Hotel Developer Wants High Five

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The hotel industry is ruled by stars. Developer Paul Makarechian is fixated on five.

Four, he says, is not enough. A four-star rating for Makarechian's new St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point would mean excellent rather than superior. With four stars, guests get bellmen who obtain their name from luggage tags and use it. With five, guests get bellmen who can also make small talk.

With four stars, rooms have hypoallergenic linens, no fewer than 14 hangers, fresh flowers and 4-ounce bath supplies. With five, rooms have 300-thread count bed sheets, padded hangers in an illuminated closet, digital bathroom scales, flowers and fresh fruit.

"These things matter, you know," says the 27-year-old Makarechian. "We know they do."

So valued is the Mobil Travel Guide's five-star hotel rating--the guide is widely regarded as the industry's authoritative voice--that upscale properties spend millions of dollars trying to meet its criteria, which are both definite and dubious. Only 25 properties in the country earned the coveted award this year, compared with more than 200 that hold four-star status.

Hotel operators say earning the fifth star can boost revenue by as much as 20% because they can raise room rates while attracting more guests. But keeping the rank is far more difficult.

Take the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, which dropped to a four-star rating four unlucky years ago. For a full decade previously, the Ritz had been the only five-star hotel in Orange County, or south of Beverly Hills for that matter. But try as it has, the 393-room hotel hasn't been able to regain Mobil's top rating.

"We're always striving for that fifth star, because it is an honor," says Ritz spokeswoman Lisa Poppen, noting the hotel was never told, as is Mobil's policy, why it was demoted. "But so much of the rating process is subjective. What's immaculate housekeeping compared to superior housekeeping? In many ways, a bed is a bed is a bed, but at the Ritz Carlton, it's the experience of staying here that makes us first-class."

Just up the hill and barely out of sight of the Ritz, Makarechian is preoccupied with the nuances between excellence and superiority, as he prepares to open his 400-room resort next month. The St. Regis is the first new luxury hotel on the West Coast in a decade, and it's opening at a time when the high-end lodging market is struggling with a listless economy.

But hotel experts are optimistic about the resort's future, and county officials are hoping it will help turn the rolling stretch of coastline in South Orange County into a Riviera-like destination. At a starting room rate of $375 to $600 per night for single and double rooms (suites will go for $1,000 or more), the St. Regis is already billing itself as a five-star property.

From it perch above the coast-hugging Ritz, the St. Regis sports Tuscan-style stone columns, waterfalls, ocean views and Mediterranean gardens. There are 4,500 tons of crushed, white marble on the bunkers of the resort's golf course (which it will share with the Ritz), underwater sound systems in the swimming pools and cabanas equipped with Internet terminals, satellite TVs, microwaves and toasters. Makarechian swears that guests will either see or hear water from any direction they face on the hotel grounds.

Of Mobil's five-star rating, Makarechian swears: "Oh, we'll get it. I'm not at all worried."

Never mind that it is Makarechian's first hotel project, or that Mobil officials say it's extremely rare for a property to earn five stars during its first year of review.

The historic Beverly Hills Hotel, where guests have a choice in the color of their room's flowers, earned its five-star rating just five years ago, and managers say they now spend $4 million annually on training and improvements aimed at keeping it. Four other California hotels have five-star status--L'Ermitage and The Peninsula in Beverly Hills, Chateau du Sureau in Oakhurst and the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco.

"We make an incredible investment in being able to say we are a five-star hotel," says Diana Daniele, Beverly Hills Hotel spokeswoman. "That last star makes a great difference to our clients, because our clients expect and deserve perfection."

The stars mean little to most consumers. More people are familiar with the diamond ratings by the American Automobile Assn., which is less prickly than Mobil and gives its highest rating to more than twice as many hotels. AAA inspectors reveal themselves at the end of their visits, while Mobil's never inform the property of their presence, and very little about their overall findings.

Besides, despite the intense effort by upscale properties to snare the stars, the Hotel and Motel Assn. reported last year that more than half of all hotel stays fall in the "budget motel" category, where rooms cost less than $60 per night.

"These big, fancy resorts are nothing but playthings for the rich," scoffs Arthur Frommer. The editor of Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine calls the five-star system "a five-star joke."

"Normal people don't stay there, and yet there's always this big to-do about them," he says. "I have traveled the world over and I regard one five-star hotel no differently than a four-star one."

The line between Mobil's four-and five-star ratings is razor-thin. The differences, to many hotel operators, seem maddeningly subtle. Four-star hotels have 24-hour front-desk service. But five-star hotels also have around-the-clock room service, concierge and bell-desk service, and employees who do not allow phones to ring more than three times.

Inspectors for Mobil, which has been rating hotels for 43 years, visit each property unannounced and consider such things as the plushness of the towels, speed of the elevators and whether the front-desk worker returns a credit card to the guest's hand rather than sliding it across the counter.

They look for dust on the door hinges, marble floors and recessed pay phones in the lobby. It helps if there are bathroom attendants and impeccable landscaping. The bellman should point out the nearest emergency exits when escorting guests to their room.

"Rarely, unless it's related to safety or hygiene, will a property lose a star based on one employee or one issue," said Mobil spokeswoman Sandy Duhe. "But yes, the guidelines are strict. It wouldn't be the most prestigious award in the industry if they weren't."

So Makarechian presses on, molding his $350-million St. Regis into the latest property of indulgence--over-the-top even by California's lofty standards. He learned the business of giving the wealthy what they want from his father, Hadi Makarechian, who builds $6-million, off-the-rack mansions up and down the coast.

Now the younger Makarechian walks through the St. Regis a dozen times a week, inspecting his inspectors' inspections. In one meeting room, sprays of round, red stickers dot the blinding white wood trim--evidence of imperfections that are hardly perceptible.

In the guest rooms, he points to the standard 32-inch, flat-screen TVs and motion sensors that let hotel workers know without knocking whether a guest is present--effectively eliminating the "do not disturb" sign. There are goose down comforters, sweeping tapestries and duvet covers with elaborate stitching to match the fabric-draped headboards.

"If you're going to build a five-star luxury resort hotel that will outdo every other deluxe hotel on the planet, you don't scrimp on sheets," he says. "You don't scrimp on anything."

Stars in Their Eyes

Developers of a $350-million resort hope to earn a coveted 5-star rating when the 400-room property opens in July.

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