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A HOTEL BY ANY OTHER NAME ...
By Chris Barnett
September 9, 2010 -- Big lodging chains often take 10 or 12 percent of a hotel's revenue right off the top, so you can understand when the hotel's owner fires the managers and runs its own flag up the pole. After all, who wants to give that kind of cash to a chain when many owners can't make their mortgage payments? In California alone, more than 1,000 owners are in or near foreclosure or bankruptcy.

But taking control of the lodging operations isn't as easy as it sounds. And sometimes it's the kiss of death for a hotel. After all, what do real estate owners know about operating 300 guestrooms, restaurants, bars and spas? What do they know about hiring, training and retaining a staff of cooks, maids, desk clerks and the engineers you summon at midnight when the television or Internet access goes haywire?

At first glance, I figured that's what happened at the Four Seasons Newport Beach in Orange County, California. Last time I was here, the 20-story, 295-room property in the middle of the gilded Fashion Island Shopping Center was a hotbed of business travelers, vacationers and Los Angeles types who checked in for a weekend getaway. It was--and, of course, it still is--just 20 minutes from Orange County's John Wayne Airport.

Five years ago, the Four Seasons name and flag disappeared and the hotel was renamed The Island. The changeover has been a well-kept secret beyond the tony borders of Newport Beach. And not because the owner is a faceless real estate investment trust that doesn't understand marketing or a syndicate of egomaniacal doctors who are playing at investments.

The hotel's owner all along has been the Irvine Company, a 146-year-old real estate colossus. The privately held firm also owns Fashion Island, built 62,900 homes and apartments in Orange County and has office towers and shopping complexes throughout California. Four Seasons was shown the door in Newport Beach when Irvine decided to concentrate on its hospitality business and establish its own brands. Besides the Island Hotel, it owns and operates the Pelican Hill resort in Laguna Beach.

It was a crapshoot unplugging from the Four Seasons reservation system and its global reputation for luxury. But the Irvine Company is not alone. In June, after a long squabble between Four Seasons and the operators, the Aviara resort in Carlsbad, California, was reflagged as a Park Hyatt. And it's not as if luxury brand names ensure success: The Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas closed earlier this year and, before that, a Four Seasons resort in the Bahamas shut down. And shortly after 9/11, the Regent Wall Street closed, unable to ride out the post-attack slump in the New York hotel business.

On a recent visit, however, I found that The Island has maintained many of the Four Seasons quality benchmarks and exceeded them in some areas, too. It also has more reasonable rates. One example: There's an ongoing $199 per night weekend package that includes a king-bedded room, continental breakfast for two and free parking. One hundred and ninety-nine bucks will get you the same room on weekdays, depending on occupancy, but the parking and breakfast cost extra.

That's still a steal in Newport Beach for a AAA five-diamond hotel with an ocean view. Expedia.com currently quotes the nearby Newport Beach Marriott Hotel and Spa at $269 a night. You can find a $160-a-night rate at the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach, but reservations at that price require full prepayment and are nonrefundable. (By the way, the Irvine Company owns the Hyatt Regency, too.)

The Island Hotel's staff was generally friendly and responsive. Check-in was smooth. The front desk staff is young, but polished and welcoming. A bellman escorted me to my room and explained the details admirably. That's when I realized The Island trumps the Four Seasons in one interesting way: Guestrooms are outfitted with both WiFi and wired Internet--and it's free. Four Seasons almost always charges for Internet access.

The Island's dining room, the Palm Terrace Restaurant and Lounge, is eclectic and reasonably priced for a deluxe hotel. The fixed-price $39 menu includes an appetizer, entrée and desert. The signature dish? Macaroni and cheese for $13. A bone-in steak with Béarnaise sauce is $36. Side dishes are $6. Wines by the glass from an extensive list are virtually all priced in double digits.

The Irvine Company hedged its bet when it dismissed Four Seasons by hiring a general manager with luxury lodging experience. Richard Ebanich, who has free rein at The Island, spent eight years as the general manager of Ritz-Carlton properties in New York and Boston. The company also followed the same strategy for the Palm Terrace. The executive chef, Bill Bracken, logged 10 years at the five-star Peninsula Beverly Hills.

Ebanich isn't afraid to get his hands dirty or ride elevators in office buildings drumming up business. "I knock on doors and tell them our story," he says. "Fifty percent off on a bottle of wine every Monday night. Good food and quick service at breakfast and at lunch. I'm out to steal their business from our competitors."

But Ebanich might want to add a few new pages to his "story." While The Island operates its own fitness center, it outsources the business center to its audio-visual provider. I didn't find it all that friendly or well-equipped. Worse, it's only open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"Suppose I need to use a computer at 5 p.m.?" I asked a telephone operator. Her reply: "You would have to see if the manager would allow it or not."

No matter who owns the hotel and what flag is on the pole, that's not the answer I want to hear at a five-diamond property.

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ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines. Barnett on Business Travel is syndicated by Creators Syndicate.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

This column is Copyright © 2010 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.