Bel Air Hotel

High Life, Aug 2005

Personalized linen, bowls of Gummi Bears, the right kind of shower head… Hotel Bel-Air prides itself on catering to every outrageous whim of its A-list clientele. But does everything run smoothly?

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Photographs by Chris Floyd

It’s 7.30am on Thursday at the Hotel Bel Air and Nancy Kihm, the head of housekeeping, is walking through the grounds. Everything appears to be in order – the swans are on the pond, her girls are out with their trolleys, and it’s silent but for the sound of birds and the trickle of fountains. Perfect.

But wait – who’s that in the terrace restaurant, tucking into a bowl of fruit? Is it… yes it’s Oprah Winfrey.

“The sheets!” remembers Nancy, a little louder than intended, and immediately dashes into the alley where the deliveries arrive, along a sweeping pink wall and disappears through a little white door. From the picturesque tranquility of the gardens, she plunges into a tube-lit clamour of Hispanic maids, ringing phones, post-it notes and bleeping pagers – housekeeping’s mission control.

“The sheets, the sheets…” She ploughs through boxes and rails of drycleaning and arrives at her tube-lit cubby hole office at the back “Here they are!” she exhales and counts quickly through a thick packet of linens. “I was worried we didn’t have the full 5 sets.”

The Italian-made sheets were ordered especially for Oprah, a hotel regular, from the Anichini company, the Louis Vuitton of linens. It’s not that Oprah insists on them as such, but the hotel knows how she likes personalised sheets, so they rustled up a surprise – her very own Bel Air design in citrine, (between lemon and lime, Oprah’s favourite colour), with an embossed peacock feather pattern. Nancy folds out one of her top sheets and reveals a large “Oprah” sewn into the fabric. “It’s done so when her bed is made, her name goes right across,” she says, proudly. “Usually she just has ‘O’ so we went one better.”

This is a typical Bel Air touch. Few hotels would even consider personalising linens and robes for their guests, let alone doing it for free, but the Bel Air is famous for going the extra mile for VIPs and long term guests. It’s one reason why the likes of Oprah, Senator Kerry and Tom Cruise keep coming back to this secluded idyll, sprawled over a gorgeous 12 acre garden. Another is the hotel’s old-money, country club feel, a place of privacy and privilege. And it is a club of sorts. The neighbourhood of Bel Air has no shops, restaurants or cafes, so the hotel serves as a hyphenate hangout – a bar, spa, lunch spot and meeting place – for the locals, a wonderful menagerie of tycoons and celebrities including the likes of Inspector Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the 7’ 3” Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

But it is personal service that most distinguishes the Hotel Bel Air, particularly under the charismatic leadership of its Portuguese managing director, Carlos Lopes. Over 300 staff attend only 91 suites, all unique, which is why tariffs are 20% higher than its competitors – rooms start at $395 and suites at $775 – but also why, at the hotel Bel Air, almost every wish can be accommodated, however outlandish, immediately and without fuss. This aura of possibility, combined with the sheer beauty of the gardens, lends the hotel a rare, otherworldly quality.

“Oh we always try,” says Nancy, rummaging through her closet. A maternal, chuckling lady of 41, she oversees a 40-strong department where it’s clear how much effort goes into the apparently effortless service at the Bel Air. “We keep a database of guests’s preferences going back 5, 10 years, and you wouldn’t believe some of the things,” she says. “Special showerheads, buckwheat pillows, yoga mats, ear plugs. Don’t tuck in the sheets otherwise I can’t get into bed… I’m serious. One couple from Idaho only stay on Mondays and Tuesdays, so we pack up their stuff in between and store it. But they want us to put everything back exactly as they left it, even if it’s a mess – so I take Polaroids of the room.” One wall of her office has 6 Polaroids arranged in a grid. “We built a ramp for one dog who was too old to jump into bed. Another couple asked us to pull the mattress onto the floor for their dog.”

So the couple slept on the floor because of the dog?

“No, that was just for the dog’s room. The couple had the room next door. Raquel, have you seen my Gummi bears?”

