No one was fooled when the iconic Nile Hilton sign above the storied downtown building was changed last year to The Nile Hotel – and the emotions it evoked were surprisingly strong.
Once renovation works are complete, the landmark property will debut as the Nile Ritz-Carlton, with the opening expected in 2012.
It is the end of an era. The Nile Hilton stood for 50 years since opening late February in 1959. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior and Fred Astaire were on hand to attend the opening celebrations, which former president Gamal Abdel Nasser personally oversaw.
Back then, a meal cost less than LE 1 and a night’s stay was LE 3.50 – the whole hotel was built at a cost of LE 2.75 million. Today, the projected cost of renovating the property is around LE 700 million.
When it first opened, the Nile Hilton was the tallest building in Cairo, as stipulated by Conrad Hilton who was determined to have his hotels stand taller than any other edifice in town.
While today it is dwarfed by more modern structures, its enviable location in the heart of Cairo’s Tahrir Square lured the Ritz-Carlton to take over the premises.
In an exclusive interview with Daily News Egypt, Ritz-Carlton’s Chief Operating Officer Simon Cooper said Cairo was one of four major cities where Ritz-Carlton did not have market presence.
Speaking at a press conference along with Cooper were Fathy Nour, chairman of Misr Hotels, and Aly Abdel Aziz, CEO and Chairman of the Holding Company for Tourism, Hotels and Cinema (HOTAC). Much was said about preserving the sentimental values the Egyptian public associates with the hotel.
“Any iconic hotel like this creates a lot of passion, support, emotion from the community and so we want to keep these [sentiments] and we respect this history.Luckily there is no shortage of materials of stories to use, said Cooper.
“This project will retain the historic sentiments of this iconic hotel and is essentially an evolution of adding to what once was. Although it is a considerable investment on our part, we strongly believe that it is one which will yield great economical and emotional rewards, stated Abdel Aziz.
“Half a century ago this hotel represented a benchmark of luxury hotels and we want to return this iconic [status], said Nour.
HOTAC and Misr Hotels Co. have considerable expectations for the hotel; such as an underground tunnel linking the hotel to the Arab League. Its proximity is expected to create a hotel that would cater to diplomatic functions that take place next door and all the political players present.
“We chose the Ritz-Carlton to address certain clients, stated Abdel Aziz. The history of the Ritz-Carlton name itself leaves one pondering how the hotel will add to the new crop of hyper-luxurious, modern hotels cropping up around Egypt.
But it is this very trick of balancing history and the future that Cooper, Abdel Aziz and Nour are all treading carefully around.
“Whenever I foolishly tried to touch the heritage of the hotel, I was reminded by Aly [Abdel Aziz] or Fathy [Nour] why I couldn’t, Cooper said.
His suggestion to remove the famous winding staircase that leads from the lobby to the ballroom was adamantly refused by Abdel Aziz, who cited the 15,000 couples whose wedding processions graced those exact steps. Their vision is about preserving as much as updating.
A total of 372 rooms and 72 wings are planned. The outdoor shopping center was torn down to make way for a large open green space alongside a conference center that will measure 1,700 meters squared to continue the tradition of hosting some of Cairo’s most important official and social events.
Other than computer-generated renderings of the rooms’ interiors, the outdoor area, and the hotel’s façade, little else was presented to explain what will be offered to patrons by way of dining or entertainment. It is still unclear what sort of identity the hotel will take and how it will present itself to clients.
But that is understandable since the renovations are still in the fetal stage, and it is certainly a work in progress between 12 different offices and contracting groups of architects and engineers.
All the while, Egyptians will be waiting with bated breath to see how the city’s favorite hotel will emerge.