|By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta
Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
January 26, 2009 - Loren Henderson had his lines about the new W Hotel downtown well-rehearsed.
As he led two "guests" to their rooms recently, he asked about their flight, ran through Atlanta's weather forecast for the next couple of days and pointed out where the visitors could find the hotel's spa, pool and various bars. He was conversational, sunny and remembered to use their names.
But when he got into the room, he learned why practice makes perfect.
After ushering the pair in to show them the comfortable beds, flat panel TV and the mini bar (known as the munchy box in W parlance), Henderson had to backtrack to open the wardrobe. That forced the women to have to maneuver around him to see what he was talking about.
"I'm going to start with the closet next time," Henderson laughed, realizing he had interrupted the flow.
He'll get a chance to get it perfect Tuesday. When he made his small error, Henderson was taking part in a simulation late last week of his real role as a welcome ambassador to the hotel, which opens its doors for the first time this morning.
After more than a year of construction, the W Hotel downtown will become Atlanta's fourth W, a funky, upscale boutique brand from New York-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts. It's part of the nine-block Allen Plaza project by Barry Real Estate Companies. The development, which includes the headquarters of Southern Company and the Atlanta office of Ernst and Young, is expected to cost more than $2 billion.
Unlike its three sister properties, the downtown W also comes with condos, starting in the $400,000s. The six penthouse condos are well over $3 million.
The W downtown joins an explosion of hotels built in metro Atlanta over the past few years. From small extended stay lodgers to big, tony skyscrapers with butlers, the area pushed higher its already striking 93,000-plus hotel rooms.
It opens, however, during a recession and at a time that hotel occupancy and room rates are dropping. One of its biggest demographics -- conventioneers -- is also expected to be lighter this year because of continuing economic woes. (Each W has a different constituency, albeit with overlap, such as shoppers at Perimeter, businesspeople in Buckhead and entertainers in Midtown.)
Atlanta-based PKF Hospitality Research, the research affiliate of PKF Consulting, reported Monday that the recession and rising hotel supply levels nationally have caused "one of the deepest and longest recessions in the history of the domestic lodging industry.
"As a result, the newest forecast produced by PKF-HR, based on preliminary year-end data from Smith Travel Research, projects that the average U.S. hotel will experience a 9.8 percent decline in the revenue received from the rental of guest rooms in 2009, after having already declined an estimated 1.8 percent in 2008," the group wrote in its notes.
That daunting challenge was not the focus of the staff of the downtown W last week. They were taking stock of their ability to ensure each guest will enjoy his or her stay.
They practiced setting up banquet dinners in the hotel's meeting space, delivering food from BLT, the high-end steakhouse that is part of the building and giving manicures in the Bliss spa.
Allison Floyd smiled warmly and made plenty of eye contact when checking Henderson's two "guests" in. She made sure they knew the upgraded room they were getting was large, that their stay would go toward their reward program and ran down a list of amenities they could expect.
The guests themselves were actually hotel workers -- Susan Barry, the hotel's marketing chief, and Sherry Telford, who is helping to handle public relations. Barry and Telford kept the questions coming -- asking about bar hours, whether they could stash luggage after checkout so they could hit the spa before leaving, and if they could get a helicopter ride from the helipad on the building's roof.
"It will be a trial by fire when we open, which is why we try to test them before then," Barry said.
During the practice runs, construction workers were put on the finishing touches for the opening. Also, sofas were moved into place, glass was polished and beds were made.
Barry said the staff proved to be up to the job. She was especially complimentary of Henderson.
"In live [simulations], a lot of times people will get the information right, but they won't sound natural," she said. "He sounded really natural, which is good for his first time out."
ATLANTA W HOTELS:
--W Hotel Perimeter: 111 Perimeter Center West, Dunwoody, 275 rooms, opened 1998.
--W Hotel Buckhead: 3377 Peachtree Road NE, 291 rooms, opened late 2008.
--W Hotel Midtown: 188 14th Street, NE, 466 rooms, opened spring 2008.
--W Hotel Downtown: 45 Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard, 237 rooms, 74 condos, opening Tuesday.
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