WHEN Philip Lewis, general manager of the Randolph Hotel, invited me for a look round, I was delighted to accept.

Since October, construction work has been taking place at the ‘grand old lady’ in Beaumont Street, after it was taken over by American chain Graduate Hotels in 2019.

For months, builders inside have been working on the chain’s new designs, and a complete revamp of the bedrooms, the ballroom, the bars and dining areas is well under way.

There is still a lot of work to be done - the global pandemic and hold-ups to deliveries in the Suez Canal have slowed progress.

But Oxford’s most famous hotel is now once again taking bookings and is aiming to open in August.

Read again: Remember these familiar faces at the Randolph Hotel

Graduate Hotels are clearly keen to give the hotel a complete makeover, after buying the historic landmark from the Macdonald Hotels chain.

The eye-catching floral blue wallpaper design for all 151 bedrooms is lively and Mr Lewis admitted it could be ‘divisive’.

But the American owners are not ignoring the building’s history, or the history of the city itself.

A portrait of the poet Oscar Wilde, an Oxford University graduate, peers out from one of the bedroom walls, while another sepia-tinted image is a reminder of a university Dangerous Sports Club.

When the Nashville-based chain bought the Randolph in 2019 it hinted that the name could change to Graduate Oxford, but following an international outcry the Randolph’s famous name is to remain, while at the same time the hotel’s title will reference the new ownership.

I was delighted to see that the wood-panelled Morse bar, with its stone fireplace next to the entrance is staying and its name will continue to pay tribute to the character created by former Oxford author Colin Dexter.

He was a frequent visitor to the hotel before his death in 2017 and staff would always make a fuss of him, particularly Ailish Hurley, who ran Chapters Bar for many years.

Read more: First look inside Randolph Hotel

Mr Lewis is well aware that he is following in the footsteps of popular managers including Michael Grange, who was manager for 12 years until he died aged 61 in 2017.

He is now building a new team at the five-star Grade-II listed hotel after the majority of staff were made redundant during the pandemic in 2020.
Some of them have applied for their old jobs back and are likely to be given job offers.

And the photographs of famous faces including heads of state which adorned the walls near the entrance have not been removed with the old furniture.

They will return once the extensive renovations have been completed.

Tony Blair and former US president Bill Clinton stayed at the Randolph and I was once standing outside when, totally unannounced, former US president Jimmy Carter got out of a limousine and walked towards the entrance. Before his bodyguards could grab me I shook his hand and said ‘Welcome to Oxford Mr Carter’.

Father-of-two Mr Lewis, who lives with his family in west Oxfordshire, is hopeful the hotel will soon be attracting new VIP guests.

Former Conservative MP and TV presenter Michael Portillo stayed at the Randolph during 2020 during filming for one of his railway documentaries.

And there have been numerous inquiries from TV and film production companies wanting to stay while they shoot scenes in the city.

One of the attractions when the hotel reopens will be a new all-day brasserie and an announcement is expected to be made soon about a new head chef.

I’m looking forward to trying out dishes from the new menu when the hotel reopens in ‘late summer/early autumn’.

Until then the extensive renovation work will continue inside.

This follows a £6m revamp that took place following a devastating blaze in 2015 which started in the kitchen with some flambeed beef stroganoff.

Read more: Stop at Platform 5 cafe for an English breakfast

By the time I enjoyed a seven-course meal at the Randolph, accompanied with a wine flight in 2018 at the invitation of then manager Simon Drake, the hotel was getting back to its opulent best.

The latest programme of investment is understandably taking a little longer than expected but it needs to be completed in a timely fashion so that the Randolph can once again attract tourists and heads of state from around the globe.

But there is competition out there, so contractors need to get the job done in a timely fashion.

Philip Lewis knows only too well that the five-star Old Bank Hotel in High Street, featuring Quod restaurant, will be very happy to accommodate visitors who might also consider staying at the Randolph.

A change of ownership, followed by a global pandemic, have followed a dramatic fire which brought the city to a standstill.

But the management is showing every sign that it is keen to employ a new staff team and welcome back guests as soon as possible, which will give as clear an indication as any that Oxford is once again open for business.

Previous manager Simon Drake pledged to stay in every one of the hotel’s bedrooms to get to know the needs of the building’s guests.

With the renovation project fully under way, Philip Lewis won’t have time for that. 

But he will need to be equally dedicated to ensure that the Randolph is back to its best and ready for staycationers and international guests, so that the TripAdvisor reviews are overwhelmingly positive.