|By Elwin Green, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 8, 2005 - It was a bed that started the war, a bed of fluffy white.
In 1999, the Westin hotel chain introduced the Heavenly Bed, a luxurious white-on-white bedding package that proved such a big hit that guests wanted to buy it for their homes.
A year later, the chain created a catalog to accommodate their wishes. And in 2001, Westin began selling the bed and its accessories online.
While the hospitality industry as a whole reeled from the one-two punch of a recession and the downturn in travel after 9/11, the "Heavenly" franchise -- extended to include shower heads, bathrobes and pet bedding -- turned into a cash cow, bringing in $4.3 million in 2003 in a year that many hotels struggled just to break even.
Now competing chains have caught on, engaging the hotel business in an all-out war for upscale travel dollars. Among the contenders are the Hyatt chain, which has produced the Grand Bed; Radisson, with its Sleep Number Bed; and the Marriott, which is rolling out an unnamed luxury bedding package this year. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study projects that the hotel industry will spend $4.1 billion this year on renovations and upgrades, a 37 percent jump from 2004's $3 billion.
Luxurious, even heavenly beds are not the only weapons being wielded in the hotel wars. For the health-conscious and fitness-minded, hotels now offer more options than ever for keeping fit while on the road -- or to put it another way, they are taking away more excuses for not working out. Once again, the Westin seems to be leading the way, with its so-called "Workout" rooms -- guest rooms with built-in fitness centers.
"People that travel today are more in tune with staying in shape," said Joseph R. Kane, general manager of the Westin Convention Center, Downtown. Like most upscale hotels, the Westin has an in-house fitness club, but Kane said the additional privacy of the Workout rooms was a big draw.
"Sports figures and celebrities don't want to go to a public facility," he said, noting that the Westin was home to visiting Major League Baseball teams when they play the Pirates.
The rooms, located on the top floor of the hotel, have been 100 percent occupied since they were created in April, Kane said.
Besides the Workout rooms, the Westin also has a "workout concierge" in the person of Chris Gibson, who, besides managing the fitness center, takes willing guests on a three-mile run each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. The runners' route takes them to Heinz Field and back.
Other local hotels may not have rooms with built-in equipment, but they do offer the option of using certain fitness items in the guest rooms.
Visitors staying in one of the Downtown Omni William Penn's six "Get Fit" guest rooms can request that a treadmill be placed in their room prior to their arrival. Other available in-room equipment includes stretching bands, mats and free weights.
Although the hotel has just built a new fitness center, "We find that there are a lot of individuals [who] prefer" to work out in their rooms, Omni William Penn spokesman Bob Page said.
At the Pittsburgh Renaissance Hotel, guests can make use of a "body wedge," a foam exercise wedge imprinted with illustrations for use in a workout program, as well as a set of exercise tubes and a door anchor. For those who don't mind leaving their rooms, the Downtown hotel not only has a small fitness center, but offers guests complimentary memberships to a Bally's next door.
Beyond sleep and fitness, local hotels are finding unique ways to distinguish themselves from their competition.
The Omni William Penn's most distinctive amenity may be its "Girlfriend" package. It includes spa service, the choice of a manicure and pedicure, a facial or one-hour massage, a $25 gift card and a complimentary makeup session at Saks, breakfast and afternoon tea. The package, which includes a guest room with two double beds, was created in September and starts at $320.
"There are more and more ladies [who] want to give the kids to dad for the weekend and get away," Page said. "We thought there was a niche there."
At the Renaissance, spokesman Tom Hemer said management sought to emphasize the hotel's location in the city's Cultural District as a part of its character.
At the beginning of the year, local painter Petra Gerber's watercolors were on display on the first three floors, and there are plans to display some two dozen pieces from the Pittsburgh Glass Center this month. The hotel's Symphony Ballroom also is site of the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre's Riverview programs, a series of cabaret-style performances.
And the hotel's meeting rooms are named after such local cultural icons as Henry Mancini and August Wilson.
"We're trying to become a cultural landmark for the city," Hemer said, noting that the Renaissance was Pittsburgh's only four-diamond hotel as rated by the AAA.
Remaining distinctive in the local hotel landscape is not getting any easier.
Recent years have seen the opening of at least half a dozen new hotels in and around Pittsburgh, even though the hospitality industry's recovery is still far from complete. According to PKF Hospitality Research, an international firm specializing in hospitality and tourism consulting, 43.9 percent of hotels experienced an occupancy rate of 70 percent or more last year -- not a bad showing, but still well below the 51.9 percent who reached that level in 2000.
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