Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Boutique for Business Travelers in San Francisco
April 20, 2017 -- A rebel Wall Streeter named Bill Kimpton had a risky idea 36 years ago: Buy small fleabag hotels in downtown San Francisco and resurrect them as hip hostelries. It turned out to be a winning bet.

Kimpton died in 2001, but his "boutique hotels" concept spawned a global lodging revolution and the 60-strong Kimpton chain sold in 2014 to InterContinental Hotel Group for a whopping $430 million.

San Francisco these days is a notoriously difficult place to launch a hotel of any kind, but a mom and daughter real estate investing team have an imaginative twist on Kimpton's original boutiques. The Alise offers signature amenities such as free pineapple cupcakes in the lobby and free bicycle rentals. Food prices are shockingly low and The Alise is catching the fancy of business travelers.

The parent company, Bellevue, Washington-based Pineapple Hospitality, styles itself as Staypineapple and has grown to eight properties along the West Coast and in Chicago. Not surprisingly, there's a sprinkling of Kimpton hotel alumni in the management ranks. From a design standpoint, however, Staypineapple's San Francisco outpost outclasses most Kimpton hotels I've seen.

The 93 guestrooms are smallish but exquisitely designed. The queen- and king-bedded rooms have high-end bedding with crisp white sheets and dual duvets. The rooms are equipped with work tables, rolling desk chairs, laptop-size safes, mini-fridges, oversize marble showers and air conditioning, a rarity in San Francisco hotels. Double-thick glass shuts out street noise and there's free WiFi throughout. The Alise is aiming to add in-room dining, starting with breakfast, at year end.

The hotel seems to revolve around the ground floor and mezzanine levels. The latter has a shiny crimson baby grand player piano. It juts out over the lobby and is programmed to automatically play a mix of lively and soft music. Off the lobby, a residentially furnished, AV-equipped "gathering room" seats ten. A smaller meeting room is upstairs behind the piano. The lobby, with 20-plus foot ceilings and columns, is bright and airy and resembles a modern take on an Art Deco style private home. Paintings by mostly San Francisco artists are everywhere. The sofas, rounded lounges and coffee tables in the lobby are arranged in small groups.

"It's more like having people over to your home for a drink or coffee and conversation than a conventional hotel lobby," contends Marco Baumann, Pineapple Hospitality's vice president of hotel operations and a Kimpton alum.

It's tough to hang out in the Alise lobby and not feel relaxed. Pineapple Hospitality's president and chief executive, Michelle Barnet, the design-savvy daughter of founder Diane Foreman, "went for the very feminine, 1920s flapper girl feel with a staircase for drama, mirrors and the curated art," says Baumann. "We take hospitality seriously but not ourselves seriously."

Carved from a hotel building originally opened in 1913, The Alise has no restaurant. But it does boast something possibly more practical today. A long bar, called the Pineapple Bistro, runs up the west side of the lobby. It does double duty all day long for the hungry and thirsty. And it offers the best hotel dining deals in San Francisco. Even if you're staying elsewhere, The Alise is a wise place to hold a business breakfast meeting.

The Pineapple Bistro has more than a dozen breakfast choices at amazingly low prices--nothing higher than $7 each. The menu ranges from breakfast burritos and house granola to gluten-free waffles with fresh berries and bagels with cream cheese spiked with maple and bacon. The Elvis Crepe contains banana, peanut butter and bacon. A juice bar has fresh-squeezed fare. There's a long list of coffee drinks, too.

In the early evening, a two-hour "happy hour" slices $1 off wine by the glass and cocktail prices. Beers run between $5 and $6, wines go for $9 to $16 a glass and special cocktails command $14 apiece. Small bites, cheese and meat dishes are sold at reasonable tariffs.

The Alise's general manager, Jennifer Moss-Clay, who did a stint at the Four Seasons Ottawa, believes a business hotel can be a place for unwinding, too, even during the work week. "Guests come down for breakfast in their robes if they want to," she claims. "After all, stressed spelled backwards is desserts."

Staypineapple seems to be doing something right with The Alise, located on the corner of Geary and Jones, a few blocks west of Union Square, in the up-and-coming Tenderloin District. It's tough to get a room--and prices aren't all that cheap when accommodations are available. Hotelsonline.com told me accommodations were sold out midweek most of April. Expedia.com was quoting $342 tax included for a 155-square-foot king-bedded room on April 20. For the same date, the hotel's own site asked $259 a night for a queen room and $299 for a king.

Vancouver-based digital marketing consultant Harry Picken nailed a room at the Alise for "around $200" on Hotels.com. "Good rate, good location, free WiFi and a bicycle. It's easy," Picken explained while working at a lobby table and enjoying French-pressed coffee. "This is more like European hotel standards."

Not everyone was singing the praises of The Alise--at least at first. Dee McCrorey, president of Risktaking for Success, a change-management consultancy for high-tech companies, had a poor first impression.

McCrorey was attending a conference at the 1,500-room Marriott Marquis about ten blocks away and spent the first night there. "But I read about Staypineapple and decided to try it out," she recalls.

"I pulled up to the valet parking, but there was no valet. I got out of the car, locked it, was grappling with my luggage and saw two people at the front desk. But no one came out to help me. They were just watching me and didn't even make an effort to greet me or open a door. I got in the front door and do you think either one of them could help me? They chuckled like it was a joke."

McCrorey wasn't shy in lecturing the front-desk staffers.

"I said, 'Here's the deal. I heard this was a nice little place and I just came from the Marriott Marquis where the service was outstanding. I'm starting to wish I hadn't left. I hope we can do better. Remember, [hospitality] is always in the details.' "

The rest of her experience at The Alise was a 180-degree turnaround--and McCrorey was equally vocal in her rhapsodizing.

"I had a sweet little room, spotless, lovely décor with everything perfectly laid out. Very boutique and darling. I like the little bistro bar area. Very polished. Good selection of wines, meats and cheeses. The breakfast oatmeal was excellent, I loved that I could eat at a table with power so I could plug in my laptop and phone and work.

"Again," McCrorey emphasized, "it's all in the details."


This column is Copyright © 2017 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.