Inn Rivalry : Warner Center Hilton, Marriott Hotels Prepare for Battle of Beds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

McDonald's versus Burger King. Hertz and Avis. IBM and Apple Computer. All are great corporate rivalries.

And in the hotel trade wars, Marriott and Hilton--two of the nation's leading luxury hotel companies--constantly struggle to put more roofs over the heads of more sleeping executives.

Now there's a hotel battle under way in Woodland Hills. For 3 1/2 years, the 473-room Warner Center Marriott hotel, which is owned by an arm of the Washington-based Marriott Corp., has pretty much had the luxury hotel business to itself in the west San Fernando Valley. It caters to droves of business travelers attracted by the nearby corporate offices of companies such as Blue Cross of California and Rockwell's Rocketdyne operation.

But Marriott's monopoly will come to an end Nov. 13, when the 333-room Warner Center Hilton and Towers--a Hilton franchise owned by an arm of Tucson Electric Power Co.--plans to open just a mile away.

Room rates at the hotels will be in the same neighborhood too. The Hilton's will start at $110 a night, while Marriott's go for $128 and up. After matching the Marriott's locale and prices, the Hilton is poised to compete with Marriott, cuisine against cuisine, VIP lounge against VIP lounge.

The general managers of the Hilton and the Marriott say their hotels are in the Warner Center area because there is plenty of demand for deluxe hotel space, and so one new hotel in the area won't make for an oversupply. "Adding another first-class hotel will produce more business for the area," said Rene Boskoff, general manager of the Marriott.

But that doesn't rule out a friendly rivalry.

"There are many fine hotels in this area," said James Perrin, the Warner Center Hilton's marketing and sales director. But "the Warner Center Hilton and Towers is the most unique and the most special."

Nationwide the hotel average occupancy rate was 66% in 1988, and Boskoff said his Marriott's occupancy rate runs a little bit more than 70%. In other words, Boskoff doesn't have a huge cushion if a rival starts taking away some of his business.

In hopes of getting off to a fast start, the Hilton staff made it a point to snoop around the Warner Center Marriott to identify what kind of customers stay overnight and rent rooms for special events. After all, said Herb Smith, the local Hilton general manager and vice president, he and other staffers had to stay at the Marriott and other area hotels when they were first visiting the Valley. Besides, "nobody's going to sit around and send you a copy of their function sheets," Smith said.

Hilton and Marriott often end up with hotels in the same locales--less to mimic each other than because the neighborhoods look like promising sites for luxury hotels, said industry analyst Joseph Doyle of Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. in New York. But guests at hotels so close to each other often shop around, forcing the managements into a rivalry whether they like it or not, Doyle said.

Indeed, one of the Warner Center Marriott's old customers plans to divide up some of its business. Most visitors to Blue Cross of California's Warner Center offices have stayed at the Marriott since it opened early in 1986, according to Carol Kramer, a spokeswoman for the health insurance company. But the Marriott hasn't won Blue Cross' undying loyalty. Because there have been times when the Marriott had no rooms available, the company is negotiating a corporate rate with the Woodland Hills Hilton. "It gives us more flexibility," Kramer said.

So while the Hilton stocks in 10,450 plates, 4,662 coat hangers, 1,728 pillowcases--not to mention 500 copies of Hilton founder Conrad Hilton's autobiography, "Be My Guest"--both hotels will try to outdo the other as the more friendly, helpful, luxurious and respectful. Example: Concierges will fetch dry-cleaning for guests and arrange limousine service.

As for claims to uniqueness, the Hilton boasts of its connection with the Trillium office and retail complex next door, while the Marriott says its ballroom can accommodate 300 more guests than the Hilton's.

So which hotel will win the battle of Woodland Hills? "Why don't we let the guests decide?" the Marriott's Boskoff said.

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