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STEALTHY LUXURY IN THE WINDY CITY
By Chris Barnett
June 26, 2014 -- Stealth hotels, those temples of hospitality hidden inside some urban office towers, are timesavers for business travelers fortunate enough to have a client, a colleague or a potential customer an elevator commute away.

But the low-profile, nine-month-old Langham Chicago in the Loop is more than a commercial bunkhouse tucked inside the 52-story AMA Plaza, which many business travelers may still know as the IBM Building. Overlooking the Chicago River, the Langham is a vertical resort and it outclasses every other property in the Windy City.

That's a strong statement considering the lineup of luxury lodgings in Chicago. The Peninsula, Four Seasons and Trump International all boast Forbes five-star ratings. The Park Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf Astoria and a new boutique called The Thompson also win plenty of plaudits.

The Langham, on the other hand, doesn't have a single star. It's too new to be rated. But it does have an AAA five-diamond rating and TripAdvisor.com ranks it number one among Chicago's 168 hotels. And in my opinion, the Langham, ah, trumps every other Chicago hotel thanks to a 4,000-square-foot private club lounge. It's massive yet clubby, comfy and convivial--if you're willing to shell out $100 over and above the standard nightly room rate. For the hefty surcharge, however, all food, drink, communications and business services are on the house. It's the only super-deluxe property in Chicagoland with a club lounge.

The Langham may also be the only hotel in the Midwest with butler service. The staff, sporting morning coats, striped cravats and vests, has been trained by the headmaster and namesake of the Charles McPherson butler school in Toronto. On duty from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, the young butlers will unpack and pack anything from a garment bag to a steamer trunk. I made several requests and found their response time surprisingly swift.

While the first Langham Hotel dates back to 1865, the newish Hong Kong-based chain that adopted the name of its London flagship is a very discreet marketer. And as a newcomer to Chicago, it will, like most brands, put some guestrooms on opaque booking sites like Hotwire and Priceline.

I blind-booked a five-star Chicago hotel for $210 a night for three days over a recent weekend and was stunned to see that my confirmation came from the Langham. Normally, a basic room starts around $400 a night.

And, at least in Chicago, even the location is stealthy. The hotel is inside what was originally the IBM Building designed in 1971 by the celebrated Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Problem was I almost couldn't find the front door given the Langham's very modest signage.

The much-better-known Trump Hotel is just across North Wabash Avenue from the Langham, but it is hardly a hideaway. In fact, the Trump is a cause célèbre now that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Tribune have blasted Donald Trump for putting 20-foot-high neon letters spelling T-R-U-M-P on the 92-story building.

Sign issues notwithstanding, service at the Langham literally starts at the front door. When I arrived, a gust of wind sent my Panama hat and sunglasses flying into the street. The doorman, a former basketball player, sprinted after both and then returned them with a smile and a quip: "People say this is the windiest corner in the Windy City."

The Langham also feels like a global hotel, its Asian and British hospitality DNA evident, but restrained. Managing director Robert Schofield is London born, wry, understated and seems more like a diplomat than a hotelier. He had a long career with InterContinental Hotels back in the days when it was a power marquee in world capitals and known for invitation-only cocktail parties that allowed guests to mingle with local elites.

Schofield doesn't host similar gatherings at the Langham, but he understands the preferences and fetishes of business travelers. Internet access is free in all guestrooms and public areas, a smart move considering many top-drawer hotels still charge connection fees. There's a 22,000-square-foot health club with a 67-foot-long indoor swimming pool and a well-equipped gym. There are no lines, no admittance charges and no resort fee. There's also an adjoining spa. A private screening room seats 12 and screens new films for guests at no charge. (It can be rented for presentations on Fridays and Saturdays.)

The Langham also has plenty of thoughtful and visually exciting touches. A greeter is on duty from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., directing guests and visitors to a second-floor lobby that sparkles with more than 500 reflective glass pebbles suspended on wires from the 25-foot ceiling. Two "walls of wine" hold 600 bottles and gracefully separate the restaurant from its bar area. Banquettes seem to ramble throughout the saloon space and the shiny ebony bar cleverly becomes a cozy communal setting at one end. A bar trolley dedicated exclusively to the Manhattan is rolled over and the classic cocktail is mixed before your eyes.

But it's the 12th-floor Langham Club Lounge where the property really shines. Open from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., it's run by Carlos Carrera, the attentive butler-services director. Carerra and his butlers put out a lavish hot breakfast buffet. Lunchtime snacks are mostly sweets and fruit. An afternoon tea is served and then the lounge is reset for evening cocktails and canapes. It is all complimentary--and free from annoying nickel-and-dime charges imposed by the club lounges in the four-star properties around town.

The lounge is filled with sofas, club chairs, low tables, high tables and communal tables. All are arranged so you don't have to worry about someone eavesdropping on your business plan. For privacy and relaxation, there's a Writer's Corner decorated with a restored, vintage Hammond typewriter on a desk. Three steps away are personal computers (Macs and Windows machines) and a laser printer. The lounge includes a private boardroom that seats 10 and is complimentary for club-level guests for up to two hours.

How good is the Langham lounge? Some hotel guests don't want to leave.

"Businesses are booming and this city is a rat race," says Pat Conlin, who owns an equestrian center in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, and checked in with her husband, a landscape designer. "But this hotel is so peaceful and this club so relaxing, we just want to stay in the lounge. It's like an urban resort."

Research assistance by Veronika Torgashova

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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.