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Tacoma Hotel Scene:
From 'Yuck' to 'Wow'
By Dan Voelpel, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Mar. 2, 2007 - The best new downtown hotel suites in Tacoma opened recently behind the brick walls of the historic Waddell Building.

If you measure a downtown's desirability by how much travelers will spend to stay a night there, then Tacoma has crossed a new threshold.

At $279 a pop for the two corner king suites at the Courtyard by Marriott, the rate sets a new per-night record for a nonpresidential suite downtown.

(Note: The Marriott still lags the $309 per-night rate commanded by a waterside king Jacuzzi suite at the Silver Cloud Inn on Ruston Way.)

But from the mood lighting recessed into the 11-foot-high ceilings above the four-poster bed to the hot-to-the-touch towel-warming racks in the travertine-tiled bathroom, the Marriott's latest suites signal an escalation in the local battle to put luxury-seeking heads in luxurious beds.

The Marriott's hold on the "best new" title may last only until October, however.

Because down the block, a top-secret renovation that will turn the Sheraton Tacoma Hotel into Hotel Murano has begun. Executives there refused repeated requests for a sneak peek this week. But if you walk into the lobby and ride the elevator to the 14th floor, you can see how the future Hotel Murano will dress up its common hallways -- each floor dedicated to a different glass artist.

The elevator doors open onto a display case of tall, sunflower-yellow glass vases. You'll see the image of Northwest glass artist Dante Marioni etched into a clear glass pane mounted on the wall, along with a few paragraphs of his biography. Photographs of Marioni at work and his creations line the walls -- brightly lit by banks of halogen spotlights.

You won't see, however, what sits behind the freshly painted deep strawberry-red doors. That will remain a mystery at least until an official unveiling next month, said Dina Nishioka, spokeswoman for the Portland-based Aspen Hotel Group, which owns the Sheraton.

When the hotel officially becomes Murano -- as soon as August -- it might then hold only temporary title.

Because a short walk down the hill, a guy who knows something about creating a hotel experience wants to top them all. Bob Thurston, proprietor of Seattle's much-honored Inn at the Market, plans a new kind of waterfront hotel experience in 100 boutique suites along the Foss Waterway. Construction should start there this spring with a 2008 opening.

For now, Mike and Mark Hollander, principals of Hollander Investments of Bellingham and owners of the Marriott, can put their feet up on their lobby's black leather couches.

Last time I ventured onto the third floor of the Waddell Building -- six years ago as a City of Tacoma employee -- I thought, "Yuck." I stood at the bay window overlooking Pacific Avenue and worried if the old wooden floor would hold me.

The City of Tacoma sold the Waddell to Hollander Investments, along with the vacant lot next door, with the proviso that the company renovate and incorporate the historic structure. Somehow.

I went back this week -- two floors above Pacific Grill and one floor above Union Bank of California. I stood in the same spot.

"Wow," I thought.

"People are wowed, but this wasn't easy," Tom Ebner, the hotel sales manager, said as he described the transformation.

When you attach a carefully honed brand, like Courtyard by Marriott, to your hotel, the Marriott executives demand your finishes and amenities fit within certain parameters. Nothing too fancy; nothing too cheap. Guests who frequent Courtyard hotels around the world should receive essentially the same experience everywhere.

The Hollander family got to cheat a bit -- on the upside -- with the six king suites in the Waddell building.

"Because this is a historical building, and because (Marriott officials) had seen the finished product in the rest of the hotel, they were pleased with the Hollanders, which made it easier for them to say yes to doing something a little special with these suites," Ebner said. "This is an added bonus that would not be allowed throughout the hotel."

If you sit in the bubble-jet tub, you can watch TV on an LCD panel mounted on the wall. I've never understood the allure of placing a telephone call while seated on the commode -- unless you have to call for more paper -- but if you stay here, you can do it.

The two corner suites feature a Murphy king bed that folds into the walls and common connections to adjoining suites so the rooms can double as larger meeting spaces.

Personally, in the world of overnight accommodations, I'm more a disciple of Tom Bodett than Leona Helmsley. But I can understand the value to Tacoma of upgrading its hotel room stock.

And if you don't think it's a battle, consider this consumer's posting on TripAdvisor.com, which allows travelers to post their experiences:

"The Courtyard was amazing! What a surprise. I have always stayed at the Sheraton when in Tacoma and had made reservations at the Sheraton only to be turned away when I arrived. I was advised that they had overbooked and offered to put us up in the Courtyard. I was, at first, upset not knowing what we were getting ourselves into but from the moment we arrived at the Courtyard we were treated like royalty.

"The lady at the front desk greeted me by name and apologized for the Sheraton's error and was so nice about everything. She even gave us free breakfast the next morning for our inconvenience even though it wasn't their fault. ... If we stay in Tacoma again, I will certainly be staying at the Courtyard. Sheraton's mistake of overbooking looks like to be Courtyard's gain in a new customer."

And that review came before the Courtyard's new suites opened.

Dan Voelpel: 253-597-785

dan.voelpel@thenewstribune.com

For more photos of the new suites at the Courtyard by Marriott, go to our Web site.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.

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