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10 things about new Aloft hotels

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Over the last year, I’ve been hearing a lot about the new Aloft hotel brand from Starwood. Since I have not had the chance to sleep over in one yet, I asked for a tour of the Aloft San Francisco Airport, one of the three Aloft hotels in the Bay Area—all of which have opened in the last year.

With my camera and notepad I met up with hotel sales & marketing manager Janfred Agarao who showed me around the hotel located on Millbrae Ave just south of SFO.

(click here for my Google+ slideshow of the Aloft at SFO)

Here’s what I saw and learned.

>The Aloft brand is billed as “A Vision of W Hotels” and it’s clear that the W is from where the new chain’s quirky and colorful spirit comes. The SFO property was the 62nd Aloft hotel to open—Starwood expects to have 80 by the end of this year. The other Bay Area locations the Aloft Silicon Valley, located in Newark, which used to be the old W Silicon Valley, and the Aloft Cupertino, near the Apple campus.)

>Most Aloft hotels are built new-from-the-ground-up, but this building started out in the 60’s as the Thunderbird Hotel (which starred in the film, Bullitt), and most recently was a Clarion hotel. Starwood came in and took the building down to the studs and added brand new space, so the look and feel is brand spanking new.

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>The six story Aloft at SFO opened last September with 252 rooms. Its average rate is about $239 per night. Occupancy is healthy—the hotel regularly sells out on midweek on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but struggles to fill up on weekends (which is when rates take a tumble to the $150 range).

(click here for my Google+ slideshow of the Aloft at SFO)

>Most Aloft hotels are located in suburbs, near airports or on the fringes of major downtown areas. For example, New York City locations are in Harlem and in Brooklyn.

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>The lobby of the Aloft at SFO is big, bright and lively—the hotel calls it the “remix area” and there’s room for small groups to gather, communal tables, an unusual blue pool table, free wi-fi, and electrical outlets all over the place. Stationary iPads are available for browsing or making reservations via OpenTable. There are also two desktop computers and a printer.

>Food service is “grab and go” with a wide variety of snacks, such as prepared salads and sandwiches Butterfingers, trail mix or Doritos, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or It’s It bars are available for sale. Guests who want a full service meal can walk across the parking lot to the Westin hotel.

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>Agarao said that the busiest time in the lobby is morning and during happy hour, from 5-8 pm when there’s live acoustical music and discounts on snacks, beer and designer cocktails at the WXYZ bar- muddled watermelon martinis anyone?

(click here for my Google+ slideshow of the Aloft at SFO)

>While Starwood is clearly trying to cater to a younger crowd with the Aloft brand, Agarao said guests generally range from 20 to 50 years old.

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>Beds in nearly every room at the Aloft are placed opposite the window instead of lining up along side it as they do in most hotel rooms. Good feng shui? Who knows? But rooms appear modern, comfortable and well appointed with Bliss bath products, coffee makers and quirky touches like retro-clocks.

>Rooms located on the hotel’s 6th floor offer excellent views of planes taking off and landing on SFO runways…a hypnotizing sight…and only minimal rumbles from jet blasts.

(click here for my Google+ slideshow of the Aloft at SFO)

Have you stayed at an Aloft hotel yet? Let us know what you think! Please leave your comments below! 

-Chris McGinnis

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4 fabulous new 5-star hotels in London worth checking into

The view across the Thames from London's new Corinthia Hotel-- that pointy building surrounded by cranes in the background is The Shard, Europe's newest, tallest building. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

I love London for many reasons, most of which revolve around my career in the travel biz. To me, the city just feels like the center of the universe, so every time London calls, I answer!

The dynamic London hotel scene is endlessly fascinating. There is always plenty of experimentation, unusual quirks and something new or unusual to check out.

In preparation for the visitor onslaught brought on by they upcoming Summer Olympics, I recently took off across the pond for a peek at the London hotel scene, and found four fabulous new (or newly renovated) five-star properties worth checking into.

