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Living at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago: For Hotel Manager Peter Roth and
 Family, It's Not a Luxury Accommodation, It's Home
By Tran Ha, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Apr. 18, 2006- To you or me, the Ritz-Carlton Chicago is a place of platinum cards, presidential suites and high tea. But to 4-year-old twins Teddy and Alex Bahu, it's just "[their friend] Sofia Roth's house."

Never mind the revolving door of people coming and going with luggage and bags in tow. Or the army of neatly uniformed bellhops, valets and lobby personnel that is always downstairs. It's where Teddy and Alex go to watch TV on the cool wall-mounted flat screen in Sofia's blue playroom, and where they sometimes go swimming in what they know as "Sofia's pool."

In Sofia's world, the pool is on 11, the laundry is on 10 and the concierge is on 12, as is the lobby and the Greenhouse restaurant. Home for Sofia Roth and her family is on 27.

For the Roths -- dad Peter, mom Gabriela, Sofia and her 19-month-old sister, Katerina -- all of this is part of their seemingly storybook life at the Ritz, where the family moved 1 1/2 years ago when Peter accepted a job as the hotel's manager. The lobby has since become an extension of their living room, the employees an extended family of 500 and the hotel guests their ever-changing neighbors.

The hotel staff jokingly calls Sofia "their own Eloise," a reference to the series of children's books written in the 1950s by Kay Thompson about a precocious 6-year-old girl who lives in New York City's Plaza Hotel. Unlike the rowdy Eloise, Sofia is considerate and well-behaved. (Also, the Plaza has now closed as a hotel.) That doesn't mean, however, that she isn't prone to fits of unruliness, stubbornness or mischievousness characteristic of a 4-year-old. For the most part, she's a typical little girl. She's tall for her age, goes to preschool and playdates, has a penchant for pink and purple, and can play Candyland for hours at a time.

Life at the Roth household is also typical. Peter Roth, 36, and his wife Gabriela, 34, are gracious and down-to-earth. The family's unassuming 2,000-square foot, three-bedroom, three-bath apartment, tucked among the hotel's guestrooms, looks nothing like a hotel suite. And that's the way Peter and Gabriela prefer it.

"When people come here, their first reaction is, 'Wow, it's a home. It doesn't feel like a hotel room," Gabriela says. "They're usually curious about: How is it? Do we have our own furniture? And I say that we try to live our lives with our things and make it a normal home."

There's a full kitchen. There's the living room with its overstuffed couches, leather armchairs and various artifacts collected by the Roths during their travels. The pink bedroom shared by Sofia and Katerina. Another bedroom is used as a guestroom to host the parade of friends and family members who visit. Window ledges are filled with family photos, baby pictures and a wedding portrait of Peter and Gabriela. The walls, under Gabriela's art direction, are painted a kaleidoscope of deep red, orange, yellow, dark green and blue.

Few clues

With the exception of a hotel phone on the kitchen wall and a couple of Four Seasons towels, along with a few mini-bottles of shampoo, in the guest bathroom, there's little evidence of what lies outside the Roths' door.

"I want the kids to feel at home, not like they're living in a hotel," Gabriela says. "They will sleep in their own bed. They will have their own toys. I want to have the feeling that this is a normal house."

But normal takes on a different meaning when one lives in a luxury hotel. After all, this is not your typical single-family home in the suburbs.

"Normal" for the Roths means not getting too used to the perks of hotel living. (Most amenities, as well as the cost of the apartment, are included in Peter's job package.) Gabriela, who stays home with the kids, does the laundry (there's a washer/dryer in the apartment), grocery shopping and cooking when she can, reserving the room service, laundry service and meals in the Greenhouse for special occasions.

Trying to maintain normalcy also means that Sofia and Katerina are taught the difference between their apartment and the rest of the building, which they've come to know as "Daddy's work."

"There's a certain level of comfort," with the rest of the hotel, Peter says, "but it's not absolute freedom. It's not like they can go crazy in the lobby. But it's familiar to them. They feel comfortable there."

Among the girls' favorite spots: the pool, where Peter takes Sofia swimming on the weekends; the promenade, an oversize expanse of hallway leading from the Greenhouse dining space to the banquet halls in the back, where Katerina can toddle to her heart's delight; and the koi pond outside the hotel's upscale Dining Room, where child-theme brunches are occasionally held.

Although the Roth family hasn't always lived in hotels -- before coming to Chicago, Peter managed the Four Seasons in Mexico City, where they rented a house -- Peter's work has kept them on the move. In the 10 years they've been married, Peter and Gabriela have lived in seven countries. Fittingly, both daughters were born during in-residence hotel stints -- Sofia, while they were at the Four Seasons Resort Carmelo in Uruguay and Katerina, shortly after they arrived in Chicago.

