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Expansion Set at Van Nuys Airport's Airtel : Hotel Takes Flight on Edge of Runway

April 15, 1986|T.W. McGARRY | Times Staff Writer

It is a funny place for a hotel, this airport. It is even a funny place for an airport hotel.

Most airport hotels are near the airport or perhaps even next to the airport.

This hotel is on the airport, alongside the runway, like a hangar with suites and bellboys. Pilots can taxi up to the back door in their planes.

And what an airport for a hotel.

This is not LAX, London or New York. Those are gateways to metropolises and continents, daily crossing points for thousands of air travelers desperate for a place to shower, sleep and get a meal that is not a little plastic insult on a little plastic plate.

90-Room Expansion

This is Van Nuys Airport, gateway to a bowl of suburbs, where there are no commercial airlines at all. Most of the planes here still have propellers and engines with cylinders, things that disappeared from the jetports of the world back when all the flight attendants wore skirts.

Funnier yet, it seems to be working.

The Airtel Plaza at the Van Nuys Airport is doing well enough to prompt plans for expansion after less than two years in operation, according to the hotel's management.

The 200-room hotel, built for $20 million, is planning to spend "in the neighborhood of $6 million" on an addition that will include about 90 rooms, a health club and a ballroom, said H. Joel Biggs, the general manager.

The architects "are still doing the scratch drawings," Biggs said, but the owners of the hotel are committed to an expansion to handle the demand for rooms and banquet facilities.

"We have two to four weddings a weekend now, and we're booked up on weekends, from Friday night to Sunday night, for a year," he said.

City Profits From Hotel Success

The hotel's owners would not reveal profit figures. But revenue was $7.3 million in 1985, and it made a profit "higher than industry standards for a newly opened hotel," Biggs said.

The hotel's prosperity is good news for the Los Angeles Department of Airports, which leases the land the hotel stands on just north of Sherman Way and alongside the eastern edge of a runway. The city agency, which must support the four municipally owned airports from its own income, now receives $150,000 a year from the Airtel. In 1987, that becomes a minimum guarantee against 7.5% of the hotel's gross on room rentals and 5% of the gross on food and drink.

The Airtel, which now leases 7.2 acres, has asked the department for two acres of the vacant lot on the north side of its present site to build an addition, said Don Miller, deputy general manager of the Department of Airports. The addition would raise the minimum guarantee for the lease to $205,000 a year, although Miller said he expects its revenue from the hotel to be even higher because of the percentage agreement.

Miller and other airport administrators have said repeatedly that they are pleased with the hotel's development. It is a cornerstone of the department's plan to ring the airport with real estate developments on airport-owned land that will bring in money to offset what is lost on airport flight operations.

Valley-Based Developers

Biggs said the hotel management hopes to break ground on the addition, which requires city approval, by the end of the year.

The Van Nuys Airtel, a Best Western franchise, was developed by four Valley men: developers Richard H. Dunn of Calabasas and his son, Jim Dunn of Westlake Village, who together hold a one-third interest; builder Howard E. Shirley of Canoga Park, with another one-third stake, and hotelier G. Robert Hemstreet of Woodland Hills, who owns the remaining interest.

It opened in July, 1984, with an eye toward the coming Olympic Games. Like other hotel operators in the Los Angeles area, Airtel's managers were disappointed by the light advance bookings they had from tourists going to the Games. Because the hotel was built long after the Olympic Organizing Committee had made guaranteed-rate deals with other hotels to house visiting Olympic committees, Airtel missed out on that business too.

But it turned out, Biggs said, to be a blessing.

"Two days after the opening ceremony, the FBI booked 50 rooms," he said. With the adjoining runway and airport facilities, agents preparing for terrorists and other problems found that they could stay outside the traffic-clotted Olympic area and yet leave right from the hotel by helicopter and quickly reach anywhere in the region.

Occupancy Rate at 79%

The hotel had rooms for last-minute-impulse tourists when the early television coverage stirred up "Olympic fever," and it was not bound by agreements to reserve the rooms at lower rates for Olympic officials, he said.

The Olympic Games "hurt many of the other hotels, but they helped us," said Biggs, adding that more than 60% of Airtel's rooms were occupied. Since then, the hotel's occupancy rate has risen steadily, to a current average of 79%, Biggs said.

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