Four Seasons Baltimore offers luxury, boost for tourism

As the Four Seasons Baltimore opened to its first guests Monday, the city's newest waterfront hotel looked forward to many more.

Over a dozen couples have booked weddings, companies have set up corporate accounts, and business is strong for year-end holiday events, said Julien Carralero, the hotel's general manager. Even the $6,000-a-night Royal Suite has potential takers, he said.

The hotel even has its sights set on a specialized niche: entertainers and other celebrities seeking privacy and pampering.

"I've opened many hotels and have never seen this demand," said Carralero, who opened the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace in Budapest, where he served as general manager for nine years, and also managed the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris.

The $200 million luxury hotel opens as the U.S. travel industry is recovering slowly. But the hotel — long planned as one of the final pieces of the Harbor East neighborhood of offices, condos, apartments and shops just east of the Inner Harbor — should help boost tourism downtown, experts said.

The opening of the hotel, one of five in Harbor East, also comes on the heels of a double whammy: the recession and a hotel building boom in Baltimore. Average hotel occupancy in downtown Baltimore has declined over the past couple of years, though business has been recovering along with the economy. Occupancy grew 3 percent to just over 60 percent in 2010 over the previous year.

Business travel, driven by strong corporate earnings, has been the first tourism segment to recover, followed by group and convention business, which is growing slowly, said Rod Petrik, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus in Baltimore, who added that the leisure segment has remained flat. Experts say tourism nationwide is not likely to recover fully until at least 2013.

"The concern with the downtown marketplace is we probably went from having too few hotel rooms to having too many in a matter of a few years," Petrik said.

Baltimore's biggest hotel — the city-owned, 757-room Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel — opened in 2008 with a goal of boosting convention center business.

"Now that we have the rooms … [downtown] is going to go through a couple of tough years with oversupply," which can slow the growth in room rates, Petrik said.

The 256-room Four Seasons, just steps from the harbor, offers rooms and suites with waterfront views and features such as Blu-ray DVD players, 40-inch LCD TVs and marble baths with soaking tubs. Guests have plenty of options: a spa and fitness center; an elevated deck with an infinity pool, hot tubs and cabanas; and a tavern and café. Rates range from $279 to $1,500 per night for most rooms.

"It's a positive reflection of downtown Baltimore's health that we have continued to open up new product" in a still-struggling economy, said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. "It's always in downtown's benefit to add a high-caliber hotel like the Four Seasons."

With the Hotel Monaco, an upscale boutique hotel in the center of downtown, and the Four Seasons on the waterfront, he said, Baltimore has "two strong pillars for high-end travelers."

Though it touts itself as an urban resort, the Four Seasons is unlikely to attract guests who come just for the hotel, Petrik said.

The hotel will likely appeal to a mix of business travelers, downtown tourists, convention-goers seeking high-end accommodations, and patients undergoing long-term care at nearby medical facilities, he said.

"I don't think that the Four Seasons is a destination unto itself," Petrik said. "It will be the highest-priced hotel in the city. It remains to be seen whether Baltimore can support a hotel like the Four Seasons."

The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, which operates the hotel, as well as H&S Properties Development Corp. and city tourism officials are all betting on the hotel's success.

"I look at the Four Seasons as balancing out our entire [hotel] package," said Tom Noonan, president and chief executive of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism and convention bureau.

Continued Noonan: "What I tell customers, when they're looking at us as a convention destination, is: 'Thirty years ago you had fish markets and fruit stands. … Thirty years later you have Ritz-Carlton [condominiums] on the left and on the right is Four Seasons.' And that's symbolic of how much the city has changed. Those are two higher-end brands and both are in downtown Baltimore."

Noonan said he expected the Four Seasons would inspire other area hotels, much as the Hilton did when it opened as a convention center hotel.

"When Hilton came in, everyone else had to sharpen their game and [many] did renovations," Noonan said. "I don't think this hotel will have a huge impact on occupancy. They will create some of their own business."

Downtown Baltimore had more than 7,800 hotel rooms at the end of 2010, including 160 rooms added that year, according to the Downtown Partnership.

Downtown will likely see little in the way of new hotels in the foreseeable future, unless they are small projects or already have gotten under way, Fowler said.

"For now we have a sufficient number of hotel rooms to satisfy the needs of our travelers and visitors," he said.

Carralero says the Four Seasons in Baltimore is like no other Four Seasons in appearance. The contemporary, 18-story glass tower is full of Italian glass chandeliers, marble accents, wood floors and earth tones set off by abstract paintings in primary colors.

Original plans called for a total of 44 stories, with condominiums atop the hotel. The developer initially hoped to build the hotel and condos together but decided in 2009 to delay the condo portion until the residential real estate market improved.

Off the lobby are separate elevators for future condo residents. Four Seasons officials said they hope to release details about the condo construction after the hotel has been open for a while.

Touring the property before the opening, Carralero's uncompromising eye was on display: He stopped to adjust a vase of fresh flowers, plucked lint from the carpet and adjusted a bench outside the spa. Striding through the hotel, he greeted dozens of workers and managers by name. In a ballroom he chatted with a man whose daughter plans to be married there next spring.

"Wherever you go, things need to be done," Carralero said. "There are a billion things to do."

Even the 16th-floor Royal Suite — the hotel's largest guest quarters — wasn't perfect yet. Complete with marble foyer, living and dining rooms, office, media room and service pantry, the suite needed a few minor adjustments. (The king-size bed wasn't exactly aligned under the artwork, among other things.)

The suite, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, has already generated interest. One potential guest is a European who plans to be in Baltimore this winter for medical treatment, Carralero said.

The hotel's 250 employees have spent weeks in training, learning the company's culture and engaging in role-playing exercises to prepare them to interact with guests. Workers have practiced everything from serving coffee in the cafe to giving manicures in the spa.

The hotel, which is opening with introductory room rate specials, should be about 30 percent occupied in its first week, Carralero said.

The result of years of planning, design and construction is true to the Four Seasons' vision, said Paul Harris, construction manager of the Baltimore project for the company.

"It's the pearl in the oyster of the harbor," he said. "It's the crown jewel."