Friday, November 16, 2007

How to give a presentation in a hotel: Step one, avoid hotels.

Software company owner Joel Spolsky recently demonstrated his software in 20 different cities, and learned plenty about hosting meetings in hotels:
  • Avoid hotels. Spolsky writes, "Before you try hotels, look for libraries, museums, and universities: many of went into debt building beautiful, modern lecture halls and now they’re trying to rent them out to pay for all that nice blond wood paneling and the 265 built-in powered Bose speakers."
  • Book the nicest hotel in town, because the quality of the venue will rub off on your brand. Avoid "frightful old relics" like the ones Spolsky accidentally booked.
  • Hotels lie about key details of their meeting spaces, so ask for numbers. Instead of asking whether all audience members will be able see your screen, ask for the height of the ceiling.
  • Go for high ceilings (he explains why)
  • Have loud music, nametags and helpers (he explains why).
  • And more, in:
Joel on Software: How to demo software


Friday, November 09, 2007

City may ban hotel-condo conversions forever, approximately

No wonder St. Francis owner Laurence Geller is so obsessed with the city's hotel-condo conversion moratorium -- Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin wants to make the temporary, 18-month ban effectively permanent.

The SF Examiner reports that Peskin is proposing extending the ban for "at least a decade," but don't worry, you can get an exemption if you ask Aaron nicely.

And then ask the Planning Commission nicely.

And then ask the union officials, neighbors, activist groups and other Planning Commission lobbyists nicely.

Between this and recent developments in commercial finance, San Francisco hotels seem to be depreciating nicely.

Examiner: Supe aims to shield hotel rooms from condo conversions

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Michael Mina brasserie -- may yet be (Or: My seduction by Laurence Geller)

Last week I had a date with Laurence Geller, CEO of Strategic Hotels & Resorts and, by extension, the owner of the Westin Saint Francis hotel here in San Francisco. He put me in an apron, plied me with wine, cooked for me in a rooftop kitchen, gave me a signed copy of his rather purple novel "Do Not Disturb" and entertained me with the most delightful story about Michael Mina.

Michael Mina was going to make him a brasserie, in his hotel. Michael Mina was going to put it in the old Oak Room. Michael Mina was going to also make a bakery inside the brasserie and give it a window onto Post Street, somehow, and everyone was going to come and it was going to be awesome.

Laurence told me this, and gave me champagne, which made me happy, and then later he told as much to his 10 other guests, even though he did not care for them in that special way in which he cared for me, and he poured us more wine, and we were happy.

There were warning signs. When, the next day, I called the general manager of the St. Francis, a reliable and trustworthy fellow, he let on that the brasserie plans were, well, in the conceptual stage, but still "likely." And that Michael Mina was in talks but not, shall we say, signed on the dotted line. Michael Mina could not be reached for comment.

Actually, Michael Mina was reached for comment, the day after we went to press. Telling me that the plan for a brasserie was very preliminary, one among perhaps 15 projects Mina's company (total restaurants: 10) is weighing at any given time. But he was fairly certain he'd be running the St. Francis' new bar, the Clock Bar. But writing about the brasserie would be, uh, premature.

Well, Michael, you'll have to call Laurence about that one. Careful -- he's a sweet talker.

SF Business Times: St. Francis sees $150M hotel upgrade: CEO: But first, fix tourism (free link)

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Hotel concierge brags he lives better than you could DREAM OF LIVING!!

An anonymous hotel concierge just wrote in to the comments to explain that he rolls posher than you, makes more money than you, lives larger than you and expects you to keep on tipping and not complaining about his commissions and kickbacks and who pays his salary or whatever.


Here is a taste:
So for those of you who think poor little concierges, what a poor living, you are wrong. Most of us have a better living than any of you. You get free everything. GC to go to restaurants, free rides to the airport and I can go on and on.
But where does the money come from?
Concierges make commision out of everything they do. How do you think they make a living???!!! that tour bus you booked, they make commission, that helicopter tour, scuba diving tour, limo, you name it they get commission just for recommending it.

Oh, also? Some concierges get salary AND TIPS on top of all this. Because, you know, when someone sells you something on commission, it is polite to not only buy it, but to tip as well.

Anyway the commenter's point is that, while kickbacks from the vendors he recommends may finance his extravagant lifestyle, they do not influence him in any way:

I take pride of what I do and I am REALLY good. Never has anybody complained about me either pushig nor selling. My company does not make me sell anything. Since when does it matter WHO pays your salary?

... wether I recommend my company or the neighbors company, I will still make money out of it. And that just comes with the title.

Does every single business that might get a recommendation from a concierge pay a commission?

Creating a positive relationship with concierges can pay dividends. When Ola Fendert was trying to get the word out about Oola's unusually late hours, he reached out to concierges, doormen and taxi drivers, including by plying them with free meals in some cases. (I mentioned the concierge thing in my article on late-night dining.)

You could argue that this sort of wining and dining is a way of spreading knowledge and ultimately helping make patrons aware about a restaurant staying open until 1am, still a rare, hard-to-find thing in San Francisco.

You could also argue that concierges who accept this sort of outreach are going to be influenced to recommend a restaurant that offers them freebies or commissions over a restaurant that doesn't give these goodies, even when the latter restaurant is the better recommendation for the patron.

These sorts of debates are not unknown in the journalism world. But the best journalists uniformly decline freebies, at least past a certain level.

Maybe concierges are totally different, maybe not.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

SF hotels face capital famine


Hope you had a GREAT summer!

Did you have a GREAT summer?

Hope so!

Because now the money is gone!



Probably not a big deal. The money went away for the month of August, and may return in September, or October, or sometime in the fall, or maybe next year, or maybe not quite ever, but everyone expects it will probably come back.

But for now it's taken a little vacation. Or an extended sabbatical. Whatever.

Don't want to overstate things. By "the money," I just mean the commercial paper that underwrote 80 percent of all hotel finance. And by "gone," I just mean not being given out to anyone, anywhere, anymore.

This really is not a big deal, unless you're a hotelier. Or a restaurateur. Or in the construction industry.

Or a broker, or in interior design, or an architect.

Or in the hospitality industry. Or in a business impacted by the hospitality industry. Or in a business that touches in some way on real estate.

Or in a business that needs, like, capital.

In a nutshell, the problem is that most commercial lending was done through supposedly very safe "commercial paper," or short-term loans to reliable businesses.

But Jim Cramer's hedge fund buddies took some of these loans and invested them in subprime mortgages, junk bonds and probably high-grade Columbian cocaine, no is really sure at this point because we're only talking about hundreds of billions of dollars and who really tracks that sort of pocket change.

Mainstream banks like the one that runs your checking account thought this all sounded swell and started borrowing and lending money this way too.

No one worried too much because as soon as someone made one of these insane loans he could then chop it up into a million pieces and sell the pieces to other investors who didn't know or care much about what they were buying.

They just cared that the loan had been stamped "AAA" by the ratings agencies, who of course valued the loans using computers, esoteric math no one understood and inputs no one could agree on.

About a month ago, everyone finally realized that some of this paper was not backed by operationally sound businesses but instead by people lending money to typical American homeowners which, as you might imagine, is a batshit crazy business to be in. Then they realized they couldn't tell which commercial paper was being used badly and which was sound. Then they stopped issuing commercial paper, which is a way of saying they stopped loaning anyone any money.

Commercial paper underwrites 80 percent of hotel deals, according to Jones Lang LaSalle. Ha ha, pretty hilarious madcap situation, right?

So now hotels, who by the way were sort of supposed to be the saviors of the hard-pressed local restaurant industry, can't get cash and have lost about 20 percent of their total value in like a month or two.

A small fraction of the top hotels can still get money from what are known as "balance sheet lenders," aka people who actually have cash money to lend and aren't counting on reselling the debt to others to offload the risk and aren't like panicking or whatever. Also, if you had a deal closed -- truly closed, not just nonrefundable -- before the meltdown, it will generally still go through, which is why you will still see deals being announced.

