision for this hitherto derelict kink in the Thames shoreline has been anything but plain sailing.

The hope is that involvement of Hong Kong-based developer Knight Dragon, who fully acquired the site in late 2013, will kickstart what has been described as one of London’s slowest moving regeneration schemes. Work has started on 500 – and planning is in place for another 1,100 – of the 10,000 new homes that will be built here. But even this breakthrough has its detractors, who feel the provision for affordable housing in Terry Farrell’s original 2004 masterplan is being steamrollered with newly-revised proposals for more luxury apartments on the site.

Yet there have been recent signs that green shoots in the recovery of the Peninsula are starting to spring up. Pop-up restaurant pioneer Stevie Parle has opened Craft – a restaurant, café, cocktail bar and shop. Tom Dixon (in whose West London studio Parle launched the Dock kitchen) has designed the interiors for Craft, as well as those for the first wave of apartments currently under construction. He is also creative director for the surrounding park, designed by landscape gardener Thomas Hoblyn, with Alys Fowler and Design Research Studio. Art world entrepreneur Steve Lazarides (a gallery owner and former agent to street artist Banksy) has set up print studios close by.

Perhaps the biggest step forward, and certainly the one most likely to breathe life into this windswept promontory, has been the recent opening of InterContinental – The O2. The project is the brainchild of Surinder Arora, a self-made entrepreneur and regular fixture on the Sunday Times Rich List thanks to his hotel interests around Heathrow and Gatwick Airports.

Arora is part of a consortium, headed by Queensgate Investment Fund, that acquired a 7.5 acre site adjacent to The O2 Arena from Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) in 2012, just as the London Olympics was garnering global attention for Greenwich. A deal was inked with InterContinental Hotels Group in September 2013, the company’s Chief Development Officer for Europe Robert Shepherd saying the project would both benefit from, and be a catalyst for, growth and prosperity in the area.

It is a monster of a hotel, with 453 guestrooms, five F&B outlets, 19 meetings rooms, spa, pool and gym. The centrepiece of the project is the Arora Ballroom. Measuring 80x39m it’s not much smaller than a football pitch – making it the largest pillar-free ballroom in Europe – and has been designed with complete flexibility to adapt into multiple configurations.

There is 1,600m2 of pre-function space exposing dramatic views of Canary Wharf, with additional meeting rooms on the mezzanine floor available for seminars and breakout space. Fully sound-proofed separation walls and dedicated access allow the ballroom to be subdivided for smaller events, with a heavyweight vehicle lift on each side capable of holding two articulated lorryloads. These mirror each other, allowing for simultaneous events of over 1,550 delegates each to set up, take place, and unload in tandem.

Another 400m flat outdoor space at the front of the hotel can be used to add production showcase elements to live events, visible from across the water in Canary Wharf, or private marquees for extra event space. It all adds up to the most sophisticated MICE set-up of any London hotel, one with which its developers are hoping to tempt organisers of large-scale events away from the better-established hotels in central London.

Outside the event spaces, guests will find plenty to occupy them – not least the stunning views over Canary Wharf on the opposite side of the river. RTKL, now CallisonRTKL following the acquisitions of both companies by design and engineering consultancy Arcadis, were architects on the project. The exterior is modern and sleek, with the building incorporating as much floor-to-ceiling glass as possible to maximise light and space, and expose the impressive vistas.

The hotel’s interiors are by Grove Developments Ltd – the development wing of Arora group – and G1 Architects. “The initial design concepts for the hotel began in 2012 and after planning was approved, the actual build took just over two years to complete,” explains Martin Farrow, interior designer for Grove Developments. This timeframe posed particular challenges for front-of-house fit-out contractor S&T, as did the sheer vastness of The Arora Ballroom.

“From the very beginning, all parties involved in the planning and design process were in agreement that it was vital the hotel design subtly reflected and complemented the iconic history of the Royal Borough and played to its strengths located on the river Thames,” continues Farrow. “We have been careful to balance the history, legacy and culture of the location with the style and values of the InterContinental brand.”

“We took a great deal of inspiration from Greenwich’s maritime heritage, particularly across the bars and restaurants,” he adds. “Our overall goal was to create a first-class hotel with character, timeless design and elegance. The result, we feel, is a perfect balance that encompasses luxury, modernity and authenticity.”

The interiors feature references to the nautical heritage of the site, and subtle allusions to its links to the East India Trading route. There are maritime clocks, navigational instruments and model sailboats used as decoration throughout. Bronze accents to the lobby floor and headboards in the guestrooms depict the astronomical charts sailors would once have used to find their way.

The Peninsula fine-dining restaurant is notable for the addition of Eastern flavours and influences to its modern European cuisine, with head chef Dan Loftin peppering his dishes with the exotic spices that were once traded through the East London docks. Its design features natural tones of beige jura limestone, light granites and natural, textural fabrics alongside rich timbers of cherry and walnut.

The mezzanine-level Market Brasserie’s offer is inspired by London markets including those which originally existed in Greenwich, as well as those at Billingsgate, Smithfield and Covent Garden. Its mustard coloured upholstery contrasts with the smart black leather of the banquette seating and loose furniture. The Clipper Bar offers an extensive Afternoon Tea menu with a choice of 34 loose teas from (where else?) the East India Company. Its oval bar, shaped like the prow of a ship, is clad in mosaic tile and marble, with 270-degree views of the River Thames. The Meridian Lounge is named to reflect the hotel’s location at the starting point of every timezone in the world. The rooftop Eighteen Sky Bar offers cocktails infused with spice, herbs and botanics, alongside a pan-Asian menu.

Aquatic elements of a more literal kind are to be found in the spa with its 17-metre indoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi and eight treatment rooms for a range of signature ESPA beauty and relaxation therapies.

The 3,000 delegates that can be accommodated in the ballroom at any one time will be the foremost financial driver for what is unashamedly a conference and banqueting-led hotel. More important still is its proximity to The O2 Arena, the world’s most visited music venue, attracting in excess of eight million visitors and hosting over 190 sold-out events per year. Its presidential suite, surely one of the largest in London, will keep the most demanding of stars and their retinues in the luxury to which they are accustomed. And the hotel will soon be directly linked to The O2 Arena by a covered walkway connecting to a new designer retail outlet being developed by AEG.