Even if you can’t spend the night, it’s worth stopping by their lively lobbies to have a drink and a gawk at the cool design, have a meal or just to sit and enjoy the outstanding people watching.

A two-ton, LED illuminated Baccarat crystal chandelier sparkles in the lobby of London's brand new Corinthia Hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Corinthia Hotel London:

Wow! London’s not seen a stunner like this since the much anticipated re-opening of Fairmont’s Savoy Hotel in 2010. Just walking into the big, bright and airy lobby takes your breath away.

This magnificent 294-room newcomer is housed in a gorgeous, historic Victorian-era building that’s been so deeply renovated that it feels brand new. There’s none of the creaky floors, noisy plumbing or mustiness found in some of the capital’s finest grand dames. Rooms are modern, clean, and very big by London standards.

But it’s the big, bright, and buzzy lobby that really wowed me. In the center of the space is a soaring dome adorned with a giant, two-ton, globe-shaped Baccarat crystal chandelier composed of 1,001 grapefruit-sized crystal baubles—each illuminated from within with a tiny white LED light. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, it’s worth walking through the lobby just to see this gorgeous work. While you are at it, pop in for a meal at one of the hotel’s two popular restaurants, The Northall (traditional British fare with a fresh twist) or Massimo’s (Italian seafood).

The Corinthia also earns high marks from business travelers because it’s one of the few five-star London hotels that include high-speed wi-fi in the nightly rate. Another big selling point for Americans is its liberal no-restrictions check-in and check-out policy—if you are arriving on an early morning flight, just let the hotel know beforehand, and your room will be ready when you arrive—no interminable wait in the lobby while your room is made up

The imposing, yellow sandstone building in Whitehall previously housed Britain’s Ministry of Defense. Malta-based Corinthia Hotels reportedly bought the building and restored it to the tune of about $550 million. Construction began in 2008, and the hotel opened in April 2011. See www.corinthia.com/London

 

Hipster doormen in rolled jeans and flannels set the scene at London's new bohemian chic Belgraves hotel

Belgraves

If your business is showbiz, fashion, tech, PR or advertising, the brand new Belgraves hotel is custom-made just for you. It’s the first British outpost of the popular NYC-based Thompson Hotels Group (which recently merged with SF-base Joie de Vivre hotels), and inserts a bit bohemian Americana to its buttoned-up Belgravia neighborhood near Sloane Square. The 85-room hotel, which opened on February 1, is located in the shell of the old Sheraton Belgravia hotel—but there’s nothing Sheraton about this place anymore.

American touches abound- Check out the jeans-and-flannel-clad hipster doormen, or the US flag art behind the front desk. The mid-century modern furnishings in the cozy lobby conversation nooks are straight out of Mad Men.

Comfy-mod rooms have smallish bay windows with plush jewel-toned velvet love seats, and big bright marble bathrooms with tubs that overlook a leafy square across the street. Nice touch: Bedside docking stations can accommodate either an iPad or iPhone. See http://www.thompsonhotels.com/hotels/london/belgraves

Spectacular city views from the glass-walled 10th floor spa atop London's recently renovated Four Seasons Park Lane Hotel. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Four Seasons Park Lane

The Four Seasons on Park Lane oozes opulence as soon as you step out of your black London taxi in the porte cochere. Handsome doormen in knee length brown jackets and snappy English Trilby hats greet you by name (by sneaking a look at the tag on your bag). Well-heeled guests in finely tailored suits, Italian shoes and horn rimmed specs float through the lobby on their way to their rooms or to the hotel’s popular Amaranto restaurant.

Originally built in 1970, the hotel closed in 2008 for a complete makeover, and re-opened in January 2011. The sumptuous lobby is now bathed in sexy white streaked Italian black marble and mahogany paneling, trimmed in red leather and spritzed with hundreds of white orchids.