The whole capital crunch nearly derailed the recent Hotel Palomar sale a couple of times, all the principals told me, but luckily it was far enough along to make it to the finish line.

More in the ...

Business Times: Credit crunch leaves S.F. hoteliers hungry (free link)

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Monday, August 27, 2007

'High end' SF hotels will take your money and then not talk to you

San Francisco hotels that have sunk tens of millions of dollars into renovations, built fancy new bars and restaurants and swank new spas, and manage to hire plenty of staff to sell you rooms and collect your money can't be bothered to pay a single person to lend you advice on where to go when you're in town, the Bay Guardian reports.

The newspaper examines the practice of outsourced concierge service in the context of San Francisco, and the results are surprising.

Outsourced concierge service is where the hotel doesn't actually have a concierge, but lets a biased company like a tour bus line or travel website operator stand in its lobby, at its desk and hand out advice to gullible tourists.

What struck me about the Bay Guardian story is how many hotels that outsource their concierges have been on a spending spree lately, ostensibly trying to upgrade to the upper hotel tier:
  • The Westin Market Street has gone through many different outsourced concierge companies and is now looking for the newest one, according to the Guardian; yet the company recently spent $29 million renovating its rooms and building out a new restaurant, Ducca. It now bills itself as "an oasis of sophistication."
  • The Sir Francis Drake is trying to become a four star hotel, a representative of its owner Oxford Lodging told me recently, and has undergone a $20 million renovation that saw the installation of a new lobby bar. It continues to operate with an outsourced concierge.
  • San Francisco boutique hotel company Kimpton finished the Argonaut in 2002 after a $40 million renovation of an historic building and as part of unique partnership with the National Park Service. It is arguably Kimpton's leading property in San Francisco.
  • The Hyatt Regency Embarcadero is considered an iconic city hotel in a prime location and was acquired earlier this year for $200 million. No spare change for a concierge?
Bay Guardian: Concierges on the cheap / SF hotels outsource tourist services to the tour bus companies, unbeknownst to their guest


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Aqua takeover of Fifth Floor approaches

At a cocktail reception last night for the Grand Cafe's new executive cheif, Mauro Pando, I asked everyone I encountered about the situation at another Kimpton hotel restaurant, Fifth Floor, which has been in management contract talks with Laurent Manrique's Aqua Development Corp.

It sounds like that deal is about to happen.

Here's what someone from the Fifth Floor told me: "it's not going to be a big surprise" when the restaurant announces its new executive chef, likely later this week. This was after I asked about Laurent and Aqua.

When Mauro told a couple of us that he lives up in Carneros, I asked if Laurent didn't live up that way as well and whether he'd be overseeing Grand Cafe. His only reply was a chuckle.

We'll see. The possibility of Laurent working at Aqua was first reported in the Chronicle's Inside Scoop.

Another salient detail is that the Fifth Floor and its hotel, the Palomar, have been up for sale for some time. I first reported this back in December.

At Grand Cafe, Pando is returning the restaurants to its traditional French roots, but also taking prices down a notch. He is presenting more casual, brasserie fare, "a very country approach" with rural dishes like cassoulet.

He is also renovating the "petit cafe" and bar, including adding a zinc bar and bringing in more light.

(For the record, I did not partake in the free dinner following the reception.)

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

UC Berkeley to finally get a decent hotel

Chip Conley's Joie de Vivre Hospitality is opening its first hotel in the East Bay following its takeover and planned $9 million renovation of the historic Hotel Durant, one block from the UC Berkeley campus.

Joie de Vivre is also poised to takeover the Waterfront Plaza hotel at Jack London Square in conjunction with Ellis Partners LLC, which owns Jack London Square.

Based in San Francisco, Joie de Vivre is expanding aggressively throughout California. It entered the Los Angeles market just two years ago and now has four hotels there, including the recently-acquired Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. Conley told me the company is finishing negotiations with two more LA-area hotels. (None of this LA stuff made it into my story).

The Durant in Berkeley is an interesting buy for Joie de Vivre. The company may finally give the University of California the hotel it so richly deserves.

I have lived in Berkeley for 13 years, including 9 years within a block of this hotel, and my wedding guests lodged at the Durant this past June. The hotel has a lot of potential, with great bones, a rich history and a bustling bar.

But like the other major hotel near campus, Hotel Shattuck, it lacks in both amenities and service. The Durant is 80 years old and it shows, from the creaky elevators to the lack of air conditioning to the unreliable plumbing.

If you want a better hotel, you have to go to the Claremont, an expensive resort up in the hills, or to the DoubleTree at the Berkeley Marina. Neither are within easy walking distance of the campus.

The Faculty Club on campus has just 10 spartan rooms. The Bancroft Hotel across the street from campus looks nice from the outside but only has about two dozen rooms.

The university wants to partner with Carpenter & Co. on a fancy hotel and conference center just west of campus, a better location than the Durant from both the freeway and BART, but there is skepticism over whether this plan will ever happen at all.

Business Times: Hotel firm Joie de Vivre makes first East Bay foray (free link)

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Shockingly bad deal at the St. Regis is an inconvenient truth

Al Gore's hotel, the San Francisco St. Regis, has been selling a standard room for $954 per night, a price so jaw-droppingly ridiculous that is using it to launch an entire section of the site called "Bad Rate."

The site asks: "Are people who stay in luxury hotels really that dumb, or do the suits just think they are?"

Here's a bigger question: Is a lefty environmental activist Democrat like Gore really happy living next to people who could only afford be there by winning no-bid Iraq reconstruction contracts and suspiciously lucrative stock options?

Maybe. But he's almost certainly not happy living next to clueless people who pay $450 above the Regis' standard rate for $300 in "free" spa services, plus breakfast, a couple of robes and some skin care product. In fact, Gore is likely sighing audibly as we speak.

HotelChatter: $954 Spa Package at St. Regis San Francisco


Monday, July 23, 2007

Please, Indians, come to San Francisco and bless us with your precious, sweet 'rupees'!

Fun historical tidbit: In ancient times, American wealth and tolerance attracted millions of immigrants from around the world. Our country grew rich as genius Indians like Vinod Khosla flocked to our shores and created everything precious and sweet about the Internet, including that 'OMG Shoes' video on YouTube, and were rewarded with barrels of the world's bulwark currency.

These days our profligate Treasury finances its record debt by selling trillions in IOUs to the Chinese government; we scare away as many immigrants as possible by treating them like terrorists; and we can't have nice things because we'll set them on fire or rot them right before a natural disaster or ignite them with looting and sectarian violence or corrupt them from the executive suite or just generally America them into a sad incompetent Enron-Katrina-Airport Security death spiral or whatever.

The effect on the dollar has been predictable, here it is against the Indian Rupee:

I interviewed an Indian guy last week. His company uses programmers in San Francisco to create Web software to deploy in the rich, Rupee-soaked Indian market, which is just so very wrong I don't know what else to say. Oh, except this: This Indian American entrepreneur told me the latest batch of smart Indians coming out of U.S. universities is moving back to India, since that is where the growth, smart people and oh ya valuable currency is.

The point is: Please, Indians, come to San Francisco and spend your highly sought-after rupees, which can buy you very many nice things on Union Square, not all of which were manufactured in China. Enjoy our land of opportunity and feel free to ignore the untouchable homeless person with an untreated medical problem when he asks you for a "spare five."

Business Times: S.F. opens tourism office to pull visitors from India

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

San Francisco tourism boss heals the lame, fills city with homosexuals, foreigners

In his first year running San Francisco's tourism office, Joe D'Alessandro has filled the city with fabulous travelers like gays and event planners, created consensus and peace at the Board of Supervisors, brought labor and management together in harmony, conjured tens of thousands of dollars out of thin air, bought you a pony, invented the iPhone and got the whole city a round of cocktails.

Someone please send me something negative about Joe D'Alessandro, because if I have to write another one of these stories where every single source, including friggin' Supervisors, for chrissake, has glowing things to say about Joe, I'm going to lose my journalism license.


