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LOBBY EFFORT

Stefan Huemer showed up from the Maldives just a few months ago with the official job of general manager of the InterContinental Los Angeles Century City. But unofficially, his job may be the toughest in L.A.’s hotel industry.

His little-known hotel is all but lost in the shadow of the giant and glitzy Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. The InterContinental also is down the road from an array of formidable hotels – old, new, grand and much publicized – lining the avenues of Beverly Hills.

His job defeated three of his predecessors in the past three years. Yet his goal is to double the profits of the obscure hotel by next year. All that while there’s a near depression in the hotel industry.

“The target is to put the hotel back on the radar,” said the 36-year-old Austrian native, who has quickly adopted the L.A. look – notably a very non-Tirolean tan.

Huemer’s trying. So far, he’s convinced the hotel’s owner, Japan’s Sumitomo Realty & Development Co. Ltd., to invest $100,000 in magazine advertising. He’s renovated the lobby and garden area, and brought in executives from big-name competitors. He’s added a daily lunch special, and a Thursday night happy hour to attract the local after-work crowd.

The InterContinental chain took over the hotel from the Park Hyatt in 2007, and things have been challenging since.

“InterContinental doesn’t have the strong brand recognition that the Park Hyatt has, so we need to make sure that when we say ‘InterContinental’ people know it’s a luxury hotel,” Huemer said.

The InterContinental brand is known in Europe, Asia and the Middle East – a frequent guest of the hotel is a Saudi prince – but the establishment isn’t well known locally. In fact, the Century City hotel is the only InterContinental in Southern California. The hotel is on the southern side of Century City, on property that was once part of the 20th Century Fox studio back lot.

Of course, it’s a tough time in general to get heads on the beds. Because of the weak economy, occupancy rates have drooped from 77 percent in 2007 to an estimated 66 percent last year, according to San Francisco-based hospitality market research firm PKF Consulting Corp.

The InterContinental in Century City has a 72 percent occupancy rate, keeping pace with the rest of the West L.A. market, which was 73 percent in January, according to the most recent data from PKF.

The InterContinental’s 363 rooms, including its 157 suites, range in price from about $199 for a standard room to $500 for a suite, placing on the low side of the high-end hospitality grid.

Michael Krouse, senior vice president of sales and client services for LA Inc., the city’s conventions and visitors bureau, said Huemer faces formidable hurdles.

“The hotel has a great reputation,” Krouse said. “But the challenge with the staff changes has been getting your arms back around the beast so to speak. It’s a large animal to have to get your arms back around when you have a major changing of the brand from Park Hyatt to InterContinental. It’s not an easy transition.”

Then there is the competition.

The neighboring Century Plaza – whose new owners backed down from plans to raze the landmark structure and instead will preserve the curved façade and undertake some renovations – is the neighborhood’s big draw.

Hotels that are further away but are still competitors include the trendy SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, owned by entrepreneur Sam Nazarian; the recently renovated Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills; and the Montage Beverly Hills. There’s also the Beverly Wilshire, the Beverly Hilton and the Peninsula Beverly Hills.

“It’s a good market, but a very competitive market,” said Bruce Baltin, head of PKF’s consulting practice in Los Angeles. “For the hotel to get traction it would have to have a good consistency of management and marketing, and it’s a long-term effort to build.”

Is Huemer the man for the job? His parents ran a hotel in Salzburg, Austria. When he was small boy, he would clean the guests’ cars.

“I was born in a lobby and I’ll probably die in a lobby,” he said.

Turnaround man

He went on to work for numerous hotels in Europe and Asia, including the Mandarin Oriental in Manila, capital of the Philippines, and Le Meridien in Singapore.

He’s also had some turnaround experience.

“I was always the person to come in and clean up and change places,” Huemer said.

He spent more than four years as the general manager of the Kuredu and Komandoo Island Resort and Spa in the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. He turned the resort into a top getaway destination, more than doubling its annual profit from $9 million to $20 million. It’s the goal he’s pledged to match in Century City.

How is Huemer going to reach his target?

First, he gave the lobby a facelift. It now has a more modern, luxurious look, suggesting a boutique hotel. He redesigned the garden area, which is often used for weddings, adding outdoor furniture and fire pits. The goal was twofold: to be more inviting to guests – and to draw the after-work crowd.

“He’s done some freshening work to it,” said LA Inc.’s Krouse. “Doing some cosmetic things makes a huge difference, I think he’s on the right track.”

Huemer’s also made efforts to reach the local business community by adding an $11 lunch buffet. Last month, he launched a Thursday happy hour with a live jazz band, drawing about 70 people each week.

Susan Bursk, president and chief executive of the Century City Chamber of Commerce, said it’s a smart move to target the numerous young lawyers and agents who are looking to relax after work.

“The outdoor garden area wasn’t used much, and he made it more of a living lounge area,” Bursk said. “It created a whole new ambience for the hotel and people who go there. A lot of Fox employees go there, the after-work crowd at night.”

But Huemer recognizes that he needs to make more than cosmetic changes. In the last few months, he’s brought a roster of marquee players into his management team: Ernani Castano, a former food and beverage director at the Mandarin Oriental in Manila; Katherine Blizzard, a former front-office manager at the Ritz-Carlton; Ben Koshy, a former director of finance for six Embassy Suites hotels in Las Vegas; and Todd Bohak, a former executive sous chef at the Peninsula.

More changes are coming: Huemer wants to renovate the 400-person ballroom this summer, and then begin renovating guestrooms next year.

“We have three words: sexy, simple and luxurious,” Huemer said. “That’s what we want here.”

Plans are all very fine, but he is still facing the tough reality of trying to engineer a turnaround in a downturn.

“It’s easier to do in a strong economy, when demand is high, because you can get a share of guests and create loyalty,” said Baltin of PKF. “But now, you have to get guests, and then create the experience. It’s more challenging.”

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