In general, hotel managers average two to four years at a property, with the rotations seen as opportunities for development and career advancement, said Peter, who has been with the Four Seasons, which owns the Ritz-Carlton Chicago, for six years. He's also worked for the Hilton, Sheraton and Intercontinental hotel chains. Despite the disruptive nature of the job, Peter says many of the hotel managers he knows have families with small children.

His "live-in" arrangement, however, is less common, Peter says, with most managers living off-site with the exception of some hotels in developing countries, Europe and those in resort environments. It's a change that has come with time, personal and company preferences, and new hotel designs that have eliminated managers' accommodations. In Chicago, Peter says, he knows of no other managers who live in their hotels.

At the Ritz, where the hotel manager has always lived on-site, top management sees the live-in tradition as something that gives the hotel a crucial edge in the competitive hospitality industry.

Sees what guests experience

"With Peter overseeing the daily operations of the hotel, he truly gets to see every day what the guest experiences," says Bill Taylor, the Ritz's general manager. "He's the litmus test for us as to whether we are truly at the top of our game."

For those who question whether a hotel is a good environment in which to raise children or wonder whether the family's constant uprooting will take a toll on the girls, the Roths acknowledge that their lifestyle is not without its challenges.

"I have friends who have said to me, "Have you thought about your kids? Isn't this going to be a quite unstable life for them, for their future?" Gabriela says. "But I say there are many unstable people who stay their whole life in the same country, the same street even."

As Peter and Gabriela see it, the positives of their living situation far outweigh the negatives. Despite the long hours and being constantly on call, Peter says he loves his job. And besides, he points out, the work demand would be the no different if he were, say, a doctor, lawyer or corporate executive. But perhaps the biggest perk of the job: Instead of having to drive 30 minutes or an hour to get home, as many parents do, he's only an elevator ride away.

He often pops upstairs for coffee, lunch or an after-school visit with Sofia. On nights when he's working late, he takes time out to read the girls a story or put them to bed.

They refer to their living situation as "a gift," and hope that their girls pick up on all the different things they are exposed to, be it the people they meet in the elevator or the hotel staff members with whom they've formed special relationships.

"Honestly I wouldn't say there would be any difference in what they would experience if we lived in a house somewhere," Peter says. "Our living situation seems more convenient and easier, but the issues that you have to address in raising kids is the same. These are issues that you would deal with no matter where you live."

And as far as the girls getting spoiled by room service and other hotel perks: "I think you have to manage it though and create awareness in your kids that they have to appreciate what's around them. And restrict the uses of those services. If you live in a private residence, you wouldn't let your child just pick up the phone and order pizza whenever they want. Right?"

It's tough for the Roths to predict how long they'll stay in Chicago, what the hotel business has in store for them or whether there's another luxury hotel apartment in their future. But they're in it for the long haul. "It's part of the job," Peter says -- an adventure that he and Gabriela have embraced and hope the girls will learn from and appreciate.

For now, Peter and Gabriela are taking advantage of their time in Chicago and at the Ritz.

"It's definitely special to live here," Gabriela says, although she acknowledges with a chuckle that for her girls and their friends, there's probably nothing special about living at the Ritz: "It's just the way it is."

Low-stress living

How the Roth family get their mail and other not-so-everyday-aspects of everyday life at the Ritz Carlton-Chicago:

Mail: The Roths have no mailbox. Instead, all the mail addressed to the family comes to Peter's office.

Phone: They have three phone lines, two that go through the hotel's switchboard and one private line, which they use, for instance, in the directory at Sofia's preschool. There's "no real system" as to who, among their family and friends, calls which numbers, Peter says.

Internet: They have access to the same high-speed Internet that is available in guest rooms.

Cable: They have DirecTV, which they had installed and is not available in guest rooms, although they do have free access to the hotel's on-demand movie service.

Laundry: There is a washer/dryer in the apartment, although the Roths occasionally use the hotel's dry-cleaning services.

Trash: Much like in other high-rise buildings, there's a private trash chute on every floor used by housekeeping, which the Roths have access to.

Parking: Valet, through the hotel. "It has spoiled me, especially with the baby and the groceries," Gabriela says.

Household emergencies: The hotel's engineering department is on-site 24/7 to take care of leaky faucets, plumbing problems, electrical malfunctions, etc. "If something breaks down, I don't have to go to Home Depot and fix it myself and spend half of Saturday doing something at home," Peter says. "It's very convenient."

Meat: The Ritz has its own on-site butcher, which means the Roths can get their roasts without having to leave the building. Gabriela says she usually buys her own meat but will sometimes rely on the butcher for business dinners or special occasions. The best part, she says: The chefs even show her how to cook it.

Room service: Gabriela does most of the cooking, but she and Peter say they order room service about once or twice a week, "depending on how exhausted everyone is." One of their favorite foods? The chicken nuggets.

-- Tran Ha

txha@tribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune

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