Full glowing profile of Joe D'Alessandro, which believe it or not I was not in any way bribed to write: Selling the City / Convention and Visitors Bureau chief D'Alessandro says it's time to put some edge into S.F.'s marketing

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Bijou for sale

Joie de Vivre and its partners have put the 65-room Bijou on Union Square on the market for close to $10 milion, I reported in Friday's Business Times.

Kimpton still has Palomar on the market, and the Crowne Plaza future flag or owner is still up in the air.

Subscriber-only link until July: Bijou the latest to ride the wave of hotel sales

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

New hotel and restaurant in old Pac Bell tower will be nicer than St. Regis, says architect

When the St. Regis hotel opened in San Francisco in 2005, its general manager said it would be more luxurious than anything else in town -- past the Four Seasons, past the Ritz, "top top ... really superior."

The hotel has been charging $400-500 a night and, from what I hear, not negotiating that rate down significantly for anyone.

Now there's another contender -- the "Jazz Era" Pac Bell building, which will become a hotel and condos under a plan from Wilson Meany Sullivan, which is about to pay $118 million for it (free link).

The architect for the building says the 70-80 hotel rooms will be "more intimate than the St. Regis with an even higher level of service." Perhaps they already have a hotel operator lined up, then, since there are a only a handful of companies that would fit that bill.

This is a Biz Times scoop but not by me: real estate reporter JK Dineen gets the credit.

Full story: S.F. tower to become luxe hotel / Wilson Meany Sullivan recasts AT&T building
(free link)

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Friday, May 04, 2007

SF hotel fixes customer impatience

The excellent website Joel On Software relates the story of how one San Francisco hotel used guest vanity to improve the customer experience. It's a very short but worthwhile read!

(If you enjoy that link, check out this one on the same site. Not entirely about hospitality but interesting nevertheless.)

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Scrappy hotelier starts green hotel chain

Remember the name Wen-I Chang; I think he's going to leave a mark. He's the first hotelier I met who brought art and poetry to our initial meeting, bound into a book he had published himself.

Originally from Taiwan, Wen made his money on Central Valley franchise hotels, and did battle with franchisers like Holiday Inn, who he said wanted to charge him more than $150,000 to install their hotel management software (he bought one for $18,000), and Hilton, who said (according to Wen) the conference facilities at his Garden Inn were twice as large as allowed. Wen suspected Hilton wanted to keep Garden Inn from competing with his other brands.

He put in the large, along with a second entrance (also verboten) and within a year was named a model property. He also claims to have started a trend toward putting three flagpoles out in front of a hotel, since psychologically many customers associate that with four-star properties.

Wen's company, based in South San Francisco, has opened what it hopes will become the first LEED-Gold certified hotel in the U.S. in American Canyone (an application is in with the US Green Building Council, which makes its rulings only after construction is done).

There are two more of these green "Gaia" hotels in the works, in Merced and Anderson, and the chain should have eight properties within four years.

Business Times: Hotel owner envisions string of eco-hostelries (free link)

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Larry Ellison would like to see other cities. It's not us, it's him.

San Francisco's most financially lucrative convention is called OpenWorld and is run by Oracle, a massive business software company that could buy and sell you like, well, like all the people they have already bought and sold.

OpenWorld has been in San Francisco every year for at least five years, but city officials believe the company is shopping around, looking at younger, "trophy" convention centers (with bigger exhibit spaces, naturally) in places like Las Vegas and Chicago, where CEO Larry Ellison grew up.

Oracle kinda sorta denies it, and San Francisco is totally not impressed.

The good news is, Mayor Newsom led 70 people down to Redwood City to win Oracle back for 2008. The bad news is that there is a significant chance they will leave in the next several years, as I was told by both the CEO of the convention and visitors bureau and the city's head of convention facilities.

The trouble is, the show has grown so large it fills up hotel rooms in the city and they have to put people in rooms as far north as Petaluma and as far south a Santa Cruz and then bus them in. We're close to Oracle HQ and a great lure for attendees, but it would be nice to fit the whole thing in one or two cities, apparently.

I broke this Oracle story (free link) last Friday in the Business Times, and on Saturday it was picked up by that Chronicle column, I think it's called Matier & Ross & What We Read in The Business Times This Morning.

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Hilton's new GM likes to watch travelers degenerate into terrifying savagery, and also the TV show 'Lost'

San Francisco's downtown Hilton, a 1,900-room hotel that has become ominously self aware, has had three general managers since November, and the latest is named Michael Dunne and everyone is nervously hoping he survives.

The monster hotel is the largest on the West Coast and it dispatches its "managers" for sport. A tough German named Holger Gantz kept the giant hotel in check for 17 years before retiring. His successor, John Mazzoni, lasted about three and a half years, a rough feat of endurance sufficiently impressive that his superiors gave him a job at corporate negotiating with the unions.

Karima Zaki came in to replace Mazzoni, but left after nine months to return to Southern California and open a new manager-feasting giant Hilton in San Diego.

Mazzoni replaced Zaki and lasted less than two months before accepting a promotion to a corporate job.

Now comes Dunne. Let's figure his tenure based on trends:
  • Gantz: 17 years
  • Mazzoni: 3.5 years
  • Zaki: 9 months
  • Mazzoni again: 2 months
  • Dunne: Three weeks (projected)
Dunne comes from the San Jose Doubletree but was hotel manager for the downtown Hilton for three years.

I was invited to meet Dunne at a special screening, in a special Hilton "home theater" room, of the network television series Lost, in which stranded tourists fight mysterious forces and disappear only to sometimes reappear on their beastly island, which apparently has a voracious appetite for human panic.


Business Times: S.F.'s downtown Hilton gets its third GM since November (free link)

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

San Francisco to remind you it was gay before gay was cool

In case gay and lesbian travelers forgot how fabulously pro-gay San Francisco has been since forever, the city's convention and visitors bureau is launching its first ever (wha?) ad campaign targeted at gays and lesbians.

It seems that now that "Will and Grace" is in syndication, pretty much every dusty two-bit town in the country is now claiming/acknowledging it has a gay district and spending money on ads in gay travel mags like Passport, gay papers like the Advocate and gay TV channels like ESPNLogo, trying to get a piece of our action.

The big spender is Philadelphia, whose ad campaign stretches to the UK and includes TV commercials showing two men trading impassioned letters and converging for a tryst in ye olde colonial times.

Houston just jumped in the game with a series of "Not So Straight Facts" about Houston. Phoenix is trading on the alleged hotness of professional baseball players and their butts (really? seriously?).

Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, Bloomington Indiana -- everyone's gay friendly now and safe and diverse has been forever and ever really!

The Atlanta guy told me he only got a handful of hateful disturbing phone calls about the campaign and said you are perfectly safe from those people if you stay within the city limits or something. So there! (I kid, but Atlanta is actually the gay capital of the Southeast. Or so I was told.)

San Francisco is worried people will come visit less often and spend more time in, say, sweaty Houston if they are not reminded to come "home" to San Francisco, as the convention and visitors bureau put it. Its initial spend is $100,000 per year for print ads in gay and lesbian magazines and newspapers, perhaps a quarter of what Philly spends.

And city officials insist they aren't too worried -- the Travel Industry Association's first-ever gay travel survey found San Francisco ranked number one in percentage of gay travelers who rated it gay-friendly, with 76 percent compared with 57 percent for number-two Key West.

But just to be safe they put five shirtless, muscular men in their first ad. Eat your heart out Fire Island New York!

Business Times: S.F. steps up gay tourism efforts (free link)

SF gay ad: PDF

SF lesbian ad: PDF

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Metreon could become convention center; humans, cylons would meet for peaceful dialog

The San Franciscan fable of Metreon has a familiar ring to it: Humans devise a grand utopian project that will weave technology into their lives as never before, but despite a supposedly failsafe architecture end up with a cybernetic hell spawn threatening to coldly exterminate life as they know it.

