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Gem in the rough: City Officials Pushing Owners of the Nearly 100-year-old,
357-room Camino Real Hotel in El Paso, Texas for Major Upgrades

By Vic Kolenc, El Paso Times, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sept. 25, 2011--City officials say the historic Camino Real Hotel, which for years was El Paso's premier hotel, has lost its luster and needs a major upgrade.

The officials are trying to pressure the hotel's owner, Grupo Empresarial Angeles -- a Mexico-based company that operates hotels, hospitals, banks and radio stations -- to do a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the 357-room, almost 100-year-old hotel. It's at 101 S. El Paso.

"This hotel is essential to our Downtown and convention and tourism activity, and it has been under-invested in for years," said El Paso City Manager Joyce Wilson. "This should be the prime conference hotel for the city, and it isn't."

Bill Blaziek, general manager of the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his department has seen a steadily increasing number of complaints about the hotel's quality from meeting planners and others.

The complaints in the past few years have been about plumbing leaks, poor water pressure, hot water not always working, old bathrooms and problems with air conditioning, phones, elevators, and insufficient electrical outlets in rooms, Blaziek and Wilson reported.

"We have meeting planners who say they won't consider El Paso again unless we have a quality convention hotel. (That)

implies the Camino has to be improved, or we bring in a new hotel," Blaziek said. "We're not attracting investors for a new (Downtown hotel) development, so we need to persuade them to improve the property."

Paul Foster, founder and executive chairman of Western Refining, four years ago met with the company that owns the Camino because he was interested in buying the hotel, or partnering with the company to refurbish it, reported Gary Hanson, a Western spokesman.

"They were not interested. He has not talked to them in four years," Hanson said. Foster recently completed the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Mills Building near the Camino.

Officials with the United States Bowling Congress, which recently awarded El Paso its 2015 national men's and women's bowling tournament, made it clear they'd like some problems at the Camino fixed by tournament time, Blaziek said.

Some bowlers who stayed at the Camino during the group's national women's bowling tournament here last year had complaints about the hotel's rooms, Blaziek said.

Rene Rubio, 42, the Camino's general manager for three years, said the hotel is now operating normally.

Problems fixed

"There are no problems," Rubio said. "I have no issues. They (city officials) do."

About 3,000 to 4,000 guests stay at the hotel each month, so, Rubio said, there will be complaints. But the hotel also has a "lot of happy customers, and they are coming back," he said. "We have to improve every day."

Online reviews by hotel guests are a mixed bag; some hate the hotel and others love it.

The hotel's air conditioning, which broke in August when a motor was damaged by a lightning strike, has been fixed, Rubio said. The hotel rooms were still cooled with the system's water towers when the motor broke, but rooms were about five degrees warmer than usual, he said.

The phone system, which also broke in August, has been replaced with a new, $106,000 system, Rubio said.

Film festival woes

Those problems garnered public attention because they came during the Plaza Classic Film Festival. The El Paso Community Foundation, the festival's organizer, had to put people tied to the festival in the nearby DoubleTree Hotel because of the air conditioning problems at the Camino, the festival's host hotel.

Eric Pearson, foundation president, said the foundation hasn't yet looked at whether it will again use the Camino as the festival's host hotel.

"I think the Camino is doing its best," Pearson said. "I'd love for their corporation to look at investing more to make sure it (hotel) runs smoothly."

This is not the first time air conditioning problems came at a bad time at the Camino. In June 2002, the hotel's air conditioning system broke while delegates to the Texas Democratic Party state convention filled its rooms. The hotel spent more than $400,000 to upgrade the air conditioning system soon after that problem occurred.

Travel guides like hotel

The hotel continues to be featured in well-known travel guides. For example, Frommer's print and online reviews of the hotel continue to label it "El Paso's finest hotel."

The hotel's massive lobby, with a grand staircase, and a huge stained-glass dome above a bar, remain impressive and are usually cited in reviews.

Ramos said the hotel's occupancy is "fine for the size of the hotel." He wouldn't divulge its occupancy rate.

Citywide, hotel occupancy for the first eight months of the year was an average 69.1 percent, slightly above a 68.9 percent rate for the same months last year, reported STR, a Tennessee company that tracks hotel data worldwide.

