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Sideways views of the Intercontinental Hotel and San Diego ConVis Bureau

The Sheraton letters

Armie: Bruno Mella at work. He's a fine chef and a very nice man. I hope you keep him on if you decide to buy the hotel. --E.
  • Armie: Bruno Mella at work. He's a fine chef and a very nice man. I hope you keep him on if you decide to buy the hotel. --E.

Author’s note:

You have to be dubious when a thick packet of letters and photograph arrives in the mail accompanied only by a handwritten message that reads, “Enclosed you'll find some insightful and entertaining material on the San Diego hotel industry. Thought you might want to look it over.” But journalism is a profession in which people sometimes give you important information unsolicited just because they think the public should know.

Mr. Rothenberg: Here is a picture of my room, which I said is just fine even if it is not much compared to Mrs. R's room. The bed is big enough. --Borokowski

Mr. Rothenberg: Here is a picture of my room, which I said is just fine even if it is not much compared to Mrs. R's room. The bed is big enough. --Borokowski

A word of caution: After weeks of research and several frightfully expensive telephone calls across the country, the whereabouts and very existence of Armand and Estelle Rothenberg and Tom Borokowski have yet to be verified. However, the letters are unwavering in their truthfulness in every other regard; all facts, names (and spellings of names), quotes, and figures were checked and rechecked and found to be accurate. Even the existence of the mysterious Flower Girl was verified after a painstaking search. I can only hope that the individuals involved will someday step forward and make themselves known to my editors as well as to me.

Armand: Here is a picture of Mr. Roberts, the hotel's manager. He's standing beside the marina with the Sheraton in the rear. --E.

Armand: Here is a picture of Mr. Roberts, the hotel's manager. He's standing beside the marina with the Sheraton in the rear. --E.


  • Armand Rothenberg
  • 4600 Lakeview Ave.
  • Buffalo, NY 14201

Dearest Armand:

Thank you for the roses! The concierge from the hotel met me in a limousine at the airport and gave them to me then. So lovely — and so thoughtful of you, as usual. We are only going to be apart for a week and already I miss you.

Mr. Rothenberg: This is Dave Nasella, the bell captain I told you about who had the good stories. I don't know why there is a blur in back. It may be my camera which is not too good. --Borokowski

Mr. Rothenberg: This is Dave Nasella, the bell captain I told you about who had the good stories. I don't know why there is a blur in back. It may be my camera which is not too good. --Borokowski

My flight arrived here at about 1:30 in the afternoon. The flight itself was, smooth enough, but the final descent into the San Diego airport was, to put it mildly, exhilarating. I thought we were going to hit the tops of the houses! I know I don t fly as much as you do, so perhaps my inexperience was showing, but the passengers around me all seemed to be rather anxious about it, too. But all's well that ends well.

Kitchen scene. I can't recall exactly what was being prepared, but as you can see, there is lots of it. No, dear, I haven't forsaken my diet. But I've been tempted! --E.

Kitchen scene. I can't recall exactly what was being prepared, but as you can see, there is lots of it. No, dear, I haven't forsaken my diet. But I've been tempted! --E.

The ride to the Sheraton took about sixty seconds — it's located on a place called Harbor Island, right next to the airport. First impressions: a modern but rather plain-looking high-rise, three big rectangular towers linked together in a row. I wish I could say it’s more than that, dear, but it isn't; you'll see in the snapshots I 'm sending along. I thought of that description of the New York Sheraton in the well-known Gault/Millau guidebook: “If you've seen one Sheraton, you've seen them all.” However, the lobby has some character, with a counter made of Italian marble, and original paintings on the walls. And it was as busy as Grand Central Station. Luckily, the concierge explained that I was booked into the Towers (a separate hotel within the hotel for VIP guests, on the upper three floors), so I could check in at a separate reception area on the thirteenth floor.

Remember the story about Jerry G. Bishop, the local TV personality? This is where he ate, at Sheppard's. (Sorry about the plant obscuring things--I am not Ansel Adams.) --E.

Remember the story about Jerry G. Bishop, the local TV personality? This is where he ate, at Sheppard's. (Sorry about the plant obscuring things--I am not Ansel Adams.) --E.

Got settled in my suite in no time and am now sitting on my balcony on the twelfth floor, overlooking a marina below — a lot of little white boats. There's fog in the distance and big gray Navy ships going by now and then in the harbor nearby. It’s really quite a pretty view. The suite is huge, but since I'll be here for a while the space will be nice and I don't mind the $400 a night.

Mr. Rothenberg: Photo of Jeph Garside, the night manager. I promised him I would send him a copy so please save this for when I return to NY. Thank you. --Borokowski

Mr. Rothenberg: Photo of Jeph Garside, the night manager. I promised him I would send him a copy so please save this for when I return to NY. Thank you. --Borokowski

I’m glad you saw fit to send me on this trip, Armie. I know that buying the Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel would be a big step for you and for the company, and I feel a big sense of responsibility. You won't be sorry you sent me to do some research on the hotel business here! I know I’ve never attempted anything like this before, but as we've discussed so many times, I'm thirty-nine now and I refuse to spend the rest of my life sitting around just being Armand Rothenberg's wife. I'll give you the most accurate, thorough reports you've ever had in your life. After all, would Mr. Armand Rothenberg, hotel magnate and real-estate whiz, have married a dummy?

This is the view from my room, and it is lovely, don't you agree? Armand, I must confess that I find the setting exceptionally romantic. It's putting me in a mood... --E.

This is the view from my room, and it is lovely, don't you agree? Armand, I must confess that I find the setting exceptionally romantic. It's putting me in a mood... --E.

