|By Michele Himmelberg, The Orange County Register, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 2, 2005 - All the prestige and familiarity of the Four Seasons name went out the window Tuesday at the 20-story hotel in Newport Beach that serves as a home away from home for executive business travelers.
Those road warriors woke up instead at The Island Hotel Newport Beach, the name selected by The Irvine Co. for the hotel it has owned for 18 years and now will manage. The new team officially took over at midnight, aiming to bring its unique standard of luxury to a property that faces increasing competition.
The Irvine Co.'s decision to self-manage the hotel is part of the expansion of its resort division, a complement to the company's real estate and retail holdings. The management switch began two months ago and the temporary sign on the high-rise building went up last week. But when the actual handoff occurred, the staff had less than 24 hours to eliminate hundreds of items with the old logo and replace them with freshly created new ones.
Twelve hundred guest robes with the new logo arrived just in time for the change-out, a coup for the purchasing team that discovered cotton is a high-demand commodity.
But the hotel lounge will settle for plain cocktail napkins for a few more days. That's one item that got overlooked the past few weeks as a team of six people scoured the property for spots that would need a new name or logo.
The new logo -- featuring bird-of-paradise flowers -- got stamped on valet tickets, in-room corkscrews, invoices, meeting room signs, laundry order forms, turndown cards, hangers, postcards, matchbooks, spa gift bags and more. Items such as menus were obvious candidates for a makeover, but others popped up in surprising places. Only last week, the team spotted the Four Seasons insignia on the base of outdoor patio heaters.
Nearly 30 information technology specialists worked overnight to implement all the operational systems that employees rely on to serve guests. The hotel kept its phone number, but got a new system for phones, accounting, payroll and reservations.
Giving up the old name is not only expensive -- Irvine Co. officials wouldn't say how much they invested -- it's a gamble. The Four Seasons is a well-established name in the luxury hotel market and The Island is a name some might confuse with a restaurant chain.
Other hotels in Orange County are getting new names, but they're going in the opposite direction -- affiliating with a brand. The Coast Anaheim Hotel closed in September and will become the Sheraton Park Hotel this spring.
The Sutton Place Hotel recently became The Fairmont Newport Beach.
While any change is risky, introducing a new brand is more likely to work in the luxury market than any other hotel sector, said Cathy Enz, a professor at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. It should be easier for The Island to thrive because the Four Seasons had developed a reputation and loyal following since opening in 1986.
"Can you make it? Yes, particularly if there is something unique about the place," Enz said. "Typically if you take a flag off a hotel, that's a sign that (owners) are very confident that the assets will carry the day." A key asset at the luxury level, she said, is an experienced management team that knows how to be innovative.
"It will be a challenge to run it as (a private name) until the word gets out there," said Hans Maissen, the general manager, who ran some of the best hotels in the world before joining the Irvine Co.'s resort division three years ago.
The Island will be marketed by a new sales and executive team that was hired partly for its network of contacts in the industry, including hotel manager Richard McLellan, from the St. Regis in Aspen. The Island will also be affiliated with "Leading Hotels in the World," a consortium of premier luxury hotels including the Hotel Bel-Air in Beverly Hills.
The Island's 295 rooms were remodeled recently and a spa opened this year.
Look for upgrades in the lobby and lounge and a new "world-class chef" at the fine dining restaurant, Pavilion, Maissen said. He also plans to reach out more to the local community.
Aside from the management team, most hotel employees kept their jobs.
"A lot of the people here have been delivering good service for five, 10, 15 years and we don't want to change that," Maissen said. "But the difference between a good hotel and a better hotel is employees who are committed to a high level of service and they consistently deliver it." It won't take long to evaluate how well the transition is going at The Island, said Terry Petty, vice president of the Irvine Co.'s resort division.
"Guests and meeting planners are very vocal about what they like and don't like," Petty said. "We'll get immediate feedback, at the front desk and in the employee cafeteria.
"And we'll see it very quickly on the financial side -- if the guests who are here this week come back next week."
HOTEL NAME CHANGES:
Other hotels in Orange County are getting new names with well-known hotel brands.
--Sheraton Park Hotel at the Anaheim Resort: The Coast Anaheim Hotel joins Starwood Hotels & Resorts with the new Sheraton name this spring. The hotel closed in September for a $32 million renovation. The 11-acre property includes 490 guest rooms.
--The Fairmont Newport Beach: That name replaced The Sutton Place this past summer after Sunstone Hotel Investors bought the 444-room hotel and hired Fairmont to manage it. The hotel is getting a $22 million renovation of its guest rooms and public areas.
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