The Metreon hasn't extinguished all vital signs inside its brutal walls quite yet. The Yerba Buena arts district shopping center retains the most primordial forms of mall life: food court restaurants and a movie theater. Plus it's got two electronics stores operated by Metreon's original developer, Sony.

But the project is hardly the bustling theme park envisioned when Metreon opened eight years ago. Anchor shop spaces remain open, and the building often has a deserted feel to it.

So the city's convention and visitors bureau now proposes Metreon be used as a conference center and merged into the Moscone Convention Center, which it sits on top of. The idea was a suggestion from convention planners -- Moscone customers.

Apparently they have been forced to send some convention "breakout" meetings to hotels like the Hilton and Marriott due to lack of available meeting rooms. They have also been grumbling about shabby carpets and non-soundproof room dividers in the main Moscone Center, plus a lack of WiFi and cellphone coverage, so the bureau is also asking for money to fix that up as well.

Westfield, which took over Metreon last year, did not rule out the idea, but says it is focused on a retail turnaround.

Full story from Friday's Business Times: Officials eye Metreon for Moscone expansion (free link)

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Campton Place sale is richest hotel deal in San Francisco history; also first involving pig iron manufacturer

Campton Place just sold to a division of India's Tata Group for a record-smashing $527,000 per room.

Tata's Taj Hotels will pay $58 million for the 110-room property. Hotel consultant Rick Swig and Tom Callahan of PKF Consulting both say that blows other hotel deals out of the water on a per-key basis, surpassing the $470,000 per key for Ritz Carlton in 1998 and the $460,000 per key partner buyout at Four Seasons last year.

Tata is a massive conglomerate that makes cars, trucks, jewelry and pig iron, and yet they will still be much better at operating Campton Place's restaurant than the prior owner, hotel specialist Kor Group, Swig said. Apparently Taj is known for high service quality and a long-term commitment to their properties.

Kor didn't have a long-term commitment to Campton, selling it after less than a year and a half, during which time it managed to nearly destroy the restaurant's reputation.

I was chasing the story down last night. As it turns out, Tata put out a press release to Indian media Monday, and then Kor followed suit this morning in the U.S..

Business Times Web update: Campton Place hotel sale smashes record (free link)

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Al Gore gets new Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Room Service

When Al Gore is staying in his San Francisco pad at the St. Regis, he has certain needs.

He might need some (more) late night snacks delivered up to his condo while he polishes another PowerPoint stack.

Or he might need his Prius or whatever valeted do he can drive down to Cupertino to clear Steve Jobs of any responsibility for thousands of instances of stock option backdating at Apple.

Or maybe he just needs the St. Regis bar sealed off so he and Nancy Pelosi can have some peace as they order cosmos, gossip and conspire to spread extreme San Francisco values to innocent children via the Hollywood media machine.

Whatever Al Gore's specific hotel service needs, they are provided by the staff of Starwood's St. Regis hotel, a staff that until this week was overseen by general manager Elias Assaly. Assaly is a longtime industry veteran, having opened the W San Francisco and run a luxury hotel in Dallas.

Now, Assaly is on his way back to Dallas. So Al Gore's no-doubt-increasingly-difficult, Oscar-winning-A-lister-Hollywood-celebrity-level demands on the staff will be coordinated by the new general manager Toni Knorr, who next week is coming over from Starwood's W San Francisco to run Starwood's St. Regis.

Gore is widely expected to demand "confirmation hearings" for Knorr, which he will chair.

Full Business Times Web update: St. Regis gets new GM (free link)


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

San Francisco to ride this whole 'peaceful tolerance' image out, see where it takes us

Like the teenager who has put his awkward high school days behind him, San Francisco is realizing that maybe it shouldn't be quite so ashamed of its insane crazy radical left-wing ideas like believing in global warming, welcoming gays and lesbians and asking if maybe we should think this Iraq thing through.

Maybe these "San Francisco values" might not look so bad to potential tourists, what with Al Gore winning the Oscar, the gay community basically rescuing from instant bankruptcy all network and cable TV channels -- oh and with the whole San Francisco-led takeover of Congress following a Democratic landslide election victory thanks to apparently widespread voter concerns about the war and corruption and the deficit and the planet melting and World War 3 with Iran.

Could the city draw tourists by promoting its wacky values of peace and tolerance?

Mayor Gavin Newsom thinks the idea is so crazy it just might work! Appearing to be quite sober, he told the San Francisco Hotel Council recently:
These are the values that make us so culturally vibrant and economically vibrant, and so these are the values that we need to promote ... We are competing in an industry that is the No. 1 growth industry in the world.
Plus the rest of the world is kind of upset with America for the whole (alleged!) arrogant warmaking hegemony thing, and the whole treating them like terrorists at our airports thing, and it would be nice to have them as tourists since their currencies are worth on average about a hundred million times more than the dollar. So highlighting San Francisco's differences with the rest of the country could yet again prove highly lucrative.

Full story in my Business Times report: 'San Francisco values' to woo foreign visitors / City to stress its differences from U.S. (free link)

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Campton Place for sale

When Kor Group bought Campton Place a year and a half ago, it had four stars from Michael Bauer, ranking it among the top four restaurants within city limits, at least by the Chronicle's standards.

Campton Place's restaurant arguably made the reputation of the hotel, and was a key reason that Kor paid $400,000 for each of its 110 rooms, the city's richest hotel deal in seven years.

Things went downhill quickly after Los Angeles-based Kor started running Campton Place, its first SF hotel:

  • chef Daniel Humm left for New York;
  • Michael Bauer gave the restaurant a devastating review that cut it to two and a half stars and said, "it's clear that Campton Place is no longer playing in the big leagues;" and
  • the city's debut Michelin Guide said the kitchen had "floundered" and did not award it a single star.

Now Kor has put the hotel up for sale, I reported in Friday's Business Times (free link). Given the hyperactive market for San Francisco hotels lately, Campton hopes to earn a profit on the property despite the fortunes of its restaurant.

If a sale occurs, Kor's experience in San Francisco will have been brief. If the price isn't right, it will clearly have been bitter. Campton is Kor's last hotel in the city. The company briefly owned, then sold, the shuttered Canterbury Hotel.

To be fair, Humm said his departure had was not a result of the hotel sale to Kor. Also, whatever faults the restaurant may have, its pastry chef seems to have developed a loyal following in some circles.

Full story: Los Angeles group to sell lone S.F. hotel (free link)

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Chris Yeo may expand to Vegas, once had three struggling businesses, aspires to be like Kimpton

I profiled Chris Yeo of Straits (free link) in Friday's Business Times, and if you can't write an interesting profile of this guy you don't belong in journalism.

The story writes itself: After training at Vidal Sassoon in London, Singaporean hairdresser immigrates to the U.S. He starts a successful hair salon by lying to his landlord and working long hours. Parlays his haircutting profits and clients into a restaurant serving his native cuisine. Signs the restaurant lease as his wife is in labor.

The restaurant is failing, so he gambles on a move to a larger space. Then he gambles on a nightclub. Nightclub tanks, but luckily the restaurant takes off.

The restaurant becomes two, then three, then four, now five, with a deal "95 percent" likely in Las Vegas and expansion to Southern California and Seattle on the horizon.

Oh, and it's a total cash machine, with low food costs and high drinks tabs.

I hope I did Chris some justice.

Full story, including some hard revenue numbers:

A long Strait journey / Restaurateur Chris Yeo's story (free link)

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Kimpton suddenly bereft of chefs

Marcia at tablehopper is digging the dirt like something furious; maybe she's trying to get back to 'stralia?

First she tallies departures at Kimpton (astutely): With David Cohen gone from Scala's, Kimpton is now without exec chefs at:
  • Fifth Floor
  • Grand Cafe
  • Scala's
The company has been on a national growth tear and this might have the executives distracted from the restaurants.

