No end in sight for downtown's dearth of five-star hotels

Downtown Los Angeles lacks stars.

Not the kind that drive around in limousines and pop up at movie openings.

We're talking hotels.

L.A. is the nation's only major city that does not have a five-star or a four-star hotel in its downtown area. Nor does any hotel receive a Five Diamond Award, the highest rating given by AAA.

In the five-star category, New York has the Four Seasons, The St. Regis Hotel, and Trump International Hotel & Tower.

Chicago and Boston each have a top-ranked Four Seasons.

Southern California does have its share of luxury properties. There's The Peninsula, the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Raffles L'Ermitage, all given five-star status this year by the Mobil Travel Guide, which has been rating the nation's palaces of hospitality for more than 40 years. In the four-star category, there's the Four Seasons and Le Meridien, both in Beverly Hills, as well as the Hotel Bel Air and the Century Plaza Hotel & Spa in Los Angeles.

No drawing card

But nothing downtown. And despite talk of a downtown revival with artsy lofts, a new cathedral and an expanded entertainment and sports complex near Staples Center, the center of town is unlikely to see a top-rated hotel for a while.

"Five-star guests who stay in Los Angeles like to stay in Santa Monica close to the water and close to trendy restaurants, or in Beverly Hills, for all the same reasons," said Jack Westergom, managing director for Manhattan Hospitality Advisors in Los Angeles. "In downtown L.A. you don't have that core of cutting-edge restaurants or high-end shopping."

Downtown's hotel woes go beyond the matter of stars. A survey by PKF Consulting, a hospitality industry adviser, finds that occupancy for downtown hotel rooms costing over $85 a night plummeted in May to 52 percent from 72.3 percent a year earlier. Most other areas of Los Angeles were down for the month, but not nearly as much: occupancy at Beverly Hills hotels was 70 percent, down from 75.6 percent a year ago, and Santa Monica was 69.6 percent, from 78.4 percent.

Some of the decline is due to a drop-off in corporate travel. But for downtown, the problem goes beyond cost-cutting.

"There is not a lot of demand to be in downtown Los Angeles" for the upper-echelon crowd, said Wayne Williams, president of Williams & Associates, a Los Angeles-based hotel management consulting firm.

And of course, not every major business is located in the city's core. There are entertainment companies in Century City, Studio City, Burbank and Culver City. Major businesses are located in Santa Monica, Westwood and West Los Angeles.

Plans on hold

Plans recently were announced to build a five-star hotel near Pershing Square in downtown. But the company behind the project, Property System Development Company Inc., has put those plans on hold, waiting for an expanded convention center and a nearby 1,800-room hotel.

Gaining five-star status is not easy. The elegant Millennium Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles does not have even four-star status.

To get a star, hotels rated by the Mobil Travel Guide have to follow strict rules. A five-star hotel room should have a sense of elegance. Amenities include a fax, video, VCR, Internet connectivity and cell phones.

The hotel should have at least two full-service restaurants and cocktail lounges should be available. One restaurant should achieve a Four-Star rating. Room service should be available 24 hours with the ability to cater to virtually any culinary request.

Service is another factor. Ali Kasikci, general manager of The Peninsula, the only hotel in L.A. to get both the five-star Mobil award and the AAA Five Diamond Award, said his hotel has 1,095 behavior standards that employees must follow. While each department has its own standards, all employees have to memorize the core 35 behavior standards.

For example, a hotel employee should use the guest elevator only in an emergency. An employee should never pass guests if walking behind them in a hallway. The staff must be impeccably dressed in well-tailored clothing. And employees should maintain correct posture when addressing a guest.

These standards make a big difference in the star system, and in your hotel bill. You will probably be paying $100 to $200 more a night for that five-star room.

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