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Hotel adds a soothing amenity

The ever-improving downtown Hilton lured the Lou Michaels Spa, which offers head-to-toe services.

By SHARON L. BOND

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The new Lou Michaels Spa at the Hilton St. Petersburg symbolizes the changes occurring at the once-troubled downtown hotel.

The spa is a luxurious retreat for women and men, 5,000 square feet of space that has just undergone a $200,000 renovation. Services include massages, seaweed wraps and cellulite treatment, as well as hair cutting, styling and coloring and makeup and nail care. Products for the hair and skin are for sale. A room with exercise equipment is available, and lunches can be ordered in.

Clients can buy partial or full-day packages, beginning at $121.50 for the teaser package that includes three services in less than three hours, and ranging up to $339.50 for nearly eight hours and seven services, including a seaweed body wrap. Lunch comes with this package.

"It's a full body spa," said Michaels, who is 47. "We do services from the head to the toes." He is owner/colorist at the new spa, has 27 years' experience and spent three years at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

The salon has four pedicure thrones where clients sit in a chair that massages their upper body while their feet soak in a tub with four whirlpool jets. It is not an afterthought for the hotel, at 333 First St. S. In fact, the Hilton went after Michaels to move to the hotel.

"It adds to the marketability of the property," said Stewart Davis, director of sales and marketing for the Hilton. Large groups that stage conferences at the hotel in the past had access to golf, fishing and some shopping. The spa adds another lure -- a day or half-day of relaxation.

Since Michaels brought $200,000 in annual business to the spa, some area residents who had not been in the Hilton in years are seeing it again. He developed the spa with partner Olimpia Calandra, who handles the business end. She and her husband own the Ramada Inn on 34th Street S in St. Petersburg.

"We want to give people a personal touch, whether it is just for a manicure or for a full-day package," Mrs. Calandra, 37, said.

Michaels said the spa allows clients to tailor their own packages, picking the services they wish if the existing packages are not to their liking. That appeals to companies that are using the hotel and devote half a day to meetings and the other half to spa treatments for employees.

The partners said they want business to break down to 70 to 75 percent from residents and 25 to 30 percent from hotel guests.

The addition of the spa, which opened in January, is just one of the improvements under way at the 29-year-old hotel that less than 10 years ago was in bankruptcy. It was bailed out by an investment group that was not saddled with the debt that sent the previous owner to bankruptcy court. Some of that debt was owed to the city of St. Petersburg. In the 1994 bankruptcy reorganization, the city lost out on substantial repayment of a $3.4-million federal grant it secured for a 1987 renovation of the hotel. This came after the city let the hotel delay its payments for several years before the bankruptcy.

Average occupancy now is 70 percent, Davis said. The 333 rooms range from $119 to $189, depending on the season.

The Hilton St. Petersburg is making money and funneling a lot of it back into the hotel, Davis said. More than $300,000 was spent to paint the exterior of the 15-floor hotel and rework some of the landscaping and exterior lighting. The ballroom will be upgraded by spending $90,000, about $70,000 of which will go for new carpeting. Another $200,000 was just spent to install two telephones and two lines in each room, so guests can talk on the phone and work on their computers at the same time.

Beginning this summer, granite will be installed on the counter tops and floors in all bathrooms at a cost of half a million dollars, Davis said.

Guests won't see improvements such as upgrading the hot-water system by replacing two boilers at a cost of $50,000 to $60,000. That work is being done now.

"That is not necessarily a guest improvement unless it fails," Davis said. One of three chillers in the air-conditioning system was replaced last year at a cost of about $150,000. Another new one will be installed this year.

A Hilton typically plows about 5 percent of the money it makes back into an inn for capital improvements.

"In the four years that I have been here, we've never spent less than 10 percent," Davis said.

The Hilton is enjoying success because it changed its focus from being a local and regional hotel to more of a national facility.

"Four years ago there was a turn in revenue. In 1997-98 we increased revenue in the hotel about $1.5-million," Davis said. Four years later the annual increases total approximately $5-million, he said.

The Hilton gets 65 percent of its business from meetings and conferences. It has 35,000 square feet of meeting space on the ground floor that can be broken down into 21 different combinations of conference rooms. Included in this space are individual board rooms that seat up to 10 and four classrooms that each can accommodate 24 students' needs such as computer training.

A new self-service business center was added recently. It provides, at a cost, services such as copying, faxing, clerical supplies, access to the Internet and machines to cue up videotapes. It has "been pretty busy," Davis said.

With the renaissance of downtown, the Hilton now is marketing its location as the waterfront district in St. Petersburg. For clients who may not know what is in the city, advertising the waterfront leaves no doubt.

Davis said he was pleased with the increase in the number of restaurants downtown, the variety of cuisine and the opening of BayWalk.

The Hilton has seen an increase in the number of individual business travelers.

"Most of them are coming from the Carillon area. Our advance bookings are up 50 percent on the individual business side. I think that has everything to do with the city," Davis said.

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