Marcia also gets her hands on an email from Arnold Eric Wong, one of the founders who left Bacar. Wong isn't quite blunt but does admit that the break with Bacar's "new majority owner" is tied to a juicy-sounding "struggle with the moral, ethical and professional dilemmas associated with Bacar's ongoing enterprise. I tried to come to a compromise that would uphold my personal and professional integrity while working with the new general partners."

So tablehopper saunters off for a vacation in Australia and comes back with serious scoopage.

I so HATE her! (Kidding, mate, kidding.)

Tablehopper chatterbox

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SF tourism hurt by U.S. image, hostility to visitors

Former Bush State Dept counterterrorism official Cari Guittard was among the officials Tuesday warning SF hospitality leaders about the need for political action to ease the visa process and make foreign policy changes to help the U.S. image abroad.

I first wrote about the visit Friday in the Business Times (free link), and it unfolded Tuesday as expected. Guittard was among the speakers at the Convention and Visitors Bureau's "Outlook" conference, which this year focused on potential international visitors and their perception of the U.S.

Guittard is a Texan who worked in Colin Powell's state department. But she left the administration (as did Powell, a relative dove in the Bush White House) and now heads Business for Diplomatic Action, a nonprofit that urges changes to combat the perception that the U.S. is arrogant.

Guittard and others argue that international travel into San Francisco is not nearly what it could be if U.S. ports of entry, according to a joint study her group did with the Travel Industry association in January (PDF), were not so awful.

The study found:
  • Overseas travel to the U.S. has fallen 17 percent since Sept. 11 2001. This does not count Mexico and Canada, which both saw an increase.
  • From 2000 to 2005, travel to the U.S. from the UK fell 8 percent
  • ... from Japan fell 23 percent
  • ... from France fell 19 percent
  • ... from Germany fell 21 percent
  • ... from Korea up 7 percent
  • ... from Australia up 4 percent
  • 54 percent of international travelers say U.S. immigration officials are "rude" according to a study by RT Strategies
  • 66 percent are worried they will be detained for hours for a simple misstatement or mistake
  • the same RT Strategies study also found the U.S. was by far the number one preferred destination from a list of 10 broadly defined choices
  • One survey showed the U.S. has the world's absolute worst entry process
More in the study (PDF) and my Business Times story (free link).

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Hilton's $13m Gramercy Tavern lookalike

Yes, that's a fireplace there in the back.The monstrous San Francisco Hilton can't stop eating. So it's building an "urban tavern" to lure gullible prey (free link).

Traumatized onlookers will remember that the 1,900-room beast ritually devoured three general managers in as many years. But the hotel is still hungry and must be fed, so out come the barrels of delicious, sweet cash money to fill its belly -- for now.

Hotel owners have set aside $13 million to build a restaurant and bar with 240 seats, plus 20,000 square feet of adjoining meeting space.

The place has no chef or name yet, but Hilton has a pretty developed idea of what the place will be.

It's a gastropub, a bar serving gourmet renditions of hearty foods. It's supposed to lure in unsuspecting businessmen for lunch or dinner. Before they know what's happened, they will be handing over their Amex Black cards for backslapping parties in the private wine room, global arbitrage lectures in the meeting hall and client suites in the hotel tower.

Ideally, they won't emerge from the hotel for several years, confused and destitute. Hotels around town have become increasingly adept at this game in recent years, leading to a slew of new high-end hotel restaurants (free link).

Hilton's restaurant is designed to mimic the investment banker's natural habitat: clubby, with dark woods, faux leather, copper and these medieval looking chandeliers. Engstrom Design Group has been working on the interior and expects to begin demolition in August.

The place was built with an eye toward Gramercy Tavern in New York, according to Hilton's new Food and Beverage Director Stefan Gruvberger. But it's unlike anything else in the Hilton chain and is supposed to feel very separate from the hotel.

It will even have its own entrance, near the corner of Mason and O'Farrell, and the Hilton logo will be banished from the premises. It is set to open in March 2008.

Full story:

Hilton to spend $13M to build new restaurant (free link)

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Monster hotel consumes yet another GM

The San Francisco Hilton must be fed!

The beast is the largest hotel on the West Coast, with 1,900 rooms, and demands human sacrifice, specifically General Managers.

It just chewed up and spit out John Mazzoni -- for the second time! Mazzoni lasted less than two months before throwing in the towel ... err, towels.

He's off to a job at Hilton corporate, a promotion. And his first term lasted for more than three years, starting in 2003. So I'm not saying it didn't go well for him, all 42 days of it.

But it's starting to look like musical chairs over there.

In between Mazzoni's two terms was Karima Zaki, a warm and charismatic woman who was charming hospitality types all over town starting last March, and breaking new ground as a female hotel executive. But she announced her departure in November after it became clear her predecessor Mazzoni was not going to be needed any longer as the national union negotiator for the chain, contract talks having gone better than expected.

So Mazzoni returned, and Zaki went off to open a giant new Hilton in San Diego, nearer her extended family and her young daughter's old Southern California friends.

The hotel has just begun its search for a new leader. I write about this on the Business Times website today (free link).

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Man attacked in the Argent, aka the Westin

A Nobel Peace Prize winner was accosted in an elevator at the Argent Hotel, forced out and dragged down a hallway toward his attacker's room.

The attacker then fled and the victim, Holocaust author Elie Wiesel, returned to the lobby and summoned the police. The attacker appears to be a fervent Holocaust denier who later posted an account of the attack online. This is all according to a Saturday story in the Chron.

These sorts of stories can be tough for the image of the hotels involved, particularly larger properties who try to provide extensive security for guests. The Embarcadero Hyatt Regency got caught up in a similar situation in 2003 when a woman was raped there.

It's not clear whether additional security would have helped in this case or not. The article states that the attacker first became aggressive at the lobby level, where he entered the elevator in pursuit of Wiesel, but Wiesel remained in the elevator and it's not clear if there was shouting or a physical struggle.

There was definitely a struggle on floor six, when the assailant dragged Wiesel out of the elevator, but the assailant was sufficiently concerned about something, possibly about being caught, that he quickly abandoned his attack.

In the case of the Hyatt, the assailant talked his way into the victim's room, where the attack unfolded. It was not clear how he gained access to the hotel, or if he was a guest. Obviously, a non guest should not have had access to the floor. The hotel was sufficiently rattled that it vowed to beef up security, particularly around entrances.

The Argent is set to become a Westin in the next month or two.


Farmer Brown wants to reap new place

Farmer Brown chef-owner Jay Foster wants to take over the Plush Room in the York Hotel, the hotel's new owner told me.

Personality Hotels is buying the York from CTwo hotels, plus the Maxwell Hotel from Joie de Vivre Hospitality, bringing its total stable of Union Square hotels to seven.

Personality is already landlord to Farmer Brown: the neo-soul food restaurant is located in the company's Metropolis hotel.

I learned all this at a party for the Diva hotel, which was recently renovated with the help of a bunch of up-and-coming artists. Personality Hotels founder Yvonne Lembi-Detert was excited about the new hotels, but gave no indication on how likely she is to let Farmer Brown run the Plush Room.

Prior to writing my story, I confirmed the hotel sales with CTwo and Joie de Vivre. But after we went to press, someone from Personality called to tell me that the loans for the acquisitions are not fully nailed down yet, so these are not quite done deals at the moment.

The Plush Room, aka Empire Plush Room, is now run by Razz Productions.

This all comes from a story I wrote on Personality Hotels (free link) in Friday's Business Times.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Argent renovation pegged at $29 million

The Chronicle today retreads some old news about the Argent hotel, along with one new bit of info.

Over a year ago, the Argent hotel was sold. I reported the story in the Feb. 3 2006 Business Times.

In the March 27 2006 Business Times, I reported that the Argent would become a Westin.

In December I reported the hotel was going to redo its restaurant in an Italian vein.

Today, the Chronicle reports that the Argent has sold and is being reflagged as a Westin and is getting an Italian restaurant -- the old news.

It also adds that the renovation will cost $29 million -- the new news.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Putting a price on Oakland

The Oakland Marriott has finally sold -- well, assuming the City Council approved the deal.

