The prime minister of Malaysia, Dato Seri Mahathir, was having lunch with former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger and needed a butler. Beatrice Whitley got the call a few minutes before noon on May 23 and immediately sent a waiter to the prime minister’s 10th-floor suite. After 16 years as an order-taker in the room service department of The Pierre, an ultra-exclusive New York City hotel managed—but not owned—by Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels Ltd.,
Whitley has become adept at dealing with the wealthy, the famous and the powerful.
Pierre Trudeau ordered oatmeal cookies and orange juice late at night. And a former Mexican president once ordered several cases of popsicles, ice cream and sherbet to take home with him on ice.
Said Whitley: “Nothing is beyond The Pierre, as long as the guest can pay.”
Glitzy: Although The Pierre is less famous than such glitzy Manhattan rivals as The Plaza and the Waldorf Astoria, most critics—and patrons—say that it is one of the world’s foremost hotels.
The New York financial monthly Institutional Investor ranked it third in the o Western Hemisphere last I year. Government leaders 1 and heads of state from g around the world regularly £ stay at The Pierre. It attracts § established entertainment g celebrities, including actors g Michael Caine, Audrey Hep>
burn and Charles Bronson,
rather than flashy, young
stars. And it draws corporate executives and other wealthy individuals who want efficient service and impeccable standards. As well, it is a popular site for high-society weddings and bar mitzvahs, some costing up to $500,000, but it does not host conventions. Explained managing director George Schwab, a 19-year veteran of the Four Seasons chain: “It’s not a bustling hotel. Our guests expect privacy.” The Pierre’s size and location also help attract an exclusive clientele, said Schwab. The cream-colored brick and granite building rises 42 storeys above Fifth Avenue in midtown
Manhattan and overlooks Central Park. The Pierre is considered a small hotel because it contains only 205 rooms and suites, which are priced from $300 for a standard room to $1,980 per night for a suite as large as a threebedroom bungalow with a view of Central Park. But most of the building is occupied by the wealthy individuals who own it. Dorothy Rodgers, whose husband, Richard, composed Broadway musicals with Oscar Hammerstein,
lives at The Pierre. Irene Selznick, ex-wife of movie tycoon David Selznick, is a full-time resident, while Pierre Bergé, chairman and president of Yves St. Laurent of America Inc., owns an apartment in the building.
Powerful: In fact, wealthy and powerful New Yorkers have been associated with The Pierre almost continuously since it opened on Oct. 1, 1930. The builder of the hotel was Charles Pierre Casalasco, a native of Corsica who arrived in New York in 1904 and quickly established himself as one of the city’s leading restaurant owners. To build The Pierre, he put
together a group of investors that included Walter P. Chrysler, the founder of Chrysler Corp., and Wall Street financier E. F. Hutton. Despite their backing, the hotel went bankrupt during the Depression, and oilman J. Paul Getty bought it in 1938 for $2.5 million—less than one-fifth of what it cost to build. Getty owned the hotel until 1959 when a group of permanent residents purchased it. They have hired outside companies to run the hotel and
manage the building under multi-year operating leases.
As part of its building-lease agreement, Four Seasons agreed to do a multimillion-dollar renovation at the hotel. Company chairman Isadore Sharp hired his wife, Rosalie, an interior designer with her own Toronto company, to brighten up the rooms and suites. She chose high-priced reproductions of 18thand 19thcentury English furniture manufactured by companies in North and South Carolina. Four Seasons is now in the midst of replacing the ceramic tiles in the bathrooms with Italian
marble and has completely refurbished the hotel restaurant, lobby and public meeting rooms. The company even had to charter an aircraft to transport a carpet manufactured in the Far East for the Cotillion Room, a large, elegant ballroom with 15-foot-high windows facing Fifth Avenue and Central Park.
While the owners and guests demand an atmosphere of civility and privacy, the hotel is in constant demand as a backdrop for advertisements, fashion photography and even pop record album covers. Mary Gendron Picower, executive vice-president of The Pierre’s public relations agency, said that Burger King, the fast-food chain, once wanted to dangle a man from the 41st floor in an advertisement. Representatives of pop singer Madonna sought permission to shoot an album cover in The Pierre, but Gendron turned down both Burger King and Madonna because their requests were considered incompatible with the hotel’s image. And Gendron often has to fend off the city’s avaricious gossip columnists. Three years ago,
Mary Tyler Moore married a New York doctor at the hotel.
