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San Diego's 210 Room Hotel Indigo Looks
to Growth Despite Economic Uncertainty

By Lori Weisberg, The San Diego Union-TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jul. 11, 2009--Francisco Villa, a line cook at the Hotel Indigo, stacked plates in the downtown hotel's Phi Bar and Bistro kitchen.

When the 210-room Hotel Indigo opens its doors Monday, its corporate owners are hoping guests will be wowed by the ballpark and bay views, hip decor, colorful murals and energy-efficient design.

It's even dog-friendly, with plans to begin hosting a "Canine Cocktails" happy hour come September.

But all that cutting-edge design and an assortment of intriguing gimmicks may not be enough to overcome an ailing economy that has hit high-end hotels especially hard. San Diego's downtown luxury hotels have acknowledged becoming more aggressive in looking for ways to boost business in the face of declining revenues.

Just last month, owners of the swank W Hotel downtown announced that they would stop paying off their loan because the hotel is now worth far less than what's owed.

The newest entry in the downtown hotel market, Hotel Indigo is part of an upscale boutique chain within the Intercontinental Hotels Group, the world's largest hotel portfolio when measured by the number of rooms. It's the 29th in the Indigo chain and is the brand's flagship hotel.

The San Diego site, at Ninth and Island avenues in the East Village, was first identified three years ago, long before the region had fallen into a deep recession.

In the past year, as consumers have pared their spending, even popular destinations such as San Diego have seen occupancy rates and hotel revenue fall. Hoteliers have responded by lowering room rates to attract more guests.

"This is pretty much a terrible time to be opening a new hotel," said Carl Winston, director of the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program at San Diego State University. "It's that bad.

"On the plus side, it is a little smaller than the other hotels in town, and they are downtown, which could be good and bad. The problems they have are the timing, no one knows what an Indigo is, and they're also a lifestyle hotel, which is not exactly doing real well in this economy.

"The kids who could afford the $15 cosmos last year can't afford them now. They're drinking beer, and they're drinking it at some sleazy bar in P.B."

Clearly, the Intercontinental Hotels Group didn't plan to open its latest Hotel Indigo in the "teeth of this economic tsunami," said Jim Anhut, the company's chief development officer for North America. But once the roughly $60 million project was completed, there was no choice but to open the hotel.

The reality is that in the hospitality industry, hotels are planned for the long term and as such will always have to weather economic cycles, Anhut added.

"If you could time it perfectly, that would be wonderful. But you never do," he said. "We are building a brand, and Indigo is the newest brand in our portfolio. That brand is a long-term proposition, and you do it regardless of the cycles. You're looking at multiple decades."

In promoting the Indigo, the owners are making a number of boasts, not the least of which is its status as the first hotel in San Diego to receive a LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The hotel's contributions to environmental and energy conservation are many, including the "green" roofs on the ninth and 12th floors that are planted with drought-tolerant vegetation, an on-site recycling program, outdoor decking made from recycled grocery bags and wood-fiber byproducts, and reserved parking spaces and discounts for guests who drive fuel-efficient vehicles. Eventually, herbs such as basil, rosemary and tarragon will be grown and used in the hotel restaurant.

In another nod to energy conservation, the hotel's 40-foot exterior wall sculpture, composed of 33 hand-painted, blue-glass panels, is illuminated at night with LED lighting. Local artist Lisa Schirmer designed the piece, which gives the illusion of a wavelike pattern, achieved by rotating and repeating square and circular shapes on the glass panels.

Vivid colors are employed throughout the 12-story building, from the large-scale photographic murals of native plants and aquatic images, such as beaches, rivers and lakes, to the splashes of bright orange on the hallway walls outside the guest rooms. San Diego photographer Ian Cummings was commissioned to shoot the images.

Taking advantage of its proximity to Petco Park, the hotel's ninth-floor terrace offers a clear view of the ballfield. During home games, play-by-play action will be piped out onto the deck, where there are fire pits and a reflecting pool.

While it may not be recognizable to anyone other than the most astute mathematicians, the underpinnings of the Hotel Indigo's design are the Fibonacci sequence and the ratio known as the Golden Mean, or Phi.

The ratio is said to be represented throughout nature and can be seen in the growth spiral of sunflowers, pine cones and the proportions of the nautilus shell, which is the logo for the Indigo brand. Even the curvilinear walls in the guest rooms are meant to reflect the Fibonacci sequence, hotel officials said.

In keeping with the theme, the lounge bar and bistro include Phi in the name.

General Manager Chris Jones is hoping the hotel's unique character will help bolster it during rough economic times.

"We've adjusted our expectations based on the reality of the economy," Jones said. "We're not just a plain building. We're counting on our differentiation to make us stand out among our competitors. We're hiring conservatively and will add (to our) staff as occupancy builds and business stabilizes."

Carlsbad hotel marketing consultant David Brudney offers this bit of advice to the Hotel Indigo: Try to avoid using the word "luxury" when describing the hotel. Rates at the hotel are roughly $200 a night.

"If they do market it pre-opening and opening as a luxury property, they're going to have some problems," Brudney said. "Business travelers with expense accounts are watching very carefully what hotels they're staying at. People are staying at places where rates are considerably lower."


Lori Weisberg: (619) 293-2251;

Lori Weisberg: (619) 293-2251;

Related Terms: Union-Tribune, SDSU, Petco Park


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