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Photography by Bob Coscarelli; Photo Styling by Taryn Bickley
A night on the town at The Ritz-Carlton: Relax in a one-bedroom Premier Suite.
Every morning, Hans Willimann, the general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, starts his workday with Bircher muesli cereal and a nine o’clock SAG meeting—a staff alert about VIP guests who might drop $10,000 in a night or need an extra room for their luggage or take offense if their children’s names are not pronounced correctly.
The acronym SAG stands for “special attention guest” and, in simple terms, refers to anyone whose stay requires extra preparation. The guest could be a movie star, of course, but also anyone who travels with a pet or has stayed at the hotel more than a few times. At the Four Seasons, SAG meetings run through special needs and pleasures, whether requested in advance by the guest or sniffed out through research by the hotel. The information resides in a database and gets passed around on spreadsheets.
The meeting is orderly and calm, and the Four Seasons staffers bring enough cool experience to bear that you might never suspect the SAG meeting is the closest thing to a war room in a citywide competition for big-spending travelers—VIPs, celebrities, and anyone else who can afford rooms ranging from $500 to $7,500 a night. The battle involves the city’s most expensive hotels (the Four Seasons, The Peninsula Chicago, The Ritz-Carlton Chicago, and the Park Hyatt Chicago) and newcomers looking to attract the same type of client (the Trump International Hotel & Tower and the soon-to-arrive Elysian Hotel and Private Residences; Mandarin Oriental Tower, Chicago; and Shangri-La Hotel Chicago). Others, including Canyon Ranch Living—Chicago and The Waldorf-Astoria, have plans to join the competition but have yet to break ground.
The rivals are leading with their strengths. The Trump Hotel promises the largest suites in the city, and the Mandarin Oriental and the Shangri-La bring internationally recognized brands, five-star ratings, and a reputation for Asian service—bend-over-backward but quiet hospitality. The city’s older hotels are countering with renovations and new programs. The Park Hyatt, for example, has recently rolled out a personal butler service, which assigns a well-dressed servant to wait on VIP guests. (One popular option: butlers drawing guests an evening bath.)
Within five years, nearly a dozen hotels could be fighting for what hoteliers say is the top 2 to 5 percent of the market. “Chicago is a vibrant city,” says Donald Trump, “and the luxury market has been underserved."
Hotel analysts say that the influx of high-end rivals reflects a combination of developments: national occupancy rates surging toward pre-9/11 levels; local occupancy rates rising faster than the national average; the eagerness of financiers to get behind luxury hotels; and the downtown’s tourist-friendly transformation in the past decade. The power of a hotelier’s ego comes into play, too. “They honestly think they can step in, and new business will move to them, or they think that their existing clientele will follow them to Chicago,” says Ted Mandigo, a hotel industry consultant. “But the big question is whether or not there really is a lot of new business to be created.”
Consider the supply: There are about 30,000 hotel rooms in downtown Chicago, about 1,300 of which belong to the Four Seasons, The Ritz-Carlton, the Park Hyatt, and The Peninsula, the high-end properties with an undisputed place in the upper-market niche because they have minimum nightly rates of about $500 and a history of achieving, or coming close to, the industry’s most coveted hotel ratings: five stars in the Mobil Travel Guide and five diamonds in the rival AAA guide. Over the years, these four hotels have competed against one another, but there seemed to be enough guests to go around. There was also enough of a difference in, say, the décor, attitude, and cuisine of one hotel to distinguish it from the others. “We compete,” says Rick Segal, the managing director of the Park Hyatt Hotels. “But more than compete, we have become admirers of one another. There are three or four wonderful hotels here. One is playing classical music, the other is playing folk, the other is playing rock, and people stayed with their favorite music and never switched.”