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Sale, Tale of a Tired Landmark Hotel

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SAN FRANCISCO — New owners of a palatial but tired hotel that withstood San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fiery aftermath have poured $40 million into restoring and re-energizing the grand landmark while quietly offering rates starting at $149 night plus taxes. During the roaring 1980s, and before the upgrade, the same rooms started at $299 night.

Chicago's Strategic Hotel Corp., which added the Westin St. Francis to its portfolio of 24 marquee luxury hotels in 2006, kept its promise even after the economy tanked to pony up in a town with plenty of lodging choices. With hotel industry analysts predicting bottom-line losses until early 2011, $40 million was a big bet to place on rejuvenating the entire 1,123-room Westin, which includes two 32-floor apartment buildings

It's easier to see the $40 million restoration in the Westin St. Francis, which had more grandeur to begin with in its ornate 614-room hotel facing Union Square. The refurbished marble lobby with its soaring black-and-gold marble pillars is anchored by the famed 143-year-old Viennese grandfather clock that arrived at the hotel in 1907.

In the lobby, above the leather table topped with fresh flowers, is a massive contemporary pocket watch suspended from a 30-foot-high sculpted ceiling and surrounded by four crystal globe chandeliers. The changes seem to preserve the hotel's historic roots while integrating designs and must-have, can't-live-without conveniences.

Hoteliers know business travelers hate wasting time but love to unwind with a client, colleague or potential customer over a drink in stylish surroundings. The Westin St. Francis hasn't had a great bar in years. So, $6 million was carved out to create — what else? — the Clock Bar, just off the lobby.

U.S. hotels are discovering that younger, discriminating, well-traveled road soldiers — male and female — refuse to put up with boring bartenders pumping out slapdash cocktails made with mediocre liquor at marked-up prices. The Clock Bar, the brainstorm of Michelin two-star chef Michael Mina (his namesake restaurant is across the lobby) feels sexy and Parisian. It is already a magnet for San Franciscans, as well as hotel guests, who pay $10 and up for a sizeable cocktail made from scratch with fresh juices and garnishes.

On a recent Friday evening, women outnumbered men in the packed Clock Bar. General Manager Jon Kimball chatted up customers, unusual because many hotel GMs are in their offices or packing their briefcases to go home at this hour. Kimball's doesn't fit the mold of past St. Francis general managers: stuffy and imperial. He would make a talented late-night television talk show host.

"I started my career here 23 years ago as a trainee under Robert Wilhelm (the hotel's autocratic commander-in-chief for 14 years)," Kimball said. "He was bigger than life. When he'd come walking down the hall, my hands would sweat."

Kimball, 47, worked for. demanding GMs at Hyatt and Four Seasons hotels in San Francisco, before joining Starwood's over a decade ago as a top manager of its Westin hotels.

Kimball seems to know the city's fickle, competitive marketplace, and that worldly business travelers expect recognition, some extra pampering and clever little touches.

A smart one is a towering cylindrical sculpture in the Clock Bar with an electronic band of local times in foreign cities galloping around near the top. It would save your bacon if you needed to be on a conference call to Hong Kong in the next few minutes. However, the low ottoman and tight sofa seating in the rear of the bar is hip but uncomfortable for conversation.

The Westin St. Francis' three year-plus restoration is not just cosmetic. Kimball installed wireless Internet access throughout the hotel plus hardwires access in the rooms. It's not free. The cost is $12.95 a day, but having the option of high-speed hardwires and Wi-Fi is smart if your laptop can't snag a wireless signal. The business center on the mezzanine floor is staffed 8 a.m.-6 p.m., but remains available to guests around the clock daily. A bellman will open the door.

The more casual bar, coffee and snack venue called Caruso's in the tower lobby is more homey, with new, red leather sofas, golden chairs, tall lamps and a communal table that guests with laptops appreciate because they can log on or plug in. Named after renowned tenor Enrico Caruso, who was sleeping it off at the Palace after a performance when the '06 quake and the smell of smoke jolted him awake and sent him dashing to St. Francis to be rescued and fed. The world-famous singer never returned to San Francisco, or so the story goes. Caruso's is probably the best spot in the hotel for an informal get-acquainted coffee or wine.

Frankly, I was surprised by the total redesign and renovation of the 614 guest rooms in the original hotel. I remember them as woodsy, dark and aimed toward the male of the species. Others were glitzy, something out of a Nick and Nora Charles "The Thin Man" film classic. Just the opposite. Westin's pioneering "heavenly bed" with its crisp white sheets and six or eight pillows dominates the room. A 37-inch flat screen television is opposite. A new high-tech desk is festooned with plugs and outlets to charge all electronic gear and now is accompanied by an ergonomic chair. The bathroom is small and will never make the Page One of Architectural Digest. Spotless and functional, it didn't have a separate shower.

Ask your bellman to check you out on the gadgetry and switches before he leaves. I had a devil of a time trying to shut off two lamps and couldn't find a hardwire cable that was folded up and mixed up with other cables in a drawer. Twice I had to call engineering for assistance, who replied promptly and solved the problem.

Meanwhile, a couple tips. Valet parking is $50 a night but safe and with in-and-out privileges. Union Square's underground parking is about $20 less. But do you really need a car. Michael Mina's three-course tasting menu with wines is exquisite. The buffet breakfast in the Oak Room is a reasonable $25 for all you can eat, and again the service was smooth and congenial. Kimball and his team have a friendly, re-energized staff throughout the hotel. Many have been on the job for decades, but are still helpful and enthusiastic.

Kimball says the $149 a night rate is available through the www.westinstfrancis.com and some other package deals.

Chris Barnett writes on business travel strategies that save time, money and stress. Reach him at cbarn@aol.com. To find out more about Chris Barnett and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS.COM.



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