|By Christopher Boyd, The Orlando
Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Business News
Apr. 13, 2007 - The Waldorf-Astoria, which for more than a century has symbolized wealth and power, is about to undergo a major makeover -- Florida-style.
Hilton Hotels, owner of the Waldorf since 1949, plans to turn the hotel into a brand that can be spread around the planet, starting with a project now rising amid the slash pines just outside Walt Disney World.
"We are looking at every major city in the world," said David Greydanus, senior vice president for brand management with Hilton's The Waldorf-Astoria Collection. "Our goal is for people to think not only of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, but of the Waldorf-Astoria as a brand."
Hilton management came to Central Florida for the Waldorf-Astoria at Bonnet Creek groundbreaking on Thursday. The 498-room Waldorf will be paired with a 1,000-room Hilton Hotel, creating one of the nation's largest resorts when the two open in late 2009.
Hilton officials say the new hotel will bear little resemblance to the one on New York's Park Avenue, where the leaders of nations and industries have stayed when they visited the capital of world commerce.
Some elements of the New York Waldorf will be found in Central Florida -- including some of the hotel's restaurants and a prominent lobby clock.
But Hilton says it will capture the Waldorf's essence -- impeccable service and luxurious appointments that command top-of-the-market room rates. The decision to connect the Waldorf to a slightly less posh Hilton Hotel and to add 125,000 square feet of meeting space rounds out a strategy.
Tom Keltner, Hilton's chief executive officer for Americas and Global Brands, said the resort will appeal to a plethora of tastes and expense accounts, attracting corporate meetings, vacation travelers and group events. And he said the Waldorf name will be the magnet.
"Even if people have never been to the United States, they have heard of the Waldorf-Astoria," Keltner said.
Hilton isn't the first to seize on the idea. The Ritz-Carlton, one of Boston's venerable hotels, is a growing luxury brand. In fact, the inspiration for the pairing of a Waldorf and a Hilton hotel near Disney is remarkably similar to the marriage of Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott at the Grande Lakes resort on John Young Parkway.
For Hilton, which is beginning a push into the rarified high end of the lodging market, the decision to put the Waldorf name to broader use makes perfect sense.
"We have looked at this for quite a long time," Greydanus said. "We looked at what the hotel meant and how it could be used. As a company, we have moved from a company that operates hotels to a company that brands and franchises hotels."
The Central Florida Waldorf is a first step. It will be the second hotel to bear the Waldorf name. But other hotels are already affiliating under an umbrella brand, The Waldorf-Astoria Collection. Hilton has already gathered hotels in California, Hawaii, Arizona and Saudi Arabia into the fold.
Abe Pizam, dean of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, said the decision to transform the Waldorf into a brand name is long overdue.
"Why did it take them so long?" Pizam said. "Waldorf has been featured in books, in the movies and in the news. It's a great name. The only risk is that if the brand is extended too far, you risk losing the appeal of the original."
But Hilton said Waldorf will fill a very special, highly elite lodging niche.
John Fox, senior vice president with PKF Consulting in New York, said the company's decision to expand at the high end is well timed.
"We have developed a very sophisticated traveling public," Fox said. "People are traveling more, and they expect more. I think in the consumer's mind, the name Waldorf-Astoria denotes something highly luxurious, and it makes sense that Hilton is making it the name of its luxury group."
Christopher Boyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5723.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
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