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Attracting a classier clientele

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - Every war has a hotel.

In Saigon, it was the Continental-Palace, a graceful colonial building famed for the "Continental Shelf," a veranda bar that was the meeting place for journalists and the military.

In Beirut, it was the Commodore, which featured a parrot that could imitate incoming artillery rounds and telex machines that never broke down. In Baghdad it was the Al-Rashid with a mosaic of former President George Bush that you had to step on to get into the lobby.

And in Belgrade during the 78-day Western air war against Yugoslavia in 1999, it was the Hyatt Regency. The Hyatt was a den of wartime intrigue, a gossip pit that swirled with journalists, secret police, gangsters and do-gooders. It was a country within a country, as the movable civilization of international journalists invaded to report a story.

Two years later, the hotel still looks the same with its touches of gold, glamour and grace and its pleasant force of uniformed bellmen, waiters and waitresses.

But the Hyatt is not a haven for the chroniclers and agents of despair anymore. Now it is a place of hope. The hotel is preparing to play host for business conferences. Its rooms are now filled with businessmen and diplomats, who pay as much as $220 a night. U.S. foreign service staff members have worked out of the hotel since last fall, with repair work continuing on the embassy, which was destroyed by demonstrators during the war.

And most of the journalists are gone, the surest sign that Yugoslavia is getting back to normal.

"There is a lot of business to come here," says Bojan Stevanovic, the Hyatt's Yugoslav-born business development director, a 32-year-old who earned an MBA in Italy and returned in 1997.

During the war, he served as the night manager. Now, he dreams of bringing even more business to the hotel.

"We believe we're one of the most profitable companies in the country at the moment," Stevanovic says. "We are a strategic company for Belgrade. We provide hard currency income for the balance of payments."

So many German, Austrian, Greek and Italian businessmen are in Yugoslavia now, there's talk the city needs a new downtown hotel.

To cater to the new crowd, the Hyatt has reopened its Ellington's piano bar. On a recent evening, Keith Channer, a Los Angeles-based pianist, churned out a steady stream of standards from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra as a few dozen people sat nursing drinks dispensed by waitresses in tight-fitting gowns.

"They like exciting, fast-paced music here," says Channer, who has played around the world and seems pleased with his three-month gig in Belgrade.

"I have no regrets coming here," he says. "You know you're in Europe."

During the war, the Hyatt was kind of like Rick's in "Casablanca" - with satellite dishes and cell phones.

There were drinks at happy hour and NATO bombs after midnight.

The swimming pool was heated, the fitness gym was open and the beer was cold, all remarkable feats of ingenuity in a city without much power or running water.

At the Hyatt, they had a generator.

Sometimes, it all seemed like a virtual war from the confines of the Hyatt, set atop a man-made hill in New Belgrade, overlooking dilapidated public housing and a park, just across the Sava River from the old city.

A luxurious, eight-story, steel and glass hotel opened in 1990, the Hyatt was renowned around the Balkans for the eight massive pillars in the lobby, a double staircase, an atrium lined with 20-foot-tall trees, running water and a statue of Atlas holding aloft a golden clock. The 308 rooms were decorated in soft neutral tones and included a mini bar, marble-topped desk and a bathroom that was about as large as some Belgrade apartments.

"It's a typical Hyatt hotel designed for the late 1980s," Stevanovic says, noting the project cost $60 million, and the ownership was split 51 percent-49 percent between a Western-owned company and a consortium of Yugoslav state-owned firms.

Despite international sanctions and the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, the hotel managed to stay open. "During all these years, we were able to survive by maintaining the international standards acceptable for a handful of the international guests who were coming during those years," Stevanovic says.

And the hotel survived the war, emerging with a few broken windows. "When the shelling started, we were wondering if we should evacuate the hotel," Stevanovic says. "The guests told us that we were crazy, that they were war reporters and that's what they were here for."

There were times when the war came awfully close. Twice, NATO decided to blow up a building 400 yards away from the hotel's front entrance.

The opening night of the war probably set the standard for how weird things would become. Armed police swept about two dozen journalists off the roof of the hotel and took them to a local lockup. The fast-thinking Hyatt staff came up with the marvelous idea of getting the guests freed.

They sent over sandwiches for the journalists, and for the cops, and when the journalists were released, ferried them back to the hotel.

There was even a sort of ever-present unofficial host to the proceedings at the hotel, a notorious paramilitary leader and alleged gangland figure named Zeljko Raznjatovic, known as Arkan.

Apparently under the assumption that any hotel filled with Western journalists was unlikely to be bombed, Arkan and his family spent a lot of nights here, holding court over hot drinks and sweet cakes in the tea room.

Arkan, who was killed after the war while sitting in a lobby at the nearby Intercontinental Hotel, showed up one night at the bar to watch the European Champions League soccer final.

At one point during the match, beamed on to a big-screen television, Arkan noticed that on another set, CNN was reporting that Milosevic was about to be indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

Arkan picked up the remote control, turned down the sound on the soccer game and turned up the sound on the news report.

Nobody in the room said a word until Arkan mumbled of Milosevic, "He's no war criminal."

"Takes one to know one," said an American reporter, who was sitting on a sofa next to Arkan.

Arkan laughed, a remarkable moment in the remarkable life and times of Belgrade's Hyatt Regency.

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