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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris FROM SHABBY SPACES
TO EXCITING HOTEL PLACES


BY CHRIS BARNETT

January 8, 2004 -- Converting decrepit old buildings into new hotels is a popular pastime with hospitality companies today, yet many seem to transform shabby spaces into boring places and then shortchange travelers with amateurish service.

But I've recently found imaginative recreations of a 148-year-old former bank headquarters, a 124-year-old dry-goods warehouse and a one-time department store.

No surprise that these restorations, aimed at business travelers and adventurous vacationers as well, were engineered mostly by obsessive, compulsive entrepreneurial hoteliers who refused to cut corners.

A classic example is the 70-room Threadneedles, billed as the first boutique hotel in The City, London's tiny financial district, and a tribute to good taste and patience. Empty for six years, the former Midland Bank head office was torn apart and re-assembled by owner Peter Tyrie, former managing director of the acclaimed Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.

The transformation from bank to hotel took seven years and only the soaring, stained-glass dome 65 feet above the circular lobby was untouched. Nearly $40 million was spent on miles of rosewood paneling, marble floors and pillars and contemporary leather furniture. Even the elevators are leather-paneled.

Threadneedles today is library quiet, clubby and understated. The front desk is actually several executive-sized desks joined for a sit-down check-in. The cathedral-sized lobby has a pour-it-yourself honor bar, wide chairs and spacious tables arranged for conversation and commerce. But don't get too relaxed. Tyrie winces if papers and contracts are spread out, though he isn't likely to ask you to wheel and deal more discreetly.

The restaurant, Bonds--named after government and corporate debt, not James--is exclusive, expensive and exceptionally stylish. Forget about a fast club sandwich at noon. Lunches are full meals of fine dining, often accompanied by three to four hours of civilized haggling over new stock offerings or old loans up for renewal. The restaurant's staff is young, welcoming and skilled, not stuffy or stiff-upper-lipped.

Bonds' bar is separate, high-ceilinged and packed after 5 p.m. with pinstriped power players. This is not a saloon for the casually dressed on a skimpy expense account. Cocktails and wines by the glass are priced in double digits.

A room at Threadneedles is steep during the week, about $460 nightly including tax at the current unfavorable exchange rates. On Friday through the weekend, The City empties out and rooms at Threadneedles drop below $300, value-added tax and full breakfast included. Rooms are regally--and residentially--furnished with plasma-screen TVs and CD players; a deep, oversized tub and roomy shower; and Frette linens and six pillows on a firm mattress. There's even a stack of magazines in the loo.

Threadneedles does have a few notable flaws. Rooms have high-speed Internet access, but there's no business or fitness center. Tyrie says both facilities, along with wireless Internet connections throughout the hotel, will debut in the spring. Front-desk service, while friendly, eager and helpful during my visit, was more reactive than pro-active. I had to nudge on a few requests. (Tyrie says he doesn't hire hotel veterans but prefers to train smart first-timers "who want to serve.") And Threadneedles needs a "user's guide" for the rooms. Who would have thought the coffeemaker would be in a desk drawer?

Meanwhile, in the central business district of New Orleans, property-developer-turned-hotelier Sean Cummings took a huge risk last year. He gutted a massive, five-floor, 1880 warehouse filled with cast-iron columns and pipes, timber beams and aged brick walls. Then he created Loft 523, a hotel with just 18 loft accommodations. Cummings even left the concrete floors and the building's bones exposed.

He could have squeezed in 50 smaller rooms and tripled his revenues. Instead, Cummings figured the well-traveled businessperson with a sense of adventure wants raw luxury for a change. That translates into a room with lots of clutter-free space, tall ceilings and an entertainment system (32-inch Sony television; five-speaker, surround-sound stereo; and CD/DVD player) at the foot of a king-sized platform bed. There are a few pieces of eccentrically creative modern furniture like a floor lamp designed as photographer's studio strobe light. The door is industrial strength--heavy and fashioned out of hammered copper. Cummings was right on the money. Even crawling out of bed and putting your warm toes on cold concrete is a different thrill.

At rates starting at $149 a night, Loft 523 can be an astonishing bargain. Rooms offer a 600-square-foot sleeping and sitting space. The 120-square-foot spa bathrooms feature modernistic Agape-designed "Spoon" bathtubs ideal for wallowing and glass-and-limestone, walk-in, doorless, hydra-headed showers that are like soaking in a rainforest. The accommodations dwarf many European, Japanese and New York apartments.

Loft 523 is a heady mix of business and kick-back fun. There's an Apple Powerbook in the lobby for checking E-mail and it's free. Upstairs, there's free in-room, high-speed wireless Internet access. Minibars are stuffed with zany goodies like Japanese wasabe green peas, vitamins, locally made Zapp's potato chips, Red Bull energy drinks and even Pez candy dispensers. The downstairs bar is sleek and subtle, a tourist-free zone bigger than the entire lobby. It has a secluded grotto for private meetings; live, mellow music; and serious, handcrafted cocktails.

Cummings' biggest coup at Loft 523? He's hired a small staff of very smart people who go the extra mile for guests. Example: I casually mentioned an obscure book to front-desk clerk (and professional artist) Letty Pena. She tracked down a copy and had it in my room an hour later.

Says Cummings: "We look for kindness in people. We can teach them everything else."

Elsewhere in The Big Easy, a resurrection has occurred at the Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street. For a hundred years, the Maison Blanche was ground zero of New Orleans' fashion, refinement and elegance. Locals dressed fancy just to spend money there. But when the boulevard nose-dived and shoppers headed for malls, Maison closed its doors in the late 90s.

It reopened three years later as a 452-room Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It's gilded, it's glamorous, and, on a recent visit, it was sold out three days straight. Unlike Threadneedles and Loft 523, a Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman insists no single visionary had the bright idea to create a 75-room private hotel-within-a-hotel and call it the Maison Orleans.

The Maison Orleans is as clubby and restrained as Threadneedles and it has its own entrance in the French Quarter rather than on gritty Canal Street. It also has security elevators, a small front desk and its own lounge with nonstop food and drink. A tonier version of a Ritz-Carlton Club with a blazing fireplace, grand piano and Louis XVI desks, Maison Orleans also has a retail rack rate of $510 a night. But who pays retail today? Prices fluctuate based on current, historical and seasonal demand. In the sultry New Orleans summer, for example, you can check in for as little as $220 a night.

With a few exceptions, the Maison Orleans staff is Ritz-Carlton caliber. Well-drilled professionals make you feel like a true guest, not a credit-card number on a registration form. Considerable money and thought went into the room design and décor. Mine was French baroque modern and masculine, filled with golds, burnt orange, browns, beiges and creams. It could double as a guest bedroom and lair in the home of someone wealthy and powerful.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright © 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.