|By Kathy Bergen, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 31, 2008 - Two hours after the Trump International Hotel & Tower opened its doors to the public for the first time on Wednesday, the staff of the hotel's restaurant, Sixteen, were bent over crimson cases of Taittinger champagne.
Wearing spotless black trousers and jackets, with starched white aprons at their waists, they devoted their full attention to tearing open the boxes and filling the restaurant's prominently displayed 900-bottle wine rack.
At their backs were 30-foot curved windows looking out at the Wrigley Building clock tower, the frothy top of Tribune Tower, the Chicago River and the ice-blocked shore of Lake Michigan.
The tableau was emblematic, in many ways, of this long-awaited addition to Chicago's luxury hotel market: It remains a work in progress, but first glimpses reveal an understated, contemporary look, distinguished by stunning views of the cityscape.
What remains to be seen, as the hotel continues to evolve -- quite literally and figuratively -- is whether it has the chops to join the ranks of The Peninsula, the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton, the five-star players located farther north along the Magnificent Mile corridor.
Winning such status "is hard to do, it's a mysterious target," said Mark Eble, vice president of Midwest for PKF Consulting. "You need to demonstrate a super-luxurious mojo over a period of time, and that you're not just a flash in the pan for one year."
Another challenge for developer Donald Trump will be selling the public on a luxury hotel at Wabash Avenue and the river, a bit of a distance from other high-end hotels and shopping, said Ted Mandigo, a hospitality consultant based in Elmhurst.
"But they have five-star views and ... the Trump name is going to be a drawing card," he said. "If the service quality is there, they will be able to build a market."
Guests pulling into the circular driveway at the entrance will find scaffolding continues to bolster the roofing over the drive, and it will remain there until construction is completed on the 92-story hotel and residential tower. The skyscraper, expected to cost about $800 million, will be the city's second-tallest building when it opens in April 2009.
At the moment, crews are building the 60th floor.
Wednesday's "soft opening" of the 339-room hotel, to occupy floors 14-27, is a partial opening, and it comes two months later than expected because work remained to be done to meet fire-safety codes.
"The delay wasn't easy at the time, but we got through it," said T. Colm O'Callaghan, vice president and managing director. "It's a relief to finally open our doors and bring people in and say, 'This is what we've been talking about.'"
Four floors of guest rooms are open, and the restaurant is open for breakfast, with plans to open for dinner next week. In the coming weeks, most of the remaining guest rooms, the spa, the health club and the lounge overlooking the lobby will open, with an official grand opening planned for March 17.
The hotel's 339 guest rooms are being marketed as condo-hotel units, and Trump executives say 70 percent have buyers, at prices ranging from $850,000 to more than $3 million. With the soft opening, closings are beginning, and the real estate industry will be watching to see how many buyers show up to close deals in this softening market. On day one, all signs were positive, O'Callaghan said.
Meanwhile, the hotel is beginning to show visitors its sleek look that makes use of a neutral palette, including cream-colored Italian limestone and shades of brown, taupe, dusky purple and blue in the upholstery, carpeting and wall coverings. And there are Art Deco-style touches, including zebra wood.
"Neutral colors, to me, are not disagreeable to anyone," said Robert Prohaska, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. "Many hotels are using louder color, but that puts them in a particular demographic that likes it."
Bells and whistles are plentiful -- from deep soaking tubs and in-mirror televisions in guest bathrooms to fully outfitted kitchens in every unit, with Italian wood cabinetry, stainless-steel appliances and French china. The suites are larger than usual, and personal attaches will attend to special requests.
Full rates start at $425 a night and range up to $2,300 for a two-bedroom suite, though discounts will be used during the first year, which brings the starter rate to $325.
"For the size and amenities, it's definitely worth it," Prohaska said.
Starting rates for rooms at the Ritz, the Four Seasons and The Peninsula for Wednesday night were $345, $390 and $395, respectively, on Expedia.
"Trump will be feeling his way around to see how he fits in with these folks, and he will move rates up or down based on the market's reaction," Eble said.
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