I reported in today's Business Times that Larry Chan's Park Lane Hotels is asking for permission to sell the property, Oakland's largest hotel, for $40.8 million.

That's just $85,000 per key, compared with about $225,000 per key for Chan's Renaissance Parc 55 in San Francisco. But, Simpsons aside, Oakland has never been the tourist mecca that San Francisco has.

Buyer is CIM Group. I had reported previously that Chan was in the process of selling to Rockpoint Group and a group of private investors out of Hong Kong. Even at that point there were rumors the new buyers would quickly seek to flip to other buyers. I still don't know what happened to the deal.

Interesting sidenote: the City of Oakland has close to $20 million in capitalized debt on the hotel, which it bailed out in the mid-80s. Becase their are more senior debtors and because the overall sales price is too low, the city would only collect about $5 million on the sale.

I'll put a link here next week.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dot-com days are back, not so much

Hotel rates are back at dot-com peaks and set to zoom much higher in 2007, according to PKF Consulting's numbers, touched on previously. I talked to hotel managers about this for a Business Times story (link free starting Jan. 15) , and they pointed out two things:

1. PKF is too optimistic about 2007 because conventions are off; Jon Handlery at Handlery Union Square is budgeting about half the $15 per room per night gain PKF sees (in percentage terms);

2. Costs are up since the dot-com days thanks to rising health care costs and wages, plus you have to factor in inflation, plus occupancy is not back to dot-com peaks, so things aren't really as good as they were back then.

Which might explain these quotes from Convention and Visitors bureau chief Joe D'Alessandro, who wants more money from the city to promote San Francisco to tourists and convention planners:

"I'm embarrassed the city of Portland spends more than San Francisco" on tourism marketing, D'Alessandro said. "It's embarrassing to go to a trade show and (the booth for) San Francisco is hiding behind the 'S' in the San Diego booth."

"Stepping on people on the sidewalk in the garbage is embarrassing ... we have to develop a different culture."

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Hyatt Regency sells for $200 million

The 802-room Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero has sold for $200 million.

The property is the fifth-largest hotel in San Francisco.

The buyer is a hedge fund operator out of New York, Dune Capital Management, and a real estate investment company in Southern California, DiNapoli Capital Partners . The seller is Strategic Hotel Capital LLC, a fund whose primary investors are Goldman Sachs and Prudential Real Estate.

No immediate changes as a result of the deal, since Hyatt has a long-term management contract on the property. Possibly some sprucing up of the retail along Market Street, right near the Ferry Building, and of the bar and restaurant and retail inside the hotel.

Most interesting is the $250,000 per key sales price, at the low end of market expectations, which had ranged up to $400,000 per key. That's what Campton Place had gone for, and the St. Francis sold at close to $375,000 per key, albeit bolstered by attached retail with Union Square frontage.

I had this one all lined up for Friday's paper, but an unexpected press release forced it out onto the Web this morning:

S.F. Hyatt Regency sells for $200M (free link)

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Fresh links

I blog here at Covers about my Business Times stories as soon as they are published, but it can take up to three weeks before non-subscribers can actually visit the story links. (Sometimes the stories are offered for free sooner, usually when they are picked up in the nationwide "vertical journal" for restaurants and hotels published by my newspaper's parent company.)

Below are FREE links to stories I blogged about in the past, which non-subscribers can now read. These have also been added back to the original blog posts for which the story is relevant, so they no longer say "subscriber-only."

Growing appetite for S.F.: Restaurants setting new tables in the city (Dec. 15)
This is my story about the new restaurant from the Frisson team and the new places from the Bacchus guys.

Hotels run up tab to boost restaurants: Today's special: Hot chefs (Dec. 8)
This story has the scoop on the Nick Stellino concept at the Argent, an update on the restaurant concept for the forthcoming InterContinental and the new Eno concept at St. Francis.

Crowne Plaza, Palomar hotels hit sales block: 'The market is coming back' (Dec. 1)
S.F.'s Parc 55, Oakland Marriott sold: Larry Chan makes trio of hotel deals fetching $250 million (Oct. 27)
Both on how capital continues to chase SF hotels.

French cafe Left Bank to grow throughout West (Nov. 10)
On chef Roland Passot going to Las Vegas, beyond.

Tourist map gets redrawn: New campaign rallies around Ferry Building (Oct. 27)
The effort to brand the Central Embarcadero neighborhood, led by Hyatt Regency and Equity Office Properties

N.Y. chef to expand swanky sandwich shop beyond Westfield mall (Oct. 13)
Tom Colicchio's 'wichcraft in SF

New Westfield food is too much to swallow at once (Talk of the Town) (Oct. 13)

S.F. restaurants eye opening Oakland outposts (Oct. 13)

Gary Danko plans ritzy private dining facility (Oct. 6)

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Hoteliers question growth assumptions

Hoteliers weren't quite drinking the Kool Aid at the Hotel Council's holiday lunch Friday. Tom Callahan of PKF Consulting unveiled a forecast that room rate will grow $15 per room per night to $182 in 2007, with occupancy nudging up one percentage point to 79 percent.

He fielded some pointed questions from the audience on how that's possible given the 100,000 fewer convention visitors expected next year. Tom said tourists and business travelers will make up -- "backfill" was the term he used in the heat of the moment -- for the lost conventioneers.

Pressed on exactly who these new corporate travelers will be, Tom did not put forth specifics. Biotech? Banking? Digital entertainment? Tech? I guess it remains to be seen.

The Hotel Council lunch, held at the Nikko, also saw the Convention and Visitors Bureau's 6-month-old CEO Joe D'Alessandro really come out swinging for more marketing bucks and solutions to the homeless problems, signalling perhaps that his listening tour of City Hall is wrapping up.

State Sen. Mark Leno weighed in with a plan to bolster statewide tourism spending with a fee on rental cars -- but only after cutting general fund monies, a detail that raised a pointed question from a hotelier in the audience.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

MGM Grand to San Francisco? Maybe. Someday.

Using money from the United Arab Emirates, MGM Mirage is looking to develop hotels without casinos, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Right now the company is looking at Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas and the UK. In June it opened the first of three towers that make up a condo-hotel project in Las Vegas, known as The Signature at MGM Grand but not directly connected to any casino properties.

It is not inconceivable the hotel firm could end up in San Francisco, particularly if it abandons the tight focus on casino properties. After all, San Francisco is a key global travel destination, in the top 5 of U.S. cities easily. And there are historic properties like the Palace, Mark Hopkins and Crowne Plaza that could be bought up and re-launched, and opportunity sites in the TransBay Terminal redevelopment area that are either intended for hotels or strong candidates.

Hunting for space now in San Francisco is Starwood Capital Group -- not to be confused with Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which was started by Starwood Capital Group but is now unaffiliated. Starwood Capital CEO Barry Sternlicht has a new green hotel concept called "1" Hotel and Residences, and has named San Francisco as a potential expansion city, as I reported in October.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

TV chef to helm Argent restaurant. Probably.

I report in today's Business Times that Nick Stellino of PBS fame is considered "likely" to helm a new restaurant project underway at the Argent hotel.

The hotel is set to convert to a Westin next summer, at which point a new restaurant concept of some sort will go in, complete with a large outdoor seating component, even if the contracts being draw up for Stellino fall through. Puccini Group is designing the restaurant.

Meanwhile, the St. Francis will get a chocolate, cheese and wine bar called Eno this spring. The concept was conceived by Strategic Hotels and Resorts CEO Laurence Geller, who is also putting Eno's in his hotels in two other cities. Puccini is designing this one too.

Finally, the new InterContinental gave a few more details on the 24-hour restaurant it will have when the hotel opens next to Moscone West in Feb. 2008. It will be an upscale Italian concept with "showcase kitchen" and a bar called "Grappas." InterContinental is looking for a chef.

