Breaking Into Beverly Hills
Montage challenges formidable hotel rivals with service, comfort and a giant spa
With its white lounge chairs, tented cabanas and arcs of water creating a fountain effect in the pool, the rooftop deck looks like a relaxing spot, if you can just ignore the view: on one side a construction crane, on the other, a looming office tower.
Finicky Traveler: The Montage Beverly Hills
It took big ambitions -- and years of work -- to create an urban, Beverly Hills version of the tranquil, luxurious oceanfront Montage Laguna Beach resort, one of the highest-rated spa hotels in the country. The result stands 65 miles away on one of 90210's busiest corners, and construction sounds from a block off drift up the nine floors to the roof.
Yet with no expense spared at the Montage Beverly Hills, it's hard not to be impressed. The 201-room hotel, in a Spanish Colonial revival design, has a lavish 20,000-square-foot spa with 17 treatment rooms, salon, fitness center, and yoga and Pilates studio that dwarfs anything offered by the competition. Its public spaces, combining classic furnishings and Moroccan touches, are pristine and polished, and its central location makes it easy to walk a few steps to stores and restaurants -- a very rare thing anywhere around L.A. Managers, concierges and engineers snap to it when presented with problems, in our case ranging from a broken air conditioner to a no-show massage therapist.
Just breaking into Beverly Hills, where a new hotel hadn't been built in 16 years, was a feat in itself. After finding a site that was home to a parking lot and some derelict buildings -- an eyesore in the city's Golden Triangle shopping area -- the Montage won approval in part by offering to build an adjacent public park, office building and garage for the city. Then, a "Campaign to Save Beverly Hills," with some funding from rivals, tried to stymie the project by forcing a voter referendum. The Montage prevailed and broke ground in 2005, investing $300 million.
When it finally opened last November, though, the economy was entering a free-fall; the hotel had to reduce starting rates for a double room to $395 nightly from a planned range of $480 to $595. Moreover, the Montage is the new kid on the block in a market saturated with luxury properties, each with their own loyal clientele, including the Peninsula, with its entertainment industry power-broker scene, and the Beverly Hills Hotel, with its pink façade, bungalows and storied Polo Lounge.
Beverly Hills Stop
The competition spiffs up in and around L.A.'s toniest neighborhood.
The Beverly Hills Hotel
The historic "Pink Palace," on 12 acres on Sunset Boulevard, is building two new state-of-the-art "super bungalows" on its existing tennis courts with private pools, refurbishing its 201 rooms and suites and upgrading technology throughout the hotel
A lushly landscaped 92-room hideaway in Bel-Air, also on 12 acres in an exclusive residential enclave, is opening a new La Prairie spa later this year, has a new general manager and a new chef and plans renovations to its gardens, rooms and restaurants.
The Beverly Hilton
This 50-year-old property, where Trader Vic's served up the original Mai Tai and Esther Williams inaugurated the pool half a century ago, completed an $80 million renovation last year of its 570 rooms and public spaces; it hosts many red carpet events such as the Golden Globe Awards
SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills
Starwood converted a Le Meridien hotel just outside of Beverly Hills into one of its Luxury Collection hotels, which opened last November with 297 guest rooms, a spa and rooftop pool.
Whether die-hard fans of those hotels will try something new remains to be seen. Montage chief executive Alan Fuerstman says the hotel is already getting some loyalists of its own, with up to 20% of its clientele on return visits. And the hotel hired as its general manager someone with excellent contacts in town: Ali Kasicki, who ran the swank Peninsula Beverly Hills for years. Bruce Baltin, a travel expert at PKF Consulting, says that while occupancy in Beverly Hills fell to 71.7% in February from 80.1% in the year-earlier month, hotels catering to the luxury market, including the Montage, are doing relatively well compared to the rest of the industry.
That's one reason Mr. Fuerstman says Beverly Hills still seems like the perfect place to expand the Montage brand. (The group is also opening a ski resort next fall in Deer Valley, Utah, and a hotel in Mexico's Los Cabos in 2012.) He also remains optimistic about the potential to sell 20 residences at the Montage Beverly Hills at prices ranging from $5 million to $20 million. As for the hotel, he says that despite the economy, "we are capturing our fair market share, and when things rebound, we know where we'll be." The aim, he adds, is to appeal to guests who want creature comforts "but feel put off by the pretentiousness that accompanies most luxury hotels."