I haven’t yet told the management the true purpose of my visit, but I've made an appointment to talk with the hotel's general manager, John Roberts, tomorrow afternoon. Then we'll see what's what!

All my love,
Estelle


  • Mr. Armand Rothenberg
  • Rothenberg Enterprises
  • 2257 Industrial Park Road, Suite B
  • Buffalo, NY 14207

Dear Mr. Rothenberg:

Mrs. R arrived in San Diego at 1:35 on flight 467 from Chicago. A limo met her there and she got in. I followed in a taxi behind. We arrived at the Sheraton at approximately 1:56 p.m. Mrs. R got on the elevator with a young woman from the hotel, who was riding in the limo with her, and I went to the front desk to check in. I had planned to check in quickly and then get back to watching Mrs. R, but unfortunately a group of people was milling around in the lobby, and it turns out they were all waiting to check in ahead of me. The desk clerk said they were here for a convention of the Institute of Petroleum Astrologers (I think that's what she said), and that delays like this happen sometimes when conventions are booked here, which is often. They say this place does a lot of business in conventions.

Anyway, I had fifteen, maybe twenty minutes to kill, so I decided to wander around the lobby and the rest of the hotel, taking pictures with my Instamatic (I am sending these to you) and keeping in mind what you told me about finding out what I could about the hotel, which I know you are interested in buying.

This place is big! And it’s nice, too, real nice. You can see your face on the floor, and they got enough plants in here to start a tropical island. I guess what impresses me the most, though, is that it's like a little city in here. They got a gift shop, a health club, a beauty salon, a clothing store, two restaurants, two cocktail lounges, a nightclub, a laundry, a sauna, pool, tennis courts, offices, an exhibit hall, and more meeting rooms than the Teamsters could fill. You could live here for years and never even go outside.

Anyway, as I was walking around I pushed open a door that said “Staff Only,” which I knew I was not supposed to do, but I did it anyway, and pretty soon this woman walks up to me and asks what I'm doing. I guess she works here. So I tell her I’m lost, and we get to talking, and I tell her how impressed I am by what a big place this hotel is. And she says (and I got this on that candy-bar-size tape recorder you gave me), “It’s like a mirror of life itself. People eat here, drink here, have sex here, conduct business here, and even die here. There are always people here. It's a twenty-four-hour-a-day business, and it's a glamorous business, and there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes to put on the glamour. That’s what’s interesting to me.”

I tell her about the trouble I had checking in. and she says matter-of-factly, “We're a convention hotel, but we like to intimate that we're not. We like to intimate that we're a luxury hotel. When you charge $95 for your cheapest room, you’re saying that there’s a certain standard you won’t go below." And then she clams up and shows me how to get back to the lobby.

I plan to find this lady again and talk to her some more. In the meantime, I am putting up in room 246, on the second floor, and I have discovered that Mrs. R is in room 1238, on the twelfth floor. She doesn’t suspect a thing, since she has never seen my face before, and I promise to follow her like a cat. I would like to say, Mr. Rothenberg, that I have not seen anything so far that would give you reason to suspect your wife's infidelity, and she seems like a very decent type woman, besides being very good looking. But I will continue to keep an eye on her, and in the meantime I will tell you everything I can about this hotel, as we agreed.

Yours truly,
Tom Borokowski


  • Armand Rothenberg
  • 4600 Lakeview Ave.
  • Buffalo, NY 14201

Dear Armand:

Well! I have only been here a little more than twenty-four hours, but I have already learned so much about the hotel business I can hardly believe it. I feel as if I am carrying important information, like Phidippides, and like him I’m dying to tell you about it. So without any delays, here it is:

Since I couldn't meet with Mr. Roberts until after lunch, I decided to spend the morning calling around to see what I could find out about the hotel business from sources outside the hotel. It just so happens that there’s an agency here called the Convention and Visitors Bureau that keeps lots of statistics on travel-related businesses in San Diego! (The agency usually shortens its name to Con Vis, a dreadful abbreviation, don’t you think?) Among other things, ConVis told me that tourists spent $1.95 billion in San Diego in 1983, nearly $450 million of it on hotels and motels. That makes tourism the city’s third largest industry, behind manufacturing and the federal government (the latter is mostly Navy). There are 20,000 hotel and motel rooms in the greater San Diego area, which sounded to me like quite a lot, but it turns out that in 1983 the occupancy rate for them was 75.7 percent, and so far in 1984 it’s 75.1 percent. That’s currently the second-highest occupancy rate of any city in the country! So it looks as if you’ve picked a winner of a market in which to buy a hotel. I should have known you’d be so smart.

Now for the bad news: Someone at ConVis also told me that tourism is the most competitive business in the world. Worldwide, he said, more money is spent on travel than is spent on armaments! When I heard that I didn’t know whether to cheer or to cry. At any rate, it turns out that you ’re not the only person to take a keen interest in buying or building a San Diego hotel. There is a brand-new 681-room hotel on San Diego Harbor called the Inter-Continental that everyone seems to be talking about, and the developer who built it is supposed to build another 702-room hotel tower right next to it soon. There's talk of a 1000-room Hyatt going in right across the highway from the Inter-Continental, and plans for another 450-room hotel in a big downtown redevelopment project called Horton Plaza. The county government is considering whether it should allow construction of a 300-room hotel on a parking lot it has on the harbor front, Santa Fe Industries is negotiating to build two hotels with a total of 1500 rooms next to the train depot at the foot of Broadway, and another group called Gaslamp Quarter Enterprises has plans for a 110-room hotel, too. And those are just the hotels planned for downtown! There are also plans for major new or expanded hotels in Mission Valley, Coronado, La Jolla, and nearby in Kearny Mesa next to the Montgomery Field airport. If all these plans materialize, there will be a total of 9000 new hotel rooms here by 1987, and San Diego is going to resemble a Monopoly board! The competition for guests here will be fierce, and I do mean fierce.

