J. Lyons & Co.
Alpha Hotel, Amsterdam
In 1967 an approach was made to Strand Hotels Ltd (at this time Strand Hotels Ltd was not a wholly owned subsidiary of J. Lyons) by General Kruls on behalf of the Dutch airline KLM regarding a possible joint venture of a new hotel in Amsterdam. It was designed to take the large numbers of people expected to use the new jumbo jets then being designed.
The cost of the project did not appear in the J. Lyons & Co accounts as it was the responsibility of Strand Hotels Ltd. However, in a report in the Lyons Mail magazine reporting the opening, the project cost was put at £3.5 million. Obviously as a major shareholder in the Strand company (and with common directors) Lyons were really driving the boat. When it opened in 1971 it was the biggest hotel in the Netherlands.
Strand Hotels, who were to run the hotel, undertook a large recruitment campaign in ten Dutch towns and cities to engage 450 staff for the hotel. They included positions for receptionists, cashiers, housekeepers, sommeliers, barmen, cooks, maids, waiters, waitresses, and others. Recruitment was also carried out in the UK and Portugal. Over 21 British staff were employed at the hotel. Training was comprehensive some departmental managers and supervisors went to London to gain experience at Strand's West End hotels. Training programmes were started 18 months before the hotel opened. Eight volumes of work methods were prepared containing over 1,000 pages. Staff completed their practical training during a series of dummy runs the week before the hotel opened when more than 1,000 people were invited to stay as non-paying guests and were served over 3,000 meals.
The Manager of the hotel was Wim Mentink whose daughter, G. M. A. Mentink, was on the personnel side with Marlies Gottmer the Dutch personnel officer. The most attractive recruit was Marjo van Wijk who was employed as the sales officer, she left the Alpha in 1977. In 1975 Max Wellink became Managing Director, a position he still held at the time that Novotel took over the Alpha.
Financing of the project was advantageous, probably through the involvement of KLM. The site benefited from a long lease held by the city of Amsterdam with a moderate ground rent. The total cost of the project was split three ways: a ten-year fixed-rate first mortgage with the Dutch Coal Miners' Pension Fund; a twenty-five-year fixed-rate loan from the National Investment Bank; and 75 per cent of equity capital provided by Strand Hotels, 25 per cent by KLM. Neither mortgager had rights of recourse against Lyons in the event of default by its subsidiary, Strand Hotels Ltd. In December 1976 Strand Hotels Ltd took over the 25 per cent of the share capital that was in the hands of KLM (the initiative came from KLM.) and thus became the sole owner. The Dutch contractor and architect both had considerable experience of designing and building low-cost, high-rise domestic accommodation, using a large degree of prefabrication. The advantages were speed and economy.
Although never mentioned officially, the design concept was believed to have incorporated an alternative residential use, should such a need ever arise. The hotel building had two wings, fourteen and sixteen floors respectively, off a central core. At the appropriate stage of construction, all the side elevations, possibly up to 200 feet high, were hoisted up off the ground and locked into position in a matter of hours. When the building was completed, the clean external lines gave an effect of horizontal stripes. It was named the Alpha Hotel. Each twin-bedded room had an en suite bathroom and a striking interior design. The restaurant claimed to be one of Amsterdam's top eating spots but the publicity was more than generous, since Amsterdam, with its myriad of excellent small restaurants, is renowned for its cosmopolitan cuisine. The design of the hotel's Falstaff Restaurant took the theme of old Elizabethan London. It was decorated in rich colours of red, brown, purple and blue, with oak tables and chairs and a carpet displaying the emblem of a large Tudor rose. Despite this expensive décor the Falstaff restaurant was not successful. It was a typical hotel restaurant; too big and too expensive. In addition, restaurant customers frequently had to suffer from organised tourist groups with their singing, shouting and dress disrespect which was not in keeping with the 'Falstaff' image. The exemplar of all this was the Australian hockey team, and their supporters, who once terrorised the Alpha, breaking furniture, starting fires and attacking other guests. They were finally arrested by the police but the presence of firefighters and law-keepers running all over the place, with all the adverse publicity that generated, did nothing to promote the Alpha Hotel, or the Falstaff Restaurant, to the well-mannered guests they sought. Another annoying feature of the restaurant, particularly for Dutch or foreign visitors, was the need to place orders in English as many of the staff were English-speaking Irish girls who only spoke that language.
It is not surprising therefore that the Fallstaff Restaurant was not profitable The Finance manager, Freek Ruijgt, once made the calculation, that each diner served contributed 40 guilders to Alpha's overall loss and he made a facetious suggestion to management that any person who intended to order a meal should be offered 10 guilders to go away - in this way mitigating the losses of the restaurant. By contrast the coffee shop, with a strictly Dutch Delft theme was profitable but in 1976 this was transformed into a Parisian Café. The Alpha Hotel also incorporated a pub called the Grenadier, named after the Dutch as well as the British grenadiers.
The Alpha Hotel was opened to the public on 5 April 1971 by HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. After an initial rush of interest, however, it failed to attract enough tourists, who seemed to prefer the traditional city centre hotels which were close to Amsterdam's chief attractions; the Alpha was 6 km from the city centre. In addition, its main foyer was so vast that it lacked warmth. For many years the Alpha Hotel struggled to make profits, in fact it never made a guilder profit during the whole time that Lyons owned it and had it not been able to cater for passengers from cancelled fights from Schipol Airport, losses would have been greater. The hotel was sold to Novotel Nederland B.V. on 2 January 1978 for £2 million. However, because London wanted to take control in selling the Alpha Hotel they ignored local advice concerning tax implications. When the transfer was completed the Dutch Inland Revenue claimed 2 million guilders and it took some fast footwork by the local accountant to get London off the hook.
Wim Mentik greets Prince Bernhard as he arrives to open the hotel.