5th Avenue Suites' swanky redo aims for guidebook gold
by: Denise Farwell, After $4 million of improvements  including a redesigned lobby and public spaces inspired by Portland’s Chinese and Japanese gardens, 5th Avenue Suites was reborn as Hotel Monaco.

They're coming, and they need a place to stay.

For 2007, Frommers, the travel services company, selected Portland as one of the top 10 travel destinations worldwide, and luggage-laden tourists are on their way.

Pampered travelers seeking top-drawer accommodations in Portland - much less Oregon - will find no hotels accorded either four- or five-star status by the Mobil Travel Guide. The state of Washington only has one four-star hotel, Seattle's Fairmont Olympic.

Kimpton Hotels is hoping to change that with its newly renovated property on Southwest Washington Street, formerly the 5th Avenue Suites Hotel. Craig Thompson, general manager for the new Hotel Monaco, is gunning for stars.

The revamped hotel features $4 million of improvements, including an exuberantly redesigned lobby and public spaces, articulated by Beverly Hills interior designer Cheryl Rowley.

Inspired by Portland's Chinese and Japanese gardens, Rowley combines a riot of patterns and colors of periwinkle, espresso and pink in a décor she describes as 'Anglo-Chinois.'

The 221 refurbished guest rooms are equipped with two-line speaker telephones with voice mail, high-speed wireless and hard-wired Internet capabilities, 32-inch flat plasma televisions, CD and DVD players and high-thread-count Italian linens.

'With a completely renovated property, we wait six months before we inspect the property,' says Shane O'Flaherty, Mobil's vice president of quality assurance, which oversees the inspections and rating systems for spas, restaurants and hotels in the United States and Canada.

Of the 8,000 North American hotel properties that Mobil rates annually, there are only 37 five-star and 117 four-star hotels.

'At the four- and five-star level, 25 percent of the score is facility-based and 75 percent is based on service,' O'Flaherty says. 'If the service is not at that high a level, you'll probably end up at the high end of the three-star category.'

Mobil Travel Guide, published by Publications International Ltd. under license from Exxon Mobil Corp., originated the Mobil Star ratings and certifications in 1958, and while other companies - such as AAA - have instituted hotel rating programs, in O'Flaherty's words, 'we have the most stringent, objective inspection system.'

More than 500 service standards are evaluated by anonymous inspectors, from check-in to concierge and, O'Flaherty says, 'we place a significant amount of weight on that experience.

'For us it's all about hotels inspiring their employees to provide professional service. There are over 750 standards to be considered for either a four- or five-star rating. The difference between a four-star and a five-star rating is, Is it flawless, or a really good experience with a few bumps in the road? The five-star hotel anticipates your needs on an ongoing basis. It isn't 'Are you checking in?' but 'Mr. Smith, we've been expecting you.' '

Expectations rise with rates

'Portland used to be kind of a second-tier market,' Thompson says. 'A typical hotel rate in Seattle or San Francisco was significantly higher than in Portland. Last year that began to change. Portland began catching up, and by leaps and bounds.'

In the hotel business, a first-tier market means people are willing to pay top dollar for a hotel room. Mobil ratings of more than three stars are given to properties that lavish service on their guests, and that costs money.

'This market has been maturing over the last couple of years, in a big way,' says Michael Depatie, Kimpton chief executive officer and president. 'Rates have moved up in this market, and the expectations of customers have moved up generally across the whole hotel market.'

Built in 1912 as the Lipman Wolfe and Co.'s New Department Store, the 10-story Hotel Monaco building later was home to Frederick and Nelson, a department store chain that failed in the '80s. The building sat empty for years until Kimpton Hotels transformed it into the 5th Avenue Suites Hotel in 1996.

The hotel had begun to show its age a bit in the past few years. It was time for a soft-goods renovation, replacing upholstery, carpets and draperies. Instead, the company decided to redesign the lobby, upgrade room furnishings and amenities, and rename the property.

Kimpton Hotels, which also owns and operates the Hotel Vintage Plaza in Portland, carved out a successful niche in the boutique hotel industry with single-brand hotels, eschewing the outward appearance of being a hotel chain.

'About three years ago we decided to come out as a Kimpton brand,' Thompson says. 'People were standing at our front desk saying, 'I had a great stay. Do you have anything in Seattle?' Yeah, we got three hotels up there. 'Oh, where's the 5th Avenue Suites Hotel in Seattle?' No, no, no. It's the Alexis, it's the Monaco, it's the Vintage Park.'

There currently are 38 hotels open and operating under the Kimpton brand. Of those, three are Hotel Palomars and seven are Hotel Monacos. Four more Kimpton hotels will open by year's end.

'Hug and kiss' approach is it

The late Bill Kimpton (1935-2001) began his hotel empire with the purchase of the Bedford Hotel in San Francisco in 1981.

Kimpton had been a New York investment banker who had raised money - in million-dollar chunks from very wealthy people - to build the Helmsley Palace Hotel for the infamous Leona Helmsley.

'Guys who had lots of extra money would give it to Bill, and he would invest it and make money for them in the 13 percent to 18 percent range,' Thompson says. 'Bill said, 'I'm going to try a hotel on my own.' '

Kimpton traveled frequently for business and had the idea of making hotel rooms and lobbies feel more like home by using residential interior designers who furnished properties with whimsical touches.

'He hired people on the front desk who would actually smile and weren't like robots,' Thompson says. 'And that became the first philosophy - the 'hug and kiss philosophy.' Every guest that comes in, you want to hug 'em and kiss 'em because they're walking through his door. And it just took off. It was a concept that was ready. From that, the boutique hotel concept was born.'

Homogenization moves out

Thompson says the trend is away from the hotel chains where the rooms look alike from market to market.

'That's how Holiday Inn made their name,' he says. 'You could always rely upon that consistency. The business has moved so far beyond that that people are now searching for an experience.'

The one-size-fits-all approach is no longer working, Depatie adds, whether for hotel rooms or cups of coffee.

'I think you're seeing it everywhere,' he says. 'A Starbucks goes in someplace, and people say, 'Do I want a Starbucks going in here? I'd rather have that local coffee guy come down here.' Starbucks used to be that local coffee guy. Then they made it very much like kind of a chain. Maybe they had to.

'But people want something that feels more personalized, that appeals to them more on an emotional level. I think companies are starting to get it, that they need to localize what they're doing to the local market that they're in. People want to have a sense of place when they're someplace. They want to know there's something authentic.

'The beauty of taking these older buildings is that you get a more authentic experience,' Dapatie continues. 'This building has been around a long time. A lot of stuff happened here. And when people walk in they get a sense of that. … The average chain hotel is much more efficient, it's the same and it's pretty bland. And it's made bland because it needs to appeal to 99 percent of the people. We're just trying to appeal to 1 percent.'

The Nines will make its debut

Thompson says the Hotel Monaco is trying to achieve a rating that will place it at the top of the Portland market.

'To be honest with you,' he says, 'when the Nines, the new Starwood Preferred Hotel, opens up in the Macy's building, it's going to be competitive for us at that level.'

Stephen Rushmore is the founder of HVS International - a global hospitality consulting organization - and is known as something of a guru in hotel investment circles.

At the New York University Hotel Investment Conference in June 2006 he stated that as a market for hotel investment dollars, Portland should be approached with caution.

'I rank cities as good buys, good builds, good city to sell, and caution,' he e-mails from his headquarters in Mineola, N.Y. 'A caution is just above a sell market, certainly not a No. 1 place to put your hotel investment dollars. With that said, Kimpton is a great brand and has terrific properties. They generally outperform the market, and I am sure they will do well in Portland.'

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