But it’s an interesting thing, Armie. The hotel business in San Diego is going through a major transition right now. In the past this city has had lots of relatively low-cost rooms for travelers trying to get away from places like Los Angeles or Phoenix for the weekend. You can see the type of lodgings I’m talking about in Mission Valley — it’s packed with them. But the hotels being built now will have more facilities and more luxurious rooms, and they’re designed to attract wealthier travelers. It seems that people like you and me are recession-proof — at least, the hotel industry thinks we are. And currently there is only a handful of hotels in San Diego that caters to us, or to the large corporations that want to hold conventions in a first-class setting and can afford to pay for it: besides the Sheraton there are the Inter-Continental, the Hotel Del Coronado, the Westgate, and, to some extent, the Town and Country. There will be a lot more big conventions coming to town once the city’s $100 million convention center gets built (did I mention that to you?). So a hotel like the Sheraton will be in a good position to take advantage of the new business. What I'm trying to say, Armie, is that now is a good time to buy the Sheraton.

Now, as for my visit with John Roberts: he’s a nice man, very polite and rather tall. He insisted that the Sheraton is not for sale, but as you know, all businessmen always say that, and they always sell if the price is right. By the way, Mr. Roberts said he had heard very good things about you, and out of deference to your ‘ ‘reputation ’ ’ agreed to answer some of my questions. He told me that the Sheraton East (where I’m staying) has a total of 750 rooms and that it generates gross revenues of $35 million a year. Mr. Roberts also said that since the first of the year this hotel has had an occupancy rate of more than 90 percent — that means every night there are at least 950 people staying here! That’s a lot of money, even though hotels that book large conventions like the Sheraton does are notorious for discounting their room rates for large groups.

I asked him about the image the Sheraton has and the kind of clientele it tries to attract, and he referred me to the hotel’s director of marketing, Janie Lanier. Here’s what she had to say (and brother, did she talk fast! I had to take notes faster than I ever did in those literature classes at Vassar!): "We cater to anyone who can afford us. We go after every single market out there: vacationers, individual travelers, executive travelers, athletic groups. . . . But our two main markets are corporations and national associations. Our mainstay is the group that will book 500 rooms at a time. Other groups are just filler. We want Fortune 500 companies like IBM and Chevrolet — they’re the ones who can afford us and have large conventions. Joe and Bill’s Printing does not have conventions.

“To sell our hotel we actually have to overcome the image of San Diego. You’d think this city would sell itself, but it doesn’t. You’re in competition with everybody — San Francisco, Scottsdale, Phoenix, Monterey, Hawaii, New York.... There aren’t a lot of first-class convention hotels here, so people tend to go elsewhere. In the winter it’s sometimes even difficult to sell San Diego’s weather; convention planners tell us they can go to the desert and be certain of not being rained on. So we have to sell our service. It’s the only thing that’s going to set you apart. You can tell someone you’ll deliver anything, but when you actually deliver it, that s when they re-book.”

Well, there you have it, Armie. The hotel business is a lot more competitive than I ever imagined. But it’s getting late, and I feel like I’ve done enough for one day. I think I ’ll read for a while and then try to get some sleep. I II update you again tomorrow; I’ve only just begun! I miss you constantly.

Love,
Estelle


  • Mr. Armand Rothenberg
  • Rothenberg Enterprises
  • 2257 Industrial Park Road, Suite B
  • Buffalo, NY 14207
  • Dear Mr. Rothenberg:

By using the stairwells I’ve discovered I can get up to the twelfth floor, where Mrs. R is staying, without raising suspicion. I have set up a command post in a storage room that is filled up every day with sheets, towels, soap, and all the other things that the maids put into the rooms. Since this storage room is almost right across the hall from Mrs. R’s room, I can keep a close eye on her. Of course the maids go through here a lot, but I made friends with a couple of them and I told them I was Mrs. R’s bodyguard. They seem to have passed the word that I’m ok.

One of the maids told me a funny story: She always knocks before entering a room, so one day she knocks on this door and doesn't hear anything. So she opens the door, goes inside, and it’s kind of dark. The first thing she always does is open the curtains and the window, because according to her, the rooms don’t always smell so good. “Sometimes the odor will practically knock me down,” she put it. Anyway, she goes over, opens the curtains and the window, but it’s still kind of dark in the room. Next thing she does is whip the covers off the bed, and I’m telling you, this woman can whip covers off a bed like no one you’ve ever seen. So she whips them off, and there’s a woman sleeping in the bed! This maid told me she put the covers back on, closed the curtains and the window, left the room, and the woman never even woke up. Can you beat that? If I could sleep that soundly, my troubles would be over.

Mrs. R was in her room all morning, but just before 1:00 p.m. she left and went down to the fourth floor and went into the hotel’s general offices. I figured she might be tied up for a while, so I used the time to return to her room and search it to see if I could get any clues as to her activities, planned or otherwise. Never mind how I got into the room; when you work for the NYPD like I did you learn things, and I guess that’s why you hired me.

