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Comcast, Four Seasons gear up for hotel atop Philly's biggest tower

A top Four Seasons exec says they're building "one of the greatest hotels in America" in Philadelphia. It also may have some of the most panoramic views of any hotel on the East Coast.

Ben Shank outside the  new Comcast Corp. tower. Four Seasons appointed the Lower Merion native the general manager of the hotel to be in the tower.
Ben Shank outside the new Comcast Corp. tower. Four Seasons appointed the Lower Merion native the general manager of the hotel to be in the tower.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Most days, Ben Shank finds himself holed up in a sixth-floor office, drawing up plans for the new Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia atop Comcast Corp.'s new technology tower, planning for the day when he'll have hundreds of guests to schmooze and hundreds of employees to manage.

The luxury brand Four Seasons appointed Shank, 39, as general manager for its new Philadelphia property in late 2016. It marked a homecoming for this Lower Merion High grad, who began his hospitality career as a busboy at the hotelier's now-closed Fountain restaurant in Philadelphia, and will now run a hotel that will take up a surprisingly large amount of space in Comcast's new tower — one-fifth of the floors, and all at the top of the skyscraper.

"I do get a bit stir crazy, so I have to walk around the block and get a cup of coffee," said Shank, dressed in a business suit with a tie and slicked hair, near the 1717 Arch St. building that serves as the de facto base for the Comcast tower's construction. "To be a good hotelier, you have to be out with people, and those are your guests and your employees."

Right now, he's the hotel's only employee. But he's already working hard to distinguish it from competitors that are adding thousands of rooms in Center City. He recently rode the construction hoist to what will be the 60th-floor lobby and lounge to "get a perspective as to when you are at the bar, what you will be looking at. I'm envisioning the vibe of the hotel." Shank also spends time in the new tower's basement, site of the laundry facilities and kitchens, to get a feel for the future workflow of the hotel.

There are a thousand and one things to do, it seems. The other day, Shank spoke to a top Four Seasons executive — Christian Clerc, based at the firm's Toronto headquarters — about a new line of spa products for the 57th-floor spa: facials, lotions, and potions from Switzerland. They haven't decided on them yet.

And provisioning the hotel rooms is a constant chore. Comcast and Liberty Property Trust jointly own the new tower and have contracted with Four Seasons to run the 217-room hotel, which will occupy the 48th through 60th floors of the tallest building between New York and Chicago.

Because of the high expectations and the high expected nightly rates, the Comcast-Liberty Property venture has created a mock-up of a hotel room in a Horsham warehouse, complete with a bathroom. "We didn't go as far as taking a shower," Shank said with a laugh when recalling the discussions over the bathroom soap.

A few weeks ago, Shank, with representatives from Comcast and Liberty Property Trust, tested the feel and comfort of room chairs, one with modern fabric and a swivel. No detail seemed too small. They talked about the cushion for around 30 minutes, Shank said. With today's guests, "you need to have a good balance between something that's cushy but also lends support if you are doing computer work in your room."

Comcast will be opening the new hotel next summer at a critical time for the city's hospitality trade. Other chains and developers have announced a deluge of hotel rooms for Philadelphia, anticipating a continued surge in tourism and conventions, and a steady flow of business travelers. The projects will create jobs and economic activity, but the number of rooms could overwhelm the market.

"Over the next three years, there will be up to 3,000 new rooms added to the city, and we are concerned about maintaining a viable occupancy rate," said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.

There are about 11,400 hotel rooms in the city, he said. The average hotel occupancy in 2016 was 78 percent, and the industry would like to maintain that.

But the new Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center — its official name — will have advantages. Since it replaces the former Four Seasons at One Logan Square on the Parkway, which closed in 2015, the new Four Seasons will draw local patrons with a nostalgia for the old one, as well as benefit from a captive clientele of executives and others doing business with Comcast.

"People want that Four Seasons experience back," said Karen Dougherty Buchholz, Comcast's senior vice president of administration with oversight responsibility for the new tower's construction. "We missed it."

The new Four Seasons also will benefit from what many local observers consider limited competition in the Philadelphia luxury hotel market. There are the Rittenhouse Hotel, the Ritz Carlton, and some boutiques. The Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia hasn't released its rates and isn't taking reservations yet. As a point of comparison, the Rittenhouse Hotel's rates range from $379 to $3,500 a night, according to its website.

Shank recently hired employee No. 2, a director of sales and marketing. She's coming from another Four Seasons property and will begin next month. He's also now recruiting for directors of IT, food and beverage, and engineering. When the hotel opens next summer, it will employ about 400 room attendants, concierges, check-in attendants, cooks, and serving staff. Much of that staff will be hired in 2018.

Comcast's decision to put a hotel on the top floors of its technology center seemed unusual. But CEO Brian Roberts has said that he would like to create an "urban campus." And the top floors of the new Comcast tower offer panoramic views of the city that would become humdrum to a cable executive who worked there daily, but are highly marketable for the Four Seasons. So, a hotel makes that space more valuable.

"I don't know of any hotel that is going to be as high as the one at the top of the Comcast tower," Grose noted.

Shank says he's excited to be back in the Philadelphia area. He was raised in Lower Merion. His dad, John, taught therapeutic recreation and leisure studies at Temple University. His mother, Debbie, was a registered nurse. Both have retired to Virginia Beach, Va. He attended Pennsylvania State University, playing lacrosse as a defenseman for two years. He quit lacrosse as a junior to study abroad as a participant in the Cornell University hospitality program, going to Australia to travel and study hotel management.

In college, Shank bused tables and then supervised the seasonal Courtyard Café in the old Four Seasons  in 1999 and 2000. Four Seasons hired him full-time in 2001 as the restaurant's food and beverage manager. The hotel later promoted him to assistant manager of the Swan Lounge and the Fountain's general manager.

He left Philadelphia in 2005 for stints at Four Seasons properties in New York, California, Arizona, and Hawaii. His recent assignment was opening the new Four Seasons resort in Orlando on the Disney theme park property, a 26-acre spread with 443 hotel rooms, five restaurants, multiple pools, and a golf course.

Shank's wife, Jen, grew up in Wayne. They met in freshman year at Penn State through a friend at a party on campus. They have three children: Hunter, 9; Brooks, 7; and Avalon, 5.

Through the years, Shank stayed in contact with some of his early colleagues. Martin Hamann, 59, was the restaurant chef at the Fountain when Shank was there. Shank would laugh and play along when Hamann would bust him about having to get his game on.

"Coming out of Penn State and you're a busboy at the Courtyard Café — I'm sure that wasn't his aspirations," Hamann said of Shank. "But he grinded it out."

Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center

Rooms: 217 (38 suites).

Total square footage of hotel: 263,000.

Hotel floors 48th to 60th:

Guest rooms: 48th-56th.

Spa, fitness and pool: 57th.

Utility (no guest activity): 58th.

Check-in, lobby, meeting rooms and restaurant: 59th and 60th.

Three glassed-in elevators to express guests from street level to 57th and 60th floors.

Three internal elevators to transport guests between 48th and 60th floors.

Meeting and event space: Approximately 10,000 square feet (floors 2nd, 5th and 59th).
Ownership: Comcast Corp. (80 percent) and Liberty Property Trust (20 percent).