Food Arts presents its November 1991 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Bill Kimpton, king of boutique hotels.
As a child, Kimpton loved playing Monopoly "with all those little red hotels," but failed miserably at his first hotel industry job as a desk clerk at San Francisco's Clift Hotel. his bid for admission to the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration was also rejected. So he became an investment banker instead. At Lehman Brothers, Kimpton helped raise the funds that enabled Kentucky Fried Chicken to expand from a $2 million operation to one that sold for $275 million.
Kimpton also handled the financing for the Kapalua Bay Resort Hotel in Hawaii and for the Helmsley Palace in New York City. It was his contact with legendary New York real estate developer Harry Helmsley that motivated Kimpton to try his hand at the hotel business again. "Harry showed me how much money you can make selling sleep," he says.
His own experience traveling to cities such as Paris and London, where hotel rooms are expensive, convinced him of the need for moderately priced establishments. Kimpton's first venture, The Bedford Hotel in San Francisco, almost went bankrupt, however. "It was 1981 and we were in a recession," he recalls. "The dollar was up and tourist business was down." Today, The Bedford is going strong.
His next project, the Hotel Vintage Court and Masa's, put him in the black and launched his inspired formula of paring a top restaurant with each hotel. "In the second year, we had 91 percent occupancy in the hotel," he says, "and the success of Masa's led us to believe the formula could work again."
And indeed it has worked again—and again. Kimpton's Kimco Hotel & Restaurant Management Company's "discount luxury" empire of boutique hotel/restaurant combos includes Bentley's and the Galleria Park Hotel; Vinoteca and the Juliana Hotel; Kuleto's and the Villa Florence Hotel; Corona Bar & Grill and the Monticello Inn; Cafe Pescatore and the Tuscan Inn; Harry Denton's and the Harbor Court Hotel; and Wolfgang Puck's Postrio and the Prescott Hotel, all in San Francisco; Pazzo and the Vintage Plaza Hotel in Portland, Oregon. While Kimco operates all but three of the restaurants, the company has various partnership arrangements with chefs and investors for each one. The company also has one freestanding restaurant, Splendido, with no hotel connection.
Kimpton's mode of operation remains constant: buy a run-down old hotel at a good price and renovate it. ("But it has to be able to polish up like an antique," he says. "We buy junk and sell antiques.") Keep it simple and affordable so that guests are paying to sleep—not for ballrooms, conference rooms, discos, or other expensive amenities most won't use. Create warmth with such cozy touches as a fireplace in the lobby so the traveler doesn't feel lonely. Attach a fabulous restaurant to generate excitement and publicity, but give it a separate entrance and identity (which helps explain why most of the restaurant customers are locals rather than transients, and why the restaurants continued to do well after the earthquake knocked the hotels for a loop).
William Tomicki, publisher of Entrée, the Santa Barbara, California-based travel newsletter, packs it all into a nutshell: "Bill Kimpton showed the industry that creative restaurants can drive a business to a hotel." Kimpton's own take: "People are looking for a small hotel at a reasonable price. All we've got to do is put it in front of them."