“The gossip columnists were begging us for any scrap of information,” said Gendron.
“We had instructions not to release any details.”
Gossip: A typically tantalizing event for the gossip columnists is Chanel Inc.’s semi-annual showings of original women’s apparel at The Pierre. Rooms director William Dunphy said that each September and February the French-based clothing designer and perfume manufacturer rents one of the hotel’s 17 grand suites, most of which are the size of a three-bedroom bungalow. Said Dunphy: “Only the wealthiest women in Cafe Pierre town, from the highest level of New York society, receive invitations.” The Pierre typically attracts a slightly older, wealthier guest than larger rivals like the Plaza, said Dunphy. According to records, about 40 per cent of the hotel’s guests come from outside North America, and 70 per cent are repeat clients. Almost half of the guests are corporate executives. The other half are individuals travelling on private business or for pleasure, and many insist on occupying the same room every time they are in New York. In fact, some will even postpone a trip until their room is available. Said Dunphy: “These are people of such stature that appointments can be rearranged to suit their schedules.”
They are demanding guests whose needs must be anticipated rather than merely met, said Seth Lewis, the hotel’s food and beverage manager. Waiters at the Cafe Pierre, the ho-
tel’s 55-seat restaurant, are briefed daily on current guests and their preferences. Roomservice waiters address guests by their surnames, set their tables and offer to pour the wine or coffee. The Pierre can also provide a babysitting service and translations, and will pack or unpack luggage. To accomplish this, the hotel maintains a 3:1 employee-to-guest ratio, while the average 150to 299-room hotel has fewer than one employee per guest, according to the American Hotel and Motel Association.
Demands: Curiously, heads of state and government leaders usually make fewer demands on the staff than the wealthy, private guests. Dunphy said that most prominent political figures leave the hotel for outside meetings
in the morning and return in late afternoon. And they frequently attend banquets or receptions elsewhere in the evening, while regular guests rarely even know that a major political leader is staying at the hotel, added Dunphy. When prime-ministerial business took them to New York on separate occasions, both Trudeau and Brian Mulroney stayed in a 39th-floor suite that offers unobstructed views of Central Park from two angles, said Dunphy. The leaders’ entourages often occupied the rest of the entire floor.
While preparing for a visit by the president of West Germany the hotel’s food and beverage department was learning how to serve a Japanese breakfast for an important group of Tokyo businessmen scheduled to stay at The Pierre from May 30 through June 1. At a meeting with a dozen of his assistants on May 23, food and
beverage manager Lewis came equipped with a Japanese serving tray, bowls and plates, all of which had just arrived at the hotel. There was a long, narrow plate for boiled fish, a square bowl for seaweed, a small saucer for soy sauce and different-sized bowls for rice and pickled vegetables, Lewis told his staff. The food would be prepared by a chef accompanying the group, he added. The Japanese guests, who had booked 30 rooms, were senior executives of Fujita Group, a company that owns travel agencies and restaurants in Japan. Fujita is a partner with Four Seasons in a new Tokyo hotel, and the executives were coming for the opening of a catering facility in New Jersey. Said Lewis: “They want to see how good we are here to see how good we can be in Japan.”
The guests generally see well-trained employees capable of handling almost any request. Head concierge Tito Fomari said that he recently had to bring in a shoe repairman from an outside shop to fix a guest’s artificial leg. But he said that the most memorable request he has received in his four years at The Pierre occurred one evening three years ago. About 11 p.m., a guest from Saudi Arabia, who was travelling with a beautiful woman, a non-Arab and obviously not his wife, wanted a private jet to take them to the Caribbean island of St. John. Fomari said that within two hours he had lined up a jet, a limousine and a reservation at an exclusive hotel. Said Fomari: “For our clientele, money is no object. Very rarely do they take no for an answer. Let’s say never.”
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