Raquel, one of Nancy’s housekeepers giggles and points to the shelf directly in front of her. “Right in front of me the whole time.” Nancy rolls her eyes. “Now I need red vine liquorice and pretzels. We’ve got a VIP coming in tomorrow.”

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As Nancy worries about liquorice, the chief concierge, Charles Fitzer sweeps by her department and snatches one of the flower baskets meant for guest rooms that are arrayed at the entrance. “I need to send this to Elaine, who works with me,” he explains, tweaking the roses. “She had a horseriding accident yesterday – 13 stitches and a broken nose. I said ‘you’ve still got to come in, we’re at full capacity here!’ Just kidding.”

Fitzer is something of a legend at the hotel for his ability to accommodate virtually any request. His two high energy assistants, Elaine and Dawn, share in the credit. Prior to her accident, Elaine had actually sourced a horse for a guest to present to her daughter. But when the chips are down, it’s Fitzer you call – smooth, unflappable and always travelling at a brisk pace, he can have a private jet ready within an hour, a Ferrari delivered to the hotel and your kids picked up from school by limousine, if you so wish.

“Every time I pick up the phone,” he says. “It’s like roulette. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Today, he’s planning a guest’s itinerary – a private jet to Las Vegas, limousines, hotel reservations, show tickets, helicopters over the Grand Canyon, more limousines. It’s fairly rudimentary stuff – on a par with securing table reservations at Spago’s, or opening Rodeo Drive shops after hours. Last month, however, was more of a challenge – he had to meet some diplomatic guests coming off an international flight before they went through customs, something that is officially impossible for the rest of us.

”I have contacts,” he explains. “Actually when these guests left the hotel, I walked them back through the same way, right up to their gate, and they were amazed. They said, ‘this service is incredible – I can’t believe you’re coming to London with us.’ It was hysterical. I said, ‘no, I’m just escorting you to the first class lounge.’”

By 12.30pm, the lunch crowd begins to trickle in and one by one the sun-dappled tables on the terrace are taken. There’s a Hollywood executive in the booth and a women’s group holding a charity luncheon in the corner. To their right, an airbrushed young model is having a light salad with her mother, both with a clutter of shopping at their feet.

Yet only yards away from the delicate clink of glasses and the patter of conversation, a six foot five Frenchman is yelling “Fire! Fire!” Or rather “Fiyeurgh! Fiyeurgh!” (he has a ripe accent). There’s no cause for alarm – nothing’s burning. When Chef Bruno Lopez yells “fire!” it just means he wants something at once. And in the Bel Air kitchens, what Lopez wants, he gets. He exudes authority. While his team is a blur of activity around him, Lopez is the eye of the storm. “Cobb Salad. Fire!”

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Lunch is typically an easy shift for Lopez – which is just as well, given his hangover. “Yesterday was Bastille Day,” he shrugs. So rather than get his hands messy, he just checks the dishes as they come out. “The thing to watch is consistency,” he says. “We are in a tomato season right now so we take advantage – tomato carpaccio, tomato tartare. But if you don’t look carefully -” he points to his predominantly latino team – “next thing you know these guys will make pico de gallo salsa…”

Another Frenchman, complete with accent, whisks into the kitchens to look at the reservations board. Roland is the General Manager, responsible for coordinating special events, in particular the 40 Tuscan style wine dinners held out in the gardens, along long trestle tables. “Betsy Bloomingdale – alert Roland,” he says, reading off the board. “That means I got to schmooze her. You know, from the shop Bloomingdales?” He checks his watch. “It’s OK, I got time.” And he nips out to the bar where a wine vendor is pouring out several glasses. For the next half hour, Roland sips and spits and orders a few cases. “Afternoon drinking,” he says with a wink. “The best part of the job.”

As the throb of lunch passes, and the cries of “Fiyeurgh!” die down in the kitchen, the Bel Air settles once more into its balmy repose – a place where guests often see more butterflies than people as they walk around the grounds.