I was a little worried on that score, since an entertainment-industry friend advised me that he'd been to the Montage for lunch and found it exactly that: pretentious. True, the main dining room, where lunch and breakfast are served, could lighten up a little. And a wood-paneled dining venue, Muse, seemed so formal that we skipped it. But the staff is on the ball and responsive, the breakfasts excellent. The dining room looks out across the public park (pretty but mostly unoccupied when we were there) to the new low-rise office building, which has a cupola tower that looks like it could be on a Florentine church, and is built to look like part of the Montage complex. Eerily empty, it awaits office and retail tenants.
Our favorite hotel dining place was the rooftop Conservatory Grill, next to the pool but covered by tarps that shielded both the sun and the more unsightly parts of the view. (From some angles the roof deck does offer some nice vistas of the Hollywood Hills.) A late breakfast starts there at 9:30, and we had a pleasant lunch served by a nice young waiter who agreed to reconstruct a turkey club on the menu to our specifications.
Some packages include a spa credit and breakfast; suites booked at $950 and up include use of a Mercedes. We booked a deluxe double at $625, and our travel agent secured an upgrade to a garden suite. It was spacious, but the folding doors that closed off the living area from the bedroom had no handles and weighed a ton, which made them hard to move. The glass panes covered with sheer curtains were neither soundproof nor light-proof. There were two big flat-panel TVs, and sliding glass doors led to a terrace, which looked out over a blank, rather antiseptic courtyard and the dome of the empty office building. Mr. Kasicki, the manager, says the courtyard will soon be better landscaped with places to sit and catch the sun.
The room, with gold and cream fabrics and carpet, was comfortable, though it took us a while to figure out the high-tech switches and buttons for the lights, drapes and sheers. I had to call the operator to figure out how to turn off the light in the desk, but I was thrilled with its pop-up panel with several electrical outlets, unlike most hotels where you have to crawl under the desk or unplug lamps to power your various devices.
The spacious marble bathroom had a built-in TV above the tub, a separate shower with both a rainfall fixture and regular showerhead, and nice pomegranate-scented toiletries from a brand called Agraria. Unfortunately, the bathroom also had a not-so-great scent of mildew in the water closet, which we mentioned to the front desk. We never heard back about that one, but the manager, Mr. Kasicki, later told me that because the building is so new and not all the rooms have been regularly used, water buildup in the pipes has caused that problem in some rooms. He says the issue is being resolved by plumbing-maintenance staff.
We also had a problem with the air conditioning, which wasn't on when we checked into the room, making it hot and stuffy. The staffer who showed us to the room worked the controls, but hours later, when we returned, the A/C was just blowing air. Fortunately two engineers sent to fix it got into the works in the closet and found a sensor to adjust, and it seemed to work fine after that.
I arranged to meet my friend Michele at the spa, where we each booked a 90-minute hot stone massage followed by an exfoliating scrub and a Vichy shower to rinse it off. Michele was whisked away, but after cooling my heels for about 10 minutes, I was told that my therapist was late, and when I asked again five minutes later, that she had been in a car accident. (She was OK, but wasn't going to make it to work.)
A spa manager appeared and apologized profusely, offering me a complimentary 90-minute massage, since no one else trained in the hot-stone-scrub-shower treatment was around. As it happened, I loved the massage, and Michele said I didn't miss much with the other treatment, which was too much shower and not enough massage and scrub.
The spa has spacious locker rooms with sauna, steam rooms and plunge pool. One level down, there's a co-ed relaxation area and a giant bubbling mineral pool. The gym, with its treadmills with built-in touch-screen TVs and holders to charge your iPod, pleased my husband. One disadvantage of the rooftop pool, besides the feeling that people are peering down at you from the office tower: It wasn't long enough to swim laps, and the fountain sprays kept hitting me in the face as I was trying to.
On our last evening, we wandered into the hotel's spacious lobby lounge, with its intimate library off to one side, fireplace and cozy seating areas. A piano player entertained a full house of folks having after-dinner drinks and coffee. In fact, after waiting a while to be served we headed upstairs and ordered tea from room service, which came promptly. But I was glad that the joint was jumping. I guess there's always room for a little more competition, even in Beverly Hills.