Unfortunately, I didn't find anything. But I can tell you, that's quite some room your wife has got. I thought mine was nice, with the TV and the balcony and the king bed and the two wicker chairs. But holy cow! Mrs. R’s room has three bathrooms with fresh flowers in all of them. There's a brass coat rack and a digital clock — the clock in my room is just a plain old clock — and besides a kitchenette, there’s a dining room with a glass-topped table in it with six armchairs. Not to mention the bottled water in the silver ice bucket, the sofa in the living room, and the plants taller than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s even a robe in the closet that says “Sheraton” on it. I got no robe in my room.

Anyway, as far as I can tell, most of the guests here are men. A lot of them are balding and carry briefcases like the things were sprouting out of their fingers. They all look pretty important and like they have a lot of money, which I guess is the kind of people you’d want here if you buy the place. But listen to this. I got to talking with one of the bell captains here, a guy named Dave Nasella, and he was telling me that during the 1978 All-Star game at San Diego Stadium the hotel was full of baseball hall-of-famers. All of them were down in the lobby one morning talking to each other and waiting for transportation to the stadium: Brooks Robinson, Hank Aaron, Jim Rice, Jim Palmer, Pete Rose. “All of a sudden,” says Nasella, “the crowd parted like it was the Red Sea. And I'm thinking, ‘Who could it be? All these guys are superstars. Who’s going to get this kind of treatment?’ It was Joltin ’ Joe — Joe DiMaggio.”

This guy Nasella has been here for twelve years, and he’s seen a lot. “The more people talk about the number of bags they have, the more I worry,” he told me (and I'm writing this down straight from the tape I made. I’ve been keeping that recorder in my shirt pocket, and it seems to work great). 4 if they say, ‘This is a lot of bags, isn’t it?’ I always cringe a little bit. You know you’re going to get only fifty cents or a dollar for all of them.” Nasella says men almost always tip more than women, too. “A guy will give his wife four dollars to pay a tip, but the woman will often give you only half of it. I think there could be two reasons: women honestly don’t think bellmen deserve that much money. Or they just need the money themselves.

“I’II tell you something else I’ve learned,” Nasella says to me, “many men that are very successful are very sad. It’s not that they're not proud. It’s that maybe there’s nothing left for them to achieve, or they’re always away from their family because of business. A guy came up to me once, he was the head of a division of Chevrolet. He asked me if I like my job. I told him, well. I like it, but I don’t know if I'll do it the rest of my life. And he tells me, ‘Stick with it. Because otherwise you may end up like me. I'm not happy. I’m fifty-seven, I’ve worked my rear end off all my life, what have I got? I can't stay at home more than three months a year. I’ve got no one to live with. ... All I’ve got is a lot of money.’

“When you hear that, in your mind you go, ‘How can you complain? You've got the world by the gazumbas.’ But I guess we’re all in the same boat. All the money in the world can't buy away loneliness. This hotel, it’s like a soap opera in front of you. You watch it every single day.”

So anyway, Mr. Rothenberg, that’s the kind of person who stays here, if it helps you to know. By the way, I’m also keeping an eye out for that woman I ran into the first day, the one who seemed to know so much about the hotel. So far no luck.

Mrs. R returned to her room at 4:20 p.m., and had a salad and tea sent up by room service at 6:45. She was in her room until 9:03, but then she left it and went down into the hotel nightclub on the ground floor. She drank one peach margarita, followed by one strawberry daiquiri. I observed her talking with an unknown male, medium height, very tan, approximately forty-five years old, for nearly a half-hour. Then she returned to her room alone. Who this guy is, I don’t know — maybe he’s someone from the hotel she was talking to today. But don't jump to conclusions, Mr. Rothenberg, and don’t worry. I will find out everything about him.

Sincerely,
Tom Borokowski


  • Armand Rothenberg
  • 4600 Lakeview Ave.
  • Buffalo, NY 14201
  • Armie:

Mr. Roberts kindly gave me permission to take a tour of the hotel, and with one of his employees as a guide, I got started first thing this morning. We began in the offices behind the front desk, and I was amazed at the extent to which computers are used to run the day-to-day operations. All the reservations and room assignments are computerized, of course; at the touch of a few keys the staff can find out which rooms have been vacated, which ones cleaned, who is staying in what room, and even who stayed in it the night before! The telephone system is also computerized; when a guest makes a call, the staff knows right away what the guest's name is. And the computer keeps track of which guests have requested wake-up calls, and then dials their rooms automatically in the morning with a prerecorded voice telling them to wake up! It all seems so effortless, although of course there are times like the one when the computer glitched and wouldn't make the wake-up calls, and the assistant manager had to round up a group of staff people to make the calls personally.

Next we went back into the kitchen, or rather I should say kitchens. There are four of them altogether: one for banquets and catering, one for the hotel's restaurant, one for the hotel’s café, and a separate one, although it is not as elaborate as the other three, for room service. In all, Armie, they have 15,000 square feet of kitchen!

There were people in white hats and coats working everywhere, putting together salads and cheese plates, and slicing onions (you'll see some of this in the pictures I'm sending); one big cart had tray after tray of chicken breasts on it, waiting to be cooked. The executive chef, Bruno Mella, explained to me that chicken cordon bleu for a banquet of 700 people was being prepared. Mella also told me that the hotel has a saucier — a person who spends all day just making sauces — as well as a pastry chef and a fellow who does nothing all day but work in a side room polishing silver. There are an awful lot of employees, dear; as a matter of fact. I’ve learned there are about 600 in the hotel altogether, and that payroll is the Sheraton’s single largest expense — about $11 million a year. You and I may have to do something about that once we take over, and thank god this isn’t a union hotel (most of the hotels in San Diego are nonunion, I’ve learned, but many of the large ones are unionized, including the Del Coronado, the Hilton, Vacation Village, the Hyatt, the Holiday Inn at the Embarcadero, La Costa, the Kona Kai, and so on). But at any rate, the food side of the business can be tremendously profitable; one convention of 600 people can spend $80,000 a day on food and beverages, if the conventioneers eat all three meals “in house.”

