Upscale Digs Outperform the Others All Four Seasons

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The San Fernando Valley doesn't have the concentration of swank and trendy hotels of the Westside, but there are a few establishments here that more than hold their own in the heated competition for business and leisure patrons.

The two properties on the bluff in Universal City, adjacent to Universal Studios--the Universal City Hilton and Towers and the Sheraton Universal--outperform the market in occupancy rates and daily room rates. And in the West Valley, the Warner Center Marriott has built ties to the community to make itself a key site for local business gatherings.

Industry analysts say the Valley's top hotel rooms are in Universal City, where the proximity to theaters, the Universal Studios theme park and CityWalk, and numerous entertainment industry offices and studio lots allows innkeepers to charge premium rates.

The Universal City Sheraton and Hilton have occupancy rates near 80%, exceeding the 72.5% average occupancy rate (through May) of the 15 Valley hotels tracked by PKF Consulting Inc., according to PKF associate Pam Greacen.

"They see themselves as competing more against Los Angeles [hotels] because of the type of business they do," Greacen said.

Up to 75% of the guests are corporate travelers, she said, who pay premium prices. The Universal City hotels fetch $130 to $150 a night, compared to $104 for the average Valley hotel, Greacen said. (The average downtown hotel room goes for about $112, according to PKF).

Both properties benefit from events at Universal City. Last May, when the 1,500 people attending the Academy of Country Music Awards special filed out of the three-hour taping at the adjacent Universal Amphitheater, the Nashville stars didn't trek to the high-profile digs of the Four Seasons or the Beverly Wilshire but to the adjacent Universal City Hilton and Towers.

The group held its after-show shindig at the hotel's 16,000-square-foot Sierra Ballroom for the eighth year.

This is only one of the hotel's many Tinseltown ties. Guests of "Tonight With Jay Leno" stay at the 483-room Universal City Hilton and Towers, and it's a frequent home away from home for execs visiting the Walt Disney Co. in Burbank, for example.

And legendary blues man B.B. King, who owns a club and restaurant on CityWalk, is a frequent guest in the $1,400-a-night presidential suite on the 24th floor.

Hilton execs say other stars (whom they won't name) often book rooms for weeks at a time while shooting at nearby studio lots. To help attract such customers, the hotel offers around-the-clock security, 24-hour room service, a private entrance, a doctor on call and a helicopter pad on the roof.

Even rank-and-file guests at the Universal City Hilton and Towers sometimes get star treatment.

Farid Kalantar, the hotel's assistant food and beverage director, recalls that one recent guest placed a special request for vegetable juice--not V-8 or some other packaged brand, but a freshly squeezed concoction from her own recipe requiring eggplant, celery, parsley and carrots.

She also wanted it delivered three times a day.

Kalantar obliged, even going so far as to purchase a special juicer. The client, he added, protested the $4 per glass charge but paid it anyway.

Directly below the Hilton, the older Sheraton Universal recently underwent a $3-million renovation. The 30-year-old hotel introduced new furniture and a more contemporary color scheme in its 442 rooms and lobby.

As at the Hilton nearby, there is a year-round schedule of business groups and meetings at the Sheraton Universal, but it also hosts some regular show-biz events, the annual Dupre ballroom dancing competition and the "Little Miss America" pageant in the main ballroom.

Burbank-based Dick Clark Productions Inc., the independent TV production company headed by the legendary host of "American Bandstand," has for years held its annual Christmas party at the Sheraton Universal's roof garden, with spectacular floor-to-ceiling views of the Valley.

"We love the lights," said Dick Clark spokeswoman Logan Carr.

Since its core customers are business travelers, the Sheraton Universal has gone to some lengths to satisfy the special needs of corporate guests. There are 52 "smart rooms" on the property: upgraded accommodations containing in-room printers, fax machines and copiers, plus larger desk areas, better lighting and ergonomic chairs. Those rooms command an extra $25 above the regular room rate.

"It's kind of like an office in your room," said Deborah Bernstein, spokeswoman at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Sheraton's White Plains, New York-based corporate parent.

At the western end of the Valley, in Woodland Hills, the 14-year-old Warner Center Marriott seems to be the Valley's business address. One of the hotel's biggest assets is its location, adjacent to the Warner Center business park at 21850 Oxnard St.

General Manager Terry Alder said the hotel rents about 37,000 group rooms (involving 10 or more guests) annually, and counts executives from the health-care, pharmaceutical and computer software industries, as well as lawyers, among its regular business-group customers.

The hotel has worked hard to develop a Valley identity, a practice in keeping with Marriott's corporate philosophy stressing community involvement.

The Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. has held its annual business forecast meeting at the Marriott for the past four years, and frequently holds regular meetings there as well.

"They're pros," said Alan Ungar, co-chair of VICA's federal issues committee. 'When something goes wrong, they fix it immediately."

Alder, in place for only 10 months, has become a community booster in a hurry. He's a director of the Valley Cultural Center, which promotes area arts, and an executive director of the Woodland Hills Chamber of Commerce. The hotel donated $23,000 in in-kind services to the Valley Cultural Center to help put on, among other things, the free concerts that take place in the adjacent Warner Park.

The Marriott has also hosted the annual Fernando and Golden Horn Awards for Valley community and arts leaders.

Business travelers, however, make up 80% of its customer base. The hotel has a corporate rate of $144 a night, plus an extra $10 to $15 a night for a room on one of two concierge floors with special services.

The hotel, remodeled after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, is in the throes of another remodel as part of its regular cycle of updating. Warner Center Marriott's 463 rooms are receiving new carpets, drapes, furniture, bedspreads and 25-inch TVs to replace its 21-inch sets. The hotel has redone 16 rooms so far and expects to have 360 done by Sept. 15.

Also competing for the business traveler and corporate event dollar in the area is the 318-room Warner Center Hilton & Towers at 6320 Canoga Ave. in Woodland Hills. It books a fair share of local area business meetings, but bigger events inevitably go the Marriott since the Hilton's smaller ballrooms can accommodate only 300 guests for lunch and dinner events.

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