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The Peninsula Chicago at night

Orient Impress

by Amalie Drury | CS magazine | April 28, 2011
It was supposed to be the biggest bash of 2001: a lavish, no-expense-spared grand opening party for The Peninsula Chicago. The small, Hong Kong-based luxury hotel chain had pulled out all the stops for its third U.S. outpost. (The first opened in New York in 1988; today there are nine locations total around the world.) Designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects, with interiors by San Francisco-based BAMO, the 20-floor, 339-room Peninsula Chicago at the corner of Superior Street and Michigan Avenue couldn’t have been better situated. The staff, many of them coming from other top-notch Chicago businesses, had been trained to look after guests using The Peninsula’s signature, Eastern-inspired service standards: intuitive rather than intrusive, sophisticated but subtle. Giant rolls of plush carpeting had been hauled through the lobby windows by crane. Every gold-leafed surface glowed, every inch of marble gleamed. The hotel’s director of catering, Gregory Hyder, had spent months planning the party.   Then came 9/11 and, like so many events scheduled around that time, the opening party was canceled. Instead, The Peninsula Chicago quietly began to settle into its role as one of the city’s most impeccable places to stay, dine and unwind, taking an elegant approach to solidifying its reputation as the choice of out-of-towners, locals and celebrities alike when only the best would do. Under the leadership of manager and Regional Vice President Maria Zec, The Peninsula Chicago achieved everything it set out to do and more: For nine years in a row, it has received the Forbes Travel Guide (formerly Mobil Travel Guide) Five Star Award and five diamonds from AAA, and the hotel’s Avenues restaurant received two stars from Michelin last year. In 2006, Condé Nast Traveler named the Peninsula Chicago the “Number One Hotel in North America,” and it has ranked at or near the top ever since. And now, a decade later, as The Peninsula gears up to celebrate its big birthday in early June, it will have a second chance to bring its vision to life.    “The party will be on the same day of the week we opened 10 years ago,” Hyder explains over tea in The Lobby restaurant, where string players perform select afternoons as guests nibble from towers of finger sandwiches and take in Michigan Avenue views. “It’s going to be a fabulous event. I’m more excited about it than anything I’ve done in my career.” Special touches intended for the original bash will finally have their moment in the lights, and party guests—including many Chicago movers and shakers—will walk into a multi-hued dream world that spans the lobby, ballroom, bar and terrace. There will be Shanghai acrobats, geishas, a big band in the ballroom, a Parisian bistro, a blues bar with a performance by the legendary Lonnie Brooks, endless food and drink, and a conservatory’s worth of flowers. “Why not have the party we never had?” asks Hyder. When 1,500 formal, white-and-gold invitations appear in mailboxes early this month, it will signal the arrival of one of the most coveted invites of the season.    Zec, who holds the distinction of being one of the very few women luxury hotel managers in the United States, agrees that the party will make a splash. “We’re coming out of the recession, and we wanted to do something special,” she says. But more than anything, the celebration will feel light and fun, something the hotel strives for in all aspects of its day-to-day operations. It’s the kind of attitude that generates ideas like the hotel’s new Peninsula-branded, chauffeur-driven Mini Coopers, which take guests who stay in suites on shopping and sightseeing outings when they’re in Chicago. Peter Bear, a six-foot bear in a Peninsula page uniform, entertains children at the hotel and also makes the rounds at Children’s Memorial Hospital around the holidays. A tree currently set up near the reception desk allows visitors to buy whimsical origami birds handmade by staff members, with the proceeds going directly to earthquake relief in Japan. “Being good corporate citizens is what this company is all about,” says Zec. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years already, but I think we’ve cemented our relationship with the city. We wanted to celebrate our 10th anniversary in grand style.”    The Peninsula wasn’t immune to the lower occupancy rates that forced many luxury hotels to tighten their belts during the recession, but not one of its 550-strong staff was laid off. “They find you something to do,” says Mary Hall-Williams, the housekeeping night manager and a 10-year employee of the hotel. Laundry workers might put in shifts at the spa; housekeepers might find themselves in the gift shop. Schedules might have been shortened by a few hours, but no one lost benefits. “You enjoy the people you work with here,” says Hall-Williams. “We all respect each other.”    Tim Hitchcock, a day-shift doorman who was part of the pre-opening team in 2001 and who has overseen comings and goings at the hotel ever since, says he’s been greeting many of the same guests since the beginning. “It’s like I’m standing at the front door of my house,” he says. He keeps dog treats on hand to pass out to neighborhood pooches who make the rounds each day.And when passersby can’t resist the temptation to ask Hitchcock about celebrity guests—stars are rumored to be in residence frequently, often for months at a time, but hotel employees cannot divulge information about any guests—he deflects their queries with a smile. “If we have 15 limousines outside, people will stop and ask who they’re for,” he says. “I say, ‘They’re for you! Welcome to The Peninsula.’”   

With Honors

When it comes to awards, The Peninsula Chicago has almost as many laurels as it does rooms. A few of its most notable: Being named Condé Nast Traveler’s “Best Place to Stay” in Illinois in 2011; the second best hotel in Illinois in Travel and Leisure’s “500 World’s Best Hotels” in 2011; and the 10th best hotel in the United States and Canada by Travel and Leisure in 2008. The Peninsula Chicago’s restaurant, Avenues, helmed by chef Curtis Duffy, has also taken home more than its share of trophies—among others, earning a coveted two stars in last year’s Michelin Guide. And the Spa by ESPA recently helped The Peninsula Chicago win the title of “America’s Healthiest Hotel” in Hotel Magazine.