Mr. Mella told me that every week this hotel by itself uses 15,000 eggs, 2000 chicken breasts, and 500 pounds of coffee. Last year the Sheraton East spent about $2.4 million on food, and beverages came to about $650,000 more. But what I found particularly interesting is that the hotel takes pains to keep up its image through the food that it serves. For instance, if a convention of bowlers comes to town and they request a dinner of chicken a la king and succotash (can you imagine?), the hotel staff will steer them instead toward something like creamed chicken served in a puff pastry shell, with sautéed cherry tomatoes on the side.

I’m told that this attention to the hotel’s image comes directly from Mr. Roberts himself. For instance, he is the one responsible for having original paintings hung in the lobby and in the Towers’ halls and rooms, and it is his decision to spend $250,000 a year on fresh flowers and plants. I asked him about it, and he confirmed that “we think it’s important to pay close attention to your image. Not everybody is that way. We are, because we have a high profile in the community. If you talk to a few hotel operators in Mission Valley, I think you’ll find they're not concerned about how the public perceives them because their hotels are more convenient stops for people. But with all the functions that are held here — fifty or sixty a day, sometimes — that’s exposure. That's high profile.”

One thing I’ve noticed, dear, is that when Mr. Roberts talks he has a peculiar way of sounding as if he is making notes rather than carrying on a conversation. You sense that his mind is moving a lot faster than he has the capacity to express. But what I think he means is this: the Sheraton hosts a lot of press conferences and banquets for local (and often influential) groups, and this is what drives Mr. Roberts and his staff to pay such close attention to image. And believe me, they pay close attention to the Sheraton’s image in the media, too. I think this reflects again what a competitive business it is. The hotel spends more than $20,000 flying 100-200 travel writers from all over the country out here every year, putting them up for free and entertaining them night after night, all in the hopes that the writers w ill then mention the Sheraton favorably in their next article about San Diego. Apparently it pays off, too. For instance, a local television personality here, Jerry G. Bishop, recently got a free night’s stay in the same $400 suite I'm in, and a complimentary dinner at the hotels exclusive restaurant. The very next day the chef of the restaurant appeared on Bishop’s morning TV show to demonstrate cooking a ham, and Bishop introduced her as the chef for “Sheppard’s, the incredibly elegant restaurant at the Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel.” Need I say more?

Well, Armie, I hope you’ll find all this information useful. I’m finding it very interesting, but very tiring; at the end of each day I barely have enough strength to take a long luxurious bath and drag myself to bed! But never fear, tomorrow I will charge out and learn even more, because I know how important it is for you to know every detail before making an offer to the Sheraton people.

Miss you.
Estelle


  • Mr. Armand Rothenberg
  • Rothenberg Enterprises
  • 2257 Industrial Park Road, Suite B
  • Buffalo, NY 14207

Dear Mr. Rothenberg:

Okay, I know who the tan guy is. I described him to one of the doormen at the hotel, and he knew who the guy is right away. Then I called around and got some info on my own. His name is MacDonald, he’s president of a big development company, and I understand they’ve been trying to build a hotel on Harbor Island, near the Sheraton, on a piece of ground that is currently just a dirt parking lot. So far they haven’t gotten the green light from the authorities, but MacDonald is supposed to have a lot of bucks, and he is the type of guy who can make a lot of waves and get his way somehow. He is five years younger than you are — forty-nine.

Mrs. R left her room at 9:25 this morning and went down to the hotel offices on the fourth floor again. A few minutes later she came out accompanied by a young woman wearing the same gold badge that all the hotel employees wear, so I guess she works here. I followed them down to the lobby, and they went into some offices behind the front desk for a while, then they came out and headed across the lobby to a couple of swinging doors that I think lead back into the kitchen. I didn't want to follow them in there, being afraid that if someone unfriendly noticed me they might toss me out and cause a stink, so I waited outside the door. At 10:05 who walks out this door but the same woman I’ve been trying to find since I first talked to her when I arrived here! She said she had a few minutes to talk. Since I figured Mrs. R must be taking a tour of the kitchen or something, I decided to meet with this woman around back of the hotel where no one would bother us. This woman has a name, like everyone does, I guess, but I should probably not tell even you what it is just in case these letters fall into the wrong hands. So I ’ll call her the Flower Girl. Anyway, I told the Flower Girl I was working for a very important man who wanted to find out everything about this hotel, and I asked her what she meant about this hotel being such a big place with all this stuff going on behind the scenes to make it click. Then I just turned on my tape recorder and let her chitchat. Tonight I wrote it all down just like she said it.

“There are public groups and hidden groups working here,” she tells me. “The typical guest usually just sees the doorman, the desk clerk, the bellman, and maybe the people who work in the restaurant. But in fact there are housekeepers, engineers, line cooks, bartenders, banquet staff, convention service people, accountants. . . . The public groups are fairly well spoken, and always speak English. But the hidden groups often do not.

“We're very image-conscious. We don't want guests to know if a mistake is being made. And most of the time we pull it off. If we don't pull it off, we try to soothe. We would never admit we were wrong, no matter what. We're in the business of being positive and gracious. World-of-mouth selling is so important."

