hotel/31"/LK1st/mark2nd

By JESSICA DREBEN

Staff Reporter

A visit to one of L.A.'s luxury hotels used to mean plusher rooms, finer food and more individual attention.

Now, you can add Web television, free cell phones, and even a personal servant to the mix.

Those perks will be part of the basic package at L'Ermitage hotel when it reopens its doors next month. Following four years and $30 million in renovations, the Beverly Hills hotel aims to up the ante in L.A.'s super-competitive luxury hotel marketplace.

Indeed, L'Ermitage's upcoming debut has upscale competitors like the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Regent Beverly Wilshire, the Hotel Bel Air, the Peninsula Beverly Hills and the Four Seasons all scrambling to boost their own offerings to prevent their well-heeled guests from taking their business elsewhere.

Such activity reflects a dramatic turnaround in L.A.'s tourism industry especially at its most stratospheric levels.

"The market (L'Ermitage) is coming into is very strong," said Bruce Baltin, senior vice president of PKF Consulting, an L.A.-based firm that tracks the local tourism industry. "The demand for rooms is rising and there is no new supply. The high end is booming right now."

Occupancy rates in Beverly Hills currently hover at 82 percent and have risen 6.5 percent over the past year. Room rates have climbed accordingly from $269.05 in February 1997 to $281.22 in February 1998, according to PKF.

In nearby West Hollywood, room rates went from $151.07 to $167.37 over the same period.

With demand soaring, L.A.'s luxury hotels are becoming even more luxurious in the hopes of satisfying the deep-pocketed movie stars, entertainment executives, business people and just plain rich folk who have grown accustomed to extravagant pampering when they come to town.

"We are constantly having to stay on our toes," said Frank Bowling, vice president and general manager of the Bel Air. "We are talking about a very spoiled clientele. Hotels of our caliber have to stay ahead of the game."

And L'Ermitage is not making it easy.

Besides a five-star restaurant, full spa and posh executive club, the 124-room facility will feature an array of other amenities including a personal valet who will be responsible for attending to a guest's personal needs 24 hours a day.

While other luxury hotels offer that service for a price, all L'Ermitage guests will get the valet whether they are staying in a regular room or in the presidential suite.

Other features that will be part of the standard package include Web television in every room, a cellular phone that guests can take anywhere, a high-tech climate and lighting system, multi-line telephones, a copier/printer/fax machine and an audio/video CD player.

Such extravagance will not be cheap. Rooms at the new L'Ermitage will run from $380 to $3,800 a night.

But the hotel's general manager, Jack Naderkahni, believes the hotel will fill quickly as soon as it makes its debut in late May. In fact, there already are a number of reservations.

"It is a perfect time to do this," said Naderkhani. "The business is really good right now."

Many hoteliers say they have little choice but to add many of the same amenities, as well as extra niceties that their competitors don't have.

"We are always trying to be current and offer the guests what they want," said Lisa Marriott, a spokeswoman for The Beverly Hills Hotel.

That means a private swimming pool for guests staying in the presidential suite and a private butler for guests in some of the hotel's pricier rooms.

Of course, not all hoteliers agree that more is necessarily better.

"This is not the right way of going about it," said Ali Kasikci, general manager of the Peninsula. "Someone comes into the market and offers a better mousetrap I am in the business of making a better-smelling cheese."

Kasikci used to try to keep up with the latest luxury trends, but he says such efforts often have turned out to be a waste of money.

Take the Peninsula's experience with fax machines. The hotel spent thousands of dollars putting the devices in every room, only to discover that employees constantly were replacing ink cartridges gone dry because few guests actually were sending or receiving faxes.

Still, the Peninsula offers a number of extras that the others don't such as monogrammed pillows for "special guests" and a database on frequent guests that clues employees on various preferences, such as shampoo and flowers.

"We have spent an enormous amount of time building a relationship with our clients," Kasikci said. "Rather than giving them service that they don't need, we give them what they do need."

Peter O'Colmain, general manager of the Regent Beverly Wilshire, said his hotel occupies a unique niche in the city so it doesn't have to constantly keep up with the competition.

"We have our own style," said O'Colmain. "We run on our reputation, which has been around for 70 years."

But hotel industry analysts say O'Colmain's attitude tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

"Since money is no object, there is no reason why (hotels) shouldn't go this route," said Rolfe Shellenberger, senior consultant for Wisconsin-based Runzheimer International. "This is a reflection of people wanting to have the best. The people who are staying at these hotels are staying there for bragging rights."

In addition to the array of opulent offerings, L'Ermitage plans to distinguish itself from the competition with an innovative "no regulations" policy, according to Naderkahni.

Clients will be able to check in at any time of the day or night, and order meals from anywhere in the facility with no extra charge 24 hours a day. Mini-bars will be full of complimentary sodas and fancy snacks.

"We are getting away from the rules," said Naderkahni. "Guests can eat anywhere on the property they choose and we are not going to nickel-and-dime our clients with lots of extra fees."

That L'Ermitage can afford to do that reflects a local tourism industry that has rebounded strongly from the recession of the early 1990s.

"Room rates have run about 10 percent higher per year, over the last few years," said Neale Redington, Western regional director for Los Angeles-based Deloitte & Touche LLP. "And the luxury end is doing even better."

That's quite a change from 1993, when the L'Ermitage was forced to shut its doors as a result of the recession, which hit the local tourism industry especially hard. The facility went into foreclosure in 1992.

LAHOTEL California Corp., a subsidiary of France-based Immobiliere Hoteliere, acquired L'Ermitage in late 1992 for about $30 million, and has put roughly the same amount into renovating the property.

As part of those renovations, the hotel has replaced its ornate French Colonial style with a distinctly Asian flavor, with elegant, sliding wooden doors and a minimalist theme throughout the lobby and rooms.

Whether or not the servant-style service proves attractive to guests, local tourism experts say there is more than enough room for another luxury hotel on the Westside.

"There is a big demand for rooms in West Los Angeles," said Carol Martinez, director of media relations for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It can be very difficult to find a room in a luxury hotel on the Westside."

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