Room design is mostly masculine—reds, browns and wood paneling. Black leather covered desks. Light brown and orange wool tartan curtains, big walk in closets. There are even 32 rooms with working fireplaces.

During the recent re-do, the nine story, 217-room hotel got a tenth floor—housing a gorgeous light and airy spa, gym with views across Mayfair to the London Eye, the new Shard and the City. This aerie also serves as a day lounge where early arriving guests can set up shop while waiting for their rooms.

Nice: The hotel also has two big black Rolls-Royces on hand to shuttle guests to points within central London. See www.fourseasons.com/london/ Note: There are two Four Seasons in London—the other is located in Canary Wharf on the city’s eastern edge.

Gothic architecture looms over London's fab new Renaissance St Pancras hotel (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Renaissance St Pancras

When my cab pulled up to the front of this north-central London hotel, I felt like I was arriving at Hogwarts with its ominous clock tower, gothic arches, spires, red brick and wrought iron. The hotel is actually part of the London St Pancras International train station, built over 150 years ago, but redeveloped in the last decade.

The old hotel part of the station had fallen into disrepair, and was nearly demolished when developers swooped in and returned the space to its former glory as a very unique luxury hotel—unlike any Marriott-branded hotel I’ve ever stayed in.

For instance, developers transformed the station’s old iron and glass porte cochere into a lively, bright lobby area. The adjacent ticketing office is now a warm and clubby lobby restaurant and bar—packed with locals as well as passengers waiting to board the Eurostar trains that depart St Pancras for Paris or Brussels.

In addition to historic (and more expensive) “chambers” rooms in the old building, a modern Marriott-style 200-room wing was added out back— not as unique, but probably better suited for business travelers who prefer to spend most of their free time in public spaces and work in their rooms. See http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/lonpr-st-pancras-renaissance-london-hotel

Disclosure: McGinnis was a guest of the house at some of the hotels mentioned in this post.

Top 5 cities that discriminate against travelers

Do you feel ripped off when you book a great hotel or car rental rate, but end up paying a final bill loaded up with taxes and fees? (That are used to fund things you’ll likely never use such as local stadiums or convention centers…)

The Global Business Travel Association has released the 2011 findings from its annual study of car rental, hotel and meal taxes in the top 50 U.S. travel destination cities- and the results might surprise you. For example, cities in Florida and California are cited as having the lowest taxes.

All taxes are not the same…some specifically target travelers, like Phoenix’s $2.50 rental car fee that goes to the “Maricopa County Stadium for debt retirement.” Or the 5% rental car tax imposed by San Antonio to fund “youth and amateur sports facilities.”

Cities with the lowest total tax burden ($20-$25 per day) in central city locations:

1.     Fort Lauderdale, FL

2.     Fort Myers, FL

3.     West Palm Beach, FL

4.     Detroit, MI

5.     Portland, OR

*12. San Jose ($23.69 per day)

*21. Oakland ($27.01 per day)

*24. San Francisco ($27.90 per day)

NOTE: The full list now includes many cities in California now that state sales tax has declined a full percentage point.

Cities with the highest total taxes (around $35 per day) on travelers are:

1.     Chicago, IL

2.     New York, NY

3.     Seattle, WA

4.     Boston, MA

5.     Kansas City, MO

Discriminatory travel taxes are those imposed specifically on travel services above and beyond general sales taxes (like the ones imposed on airport car rentals to fund local projects).

The U.S. cities with the lowest discriminatory travel tax rates are:

1.     Orange County, CA

2.     San Diego, CA

3.     San Jose, CA

4.     Burbank, CA

5.     Ontario, CA

Cities with the highest discriminatory  travel taxes (those that single out travelers):

1.     Portland, OR

2.     Boston, MA

3.     Minneapolis, MN

4.     New York, NY

5.     Chicago, IL

Do you have any examples of outrageous taxes you’ve been forced to pay recently? Do taxes that seem to discriminate against travelers encourage you to travel elsewhere, or do you just grumble and pay up? Please leave your comments below.