I ask her what the big deal about image is — everybody knows nobody’s perfect, even a hotel. And she says, “We're image-conscious because the groups we deal with are image-conscious. There are a lot of fundraisers and banquets here — Pete Wilson has had a birthday party here, and the Committee, a group of well-connected, monied socialites, had a fundraiser at our restaurant. There are just a lot of La Jolla and Rancho Bernardo people who, if they like us, will bring us business. So we're very conscious of our image in the press, because they are, too.

“Mr. Roberts, John M. Roberts, the general manager of the hotel, is well-connected in San Diego, and he likes to impress. He doesn’t like problems, and he doesn't like to be interrupted. Most of the employees are in fear of him. He's very concerned about the freshness of the food, for instance, and how it looks on the plate. He gets very upset if everything isn't perfect. If he's eating dinner at a function here, the salads for the other people are prepared in advance, but Mr. Roberts's salad is made right before it goes out to the table. Every julienne of carrot is in its proper place."

Well, Mr. Rothcnberg. that’s all I got from the Flower Girl this time, because she had to go back to work. But we made plans to meet again. I really think she’s got the inside dope on this place.

Mrs. R went back to her room at 2:20 p.m. She stayed there until 3:48 p.m., and then came out again. She was dressed in a robe and seemed to have a bathing suit on underneath. I followed her down to the lobby, out the back of the lobby, and down to one of the hotel’s two swimming pools. She lay down on a plastic lounge for twenty minutes or so, and then went swimming in the pool. When she got out, this guy MacDonald was waiting for her and handed her a towel. They talked for a half-hour or so.

Mrs. R went back to her room at 5:15 and was there until at least 7:45, when I decided to get a quick bite to eat. I was in the line for the salad bar in the cafe, getting the dressing, when I started talking to a nice guy with blond hair who seemed kind of young. It turns out he's the hotel's night manager, Jeph Garside. When Mr. Garside found out I was a guest in the hotel he seemed kind of interested. We ate dinner, and when he found out I was a former cop he seemed real interested. After we finished eating Garside tells me he has to make his usual rounds of the hotel. I tell him I'd like to go along too, and he says sure.

First place we go is back past the meeting rooms where people have special dinners and stuff. As we're talking Garside tells me he meets a lot of people who stay at the hotel, and some of them are pretty strange. Like this one guy he tells me about, who was really in a hurry to check out one evening. "I could just feel a sense of urgency from him." Garside says. “He was in a big hurry, but he couldn’t Find the keys to his safe deposit box." (This is a safe deposit box he got at the hotel.) Anyway, Garside says, the guy is practically frantic, so the engineers come up, but the only way they can get into the box is to drill into it through solid steel. So the guy asks how long that will take, and Garside says, you know, hopefully it won’t take too long, but it's solid steel. “I was going to suggest we could drill it open and send whatever it was to him, but he was obviously not going to leave without whatever was in that box,’ ’ Garside tells me. It turns out it took just a few minutes to drill into the box, and the guy scoops up whatever's inside it and checks out right away. Immediately the guy heads for the airport, and Garside rides with him in a hotel van. On the way the guy finally says that what he had in the box was a half-million dollars of uncut opals, and he's got to fly to Australia to make a deal for them, and if he misses the flight the deal is off. So no wonder he was in a hurry.

Next Garside and me head downstairs, where they got a laundry and the engineering offices. Everything is pretty quiet down here, until suddenly a siren goes off on one of those little walkie-talkies that Garside has on his belt. It’s a code two, he says, which means someone smells smoke, and it's on the eleventh floor in the Towers. We get on an elevator right away to head up to the eleventh floor, and all the way Garside is telling me that it's probably nothing, just someone smelling the laundry machines as they go on or something. We get off on the eleventh floor, and we’re walking down the hallway real fast when all of a sudden we round a comer and we see smoke. “Jesus," says Garside, “it really is something," and he breaks into a run. At the end of the hall there's a curtain with big black holes burned in it, and the hallway smells real bad, like burned plastic. Soon there’s Firemen and hotel engineers and everybody all over the place, and there's a woman staying at the hotel who says she was in her room when she smelled smoke, on account of her nose is real sensitive since she quit smoking. She says her husband Finally smelled it, too, so he took a look outside their room, and the curtains at the end of the hallway were on Fire. There was some guy in a white suit standing there. So this woman and her husband called the desk and said there's a Fire. By the time Garside and me got on the scene, this guy in the white suit had run away, but on the wall of the stairwell nearby there was a big smeared ashy handprint, as if the guy had tried to wipe his hand on the wall as he ran down the stairs. Whether it was someone who was standing there smoking and accidentally set the curtains on fire, or whether it was someone who actually tried to set the curtains on fire, no one ever knew. But after the firemen and everybody had come, the woman who reported the fire is still standing there with her husband in the hallway, and she’s saying, “Is it safe to stay here tonight? How am I going to sleep?" And her husband is saying, * There are a lot of wackos in the world." Garside told me later that the Sheraton East has never had anything you would really call a fire, and that the burned curtains were the worst fire problem he’s seen in his three years here. “But ever since the big hotel fire in Las Vegas a few years ago, it's always in the back of your mind," he told me.

After things had quieted down I went back down to the lobby, and by calling Mrs. R’s room on the house telephone I found out she was still in it (I just hung up without saying anything). At this point it was about 8:50 p.m. I went up to the twelfth floor to keep an eye on Mrs. R's room from my post in the storage room, but I was only there for a couple of minutes when I see Mrs. R leaving her room. She goes down to the lobby, orders a drink in the lounge (white wine, I think), and at 9:20 p.m. this guy MacDonald comes up and sits down with her. They chat for a few minutes, then get up, and I follow them out onto the dock behind the hotel. They stood there for nearly an hour, talking, but I couldn’t get close enough to hear anything they said. It was a warm night — in fact, the weather here always seems to be just about right — and you could see the lights from the hotel shining on the water, and there was a moon like a fingernail kind of low in the sky above Mrs. R's head. You could see lights in the distance and across the harbor — I tell you. Mr. Rothenberg, this would be a great place for you to have a hotel. It’s the kind of a place women would like because it’s so romantic.