This was all part of a front-page feature story on the surge in worthwhile hotel restaurants, a topic I blogged about previously. This time around, I remembered to credit Bill Kimpton for starting the first wave in this trend 20 years ago, and pointed out that it has spread to more established and larger hotels.

This issue of the Business Times also has my update on what Renato Sardo is up to at Jack London Square in Oakland, which I will blog about later, and a profile on the team behind Beach Chalet and Park Chalet.

FREE LINK to Business Times story

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

And you thought the hotel strikes were over

Far from it.

I reported online Tuesday on a strike vote at the W Hotel.

As usually happens in these situations, the workers voted overwhelmingly to authorize union leaders to call a strike if negotiations break down. The union, Local 2 of UNITE HERE, said the margin was 84 percent in favor and blasted the hotel manager, Starwood, for having not "learned" from the recent faceoff between the union and 14 large city hotels, including two run by Starwood.

That confrontation ended in a fairly generous contract for workers, see link above for details. The SF Marriott a few weeks ago signed a deal with the same terms. The union is pushing for the same at the W.

The W San Francisco is actually owned by Starwood, whereas its hotels party to the 14-hotel contract are owned by others -- Strategic Hotels and Resorts in the case of the St. Francis (previously Blackstone), and the Kyoya Corp. in the case of the Palace (which as I reported almost a full year ago has been trying to sell the hotel in part on the value of an entitled condo tower).

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Monday, December 04, 2006

'I am also deeply sorry they picked this picture of me.'

If you are not following BeyondChron's coverage of how a Kenyan UC Irvine professor was racially profiled at Hotel Vitale, you really should check it out, if only because this is an issue that people are going to be talking about for a long time.

Capsule summary: The Professor is in town promoting his Random House-published book at an African American studies convention. Employee at Hotel Vitale, where he is staying, orders him off a Vitale patio where he is reading his paper, and allegedly persists in doing so after the professor informs the employee he is a guest. Professor complains to hotel manager, who doesn't seem to care much, and switches over to the St. Francis hotel.

Story picked up in Kenyan press, U.S. ambassador personally apologizes, local community radio station KPOO runs with the item, which is picked up on BeyondChron.

Anyway, Chip Conley, CEO of the SF boutique hotel chain that runs and partly owns the Vitale, apologizes in a letter sent to BeyondChron. It's a pretty unequivocal apology, admitting that profiling occurred, noting the employee is "ashamed" and has been put on leave and adding that three apology letters gave been issued to the professor.

The letter also gets into how the company already has diversity training but will add more, states that Conley went to an inner city high school and has an African American partner and a part-African-American foster son. Read it here.

What picture runs in BeyondChron next to Conley's "I am deeply sorry" letter? This one:

Great shot for promoting a company called Joie de Vivre, but not the best art to go next to a letter expressing serious regrets.


Hotel holiday sale, prices higher than ever

As predicted, a second wave of hotel sales is in full swing, reprising the mass trading of last winter.

Now up for sale:
  • Crowne Plaza (400 rooms, $100-120 million, FelCor)
  • Hyatt Regency Embarcadero (805 rooms, $200 million - $320 million, Strategic Hotel Capital, retail strip)
  • Hotel Palomar (200 rooms, Kimpton, Fifth Floor restaurant)
  • Cypress in Cupertino (225 rooms, Kimpton)
  • Maxwell (153 rooms, Joie de Vivre)
  • Villa Florence (182 rooms, Kimpton)
  • Prescott (140 rooms, Kimpton, Postrio restaurant)
Sold or in the process:
  • Renaisance Parc 55 (1,010 rooms), Oakland Marriott (484 rooms), Oakland Courtyard (157 rooms) (Larry Chan to Rockpoint, Highgate and a Hong Kong group, Highgate did not go in on Oakland properties) ($250 million) (still in process)
  • Commodore (110 rooms) (Joie de Vivre to anonymous buyer converting to residential)
  • Monticello Inn (91 rooms) (Dern Greinetz to Larkspur Hospitality) (Kimpton managed)
I detail the most recent deals in the Friday Business Times.

The only sale so far, the Renaissance Parc 55, does not bode well for pricing, so people are watching to see how the other deals play out. But there seems to be plenty of capital still in the market, and plenty of confidence business will continue to improve in San Francisco.

Issues of panhandling and cable car fares aside.

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Hilton gets new old GM

The West Coast's largest hotel is losing its first woman general manager.

The 1,900-room Hilton San Francisco will see Karima Zaki leave after just nine months, returning to San Diego to open a $350 million Hilton down there.

Replacing her is John Mazzoni, who had been general manager before Zaki but left the position to head up Hilton's labor relations. When the company's union negotiations proved smoother than expected, Mazzoni was freed up to return to SF.

Mazzoni took over from Holger Gantz, who led the Hilton for 17 years before retiring in 2002.

I interviewed Karima for our executive profile feature. She said the toughest part of her job is "Balancing my career aspirations with the well being of my child. I certainly parked a lot longer in San Diego than I would have as a single person."

In San Diego, Zaki has extended family to help raise and support her child.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Perello's last elevator ride

So that's why Melissa Perello made herself so scarce at the party in her honor: she is so out of there.

Someone in the industry told me they thought sites like Tablehopper were going to replace the Chronicle's Inside Scoop column. But news items like the Perello thing illustrate for me how full-time journalists with news experience can stay perpetually ahead of the competition, whether in print or online.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Return of the hotel restaurant

It is harder than ever for San Francisco hotels to skate by without a truly great restaurant.

First Michael Mina put his four-star restaurant into the St. Francis as part of a $5 million renovation.

Then Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani of Terra in Napa Valley all but upstaged the opening of the St. Regis hotel with their success opening its restaurant, Ame.

And then Joel Huff turned Silks at the Mandarin Oriental into a three-and-a-half-star destination.

Now the Hotel Nikko is chasing the restaurant magic. New general manager Anna Marie Presutti, who earlier this replaced John Hutar after nine years, is renovating steak-and-sushi joint Anzu and installing a new chef, Barney Brown, former executive chef of Betelnut and proprietor of Basque.

Bill Kimpton really nailed this one 20 years ago. And these days San Francisco is even more reliant on food-and-wine-driven tourism, with many of the corporate accounts having shifted south to Silicon Valley and east to New York and the rest of the seaboard.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Kimpton fermenting hotel in wine country

There were several things to learn at the party Monday night celebrating young Fifth Floor chef Melissa Perello's Michelin star, first among them that Melissa Perello would not have anything to say to assembled guests, but would stand and smile politely beside her hotel's General Manager as he spoke on her behalf.

(Not that I blame her. The event was in the middle of dinner service. Talk about timing -- do you chefs get this a lot? "Yeah, we're going to honor you at the busiest possible moment in the day, and oh by the way can you put together some apps and pastries beforehand ...?")

I also learned that Oprah, allegedly, had planned to put the organic vodka from Novato, Square One, on her "Favorite Things" list but decided hard liquor endorsements did not suit her image so shuffled the product off to her magazine, where someone else raved about it. Business, apparently, is through the roof.

I learned that I am worthy of not one but several glamour shots for the pages of party host Papercity, including several awkward over-the-shoulder glances (suggested by the photographer).

The most important thing I learned was from a Kimpton source who let slip that the San Francisco boutique hotel chain has plans for a property somewhere in wine country. No word on timing, whether they've identified a property or site -- it might just be a glimmer in Mike DePatie's eye. But it's in the cards.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ferry rich indeed

It's amazing how a neighborhood just takes off. In four years of covering hospitality in San Francisco, I have seen it happen with the Central Embarcadero neighborhood around the Ferry Building.

The Ferry Building is producing stellar business for restaurateurs, for example Charles Phan's Slanted Door is doing $12 million per year (more numbers), following the renovation completed and refilled with tenants by the start of 2004.

The boutique Hotel Vitale from Joie de Vivre completed last year is reportedly doing stellar business, pulling in Average Daily Rate in the ballpark of $225, surprisingly competitive with the Four Seasons, Park Hyatt/Meridien, Omni and W -- four-star business class hotels.

