When Carlos Lopes, the managing director of the Hotel Bel-Air, asked a breakfasting guest early last year what he thought of the renovations to the suite he was occupying, the guest replied, "Well, it's not my personal taste." Fortunately for an unnerved Lopes, the man eventually added,
Forgive Lopes for being slightly neurotic. The secluded California landmark, set amid 5 hectares of palms, redwoods, primroses and bougainvillea in the canyons abutting Beverly Hills, has been an international icon of luxury since it opened in 1946. Its guest registry has included an assortment of Rockefellers, Marilyn Monroe, Howard Hughes and Grace Kelly, as well as Prince Charles, Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts. For many glitterati, the Bel-Air serves as a second home. "I've never managed a hotel where the clientele is so loyal, has such high standards, and feels so proprietary about it," Lopes says.
So when Mobil Travel Guide subtracted one of the five stars from the Bel-Air's rating in 1999, Lopes knew a face-lift to the "dated and tired" design was imperative. He would have to nip and tuck carefully to avoid rankling the hotel's faithful. "I had to update every facet, while preserving the classical elegance that is the Bel-Air's signature," he says.
The dining room underwent one of the biggest and fastest makeovers. A floor-to-ceiling fireplace and handblown Italian chandeliers were added, and the dowdy pale-wood seating was updated with buttercream-colored leather banquettes all in seven days. Meanwhile, the 52 rooms and 39 suites were being meticulously refurbished, with plush silk tones replacing swirly floral patterns that recalled the 1940s.
One hallmark of the Bel-Air is that each room and suite is unique, and nearly 500 fabrics and 100 paint colors were used to give each space a different feel. Even the desk lamps vary from room to room. Lopes also tailor-made several suites for the guests who use them most often. These personal touches include a a hand-painted ceiling design, built-in bookshelves and hardwood flooring. The initial revamp so impressed the Mobil judges that they restored the five-star rating in 2003. Since then, the final touches, such as a semi-enclosed treetop terrace for tastings from the hotel's 40,000-bottle cellar, have helped the Bel-Air keep its top Mobil designation.
Given the massive overhaul, it's surprising that even some frequent guests have to ask what, specifically, has changed. But Lopes isn't distressed. "It pleases me because it tells me that the renovations were done seamlessly and tastefully," he says, "which means we succeeded." tel: (1-310) 472 1211; hotelbelair.com