Anyway, MacDonald went with Mrs. R back to her room, but he didn't go in. I know this because I took the elevator up to the twelfth floor, and when the doors opened this guy MacDonald was standing right in front of me, waiting to take the elevator down, and he was humming.

My next letter will be tomorrow.

Yours faithfully,
Tom Borokowski


  • Armand Rothenberg
  • 4600 Lakeview Ave.
  • Buffalo, NY 14201
  • Armand:

What a rotten, rotten day I’ve had! For one thing. I’ve never made so many phone calls in my life! I’m growing tired of playing investigative reporter; I don't think I'm cut out for it. Besides, it seems that all I got today was bad news.

I thought I’d better contact some more people outside the Sheraton to get as much information on the hotel business as I could, so first thing this morning I got on the phone. One call led to another, and another, and so on, until my ears were ringing. And the very first thing I learned was that the Hotel Inter-Continental, that new hotel I was telling you about, is a kind of symbol both of the new wave of hotels that will be built here andand the increasing competition that will result. Here's what I mean:

The Inter-Continental was built mainly to cater to wealthy travelers and corporations who will be making use of the city’s new $ 100-million convention center, when that gets built in a few years. But even though the convention center is expected to benefit nearly all the local hotels, people in the hotel industry didn't support it as strongly as they might have, because they were afraid that the InterContinental would benefit more than anyone else. In other words, apparently the other hotels were jealous. I talked to the treasurer of the pro-convention center campaign (the matter was put to a vote here), and she told me that while the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Association contributed $15,000, TraveLodge and Atlas hotels contributed only $1000 each. Great American and Home Federal (a couple of banks) contributed $12,000 each! Ernest Hahn, the developer of that redevelopment project called Horton Plaza, contributed $20,000 personally, and his company contributed $15,000 more. Meanwhile, the Sheraton contributed only $100!

I asked Mr. Roberts why his hotel had contributed so little and he said. "We at the Sheraton are the largest contributor to Con Vis, we’re the second largest contributor to the Port District’s revenues ... and we spend well over one million dollars annually in soliciting conventions directly. From a financial standpoint I felt that was enough; it was time for other hotels to contribute their fair share."

Next I asked Mr. Roberts if he expects competition with the InterContinental. "Obviously, when you have $125 million invested in an operation less than three or four miles away, you wonder how it’s going to affect you," he told me. "I'm very pleased to say the Inter-Continental appears to be complementing our business. I mean that sincerely. It's a nice hotel.

"But I'll take my hotel any day. Why? Because I know what it takes to make my bottom line. And I know what it’s going to take them to make their bottom line. It’s expensive to build hotels. The old rule of thumb was that you charge a dollar for every thousand you spend on each room. So if you spent $60,000 for a room, you charge sixty dollars a night for it.

"Let's think about that a little bit. The Inter-Continental, how much do they charge for a room? One hundred twenty dollars? So it cost them $120,000 a room to build the hotel. They have to get $120 a night to break even. Break even. Now, they can't really make it at $120, it’s really more like $130, because they've got financing charges, a management contract. Doug Manchester, the hotel’s developer, picks up half of the parking revenue. . . . And how many times do you stay at a hotel for $130 a night? Maybe once, if it's a honeymoon.

"I'm not really too concerned about the Inter-Continental, because I think there's a market for that hotel. But I’d be concerned, if I were holding the mortgages, for the ten to fifteen other hotels that are planned. We could get into an overbuilt situation. Overbuilt. It could happen here in San Diego. Big concern."

Now, all this is bad enough. Armie. All the hotel people seem to think that the only way to avoid having too many hotels and too few guests is to carry out an aggressive marketing campaign, really sell San Diego all over the country as a place to visit. Normally the ConVis people do a lot of this, but recently there’s been a squabble between the Hotel-Motel Association and ConVis about whether ConVis spends enough money on marketing and is aggressive enough in trying to obtain conventions for local hotels. One powerful hotel chain. Atlas, actually withdrew from ConVis in protest.

Mr. Jack Giacomini, senior vice president of Atlas, told me that earlier this year the Hotel-Motel Association board actually recommended to its members that they all withdraw from Con Vis in protest, but that when Atlas became the first to actually do so, ConVis suddenly changed some personnel and became more responsive, making it rather unnecessary for other hotels to withdraw. “Although San Diego’s occupancy rate is currently the second highest in the nation, that will not be the case when all these new hotel rooms come on line," Mr. Giacomini said. “Let’s face it — business has been good, and ConVis had become stodgy and comfortable in its ways. But now it’s a whole new ball game. The competitive nature of the business is going to become even more competitive. I d like to see ConVis spend $5 million annually on advertising and promotion; for an aggressive marketing campaign in Los Angeles alone ConVis should probably be spending a million dollars.

Mr. Al Reese, a spokesman for ConVis, told me that ConVis will indeed have to spend more money in the future if all the hotel rooms that are planned here are to be filled with paying guests. He added that in the future he hopes his organization will be able to get more income from the Transient Occupancy Tax, a tax on all hotel and motel rooms. But he also said, “Our primary job is to get people to San Diego. It’s the job of our members — restaurants, hotels, or whatever — to get the people to their establishments."

