|The Atlanta Journal-Constitution|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jul. 28, 2005 - Horst Schulze, who brought luxury to the world as head of Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., wants to do it again -- from Atlanta.
Schulze's company, West Paces Hotel Group, is launching Solis Hotel and Resorts, a high-end brand that will open one of its first locations in Alpharetta in 2007.
The Stanbury, the official name of the Alpharetta hotel, will be a 144-room boutique hotel and spa catering to travelers who think the pampering they get at Schulze's old stomping ground is not enough, industry observers said.
"They are positioning the Solis as really a six-star hotel, above the Ritz-Carlton," said Mark Woodworth, executive managing director at PKF Consulting, an Atlanta firm that tracks the health of the hotel industry. "And this is a good time. The higher-end hotels have continued to outperform the industry as a whole."
The Solis -- pronounced Sol-eese -- concept marks Schulze's return to the forefront of the accommodations industry. While West Paces has been managing hotels across the nation, the new line gives Schulze the kind of attention that comes with creating a brand from scratch.
Schulze is a hospitality industry pillar who worked his way from being a dishwasher in Germany to running -- and perfecting -- Ritz-Carlton.
Under Schulze, Ritz-Carlton stressed details like fine rugs, art and flowers, as well as staff training and customer service, a concept he complained in 2000 had "disappeared from most American companies." In 1992, Ritz-Carlton became the first hotel chain to win the famous Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for service.
"When he was there, Ritz-Carlton was No. 1 in the world," said Guenter Seeger, chef/owner of Seeger's in Buckhead. Schulze recruited Seeger to be chef at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in 1985. "Anything he does will be a success."
Marriott bought Ritz-Carlton in 1998, and Schulze stepped down as president of the company in 2001. Since then, some have speculated that he would return with new hotels in Buckhead or Atlantic Station.
Robert Warman, vice president and chief operating officer for West Paces, said service was how Solis would distinguish itself.
"Luxury is service," he said. "Luxury is not Oriental rugs, marble and crystal chandeliers. It is reliability of service. If we say we are going to clean your room at 9 o'clock, then we clean your room at 9 o'clock."
Mark Newton, program director of the hotel, restaurant and tourism management program at Gwinnett Tech, said service was a strategy that could set Solis apart.
"People may take great amenities for granted," he said, "but they never take great customer service for granted."
Planned for the northeast intersection of Old Milton Parkway and Ga. 400, the hotel will take its cues from college campus layouts instead of the gleaming, height-is-might designs that have been the choice of Atlanta hoteliers during the past few years.
The architecture mirrors an upscale Georgian home, and gardens will dot the landscape. A conservatory will be a focal point for guests.
"We wanted it to feel like a Southern mansion," Warman said. "We wanted to create the feeling of space and a sense of community."
The Stanbury will be part of the 66-acre Prospect Park development, a mixed-use project that will also include residences and retail and entertainment space.
When finished in late 2007, the Solis will join a crowded field of luxury marquees, from the aforementioned Ritz-Carlton to the Four Seasons, W Hotel, InterContinental, the Grand Hyatt and the Westin Peachtree. Prices will be slightly less than the Ritz and Four Seasons, Warman said.
The Solis will face similar competitors when it opens hotels during the next three years in Chicago; San Antonio; Paradise Valley, Ariz.; Orlando; and Frankfurt, Germany.
The launch of Solis comes as the hotel industry continues its slow bounce back from a prolonged recession.
There are about 93,000 rooms in metro Atlanta, a highly concentrated market with occupancy last year of 59.3 percent, PKF Consulting's Woodworth said. That's a marked improvement from 2003 levels, when the city hit bottom with occupancy of 56.7 percent.
Atlanta occupancy peaked at 65.9 percent in 1999, he said.
"Is Atlanta ready for what might be considered an ultra-luxury hotel?" Woodworth said. "I think the answer is definitely yes.
Atlanta as a hotel market has matured considerably."
Warman said Alpharetta was chosen over downtown and Buckhead because that area was underserved, given its well-heeled residents and multimillion-dollar businesses.
"If you look at the demographics of that area from both the individuals living there and the offices moving there, this is a great opportunity," Warman said.
The challenge that West Paces will face with Solis is securing name recognition, Newton said. Schulze has the talent and the team to retain customers, but will need a lot of creativity to be heard in such a crowded segment.
"They have everything they need on the operations side to keep people coming back," he said. "What they need is marketing, to get guests in the first time."
By Leon Stafford and Walter Woods
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