As the sand heats up, so does the competition among Santa Monica's luxury hotels and this summer, that competition will be fiercer than ever.

Two new beachfront hotels have been built in the Westside hotspot over the past year, meaning there are now four luxury hotels virtually bumping up against each other along the city's shoreline. All of them offer similar amenities at similarly steep prices, though each is doing everything it can to carve out a specific niche for itself.

Hotel marketers say there's more than enough business to go around, contending Santa Monica is stealing market share from such places as Beverly Hills as businesses migrate westward and the clean air and easy freeway access of the beachfront city prove irresistible. But they're still doing everything they can to spruce themselves up as they square off for battle against each other.

Reacting to the arrival of the new Le Merigot and Hotel Casa Del Mar, Loews Santa Monica is in the midst of a $15 million facelift. The hotel, which has long positioned itself as the family-friendly alternative for the jet set, is also targeting pampered pets.

On June 23, the hotel will officially launch its "Loews Loves Pets" program, which started quietly last fall, with a marketing blitz. The program offers treats, toys, beds, and such room-service fare as roasted salmon for Fluffy and grilled steak for Rover.

"We know a lot of people think pets are part of the family," said Sara Harper, Loews' spokeswoman. "We are a family hotel company."

Loews will donate 5 percent of the pet-generated proceeds to the Los Angeles chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. So far, about 10 guests per month have brought along their four-legged companions.

For most of its history, the Santa Monica hotel has lured families with its "Loews Loves Kids" program, offering such activities as treasure hunts and sandcastle building.

Loews isn't the only Santa Monica hotel that's going after the sort of customer who carries Pomeranians in Louis Vuitton purses. Next door, the brand-new Le Merigot exudes contemporary European elegance and welcomes upscale business travelers and dogs under 15 pounds.

Plenty of competition

Meanwhile there is Shutters on the Beach, which charms with its Cape Cod ambience, and across the street on Ocean Front Walk there is the Hotel Casa Del Mar, a former diet center that was turned into a hotel after a $60 million facelift that renewed its original Italian Renaissance grandeur with sweeping staircases and intricate mosaic and tilework. Both Shutters and the Del Mar owned by the Edward Thomas Hospitality Corp. cater to advertising, financial and entertainment-industry executives.

None of these hotels are exactly engaged in a price war. The cheapest alternative is Le Merigot, where the lowest-priced rooms those without ocean views start at $279 a night ($239 during a special promotion in June). Rooms start at $290 at Loews, at $335 at Casa Del Mar and at $355 at Shutters on the Beach.

Hotel analysts believe all of them can coexist. Bruce Baltin, a hospitality expert at PKF Consulting, said the hotel occupancy rate in Santa Monica is in the mid-80 percent range, a very high level in the industry and it didn't drop significantly even after Le Merigot and Casa Del Mar hit the market.

"Santa Monica is easily accessible from the freeway, there are great restaurants in the area, it's on the beach It's the perfect place to stay for business travelers," Baltin said.

The Loews remodel, which began last year, brightened up the 11-year-old hotel's lobby by repainting its beamed sunroof cream from hunter green. Later this month, its new Fireside Lounge and Papillon Cafe will be completed. Rooms also are being remodeled and will be completed next year.

On a recent day, children frolicked in the hotel's pool, framed by preserved palms whose fronds seemed unnaturally resistant to the ocean breeze.

Meanwhile, inside the lobby, a jackhammer drilling a new entryway made conversation difficult. A concierge offered a visitor a plastic bag of red earplugs to deaden the noise.

Sales director Marna Wollman admitted the remodel has affected the hotel's business. She said the hotel has offered reduced room rates and free extras, like massages or facials, to help ease the pain. "We want visitors to enjoy their stay here," said Wollman, as she led visitors past a worker patching a wall.

Later, on the lemon awning-shaded patio of Lavande, Loews' eatery, a Hollywood executive confided details of his latest project to a young blonde companion.

"It explores sex in a way that has not been done in a long time," he said. "There aren't too many actresses who are willing to be nude."

It's hard to hear her responses over the rumblings in the lobby.

Ambiance is everything

Meanwhile, things are considerably more sedate at Le Merigot next door. A blue-jeaned father read Variety on the patio, as his daughter paddled in the pool, near cabanas outfitted with massage tables. Over on a covered patio dubbed "Cardio Terrace," local screenwriter Tom Benedek pumped away on a stationary bike.

"It's like a sleeper of a hotel," said Benedek, who enjoys the peaceful outdoor setting. "You get some ocean breeze here."

Sales and Marketing Director Renee Spingola says the hotel with chandeliers of marbled glass positions itself as a destination for the "upscale, sophisticated business traveler." Le Merigot has welcomed pets since its December opening.

"You can't ask someone to spend $450 for a room and tell them they have to leave their animal at home," Spingola said.

Recent human guests include the wealthy wife of a diamond merchant who routinely ordered $700 bottles of champagne, actor Harvey Keitel, in for a three-week shoot, and singer Gladys Knight, who brought her extended family, an insider said.

Farther southward, with its gray clapboard siding and white trim, Shutters on the Beach models itself after a Cape Cod resort. Late one afternoon in the cozy lounge, two fireplaces shot out gas flames as guests soaked up drinks and the sunny ocean vista. Executives with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter stood in a circle outside a meeting room downstairs and tossed around terms like "connectivity," and "firewalls."

Across the street at Hotel Casa Del Mar, a pianist in the opulent lounge was playing, "Our Love Is Here to Stay." So is the hotel, which opened in 1926 as a private club, later became the controversial Synanon drug treatment center and most recently the Pritikin Longevity Center before its renovation into a luxury hotel.

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