Mr. Roberts, who is on the ConVis board of directors, agreed with Mr. Reese. “I think they're doing a good job, ConVis," Mr. Roberts told me. “They're spending about three, four million a year in budget (only about $1.1 million of this is for advertising and promotion); that's probably better than most cities in North America. How about some of the hotel operators spending a little bit more than they do, instead of waiting for ConVis to do it? ConVis's job isn't to get the hotels in Mission Valley running at 100 percent occupancy — that's the operator’s job to do it. That’s bullshit. It’s a lot of scapegoating. Go to the guy who's bitching, ask him how much he’s spent on promoting his hotel, and then compare it to the national average.” (I did ask Mr. Giacomini this, but he declined to reveal any figures, saying it was proprietary information.)

At any rate, Armie, I still think the Sheraton is in an excellent position with regard to the future. But that's the worst news of all! Mr. Roberts told me in no uncertain terms that he refuses to even consider selling his hotel, and that he knows Sheraton's national headquarters in Boston will back him up! And he insisted that he wouldn't listen any more to you than he has to me! So it appears the whole idea is fruitless.

Still, we shouldn’t give up hope entirely. I've made some excellent contacts with hotel industry people here, and we might have a chance to get in on the ground floor of another hotel deal. But what that means, Armie, is that I’m going to have to stay out here a little longer than we originally planned. I should be able to get all the information we need in three or four more weeks. I know that means I'm going to miss our big anniversary party, but think how important this is in comparison! There'd be no sense in dropping everything now when there are some very strong possibilities for the future. We've got to strike while the iron is hot! I'll let you know more as soon as I can.

Estelle


  • Mr. Armand Rothenberg
  • Rothenberg Enterprises
  • 2257 Industrial Park Road, Suite B
  • Buffalo. NY 14207
  • Dear Mr. Rothenberg:

Mrs. R spent all day in her room today, and I know this because I was in my post across the hall all day, and it got pretty boring. The maids kept coming in to get sheets and towels and so forth, and one time one of them dropped a handful of those little soap bars and they scattered across the floor. That was the biggest thing that happened all day.

At around noon I called up the Flower Girl (I got her office number now), and we made plans to meet across the street from the hotel at a place where there's some grass and trees and picnic tables. I was afraid the tape recorder might not pick up her voice as good outside, but it did fine. She says there's a big new hotel in town called the Inter-Continental and that it's kind of the first one of a wave of new hotels, and that it's already starting to change things around the Sheraton. “We're doing a bit of a sales blitz," she said. “Some of the departments are calling out for business, but we’re all novices at it. We're trying to keep it low-key. We question our clients a little more closely, find out where else they're looking. Overall we're standing up a little straighter. The word is that we must be conscientiously aware of what is happening in town.”

We talked a little more, but then the Flower Girl had to get back to the hotel, so I went back too and went up to my post across the hall from Mrs. R's room. That was around 1:00 p.m. and as I said, not much happened the rest of the day. At 6:35 a room service waiter knocked on Mrs. R's door and delivered some sort of sandwich, some tomato juice, and some tea. I had a snack I had brought with me and remained on duty until 11:30, when my eyes could hardly stay open and I went to my room and wrote out this letter.

Will continue my work tomorrow.

Sincerely,
Tom Borokowski


  • Mr. Armand Rothenberg
  • Rothenberg Enterprises
  • 2257 Industrial Park Road, Suite B
  • Buffalo, NY 14207

Dear Mr. Rothenberg:

I don't know why I woke up two hours after going to bed. Normally I sleep like an old dog, and almost never do I wake up in the middle of the night. But I did. and I couldn't get back to sleep. I had a bourbon on the rocks and then finally decided the hell with it, I 'll take a walk and maybe try to wear myself out so I can get some shuteye.

I went down to the lobby first, and it was pretty quiet, even though all the lights were on. I went out the front door and started walking around the side of the hotel. It was warm again. I saw an open door and went inside it, and I was in the same hallway that I'd walked with Garside, where all the meeting rooms are. Of course there wasn’t anybody around now, so I just kept walking. After a while I heard a funny kind of a noise from behind a row of wooden doors, and I thought I’d better check it out.

Those doors led into the biggest room I've ever seen in my life. You’d have to pole vault just to get up to the ceiling. The hotel calls it the Champagne Ballroom, and something like 1200 people can eat dinner in it sitting down at tables at the same time, but right now it was totally empty and you could have fit a jumbo jet in it no problem. Well. Mr. Rothenberg. I didn't hear nothing further and I'm just getting ready to leave when I hear this little noise coming from way down at the other end of the room. It sounds like. I don't know, like maybe a cat is in the room and knocked something off a chair. So I start down there, and about halfway across the room I hear another noise, and it’s a moaning sound. So I start thinking, uh-oh, maybe it's a security guard and he's been knocked out. So I start running, but w hen I get to the far comer of the room, Mr. Rothenberg, what do I see there but Mrs. R and the tan guy. MacDonald, and what they’re doing you can’t describe in a family newspaper.

I left them there and went back to my room and wrote you this letter right away. I guess your worst suspicions have now come true, and I guess it's also a good thing that you hired me to keep an eye on your wife. Anyway, Mr. Rothenberg, I have all the evidence you need, but I will continue to keep an eye on Mrs. R as long as I am here. If I don’t hear from you for a couple of days, I'll grab a plane to Buffalo and I’ll talk to you then. I'm sorry, Mr. Rothenberg, that I have to give you this news, but I know this is my job.

Truthfully Yours,
Tom Borokowski

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