Barnett on Business Travel



June 2, 1991 -- It has cedar-lined closets that light up when you open the door. A steam shower for two and a Jacuzzi tub. A stereo system and ironing board disappear underneath a granite kitchen countertop.

Plus, a "business center" in the bathroom with a phone, swivel-based color TV/VCR and a calculator next to the commode.

No, this isn't a fantasy. It is a wish-list come true, dozens of ideas gleaned from a survey of serious travelers recently conducted by the University of Southern California School of Business, and underwritten by L'Ermitage International, a Los Angeles hotel group.

The survey's chief finding: Tomorrow's hotel room should look, feel and have the conveniences of a warm, imaginatively designed home and functional office. In short, a suite.

"Business travelers in the year 2010 will demand state-of-the-art technology, including in- room facsimile machines, multi-language voice mail, computer modems, voice-activated computers and video telephones," says Jane Levant, general manager of the L'Ermitage Hotel, a 112- suite luxury hotel in Beverly Hills that's best known as a quiet home-away-from-home for such globe-trotters as CNN's superstar reporter Bernard Shaw.

But L'Ermitage didn't wait 20 years to see if travelers have any other ideas. Levant is slowly redesigning every room in the hotel into what she calls "21st century suites" based largely on the ideas gleaned from the USC survey. At the moment, 23 are complete, at a cost of $70,000, and open for guests.

The conveniences are either thoughtful or practical but, surprisingly, not ostentatious. For instance, the all-marble bathroom with the "business center" next to the toilet also has a huge clock, hidden safe, two makeup mirrors and sinks.

"Now you can dress side-by-side so there are no more fights who gets in the bathroom first," smiles Levant.

In addition to the cedar-lined closets that light up when the door opens, the new suites have four panes of soundproof glass on the windows, a fireplace, a two-burner stove, rheostat mood lighting throughout, and a lint brush on the steamer iron.

It also showcases some neat design ideas. The TV and videotape player are housed in an "amphora," a case that looks like a Faberge egg, but swivels for easy viewing.

Still, the future does not come cheap. The 750- square-foot suites rent for $345 to $385 a night.

In San Francisco, where hotel competition is ferocious, the 140-room Huntington Hotel atop Nob Hill has redesigned 15 of its 30 suites to look like private penthouses.

"We're small, intimate and quiet, and we want to treat guests as if they're royalty," says general manager Mica Hill.

He's not kidding. Before guests check into the suite, executive housekeeper Jane Lee, who formerly worked for the royal family inside Buckingham Palace, opens the windows, checks the fresh flowers and fluffs up the pillows.

Each room in the Huntington is decorated differently, but the suites look straight out of Architectural Digest. One may have a 700-year- old tapestry wall hanging, another a faux leopard skin ottoman, still another has dark, thick burgundy drapes framing the wall above the bed.

Celebrity interior designer Charles Gruwell of Santa Monica, Calif., was commissioned to redesign rooms originally decorated by Lee Radziwell, the Manhattan interior designer and sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

The major hotel organizations know that suites have magic and a mystique about them, but few people can afford the tariff. Who thought a Saudi prince would book the Fairmont Hotel's legendary eight-room Penthouse Suite where the price was just hiked $1,000 to $6,000 a night, making it the nation's most expensive hotel room.

Yet Cynthia Tidd, a long-distance truck driver from Long Beach, Calif., stays in a suite after a nine-day trip across America. And she only pays $49 a night.

Tidd is staying in a Comfort Suite hotel north of Boston and loves it.

"It's a great deal with all the comforts of home - HBO, the Discovery Channel, Jacuzzi pool and a washer/dryer," she says.

Tidd especially likes it because the staff is largely female and they go out of their way to look after her when she rolls in in her 18-wheeler. Every room is a suite.

Between the $49-a-night Comfort Suite and the $6,000-a-night Fairmont Penthouse Suite, there seems to be an all-suite hotel for every budget these days. Some, like Embassy Suites offer free cook-to-order breakfasts and two hours of end-of- the-day cocktails for rates ranging from $69 a night in Omaha to $139 a night in New York City.

And for fitness buffs, Embassy just created its "cycle suites," where the living room becomes an aerobic center outfitted with Schwinn Airdyne bicycles, exercise tapes and a VCR player. Price: $10 above the regular rate.

Yet Bud McDonnell, a Xerox Corp. application engineer who lives in Philadelphia, but travels frequently to Alexandria, Va., stays in the city's Marriott Suite for one reason - "It's more homey than a hotel room and it has plenty of space."

McDonnell's company has wangled an $89-a- night rate out of Marriott. The corporate rate is $135 a night but many suite hotels will wheel and deal if you're a regular guest. But what he likes is having a mini kitchen and wet bar and a living room for separate meetings. He can live without a free breakfast or happy hour.

"I can pay for my own beer, thank you."

All-suite hotels are especially popular with women travelers.

"The female traveler can have a couple of people up to her parlor and close the door to the bedroom so you don't have that intimidating bed in full view," says Heinz Kern, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Suites on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

Hyatt is just getting into the all-suite business and is striking a happy medium in room furnishings: half home, half office.

The front room - Hyatt calls it the "parlor" - looks pretty inviting, all right.

"Our furniture is very, very rich and traditional mahogany, just like you would find in your den," enthuses Kern, the hotel's general manager.

But that den can quickly become an office/ meeting room housing a skull session for six.

Says Kern: "Call down and we'll wheel in an entire computer workstation. You never have to leave the room."

Is that really so wonderful?

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union

Copyright 1990-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.