Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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The King of the Hill Now Wears Jeans
March 19, 2015 -- Before the Ritz-Carlton, the Mandarin Oriental or the Four Seasons came to town, the Stanford Court was San Francisco's premier hotel. It's not anymore and thereby hangs a tale of shifting expectations and the changing demographics in the overheated Bay Area hotel market.

In its prime, the Stanford Court was the West Coast "home" of food legend James Beard and hideout of choice for the wealthy and the well-traveled. Chief executives climbed Nob Hill, checked into the Stanford Court and entertained at the hotel's legendary Fournou's Ovens restaurant. A-listers from Liz Taylor to Sean Connery drank in the lobby bar. Nimble entertainer Danny Kaye would leap the "plank" and mix his own martini.

The Stanford Court these days has lost its luster, its chain affiliation, its five stars and its star power. Fournou's is closed. There's no frequent-guest program, no room service, no conference or convention staff, no executive lounge and no business center. And the staff all wears jeans.

Thirsty? Aurea, the lobby bar and cafe, doesn't open until 5 p.m. and you can't get a drink anywhere in the hotel any earlier. Hungry? If you miss the breakfast service at Aurea, you're pointed toward the coffee shop in the Fairmont Hotel across the street. Or, of course, you can always order in. On a recent stay at the Stanford Court, I saw a Papa John's truck race into the fabled courtyard for a pizza delivery.

Yet stripped of its core conveniences and amenities, the 393-room Stanford Court could be the business traveler's best value-for-money hotel in San Francisco.

Rates are soaring in San Francisco due to high demand and lack of supply, but the onetime "King of the Hill" can be a steal of a deal. I booked a standard king-bedded room at the Stanford Court on a recent Sunday night for $135 a night plus tax. At check-in, I was given a $20 breakfast coupon and a room upgrade at no cost. Chain properties can easily cost three times as much and super-deluxe Bay Area hotels are charging $800 or more a night.

What's happening here?

Once an apartment home for elderly ladies, the Stanford Court these days claims to be San Francisco's first lodging purposely aimed at tech execs and "millennial" guests who don't care about the traditional trappings and services usually found in an historic Nob Hill hotel--or any grand dame hostelry for that matter.

"Our ideal customer is the 35-year-old hipster who works at Twitter," general manager Michael Baier told me. "Every decision we made here reflects the preferences of this demographic. Our research found this person doesn't worry about points. Doesn't care about a fine-dining restaurant. Doesn't order a cocktail in the hotel at noon."

According to Baier, "our model traveler is concerned about being immersed in a local San Francisco experience. That's why our employee uniform is a pair of Levi's. They're part of San Francisco history."

Targeting the techie mindset may be a gutsy marketing strategy, but it's also a strategy built of necessity. The Stanford Court couldn't compete at the luxury level anymore. Built on the site of the Leland Stanford mansion and once the city's smartest address, the Stanford Court fell fast and fell far.

"The hotel opened in 1972 and it was renowned worldwide for luxury accommodations and service," recalls Stan Bromley, a retired Four Seasons executive and the Stanford Court's first food and beverage director. "The general manager, James Nassikas, had this mantra that a great hotel was made up of 'monumentally magnificent trivialities.' He was a visionary in the pursuit of excellence."

But the world changed quickly for the Stanford Court. Chief executives began checking out in 1981 when conventions moved off Nob Hill and to the newly opened Moscone Center. Ohio-based Stouffer Hotels bought the property for $125 million in 1988 and brought the Stanford Court under chain control. In 1993, Stouffer was sold to a Hong Kong firm and renamed Renaissance. Four years later, Marriott purchased the Renaissance brand. A $33 million renovation in 2006 couldn't restore the Stanford Court's luster.

In 2011, a New York real estate firm bought the hotel for a pittance--about $25 million, according to reliable sources--and quickly wielded the financial ax. Familiar full-service hotel services were chopped. Dozens of employees were cashiered. And last summer, the Stanford Court parted ways with Marriott, leaving behind the lodging giant's reservation system, the Marriott Rewards program and the rigid brand standards--and saving the owners as much as 14 percent of sales, the chains' usual cut.

With Marriott gone and the Renaissance brand expunged, Baier knew what was coming. Or, more accurately, who was going.

"We knew we were going to lose a certain amount of business from Marriott customers," he said. "All those blue suits and ties weren't coming back and we had to replace them."

His strategy? Focus on three "buckets" of guests from specific industries: technology, food and beverage and health and wellness.

"To attract our target technology customer we installed the fastest WiFi system in the city--61 megabytes down, 85 megabytes up--and it's free in every room and throughout the hotel," Baier claims. "Nobody can touch us."

The Stanford Court makes a big deal about tech. Instead of a traditional business center, guests have free access to three Apple computers with ball-chair seating and a wireless printer. Three more Macs are reserved for printing boarding passes. Paper signs and table-tent cards are out. Messages are cleverly and digitally displayed on iPads scattered throughout the lobby.

With the tech market apparently covered, how is Baier going to appeal to the food-and-beverage crowd when the hotel has no traditional restaurant and the bar and cafe doesn't open until 5 p.m.?

Food can be ordered from Aurea, but the 4,500-square-foot space that once housed Fournou's Ovens is dark. Baier insists there are no plans to reopen a restaurant or lease out the former Fournou's space. Instead, the hotel is stressing that its limited offerings are sourced from Bay Area growers and distillers.

The expanded bar stocks all the usual major labels, but also Hangar 1 vodka, distilled in Emeryville across the San Francisco Bay. It also sells locally made St. George Rum, not just in a bottle but on tap, too. Marin County-roasted Equator Coffee is poured exclusively and it's free at the lobby breakfast service between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m.

What's more, the breakfast offerings are imaginative and bargain-priced compared to traditional hotel fare. Breakfast sandwiches, named after San Francisco neighborhoods, are flavorful and filling for $9. Crepes are stuffed with tasty and fresh ingredients for $8.

The staff is unfailingly polite and obviously loyal, too. One bartender has been mixing and pouring at The Stanford Court since 1976, another since 1981. Their server has logged 32 years. Even the young staffers are well-trained. I had a problem connecting to the WiFi in my room and a helpful computer whiz was at my door eight minutes after I called.

Baier, the general manager, is brimming with ideas. He charges electric cars in the courtyard gratis. The unmanned fitness center is huge and well-equipped. He also cooked up an idea called "Nod Hill." He removed the alarm clocks from guestrooms on one floor--"Everyone uses their smartphone alarms," he claims--and installed a "pillow program."

Guestrooms are modern, nicely furnished and surprisingly spacious. There are sizable desks with electrical outlets and down bedding and pillows. The flat-screen televisions have plug-in panels to accommodate a variety of high-tech devices. Standard suites run nearly 500 square feet. A new owner bought the hotel for an undisclosed sum late last year and Baier says a $12 million renovation is on the way.

The 2015 version of the Stanford Court seems to be winning over business travelers in one of its target markets.

Ian White, founder of a New York City-based marketing startup, is a fan. "This is a great hotel," says the 34-year-old. "I'm very comfortable, I'm saving a lot of money and I get mental peace here."

This column is Copyright 2015 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 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.