Barnett on Business Travel



November 3, 1991 -- Groucho Marx swore he would never join any club that would have him as a member. But when he was on the road, hotel "club floors" weren't invented. Today, these secret hideaways - hotels within hotels - are growing in popularity. There is no membership fee or dues. You pay a surcharge to stay on the club floor, usually $20 or more over the regular room rate, but the benefits often outweigh the extra tariff. Many club floors have hassle-free check-in and checkout, and that timesaver alone is worth money.

For shameless guest pampering, the Regency Club at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong is hard to top. Located on the 30th floor, jutting out into Victoria Harbour, the club has 575 rooms that fetch U.S. $303, compared with U.S. $251 for non-club rooms below. But it is the club lounge, possibly the most lavish in the Crown Colony, that justifies the price. On a recent visit I counted 11 smiling and helpful hosts and hostesses on hand at 5 p.m., welcoming weary guests after a day of hard commerce, shopping or sightseeing.

What's more, you aren't just greeted and ignored. It seems as if each guest is assigned a staffer to, as they so graciously put it, "look after you." From mineral water to a cocktail to smoked salmon finger sandwiches - your request is filled quickly and at no extra cost whatsoever.

Need a magazine, a meeting arranged, a chess board, some insights into the way business - or pleasure - is conducted in Hong Kong? You ask only once. And when you get home, a thank-you note arrives a few days later from a club staffer inviting you back.

Still, legendary Asian service and courtesies can be found in hotels here at home, especially these days with competition for the traveler's dollar so keen.

The just-opened Sheraton Towers New York, a luxury business hotel atop the old Sheraton Centre Hotel on 53rd Street at the juncture of the business and theater district in midtown Manhattan, is offering 213 redesigned rooms and a 3,250- square-foot Towers Lounge at an introductory, super-bargain rate (for New York) of $189 to $209 a night through year end. By next April, those same rooms will be priced at $279 a night.

Sheraton has gone all out in the Tower Lounge. While you do pay for drinks - a hefty $6.25 apiece - a complimentary breakfast buffet is rolled out from 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., when it's replaced by an afternoon service that is essentially a lunch and afternoon tea. At 5 p.m., a two- hour cocktail hour with piano music begins.

The lounge itself has a board room that can be reserved for a private meeting or cocktail party at no charge. There's also a well-stocked business library, two large-screen TV sets and a staff of five to handle faxes or provide business services.

At the 400-room Hotel Nikko Atlanta, $185 a night is the normal club-floor rate, and everything in the 23rd floor lounge is free, including cocktails. The 1-year-old hotel, with its massive three-level, twin-waterfall Japanese gardens, has afternoon sushi and other goodies for guests who want to unwind.

Indeed, it seems as if hotels are really pouring it on to outdo competitors in the race for club-level guests, and at the moment the undisputed winner is the Ritz-Carlton/San Francisco. From 5:30 to 7 p.m. weekdays, club concierge Joan Lucero pours '83 Dom Perignon champagne and serves beluga caviar - absolutely free.

"At Ritz-Carlton, our guests expect something more and it's our pleasure to provide it," says Lucero, who adds that only its San Francisco hotel - at the moment - delivers the Dom and beluga.

The 336-room hotel on Nob Hill, which opened earlier this year in a restored 82-year-old neo-classical landmark building that once housed a college, has set aside two richly furnished and silk wall-covered rooms - one with a marble-mantled, wood-burning fireplace - as its club, open at 7 a.m. Lucero and her staff serve five different meals during the day, starting with breakfast and ending with apres-dinner cognacs, cordials, chocolates and truffle cookies.

Lucero says guests can bring clients and friends to the club at any time. It is especially popular with traveling businesswomen, who can invite clients up for a cocktail and a meeting in a secure living room setting where it takes a special key to gain admittance. The opulence and lavish food and drink do not come cheap. Ritz-Carlton/San Francisco club rates are $325 a night, compared with $185 for non-club rooms.

In considering a room on the club floor, the question becomes, how many of the extras are you really going to use. At the 491-room Stouffer Tower City Plaza Hotel, the Cleveland Library of Commerce, the split-level club lounge is the first stop for anyone doing business in this corporate headquarters hub.

It has statistical information on all the Fortune 500 companies based here plus a comfy, woodsy library room in which to digest the data along with morning breakfast and evening snacks. Prices for spacious rooms on the club floor (this was a 1,000-room hotel before a $37 million restoration) start at a very reasonable $159 or $20 more than a non-club room. Cocktails, beer and wine are charged to your room.

The bigger business hotels don't have a hammer lock on the club concept. The club level at the 167- room European-style Prescott Hotel in San Francisco is the site of one of the city's happier happy hours. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck's Postrio restaurant caters the hot and cold munchies, and for two hours the bar is open with drinks on the house.

Club-level guests ponying up $175 a night also get limos to the financial district and an exercise bike or rowing machine delivered to the room. At the Vintage Plaza in Portland, Ore., a sister hotel to the Prescott, club-floor rooms start at $145, but only wine (instead of cocktails) is served in the evening.

Even resorts are adding club lounges, knowing that vacationers want the same pampering as business travelers - maybe even more. The Ocean Grand Hotel, the first new beach hostelry in Palm Beach in 35 years, serves endless food and drink at no cost. But the culinary hit of this sun-baked, sophisticated sand and surf setting is club manager Betty Anderer's homemade peanut butter and chocolate chip cookie.

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union.

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