With over 200 titles in the historic library at Cambridge's University Arms Hotel, you may need the help of an expert to choose what to read on your vacation.
Welcome to Bloomberg Pursuits Amenity Watch, where we look at the exciting (and sometimes ridiculous) perks that luxury hotels are coming up with to entice people back out into the world.
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything but a book!” remarks the character Caroline Bingley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But Miss Bingley was just trying to attract the attention of Mr. Darcy, who was in the room minding his book more than he minded her. Like many travelers who stumble on a beautiful library at their hotel, she wasn’t interested in the books themselves.
That’s what Britain’s landmark University Arms Hotel is hoping to change with its new amenity, launched on Thursday: access to .
Located in the heart of Cambridge, overlooking historic Regent Street and the sprawling green square known as Parker’s Piece, University Arms opened in 1837 as the area’s first hotel. In 2014, it closed to undergo a $96 million transformation under new owners, reopening four years later as a luxurious and “undeniably British” 189-room boutique hotel that’s part of the Marriott Autograph Collection.
“The journey starts in the bedroom,” says Margherita Zeviani, reception manager at University Arms, whose idea it was to create a book butler service. “We have these bookmarks that basically advertise the service.”
Books and all things literary are a tradition, of course, in this world-famous university town, which dates to medieval times and attracted more than 8 million visitors a year pre-pandemic. At University Arms, reading has also been a major part of the brand, says Philip Greer, the hotel’s commercial director.
The hotel’s spaces reflect that. The 10 suites and two superior rooms that are named after a University of Cambridge alumni, such as Christopher Marlowe the playwright, have that person’s works placed in it, plus additional books inspired by them. The library—which would win Mr. Darcy’s approval, with its collection of titles curated by , England’s oldest bookstore—has been in existence for 177 years, since the hotel’s beginnings. But post-renovations, it was being used mainly as an extension of the newly opened Parker’s Tavern bar and restaurant area.
“It's a great space. It has a lot of atmosphere—it just felt like it wasn't being used as a library enough, and we have all of these books that almost went unused,” says Zeviani. And yet, “we did have a lot of guests coming to us and saying, ‘Can I take this book to the room, can I read it, can I bring it back later?’” The interest was there from guests that stayed for multiple nights, she says.
That’s how the idea came to her, during one of the pandemic lockdowns in 2021. “To say that I had a lot of time to think about things is an understatement,” Zeviani says. It took her a couple of months to bring the book butler idea into reality.
The first step for guests is to look at the three starter books placed in each room: Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Beside them is a note or “bookmark” inviting the guest to ask about the book butler if they’d like more recommendations.
You’re probably starting to wonder what a Cambridge book butler might look and sound like, but it’s not just one person. It’s a range of staff who’ve been trained for the role and will be available on rotation as they juggle other duties.
Call the front desk, and a list of available titles is sent up to your room. On that list is a wide range of fiction and nonfiction titles, in categories such as art and design, music, culture, biography, romance and philosophy, among others. “We have so many classics, from Dickens to John Dryden to Jane Austen,” Zeviani says. “We also have a lot of books about England and the UK—there are quite a few tomes about English gardening and plants, which is very, very British as a cultural aspect.”
Her favorites are the classics: The Great Gatsby, War and Peace and Jane Eyre. But don’t think it’s all dated literature. Other titles on the extensive list include The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook and Swing Time by Zadie Smith, herself a Cambridge alumni.
If the list is overwhelming, a team member will help give recommendations to fit your interests in a particular genre or author. After all, that’s what a book butler is for. You get to keep the book for the rest of your stay.
Contemporary titles are added on a rolling basis, in great part through the visiting authors that the hotel invites in for talks, Greer says. Post-lockdowns, University Arms also began hosting a number of authors as part of the , which takes place in the spring and winter. Authors ended up leaving copies for the library—most recently, Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees and Amor Towles’s The Lincoln Highway. The hotel hopes to repeat the event collaboration in April 2023 for the festival’s 20th anniversary.
American visitors are University Arms’ primary market, and they stay an average of two to three nights, Greer says. In 2019, international travelers made up 70% of the hotel’s business—of those, 28% were Americans, and of guests so far this year. But will it be easy to draw them away from the quintessential outdoor and events that abound in the heart of Cambridge, hopping on a punt tour of the River Cam, biking around town to visit the colleges or attending a jazz festival?
Greer believes it's enough time to get through a small book. “It does rain a lot here,” Zeviani jokes.
Don’t expect a book club, but you’re free to interact with the staff to discuss your title. The hotel also has a cultural curator who’s well-read and open to have conversations with guests about their books. Zeviani says she’d like to add more titles as the service evolves: “Maybe even following suggestions from guests, and from team members as well. This is a starting point.”
There are kinks to work out, namely how to ensure the tantalizing book collection made available through the book butler service won’t disappear. “One of the books [in the rooms], The Wind in the Willows, gets stolen—that's our most stolen thing,” Greer says . “It’s because you start reading it, and then you think, ‘I want to take this home!’”