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Wooing Rittenhouse Hotel

Often ranked city's poshest, it may get new owners.

The Rittenhouse Hotel is in talks with Hersha Hospitality Trust. "It has a
special charm that’s truly world-class," a potential owner said. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)
The Rittenhouse Hotel is in talks with Hersha Hospitality Trust. "It has a special charm that’s truly world-class," a potential owner said. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)Read more

V.I.P. guests at the Rittenhouse Hotel often have quirky demands.

Actor Bruce Willis wanted his shower converted into a steam room. The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and Keith Richards requested that soccer games of the English Premier League be piped in to their luxury suites.

Making it happen, and quickly, is all in a day's work for longtime general manager David Benton. That level of service and attention to detail is why, even among the nonfamous, the posh, 98-room hotel on Rittenhouse Square is consistently ranked as the city's best and among the world's finest hotels.

In Travel + Leisure's 2011 World's Best Awards survey, readers ranked the Rittenhouse the No. 1 hotel in Philadelphia, No. 44 in the United States, and among the top 500 worldwide. In the magazine's 2010 survey, readers ranked it the No. 1 business hotel in the city.

But the tough economy has forced the independent Rittenhouse (rated AAA Five Diamond, the highest ranking) to make adjustments, just like most other hotels. With leisure travelers more price-cautious and corporate travel still squeezed, it has found a new niche among families vacationing closer to home rather than going overseas.

The new year may bring a new owner, too. Earlier this month, it was learned that Hersha Hospitality Trust of Maryland was in negotiations to buy the hotel.

At the Rittenhouse's dedication last week of a suite to opera great Luciano Pavarotti, Neil Shah, one-half of the Hersha empire with brother Jay, acknowledged that talks were continuing. But industry observers say that a deal is likely by Jan. 1 and that the Shahs had asked Benton to stay on as general manager.

Hersha, a hospitality real estate investment trust, has an ownership stake in 78 hotels nationally, mostly between Boston and Washington, including the Hampton Inn in Center City and Hyatt Place in King of Prussia.

Neil Shah, declining to discuss the pending deal, offered insight into why the Rittenhouse was on Hersha's wish list.

"This has always been a very special place, beyond iconic. It has a special charm that's truly world-class. It's everything I imagined it to be," said Shah, who stayed there all last week with his wife, Juhi. (It was his first stay at the hotel, though he has lived in this area for years and graduated from the Wharton School.)

"Hotels can be an escape from life's daily rigors," Shah said, "but they can also connect you to the community. It's right in the middle of everything.

"Our interest has always been in Philly . . . but we were waiting for the right asset. This is the best real estate in Philadelphia."

Travel + Leisure digital-projects editor Sarah Spagnolo, who oversees the World's Best Awards survey, said the Rittenhouse did particularly well for location and service.

"Just knowing this quality of a hotel exists here raises the profile of the city on the international level," said Mayor Nutter, who presented a city citation to Benton at the event Tuesday honoring the late Pavarotti (the hotel's first celebrity guest in 1989). "The Rittenhouse is luxury."

The hotel stands near tony Walnut Street shopping and luxurious residences such as the Dorchester and the Barclay. It is the city's second-smallest hotel. Only AKA Rittenhouse Square has fewer rooms (81).

Floors one through nine and Floor 13 have guest rooms; 152 condos occupy Floors 10 through 12 and 14 through 33.

"It's above first-rate," said retiree David Hutzler, 75, of Baltimore, who is staying at the Rittenhouse for two months with his wife, Harriet, while undergoing treatment for prostate cancer at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. "They don't know how to say anything but, 'Can I help you?' "

That's music to Benton's ears. The London native has been vice president and general manager of the Rittenhouse for nearly 23 years. He took over six months after its June 1989 opening.

He often bids hotel guests and residents "cheerio" as they leave the building. Last week, he worked the room at Lacroix, the hotel's award-winning restaurant, like a whirling dervish, greeting a lunch crowd that included TV personality and theater patron Suzanne Roberts.

"Being an independent hotel," said Benton, "you have to compete in creative ways."

Former boss Michael Leven, president and COO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., said Benton always had a creative streak. Benton worked for him in the 1970s and '80s when Leven was president of Americana Hotels Corp.

He recalled how, in 1984, Benton bartered with a company looking to have a meeting at American Host Farms Resort in Lancaster (now the Lancaster Host Resort & Conference Center), which was managed by Americana and where Benton was general manager.

"We didn't have any money for a ballroom carpet, so he traded a sales meeting with Armstrong [World Industries Inc. of Lancaster] - which had a carpet division - for carpeting," Leven said. "He understands the economics. He's a good marketer, a good promoter."

Benton said the 364-room Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia was the biggest local competition. Because it is part of an international chain of luxury hotels, the Four Seasons has room-and-reach advantage; the Rittenhouse must rely on referrals and accolades in magazines like Travel + Leisure, he said.

The hotel does not work with services such as Orbitz or Travelocity. It's not about discounting, Benton said. "We have not lowered or changed any service because of the economy."

But the economy has forced the hotel to be more flexible on rates for special packages and pricing for regulars, he said, with the understanding that, "when the climate improves, they will continue to stay with us at a higher rate."

A standard room now runs about $325 a night; suites start at $450, up to $3,000 for the presidential suite.

Of the Rittenhouse's 265-member staff, 102 have worked there 10 or more years, and 98 have been there 15 years or more - stability that, Benton said, has enabled employees "to really know our customers."

When the economy tanked three years ago, he asked the staff to come up with ways to generate new business. They suggested reconfiguring some suites to make them more family-friendly.

Now, child-size robes and slippers are put out along with the adults', and the lobby has a treasure chest filled with toys. Children's menus have been added, too.

Revenue from family stays is up 60 percent from 2008.

Leven, director emeritus of Hersha Hospitality Trust and a shareholder, said of the Shahs' interest in buying the hotel: "They are upgrading their portfolio.

"It's a big upgrade for them to buy the Rittenhouse."