But there’s no such lull for Nancy. Guests are arriving, the rooms have to be ready by three, and there are all these special requirements to deal with. She’s in the lobby speaking to Fitzer, poring over a sheaf of faxes from arriving guests. “I’ve got the Gummi Bears for 197. And the red vines, so that’s OK. But then there’s this other one,” she says, flipping the page. “Toaster, coffee maker, the very best olive oil. Look they underlined ‘very best’. It’s funny. It’s like they’re camping. I bet they’ll never use that toaster. And 3 bottles of Tabasco? They’re only staying a month!”

These requests for comfort snacks and kitchen essentials are increasingly common. So many Bel Air guests stay for months on end, and they want to recreate their home environment. It makes for a demanding afternoon for Nancy, but the relationship with long term guests is often much closer and more rewarding. As Nancy ticks off her Gummi Bears and pretzels, Dawn, at the concierge desk, is chatting to a guest couple like old friends. “You got my coupons, Dawnie?” asks the lady, an old Jewish grandmother with lurid sunglasses and bright red trousers. “We’re going to SAKS.” Evidently Dawn has been saving up discount vouchers for people who spend the entire summer at the most expensive hotel in Los Angeles. “Even rich people love a bargain,” she says.

At that moment, a receptionist appears whispering at Fitzer’s shoulder with a pained look on her face. An elderly couple, here to celebrate their anniversary, as they do every year, has arrived early but their room’s not ready and they’re upset – though how upset is hard to tell through all the facelifts. “I don’t want drinks at the bar, I want my room,” grumbles the man. Immediately Fitzer swings behind reception and the apologies begin.

It’s a minor fuss, in the scheme of things. The couple should wait by rights – the room isn’t supposed to be ready until 3pm. But guests can be demanding when they’re paying thousands of dollars per night. They can get rude, too. In the past, Fitzer has had a guest pull his pants down and tell him to kiss his a**. Fitzer’s reply? “I very much appreciate the offer, sir, but no thank you.”

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Today, the most pressing problem is in the hands of the engineering department – a leaky tub in the Chalon suite, one of the most expensive in the hotel. Carlos the plumber is sitting in the bath, nibbling the ends of his spectacles, perplexed, while his boss, Howard, a northerner from England, is on the phone. “We can’t fix it without taking the whole tub out,” he says. “Do they really have to check in then? You might want to give them a discount.”

By sunset, the bar begins to fill up and the pianist launches into Imagine, by John Lennon. This is the busiest time of the night for the hotel, and once again, Mark the head valet, is parking a succession of beautiful cars, several Bentleys and Ferraris among them.

“It can get tricky,” says Mark, now in his 20th year as a Bel Air valet. “Once we had two blue Rolls Royces pull up, both with a tan interior, reconditioned. And we got the keys mixed up. The funny thing is the drivers didn’t realise either till they got home.”

Tonight is less confusing. “There’s Berry Gordy’s Mercedes, the head of Motown. That hybrid SUV is Joaquin Phoenix.” As he speaks, Mark is on the alert for paparazzi – a rustle in the bushes, a glint of a camera lens. And he’s ever hopeful that Tom Cruise might come back, too.  “Oh we love Tom,” he says. “He’s got the record as the best tipper. He stayed here for a month making a movie, and at the end he gave all 9 of us $550 each.”

By the end of the night, Mark has refused to give one sozzled driver the keys to his Lexus. Had he been a regular or a local of Bel Air, Mark would have offered to drive him home himself, but in this case “he was happy for me to call him a taxi.”

Finally, after 2am, the Bel Air hotel falls silent. The bar closes, the restaurant clears and only the night chef and one room service waiter, an elderly Indian named Aktar, man the kitchens. But it’s a quiet night. It will be five hours before the hotel wakes from its slumber, and the slow hum of its routines begin again – the fruit arrangement by the pool, the soft steps of room service waiters delivering trays of coffee and muffins, the roll of housekeeping trolleys from suite to suite.

And yet again, Nancy is walking through the property, ensuring that her housekeeping shifts are all running smoothly. But when she reaches the lobby, she spots there in the centre, that Hollywood legend and Bel Air regular, Lauren Bacall.

“Gummi Bears!” she remembers, a little louder than intended.