Barnett on Business Travel



August 19, 2004 -- Think Hard Rock Hotel and you might flash on swaggering rockers, ear-splitting heavy-metal music, tattooed and pierced groupies and tourists roaming the lobby fingering the memorabilia. It's probably the last place on earth you would want to go for a business meeting, a well-crafted cocktail or a relaxing night's sleep.

In fact, Mel Solomon, a freshly retired top insurance executive who's never set foot inside one, says, "If one of my young middle managers told me he was going to Chicago and staying at the Hard Rock Hotel, I'd say, 'You're fired.' "

Think again Solomon and you other skeptics. On a recent expedition to the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago, I was surprised, almost shocked, to discover that the 381-room property just may be the city's best value-for-money hotel. It's professionally run, friendly, fun and equipped with all the conveniences that road warriors require. That includes free, high-speed Internet access, a courtesy that many big name hotels refuse to extend. And in a town where $400 a night rooms at luxury hotels are commonplace, I found $199 weekday rates for a standard king room at the Hard Rock on Expedia. Some serious schmoozing and searching could probably unearth tariffs $20 a night below that.

The Hard Rock Hotel is hardly the zoo I was expecting. Quite the opposite. It's tastefully designed, almost sedate, a new hotel tucked inside North Michigan Avenue's 1929 art deco Carbon and Carbide skyscraper. There are no 1955 pink Cadillac convertibles hanging from the ceiling or kitschy clutter and cheesy nostalgia plastered on the walls. Other than the name, the hotel is the polar opposite of a pretentious Hard Rock Cafe. Less than a year old, it has a Mobil four-star and an AAA four-diamond rating.

I wasn't the only first-timer taken aback when I walked into the hotel lobby with its subdued decor, sleek, contemporary sofas and chairs in soothing shades of charcoal, gray and black. In fact, several of the 100 or so investment bankers conferring for two days at a mergers and acquisition conference at the Hard Rock had the same reaction.

"I was expecting Las Vegas glitz and a much younger crowd," said Jason Chung, co-founder of Pretium Capital Group in Huntsville, Alabama. "But you can actually stay here comfortably as a business traveler." Added Steve Lipper with the big Wall Street financial house of Lord Abbot: "I don't go to Hard Rock Cafes. Too loud. And a lot of hotels take creative ideas and execute them badly. But the rooms here are nice, filled with lots of clever, little things. It was an extremely pleasant surprise."

The Hard Rock Hotel may not be wild and crazy, but it's not boring, either. My room was outfitted in a rich, monochromatic, deep gray. It had a 27-inch, flat-screen Zenith TV; CD/DVD player; a snakeskin chaise lounge; mirrored hidden closets; a long, large workspace and great ergonomic chair; Cuisinart coffeemaker; and a plush bed with crisp, expensive linens. The bathroom was small, but the huge window, with a discreet blind, gave me an unobstructed view of downtown Chicago during my shower. All the shampoos and other potions and lotions were large sized, not miniature. I also had a floor-to-ceiling mural of David Bowie staring at me while I was trimming my beard.

The staff is young, but seems well-trained. There were plenty of smiles, good eye contact and a helpful attitude. Only once, in the hotel's very busy and hip lobby bar, did I get the cold shoulder. A bartender was too busy chatting with her colleagues to notice that I wanted to order an $11 (ouch!) Manhattan. And, yes, there is music in the lobby, but it was a more restrained brand of rock, not a high-decibel blast from the past or present.

Clearly, this hotel is not the Hard Rock Cafe with beds. It's the brainchild of a serious hotelier named Trevor Horwell, an Englishman who spent 15 years roaming the world, developing hotels for Hyatt International. "We didn't want to duplicate the café or overshoot the concept, so our rooms are not 'razzy, tazzy' but, rather, a retreat into a calmer space." Horwell claims that each Hard Rock Hotel will fit its city rather than rubberstamp a standard, chain look.

The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas is a tourist magnet, catering to a younger scene. In New York, Horwell will be turning the Paramount Hotel in Times Square into the Hard Rock Hotel's Big Apple outlet. Horwell feels the Hard Rock New York will make it because his hotels are strong on hospitable guest service. The Paramount's creator, financially stressed Ian Schrager, "created theatre, a stage, but no real guest service standards," Horwell says.

Horwell also contends that it takes a special talent to manage a Hard Rock Hotel, someone with a creative flair who worries about the "seamlessly smooth guest experience," not just filling up beds.

To find a general manager for the Chicago hotel, the Hard Rock's owners went straight to the top of Ritz-Carlton and hired Kit Pappas, who had been vice president of sales and marketing. Pappas, who's shed his tie, looks fairly relaxed and seems to be having fun. "We use music, lighting and staff to create energy in the public spaces, but, once you're upstairs, it's quiet," he says. "There's a full foot of solid concrete between floors."

Pappas hired a "vibe manager" from Chicago's W Hotel and she picks the music that's played in the lobby. She also will occasionally hire live bands. Otherwise, it's all rather traditional. The hotel has a well-equipped fitness center and a business center that can be accessed around the clock. Its main restaurant, China Grill, doesn't open until the fall, but breakfast is available.

Horwell and Pappas' smartest decision, though, was to leave the gilded, high-ceilinged elevator lobby untouched and separate it from the hotel lobby. It is a historical landmark and whisked businesspeople up to their offices for most of the building's nearly 75 years. Fashioned out of polished and gleaming brass, marble and glass, its classically 1940s style makes you expect to see Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth stepping out of the elevator.

It's these little touches that make the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago rather cool. Another example: Instead of a Do Not Disturb sign, guestrooms have a door hanger that reads: Hit The Road, Jack.

This column originally appeared at

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