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Staying ahead of the curve

Vincent is a Times staff writer.

In case you were worried that flamboyant nightclub creator Sam Nazarian wasn’t going to go sufficiently over the top putting together his new SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, rest assured. He did.

The man who built paparazzi-patrolled clubs such as Hyde Lounge and Area couldn’t very well open up an inoffensively beige hotel catering to corporate conventioneers. Nor could he conform to the smooth lines and stately bearing of traditional five-star inns.

With its doors opening today to the public, Nazarian’s first SLS Hotel is its own organism, at once alluring and unnerving. The chairs have been designed in exactly 177 styles, and wait, is that a solid-glass deer head mounted over that shiny fireplace? It is, and the lamp stand next to it looks like a chromed assault rifle.

There is something eye-catching in every direction, much of it breakable and impossible to neatly categorize. It’s cluttered Victorian parlor combined with traditional and modern European design elements -- plus a dash of Liberace.

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The tall, 33-year-old Nazarian wore a dark business suit that stood in contrast to the whimsical decor as he showed a visitor around the labyrinthine restaurant and cocktail lobby and explained that the SLS sensibility is “a cross between playfulness and sophistication.”

How well that sensibility will wear with people over the long run will be the big question for the emerging hotelier, who until now has been best known for white-hot dance clubs where young celebrities want to be seen.

Nazarian has been a millionaire himself since his early 20s, he has said. He established his business reputation as head of a Nextel software distributorship. By the early 2000s the local native and Beverly Hills High School grad was investing his family’s assets in residential real estate.

He opened his first nightclub, Shelter, in 2003 on Sunset Boulevard, and the “Mad Max"-themed venue was soon attracting stars including Denzel Washington, Jennifer Lopez and Christian Slater.

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Such clubs have fruit-fly life spans compared with most businesses, however, with 18 months considered a good run. Nazarian’s gift has been to quickly invent another new must-see club, sometimes in the same building as one of his old ones.

But it typically takes three years for a new hotel to get established and stabilize its income, industry experts say, and the hotel business right now is taking a collective gasp. After recovering from some lean years after 2001, it enjoyed a sustained financial boom that just came to an end.

Hotel occupancy and room revenue fell in the third quarter for the first time since the middle of 1993, according to Smith Travel Research. The stock prices of publicly traded hotel companies that own some of the best properties in the country fell as much as 90% from their recent peaks.

“High-end customers have closed their wallets as well,” said investment banker Donald Wise of Johnson Capital. With corporations reining in travel expenses and even well-to-do families reluctant to spend, the hotel business will see revenue and occupancy stay depressed through 2010 if the nation’s recession is deep enough, Wise said.

Nazarian said the SLS was a long-term family investment and that he believed he had an appropriate strategy for the times, which includes going after customers who might otherwise stay in a more mainstream five-star hotel. “We want to deliver a value proposition in the luxury market,” he said, slightly undercutting the nearby Four Seasons in prices and “taking the design element one step further.”

Rooms at the SLS on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles start at about $400, with a few large suites reaching $2,500 and $5,000 a night.

Nazarian’s designer is French architect Philippe Starck, who has an international reputation as a designer of hotel interiors, furniture and consumer products. Among the unusual elements of the SLS Hotel are dual lobbies -- one for overnight guests that is comparatively cozy and a grander entrance for visitors to the shops, restaurants and bar.

“You shouldn’t have to carry your luggage through a huge party to check in,” Nazarian said.

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Jumping bar scenes are exactly what made some boutique hotels popular in recent years, but Nazarian will not have a nightclub at the SLS because he wants to reach a broader demographic than just young singles. It does have banquet rooms, however, where he plans to book local events starting with his nephew’s bar mitzvah.

He has by no means given up on Hollywood flair, though. A fleet of Cadillac Escalades and Mercedes vans will ferry guests to Nazarian’s clubs. The hotel’s sumptuous private dining room has a special entrance for celebrities who don’t want to schlep through the main lobby where ordinary folks are dining on such delicacies as caviar with steamed buns and creme fraiche, or ham from pigs raised only on acorns.

The over-the-top menu has been cooked up by Spanish chef Jose Andres, who is known for his small-plate specialties.

SLS hotels will be operated as part of the Luxury Collection division of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which runs 65 hotels in 26 countries. The next SLS will be the redeveloped Ritz Plaza in Miami, scheduled to open late next year.

The SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills opened as Hotel Nikko in 1991. Le Meridien bought the property at 465 S. La Cienega Blvd. in 1999 and Nazarian purchased it for $88 million in 2005. He estimates that he spent $100 million on improvements turning it into the SLS.

That includes some of the latest hotel luxuries, such as pool tables on every floor and mirror-like panels in the rooms that look like design elements. With the push of a button, television broadcasts will appear or disappear and nothing resembling a television can ever be seen. The hotel also has seven suites with imported Italian fitness equipment installed and in-room trainers on call.

Nazarian’s company, SBE, has also produced films including “Down in the Valley” starring Edward Norton in 2005 and “Mr. Brooks” starring Kevin Costner last year. It also owns Los Angeles-area restaurants Katsuya, Foxtail and the Abbey, plus the Sahara Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

Longtime Los Angeles nightclub operator and restaurateur Elizabeth Peterson has been watching Nazarian evolve as a businessman.

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“He did his wild and crazy thing with Prey and Shelter,” she said, referring to two of Nazarian’s earlier clubs. “You started seeing a change with Hyde -- it’s quieter. Then there was Katsuya. He’s growing and broadening his base.”

Peterson sees Nazarian among a young crop of Los Angeles hoteliers including Andre Balazs of Standard Hotels and Avi Brosh of Pali House who are creating hybrid hotels that appeal to their generation.

“The hipsters are growing up,” she said, “and they want something different.”

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roger.vincent@latimes.com


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