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The Classic American Hotels Strike Back

Another classic that more recently launched a brand is the St. Regis in New York, known for its worldly airs and personal butlers. St. Regis president and CEO Atef Mankarios says, "There will be no St. Regis look. A hotel cannot be an alien being that's parachuted in." The new brand, part of Starwood Hotels (which also includes W and Westin), will have something for every taste: the St. Regis name has been attached to hotels as diverse as the old Remington in Houston, the Carlton in Washington, D.C., and the former Ritz-Carlton Aspen. And Starwood is building five new hotels. In two years, the group will have doubled in size.

So what will St. Regis stand for?More than anything else, service. Mankarios places great faith in a state-of-the-art "guest-recognition computer program," which invisibly does much of the fussing that annoys today's guests. "We know the rooms you've had, the seats you've requested in our restaurants, the pillows you like, the CD's you've borrowed, the hour you like your room serviced," Mankarios says. "There are a lot of these programs floating around out there. But it's a very delicate balance, getting as much information as possible and not being intrusive." He feels he has found the way.

Rosewood Hotels & Resorts is the quiet brand, one that has traditionally allowed the hotels it owns and manages—such as the Lanesborough in London and the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas—to speak for themselves. The company's conservative strategy is currently being tested again at the Carlyle hotel in New York, a classic that was always the breed standard, and that the company acquired last year.

Voice mail was finally introduced at the Carlyle in February—a clue to the magnitude of the task ahead for Rosewood and Carlyle managing director Peter French. People of substantial worth, he says, are asking for assurances that the soap will not change. "Any changes have to be seamless," French says.

The Carlyle is changing, one revolution at a time. This past winter it got off to a good start: Bemelmans Bar is glowing once again after a restoration by the decorator Thierry Despont. Many details were quietly improved: cocktail recipes were adjusted, vases were filled with usually unfashionable gladioli, an old touch picked up from vintage photographs.

The lobby, executed in one of Dorothy Draper's less manic moments, is next. "The front desk is pretty ropey," says French, who is looking forward to installing "a great traditional key rack with silk key fobs." But the residential feeling will remain, as will that ultimate luxury, manned elevators. Despont will start "cheering up" the corridors next month, adding new lighting and walnut surrounds to the doors.

And then, the rooms. "We're not going to roll out 'an approach,'" says French, who intends to keep the diversity of the old rooms rather than pound them into submission. Closets will shrink; bathrooms will grow and become more luxurious.

It is all going well, yet it's scary tinkering with any hotel where a guest might very well be checking in for the 300th time. "Actually," says French, speaking for every hotelier playing with the soul of an old building and the hearts of those who love it, "it's terrifying."

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