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Hotel Bel-Air will be closed nearly 2 years for renovation

Nearly all of its 300 workers will lose their jobs next month because of a multimillion-dollar project to modernize all guest rooms, suites, the restaurant and bar and add 12 hillside villas.

August 05, 2009|Hugo Martin

The Hotel Bel-Air, a storied Mission-style landmark frequented by Hollywood's elite, will close for nearly two years for a multimillion-dollar face lift that will put hundreds of staffers out of work.

The massive renovation, beginning Oct. 1, will include upgrades for all 91 rooms and suites, the hotel's Champagne Bar, its restaurant and private dining rooms. When it is finished in mid-2011, the hotel will boast 12 new villas and a spa with seven treatment rooms.

Nearly all of the hotel's 300 workers, however, will lose their jobs as of Sept. 30.

General manager Tim Lee promised to do his best to find the staffers jobs in other hotels owned by the Hotel Bel-Air's operator, the Dorchester Collection, or at competitor hotels.

He said the hotel would ask resume writers and state employment specialists to come to the hotel to help employees land new jobs. "We are doing everything in our power to help with this transition," he said.

Hotel union officials said they were unhappy with the decision to lay off nearly the entire staff and were pushing management to assure workers that they could return to positions at the hotel after the renovations were completed.

"We feel very strongly that they should rehire or put back to work the staff once the hotel opens up again," said Tom Walsh, president of the hotel workers union Unite Here, Local 11, which represents most of the Bel-Air staff.

Launching a renovation amid an economic recession and near-record low hotel occupancy rates might seem unwise. But hotel industry experts say this is the best time for such a modernization. During a weak economy, contractors and building suppliers are willing to negotiate.

When occupancy rates are low, a renovation project uproots fewer guests. In the Los Angeles-Long Beach area, occupancy rates are about 70%, according to Smith Travel Research.

Alan Reay, president of Atlas Hospitality Group, an Irvine consulting firm, called the 18-month closure of the Bel-Air "very, very unusual" because most hotels perform such renovation projects in phases while keeping the hotel open. Still, he said the timing of the renovations seemed to make sense.

"The owners are probably taking advantage of this downturn in the economy," he said.

Lee said the hotel decided against staying open because the construction noise would be unbearable, particularly since the grounds are primarily flat and noise carries throughout the hotel. By closing the hotel during the renovation, he said construction time also would be shortened.

He declined to reveal the price tag for the project, except to say it will be a "multimillion-dollar" renovation. Lee also declined to disclose the hotel's recent occupancy rate, but acknowledged that the hotel has felt the sting of the global recession.

"We all are affected," he said. "But that's not the main reason why we are doing it now."

The five-star hotel on Stone Canyon Road is operated by the Dorchester Collection, the successor to the Dorchester Group, which was established by the government-controlled Brunei Investment Agency in 1996 to manage the oil-rich country's luxury hotels in Europe and the U.S. Some Hotel Bel-Air suites have been priced at up to $4,000 a night.

Ringed by 12 acres of landscaped gardens in an exclusive residential neighborhood, the hotel is a favorite haunt of Hollywood's rich and celebrated. In 1962, Marilyn Monroe posed for some of her most memorable photos by the pool and in a hotel room. Actress Joan Collins renewed her wedding vows at the hotel this year, near a picturesque pond known as Swan Lake.

Los Angeles developer Alphonso E. Bell created Bel-Air estates in 1922 in the hills northwest of Beverly Hills. In 1946, hotel entrepreneur Joseph Drown purchased some of the estate lands with plans to create a luxurious hotel retreat. The hotel, with its pink facade and manicured gardens, has since epitomized Los Angeles' luxury and beauty.

Lee said the exterior of the hotel would remain the same. Much of the work will focus on modernizing the rooms and indoor public spaces, he said, adding that cellular phones can't get a signal inside the hotel.

"Everyone requires the use of cellphones to make calls for business or pleasure," he said.

Lee emphasized that the new modern amenities would be subtle, such as adding a mechanism to close the window curtains via remote control. He said he wanted the hotel to retain a quiet, residential feel. "That's the magic of our canyon oasis," he said.

During the renovation, Lee said the gardens and their many oaks, redwoods and other trees will be preserved. Three swans that make a home in the hotel's lake will be relocated and returned after the work is done.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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