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REQUIEM FOR AN AIRPORT HOTEL
By Chris Barnett
March, 27, 2014 -- Outside my room at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Airport, jets take off, cars race up and down Interstate 95 and freight trains rumble by. Inside the room, it's as silent as a tomb thanks to the hotel's double-paned soundproof windows.

But not for long. On Tuesday, April 1, the hotel closes forever. Six days later, after the furnishings and fixtures have been hauled away, bulldozers will level the 338-room, 31 year-old-hotel. The eight-story building is being demolished to make way for a runway expansion at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

In the face of this death sentence, general manager Michael Matheson and his remaining staff are putting on a good face, mostly friendly and mostly smiling. Not everything is quite right, however.

The menu at Ocean Blu, the hotel restaurant, is about half what is shown on the Web site. The clock radio in my room was never set to Daylight Saving Time. The Starbucks coffee booth in the lobby closes at 11 a.m. It takes an unusually long time for the hotel operator to answer the phone. And USA Today no longer appears outside the rooms in the morning.

Even the hotel's owner is gone. Last year, Broward County, where Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood Airport is located, made the building's owner an offer it couldn't refuse. The company, majority owned by a pension fund, accepted a $62 million offer and Broward took over using eminent domain. The county has been calling the shots ever since and day-to-day operations have been handled by Interstate Hotels & Resorts, a leading hotel-management firm.

Not surprisingly, business travelers have noticed that the hotel has been off its game.

"I was surprised to see how dated it is," said Tim Walsh, a commercial real estate executive from suburban Chicago. He was working on his laptop in the lobby because "I couldn't get on the Internet in my room. And the service--I waited in line 12 minutes to get a cup of coffee from the Starbucks counter. I timed it because, unfortunately, I had the time to do just that."

Dallas-based Steve Johnson, a Hilton Honors Diamond member, was tipped off last year that the hotel's end was near. "I stay here because of its close proximity to the airport, but I noticed it was starting to deteriorate," said the divisional vice president of a health-care firm.

Does it bother him when a familiar, convenient bunkhouse completely disappears and disrupts his travel routine? "I've kinda learned to roll with these things," he explained. "That's how you survive on the road. You don't let it get to you."

The closing isn't mentioned on the Hilton Web site and you won't get the information from Hilton telephone reservation agents, either. Brent Hancock, an Atlanta-based automobile sales manager who's also a Hilton Diamond elite, said he only learned about the closure at check-in.

But what angered him was the 60-cent-a-minute fee to use the computer in the hotel business center. To add insult to add-ons, he then learned that the business-center printer wasn't working. "I've never had to pay to use a computer in a Hilton business center," he said. "But at least the woman in the business center was friendly and helpful and she had the front desk print out my documents at no charge."

The hotel's imminent demise hasn't triggered any close-out sales, however. Occupancy has run near 100 percent recently and Johnson was paying $190 a night midweek since he booked on short notice. Hancock said he paid $149 a night midweek for a standard room and added that a co-worker called Hilton central reservations and was quoted $139 a night.

Hancock and Johnson said they were happy with their rates. Why? At this time of year, South Florida is jammed with students on spring break. The Miami Boat Show also fills rooms. And this year, all of Florida has been packed with a heavier-than-normal flock of winter snowbirds who migrated south from the glacial Midwest and Northeast.

I was luckier than either of my fellow guests, however. I'd taken a flyer on Hotwire.com, which came back with a pay-in-advance, $95-a-night price for a four-star hotel in Fort Lauderdale. I pounced on it and was surprised to learn it was the Hilton at the airport.

After I learned of the property's fate, I figured the hotel was quietly having a fire sale because business travelers, aware of the closure, were canceling and conferences scheduled long in advance were being pulled. But apparently not.

"We made a mistake," says Matheson, the general manager, "We don't participate on the opaque sites, not in the first quarter when we're almost always sold out. You got lucky."

Even though its days are numbered and some services have been pruned or overlooked, the seven days I spent at the hotel went smoother than I expected. The hotel didn't feel shabby to me. The fitness center, open 24 hours with room-key access, still had plenty of equipment. A large, meandering swimming pool, surrounded by palm trees and lounges, was available, too.

Matheson says the hotel staff has been slashed to 58 from a high of 122 employees. The valet-parking and housekeeping staffs technically aren't Interstate (or Hilton) employees, so I couldn't tell if their numbers had been cut, too. But while cars moved freely while I was at the hotel, my room wasn't ever made up until 3 p.m. or later.

But they were all keeping a stiff upper lip and not bemoaning their fate.

Sarah, a personable server at Ocean Blu, has been working two jobs. Her other employer, a country club on tony Fisher Island, has offered her full-time work. She's also going to go to nursing school.

George the Bartender, as he's known, had been concerned about his future. But when Matheson organized a job fair, George got plenty of offers. His concern now is that the lobby bar, called Liquid, is running out of liquor and no one is reordering. The beer on tap was already gone.

The parking valets aren't so fortunate. Towne Park, the company that employs them, also runs the parking concession at dozens of hotels in South Florida, But it has told the Hilton valets that there's no room for them at any other inn. They'll all be sacked when the Hilton closes.

Said one disillusioned valet with a sigh: "We're still smiling and working hard and will, right up to the end."

Parking has actually been one of the issues at the Hilton in its final days. The 600-space, two-story parking garage was torn down in January, something that Hancock, the Hilton Diamond member from Atlanta, also learned about on arrival. He used the self-parking structure when he was a guest last year and was surprised to see the building missing when he returned.

"No more self-parking. Now it's only valet parking at $22 a night," he said.

As for Matheson, the general manager, he's got a job when the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Airport closes next week. He just doesn't know where. Over the years, he has worked at 20 Interstate-managed hotels, mostly Hilton-branded properties and mostly as a GM.

"Everything is going to be okay," he said with a brave smile.

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ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

This column is Copyright © 2014 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.