The Camino continues to draw meetings and other events, Ramos said.

The hotel's 37,000 square feet of meeting-room space is the biggest among El Paso's hotels, Ramos said. It has an 8,000-square-foot ballroom -- featuring huge, glass chandeliers -- that seats up to 700 people.

"We have the biggest (hotel) facilities for F&B (food and beverage)," Rubio said. The ballroom is booked with events every Friday and Saturday all year, he said.

Revenues decline

Even so, the hotel's sales declined 35 percent in the first half of the year when compared with the first half of 2010 to $1.82 million, Texas comptroller data show.

Rubio attributes much of the decline to potential guests being scared away by the hotel's nearness to Juarez and the cartel violence there, and to more competition. Several new El Paso hotels opened in the past few years, including the nearby, 200-room DoubleTree Hotel, a Hilton brand. It opened in March 2009 after going through an $18 million renovation.

The DoubleTree's sales in the first half of the year increased 2 percent compared with the same time last year to $2.94 million.

Blaziek said the DoubleTree has a small amount of meeting space.

Community support

El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Alexandra Swann said the chamber plans to hold its annual Fiesta Celebration at the Camino next month.

The chamber's heard complaints about the Camino, but mostly about its rooms, Swann said.

"I have attended (several) events at the hotel. They are all well managed and had good food," Swann said. "I feel they are really working to improve problems they had in the past."

It's important for the hotel to have a good reputation because it's a Downtown landmark and just across the street from the convention center, Swann said.

"I would like the community to support the hotel, and I would like the hotel to support the community. It's important to have a mutually beneficial relationship," Swann said.

Carpet redo

Rubio said the Camino has made improvements in the past and is looking at possible future upgrades.

It replaced carpeting in guest rooms, hallways and other public areas about four years ago, Rubio said. Some people think the hotel still has old carpeting, such as the badly worn carpet still covering the floors in the Camino's administration office, Rubio said.

"We're looking into upgrades," Rubio said. "I don't think it will happen this year."

$25 million renovation?

Blaziek said, "In all fairness to the Camino, they've made spot repairs, but they've never made significant improvements to the property.

"They (Camino Real chain) enjoy a great reputation in Mexico, so it's a little bewildering" they don't invest in the El Paso hotel, Blaziek said. The chain has 28 hotels in Mexico.

What the hotel needs, Blaziek and City Manager Wilson said, is an infrastructure overhaul. It needs new heating, air, electrical and plumbing systems, and all the walls need to be resurfaced, Blaziek said.

The last time the hotel had a major overhaul was in the late 1960s. That's when then-owner El Paso Electric spent about $60 million to renovate it and add a 17-story tower.

Wilson estimated it could cost $10 million to $25 million to redo the hotel.

City incentives proposed

If Grupo Empresarial Angeles "put together a meaningful capital improvement plan, I would go to (City) Council and recommend similar incentives" given by the city for the renovation of the dilapidated hotel building that's now the DoubleTree, Wilson said.

Wilson, Blaziek and others toured the Camino last year with Rubio and Camino Hotel chain executives, and discussed possible incentives for doing work on the hotel. Rubio said he and the Camino chain executives never heard back from the city. Wilson said it was up to the Camino ownership to submit a proposal.

Wilson said she plans to work with Blaziek to write a letter to the Camino chain in the next 30 days outlining what kinds of improvements would be needed for her to take an incentives proposal to City Council.

Letter scolds owners

Blaziek recently emailed his own letter to Eduardo Ymay, the man who runs the Camino Real Hotel chain. He scolded the company for its "poor custodianship of this remarkable and historic building.

"In fairness to the El Paso community, it's long overdue for your company to make dramatic improvements to your property and change your operations here," Blaziek wrote. "Until then, we can no longer recommend the Camino Real to our valued customers."

Blaziek said it doesn't mean the Convention and Visitors Bureau won't continue to work with the Camino.

"If they (meeting planners) say the Camino works, we will cooperate with them," Blaziek said. "We're not boycotting (the Camino). We're not standing in the way of the Camino doing business. But we can't recommend them based on our experiences."

Vic Kolenc may be reached at; 546-6421.

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