Not long after the neck of the Champagne bottle has been sliced open, butterflies begin floating through the bar of the St. Regis Rome hotel. Not real butterflies, of course; these laser-generated lepidoptera are part of the light show that accompanies the sabrage ceremony, a magnificent piece of theatre in which a staff member slices open a magnum of champagne using a sabre.
There is history in the sabrage ritual. A favourite with Napoleon's troops in post-revolutionary France and a fixture at the first St.Regis hotel in New York when it opened more than a century ago, the sabrage is now a ritual at St.Regis hotels around the world.
There is even more history in the St. Regis Rome, launched in 1894 by the world's most celebrated hotelier, Cesar Ritz. After a recent €40 million restoration, however, the St. Regis Rome feels decidedly contemporary, its glorious heritage features such as the super-wide corridors and the magnificent signature staircase notwithstanding.
Take the scarlet-lined lift to the elegant lobby with its buzzing bar and you will find eye-catching art installations as well as grand Murano chandeliers, a blue-lit vitrine behind the bar and a glittering geometric mosaic opposite. Most of all there are beautiful people, plenty of them – including Prince Harry, who was the guest of honour at a ball in support of his charity Sentebale in May.
There is no denying it: the St. Regis Rome is cool. But how does a historic hotel become an inn for the in crowd? By challenging tradition even as you embrace it, explains the hotel's general manager, Giuseppe De Martino. As an example, he refers to the nightly laser show, with its butterflies and its bubbles.
"This is our version of the mural," explains De Martino. Every St. Regis around the world has its own feature mural, inspired by the original New York property, which has a Maxfield Parrish mural depicting Old King Cole in its bar. "We wanted to make ours a very contemporary artwork, so we did some thinking and came up with the idea of a laser show."
The world has a rich trove of heritage hotels. Few of them, however, have blossomed into global brands. St. Regis, which grew from a single New York hotel to a portfolio of more than 40 properties, is one of them. Perhaps its greatest rival is the Waldorf Astoria, the Hilton-owned brand that now has 32 properties.
While both brands have proven adept at updating old-school luxury for a 21st century audience, they share another, more remarkable link: both were born from a fierce rivalry that can be traced back to one New York family, the Astors.
NEW YORK'S FIRST FAMILY
In the 19th century the Astor family ruled New York. The dynasty's founder, John Jacob Astor, was a German immigrant who first made his money in the fur trade and later diversified into real estate, becoming the United States' first multi-millionaire. Although Astor created New York's first high-end hotel, the Astor House, which opened in 1836, it was his descendants who cemented the family's reputation as luxury hoteliers. Ironically, that success sprang out of a family feud.
It was William Waldorf Astor who, in 1893, built the palatial Waldorf Hotel at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, where the Empire State Building now stands. Astor chose the location, in what was then a residential neighbourhood, partly to annoy his aunt, the formidable society hostess Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, who lived next door. Peeved at having a commercial establishment as a neighbour, Mrs Astor was eventually persuaded to move uptown by her son, John Jacob Astor IV, who then announced plans to build his own hotel, the Astoria, on the now-vacant site.
The manager of the Waldorf, Oscar Tschirky, persuaded the feuding cousins that they would make more money by working together rather than competing, and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was born – although John Jacob IV insisted on building his hotel as a separate structure, linked to the existing hotel by a corridor.
The Waldorf-Astoria quickly became the city's most celebrated venue, the first hotel to offer every guest electricity and private bathrooms as well as room service. Buoyed by that success, John Jacob IV went on to open the St. Regis, located 20 blocks further north, in 1904. The hotel achieved instant notoriety not just for its luxurious amenities but also for its building costs, a then-unheard of sum of $5.5 million.
John Jacob IV died in 1912, one of the guests on the ill-fated Titanic's maiden voyage; his son was forced to sell the property in 1927 when Prohibition hit hotels hard, although he later bought it back. The hotel was bought by Sheraton Hotels in 1966 and then by Starwood Hotels in 1998, which went on to launch the St. Regis brand. The Waldorf-Astoria was bought by Hilton Hotels in 1972; it announced its Waldorf Astoria collection in 2006.
Both companies have benefited from the current boom in luxury travel and have extensive expansion plans. New St. Regis openings including Hong Kong, Cairo, Venice, Morocco and Melbourne (2022), while Waldorf Astoria has 20 hotels in the pipeline, including London, Miami, Jakarta and Antigua.
BUILDING A BRAND
Like St. Regis, Waldorf Astoria is known for delivering both superior service and eye-catching design. Hilton's Daniel Welk says that the brand has developed its identity by staying true to the strengths of the original New York hotel. Top of that list is the prestige of having the best address in town.
"Wherever you plan to raise the Waldorf-Astoria flag, we need to have one of the premier locations," says Daniel Welk, the group's vice president of luxury and lifestyle Asia-Pacific. "In Shanghai, we are on the Bund, when we open in Bangkok later this year, we will be only steps from the Erewan Shrine."
An equally-important tradition is a focus on food and drink. The original New York property's culinary reputation extended way beyond its invention of the Waldorf salad. Other dishes popularised by the hotel included eggs Benedict and Thousand Island dressing. Today, Welk says, Waldorf-Astoria restaurants and bars are designed to be destinations in their own right.
"We are still pioneering new culinary experiences," he says. "In our Bangkok property, we have a New York-style speakeasy called The Loft, which is deliberately hard to find. You have to find the button on the wall that opens the disguised door.
"In our new Maldives property, Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi, we have 11 different food and beverage concepts, from amazingly elegant treetop dining experiences to a new restaurant by David Pynt from Burnt Ends in Singapore, which features his theatrical smoking and grilling techniques."
Welk says that Waldorf Astoria's design team takes the local environment as its starting point. "Beijing, for example, is seen as the home of traditional Chinese culture. Our hutong courtyard suites allow guests to experience the destination's traditional architecture." In the Maldives, the villas have been designed to ensure that guests can enjoy a 180 degree vista from any point in the villa.
"Our job is to provide a platform that gives the guest an experience that stays with them forever," Welk says. "In every step of the guest journey, our role is to elevate it to deliver the most amazing experience."
Even as Waldorf Astoria extends its global presence, the original New York property is facing an uncertain future. Sold in 2014 for a record $US1.95 billion – or around $1.4 million a room – to the Beijing-based Anbang Insurance Group, the hotel was closed for a multi-year renovation.
The new owners later revealed plans to reduce the number of hotel rooms from more than 1400 to 350, with the rest of the building redeveloped as luxury condos. Last year, however, the Chinese government took control of the conglomerate, with its chairman sentenced to 20 years in prison for fraud. What that means for the hotel is unclear.
Ute Junker was a guest of St. Regis Rome.
Rates at St. Regis Rome start from €400 a night, breakfast included. See marriott.com.au/hotels/travel/romxr-the-st-regis-rome