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Le Méridien enters Center City hotel scene

The 202-room Le Méridien Philadelphia Hotel opens Thursday in the historic Arch Street YMCA building.

The 202-room Le Méridien Philadelphia Hotel opens Thursday in the historic Arch Street YMCA building.

Situated near the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and across from the Municipal Services Building, the four-star Le Méridien will be the closest full-service hotel (one with a restaurant) to the expanding Convention Center.

But its distinction as the only new hotel set to debut in Philadelphia this year means the city will fall far short - by nearly 1,500 - of the 2,000 rooms it is estimated to need to support the larger Convention Center, which is scheduled to open in March.

That deficit is not lost on officials at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, the agency in charge of booking space at the bigger venue, which has announced a partnership with other city agencies to spur hotel development here.

"Having additional hotel rooms allows for larger groups to be accommodated downtown, reinforcing our walkable city," said Jack Ferguson, executive vice president and incoming president of the visitors bureau. "It also allows Philadelphia to accommodate two conventions in the Pennsylvania Convention Center at the same time, which gives flexibility to the center itself."

Center City's 45th hotel, Le Méridien is housed in a structure designed by Horace Trumbauer, whose architectural legacy includes the Union League and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

With so much history steeped in its walls, the hotel is a melding of past and present.

"It's a juxtaposition of the neoclassic architecture and a modern contemporary style of furnishings and finishes," general manager Evan Evans said during a tour Friday.

The furniture is minimal, functional, and stylish in a natural palette accented with red and chrome throughout. An example: sliding red barn doors in each bathroom, which help conserve space.

Le Méridien's signature restaurant, Amuse, is a French bistrolike cafe. A stylish lobby bar serves coffee by day. The hotel offers 5,000 square feet of meeting space and a 200-seat ballroom. Underscoring the European flair is a fifth-floor atrium, beneath a glass ceiling and surrounded by brick walls, that lends the feeling of an outdoor deck.

Each room has views of City Hall and Love Park. Introductory rates are $180 to $240 weeknights and $140 to $180 weekends; suites cost $50 to $100 more.

Those rates are well above what is typical here. The average daily rate for Center City hotels was $107 last month, down from $112 in April 2009 and $125 in April 2008, according to Smith Travel Research, which tracks the U.S. hotel industry.

Le Méridien is the third upper upscale hotel downtown for HEI Hotels & Resorts, which is both owner and operator. HEI also owns the 294-room Westin and the 288-room Embassy Suites Center City.

"Center City is in the midst of a revival, and the Le Méridien is well-positioned to benefit from the ongoing development in the area, including the expanding Convention Center," said Roger Clark, HEI's senior vice president of acquisitions and development.

Jess Petitt, HEI's director of marketing, said the hotel had bookings for 2011 related to the center's $786 million expansion and expects more.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. markets and owns the Parisian-born Le Méridien brand. With Philadelphia, the brand now has nine properties in North America and 105 worldwide, said Paul Sacco, Starwood Group senior vice president, who will be at Thursday's 1:30 p.m. ribbon-cutting with Mayor Nutter and others.

Le Méridien brings the city's hotel-room total to 11,155. But hotel development remains weak nationally, contributing to Philadelphia's 1,500-room shortfall.

"The banks are not lending that kind of money right now because of the credit crunch," said C. Patrick Scholes, senior lodging analyst at FBR Capital Markets Corp.

To entice investors, the city's visitors bureau, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, and others announced April 26 a joint partnership to create "Philadelphia: Smart City. Smart Choice for Hotel Investment," a resource guide highlighting public-financing, tax-credit, and other incentives.

Ed Grose of the hotel association said Le Méridien, like the Palomar that opened last year, could help attract an international clientele.

"It is a brand that is well-known in Europe, which will help us attract foreign conventioneers and leisure travelers, who stay longer and spend more while they are here," Grose said.

Jonathan Barsky, cofounder and vice president of research for Market Matrix of San Rafael, Calif. - considered the J.D. Power & Associates of the hospitality world - said Le Méridien attracts a slightly older guest and tends to get lower scores for service compared with other luxury brands, including Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Sofitel, and W Hotels.

But according to the 2009 Market Metrix Hospitality Index, Le Méridien scored well in other areas, such as price sensitivity - its guests are willing to pay more before switching compared with guests at other brands.