Robert Lam moved butterfly into the neighborhood a few years ago. Pat Kuleto and his investors are spending $18 million to build a restaurant there. The Exploratorium is planning to move in.

It helped that Boulevard and Ozumo were already there.

As if to underline the activity, the Hotel Griffon earlier this year sold for a record per-square foot price, though this is something of a gimmicky number, since hotel deals are usually measured per "key" or room.

Now the Hyatt Regency and Embarcadero Center want in on the action and are joining with Equity Office Properties, the Ferry Building developer and leaseholder, to begin formally branding and promoting the neighborhood, hoping to make it the next Union Square. This bit I report in this week's Business Times.

The Central Embarcadero would include everything from the ballpark up through Pier 5. That's where Pacific Waterfront Partners is putting in a restaurant-and-office project that seems likely to draw some interesting chefs.

In the Convention and Visitors Bureau's most recent survey, the Embarcadero drew 34 percent of hotel guests, compared with 73 percent for Union Square.

FREE link: Tourist map gets redrawn

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Monday, October 30, 2006

The power of a marquee restaurant

Per room sales price, Campton Place, paid by Kor Hotel Group, fall 2005: $400,000

Per room sales price, Renaissance Parc 55, the fourth-largest hotel in the city, paid by Rockpoint Group and Highgate Holdings, fall 2006: $170,000

Same brokerage firm. Same neighborhood.

Management matters. Branding matters. Food matters.

Free link: S.F.'s Parc 55, Oakland Marriott sold: Larry Chan makes trio of hotel deals fetching $250 million (Oct. 27)

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A lecture at Silks

The following morsel positively leaps out of generally positive review of the Mandarin Oriental's Silks by Josh Sens in San Francisco Magazine's new issue:
Silks has a thick, world-traveling wine list, which may or may not explain why my server, on one visit, brought me the wrong bottle. Whatever the case, I didn't catch the error when she showed me the label, and when I sent the wine back (it was a sweet gewurztraminer, not the dry white I'd ordered) I also managed to send her into an evening-long pout. On my next trip to the restaurant, I was paired with her again and as she delivered the wine list, she muttered, "Read it carefully this time." Touche! But if I wanted a guilt trip, I could get one from my grandmother at a third the price.

Service stories like these -- and this one is especially choice -- have a way of provoking emotion in the reader and sparking endless discussion in a group setting.

My own spin here is that ideally, the diner would take care to read the label when it is presented. If the wine is opened and then found to be erroneous, one would consider trying to make do.

But ultimately, if the diner asks for the opened wine to be returned, it is a judgement call on the part of the restaurant. I personally would want a restaurant to accommodate the request, particularly given the quite likely sky-high markup on a typical bottle of white wine and the fact that the diner will be paying for another bottle.

And clearly, whether the restaurant has decided to accommodate such a request or not, it is plainly rude and foolish to grumble at the diner about the incident when he has the good grace to return and order more wine to boot.

The devil, of course, is in the details, and we only have one brief account of this incident. But what an account!

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Dubai to all that

November's Bon Apetit magazine tels us that Maya fouder Richard Sandoval, of New York, plans a Maya in Dubai.

Dubai, of course, is the boomtown Arab Emirate fashioning itself into a global hospitality destination, complete with artificial archipelago.

The emirate has drawn in the major hotel brands. Now it's attracting the restaurateurs.

Bay Area examples include Corte Madera-based Trader Vic's, which opened its second Dubai City Trader Vic's -- the first second location in any city -- in 2004.

There's also Puccini Group, the restaurant design consultancy that is hot and heavy doing design work in Dubai, as I began reporting in a Business Times column in 2005.

With top Bay Area chefs active in Las Vegas, New York and Southern California, it seems only a matter of time before one ends up in Dubai.

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The NY Times wants to marry your boutique hotel

Gregory Dicum heaped much love on some San Francisco boutique hotels, all under $200 per night, in the New York Times Sunday.

Dicum's top three includes Hotel des Arts, a Union Square property in which most rooms have been decorated by emerging artists. I am red with jealousy, not only because this is an unfamiliar hotel I have never written about in the Business Times, but also because Dicum's room included Dylan's Nashville Skyline on vinyl, complete with its own record player.

An accompanying article on non-tourist restaurants under $25 highlights Pizzeria Delfina, Chow, Mifune and Medicine New-Shojin Eatstation

The hotel article sussed out lots of independent local boutiques, like the Queen Anne, Cornell and at least two others.

San Francisco's Personality Hotels does very well in the article, with its Hotel Metropolis in the top three (albeit with several choice comments on the surrounding neighborhood, mid-Market Street) and its Hotel Diva in the capsule-summary section. That's two out of five.

Also in the capsule summary section were two hotels from San Francisco's national boutique chain, Kimpton: the Triton and Palomar. (Kimpton has 11 hotels in SF.)

The company with the most boutique hotels in San Francisco, Joie de Vivre, only had one entry in the summary list, its flagship Phoenix hotel. (Joie has 20 hotels in SF.)

Scrappy upstart CTwo hotels saw its York hotel make the list.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

And we're paying the architect with free soaps and bath towels

The Chronicle follows and expands on something I wrote about in August -- Joie de Vivre is sponsoring a contest to rename Japantown's storied Miyako Hotel and Miyako Inn, which have 343 rooms between them.

Joie sees the 125-room Miyako Inn becoming Giant Robot magazine meets Lucky magazine -- Japanese pop culture meets shopping. The Chron writes:
"The inn's low-profile, generic Japanese theme will be revamped into 'an energetic, optimistic expression' of contemporary Japanese culture, particularly anime, manga comic books, J-Pop music and street fashion, [Joie creative director Matt] Harvey said."

But get this: the prize for coming up with the new name for the inn is that they name a suite after you, plus you get "VIP treatment during a free weekend in the suite."

Is there a branding firm in the city that would work for even 10X the cost of a free weekend in a Best Western suite? Just askin'.

(Personally, I'm rooting for 'The Hello Kitty Best Western Inn & Airship,' but there may be some licensing kinks to work out.)


Thursday, September 28, 2006

'I'm not made of money -- swim toward Oakland.'

The Oakland Tribune stretchhhhhhhes reality with the headline
East Bay on rise as destination for international travelers.
The only evidence for this is a statement from someone at the Berkeley CVB.

The story is well reported and shows why some international visitors like the East Bay, but it does not support the headline.

The numbers you won't find in the Trib's story: passenger tallies at Oakland International declined by 110,000 for the first seven months of this year to 8.4 million, which I am guessing is due to higher fuel prices.

This didn't keep "Oakland/East Bay" hotels from lifting business a bit. Their revenue per available room rose $7 per room per night to $69 through July, according to PKF Consulting. In the same period in San Francisco, revenue per available room rose $12 to $125.

Maybe people are landing at SFO, where international passenger counts are up 170,000 to 4.9 million through July, and venturing into Oakland. But we just don't know, and I have not yet heard of this happening from anyone (as someone who covers both hospitality and Oakland for the Business Times). It seems more likely that international visitors would go to wine country with their spare time, unless they landed directly in Oakland.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Must. Not. Interact. With. Other. Humans.

Get-rich tip: Figure out when robots can deliver better service than humans.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco now allows guests and residents to issue service requests over email. Hotel "butlers" receive their orders over handheld emailers.

The local Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons pooh-pooh the idea, saying human conversation is the only way to initiative truly excellent service.

But don't humans sometimes get in the way of optimal service, what with their language differences, misunderstandings and moods? Last night, New York Magazine's Grub Street blog reported on a service not unlike the St Regis': "Mobo," which lets you order lunch via text message from your cell phone:
We ordered a small "Newman" pizza on our phone, via text message, while walking over that way. And sure enough, the food was waiting for us at pickup, already paid for.
Of course, it takes about 10X as long to tap out a text message as it does to actually call the friggin' restaurant. But then you'd have to talk to another human being.


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