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First of two new luxury hotels opens in Anaheim

You might think opening a luxury hotel during a global pandemic that has devastated the travel and tourism market is incredibly bad timing.

But when the JW Marriott hotel opened in Anaheim this week, while it was by no means filled with guests, people came from around the region – some just to walk through and marvel at the decor, and about two dozen others to sip craft cocktails, swim in the private pool and sleep on fresh linens in the well-appointed rooms.



“People are really tired of staying home. They’re finding a safe place to go to. They want a luxury, four-diamond experience,” said Nusrat Mirza, general manager of the JW Marriott Anaheim Resort.

Mirza’s hotel is one of two in Anaheim that are currently seeking four-diamond status from AAA, and one of three expected to be built with help from a controversial city tax incentive program that returns to the hotels’ developers 70 percent of room taxes paid by guests for the next 20 years. The Westin Anaheim Resort is slated to open in early November.

Supporters of the program, which was offered in 2015 and 2016, have said it was needed to lure high-end accommodations to round out Anaheim’s tourism portfolio. Critics argued it needlessly goosed the market and steered tax dollars away from parks, police and other city services.

Together, the the JW Marriott and the Westin will add more than 1,000 rooms, plus meeting space, to the city’s inventory near the Anaheim Convention Center and Disneyland, and when they get up to full capacity will provide nearly 600 jobs between them.

While travel is slowly returning, experts predict a healthier rebound sometime in 2021. But even with modest numbers of visitors, Anaheim’s new hotels will help lift sagging revenues. Hotel room taxes this fiscal year are projected at $84 million, or about 40% of the city’s general fund – and in normal years can account for 50% to 60% of it, city spokesman Mike Lyster said.

With just two existing four-diamond hotels in the city (both Disney properties), “we know there was part of the market we weren’t capturing in Anaheim, and these hotels are designed to capture that market,” he said.

Unique and exclusive

So what does it take to be a four-diamond hotel, and if you’ve never stayed in one, what are you missing?

A thousand little details that make up a pleasing whole: high-end finishes such as marble and hardwood, glass-walled showers and separate bathtubs in the en suite bathrooms, high-ceilinged lobbies with tasteful artwork on display and themes carried out with consistent and minute detail – at the JW Marriott, even the covers of the books on shelves in the reception area reflect the earth-toned color scheme.

The new hotels also boast unique features. At the Westin, an overhead display in the lobby simulates a tree canopy, and chandeliers in meeting rooms resemble tree branches with lightbulbs on their ends, General Manager Carmine Iommazzo said. The JW Marriott commissioned 650 iridescent titanium butterflies from an Orange County artist to decorate an outdoor garden area, where rosemary, basil, jalapenos and strawberries are grown to mix into or garnish craft cocktails – and when its newly-planted olive trees mature, the hotel will press its own olive oil, marketing director Maribel Denner said.

But perhaps most importantly, the hotels’ features were designed to create a feeling of exclusivity. Check-in at the JW Marriott is up an escalator on the second floor to afford guests more privacy, and both properties have rooftop lounges reserved for people who have booked rooms.

“Every aspect, every detail of the luxury is well thought-out,” Mirza said.

Some features might have been offered anyway, but play especially well in the age of COVID-19: once JW Marriott guests check in, their smartphone acts as their room key and can also pull up food and drink menus by scanning a QR code.

But both general managers said they have made changes to address the pandemic. Employees are behind clear partitions, hand sanitizer dispensers are prominently placed and guests are required to wear masks. Iommazzo said he’ll be checking temperatures of staff members and guests.

Both also downsized their staffs for now because they’re opening with limited occupancy.

Market rebound?

It’s unknown when travel may return to pre-pandemic levels, but industry analysts see better times ahead starting next year.

Domestic travel, especially within a short driving distance, is already picking up, with some beach resorts seeing crowds, Beacon Economics founder Christopher Thornburg said.

“The global stuff is dead and the local stuff is on fire,” he said. “That’s because it’s people who are sick of being at home and are doing anything to get their kids out of the house.”

And the outlook appears to be improving in coming months, with a mid-August survey on holiday travel showing the number of Americans considering a trip growing from Labor Day to Christmas, said Erin Francis-Cummings, CEO of market research firm Destination Analysts.

Thornburg and Francis-Cummings both expect a slower recovery for business travel, because conferences take time to plan and many people remain wary about flying.

But Thornburg said by 2021, people will be ready to make up for what they canceled or skipped this year – and Francis-Cummings’s survey seems to bear that out, with three-quarters of respondents reporting at least tentative plans to travel next year.

Did the unpredicted pandemic make building a luxury hotel near a theme park and convention center that remain closed indefinitely a bad investment? To Thornburg, “the answer is no – inherently speaking, this is a short-term event; those are 30-year assets.”

Source: Orange County Register

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