Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Traditional Hotel Hospitality in San Francisco
Thursday, July 19, 2018 -- If the hotel industry had its own federal witness protection program, the Omni San Francisco would be in it.

The 362-room hotel opened with a fanfare 16 years ago in a reconfigured 1926 office building located in a prime financial district across California Street from the Bank of America tower. Then its signature restaurant, Bob's Steak and Chop House, was savaged by the San Francisco Chronicle

But then the hotel seemed to disappear. I hardly heard another word about it and never had an occasion to visit. Hotel restaurants started dying off in San Francisco and I just assumed Bob's had packed up and left, too.

My mistake on both counts. Today, both the Omni and Bob's are flourishing.

In digitally crazed San Francisco, where hotels slavishly pursue techies with hip hangout lobbies and rooftop bars, the Omni San Francisco quietly courts business travelers who want traditional hospitality, gracious service, hefty portions on the plate and husky pours at the bar. Room rates are reasonable by San Francisco standards. Quiet as it is, the Omni says its nightly occupancy rate runs at 90 percent, substantially better than the city's average of 83.6 percent.

At the helm of the Omni these days is James Lim, who earned his stripes at the legendary Palace Hotel on Market Street and at the highly creative Joie de Vivre chain of boutique properties.

"We're not about flash and style, checking in, checking out," he says. "We are about creating the best guest service experience."

Typical hotel manager's boast, perhaps, but the Omni makes a good first impression. A small team of top-hatted, cutaway-coated doormen and valets operate as friendly greeters. The mahogany-paneled lobby is decked out in royal blues and golds. There's a sweeping grand staircase and Austrian crystal chandeliers, a seating area and a big, well-staffed front desk. It's Old World sophistication, but not stuffy. And it all sparkles thanks to a two-year, top-to-bottom renovation.

Lim calls it "stepping back to simpler, grander time. We're not minimalists. We cater to grownups--business and corporate travelers, venture capitalists, senior executives--who want a certain demeanor, personal attention and comfort."

Of course, the Omni San Francisco's low profile isn't all that unique. The entire Omni chain--60 properties, most personally owned by Dallas oil executive Robert B. Rowling--keeps a low profile. Its frequency program, Select Guest, stresses perks and experiences, not the flashier lure of free nights. And while Omni is also part of the Global Hotel Alliance, a collection of about three dozen chains around the world, it's hard to claim GHA is top of mind with many U.S. business travelers.

Lim claims Omni invests heavily in staff training and it shows. I peppered a half-dozen employees with questions and requests and got an engaged response from all. Six out of six.

"We hire on personality, not experience," he asserts. "You can't train someone to be nice. We encourage associates to make on-the-spot decisions that benefit guests. That's why we had a 3 percent turnover in 2017, when most chain hotels average 25 percent. And if the guest is happy, he or she will return. It's all circular." (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that turnover rate in the hospitality sector is actually much higher.)

Guest accommodations at the Omni--the king rooms average 400 feet--have genuine business desks, minibars and Keurig beverage dispensers. But there's also 24-hour room service and anything on the restaurant menus can be ordered anytime. Ask for a wake-up call and it is delivered by a human, not a robocall. Rooms have three dual-line telephones. The hotel owns and operates the in-house business and fitness centers, so hours are not restricted. But there is one notable omission: There's no club for elite-level guests.

Meanwhile, Bob's Steak and Chop House and its bar have quietly morphed into the city's main hotel wheeler-dealer dining venue, a distinction once held by the Ritz-Carlton up on Nob Hill. Pressed for names, Lim only drops one: former Mayor Willie Brown, still the city's reigning power broker, who caucuses regularly with pals and clients over serious dry-aged prime protein and eight-ounce cocktails.

Bob's ambiance attracts San Francisco's corporate, financial and legal crowd that once flocked mainly to private clubs and old-timey San Francisco venues such as Sam's Grill and Tadich Grill. Bob's spaces out tables for maximum privacy, offers big picture window views and hires swift, seasoned, savvy servers.

Bob's is not for calorie counters or travelers on a tight per diem, however. A 28-ounce porterhouse dinner is $72. Other steaks are around $50. Free-pouring bartenders offer some creative riffs on classic cocktails for $16 to $18 apiece.

Quiet as it is, though, the Omni isn't much of a secret in San Francisco anymore. TripAdvisor.com ranks it as the Number Two hotel in town.

This column is Copyright 2018 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2018 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.