The latest hotel guest amenity has nothing to do with the room. It's not a welcoming fruit basket, a fluffy robe or fancy soap in the bathroom. It's not something you can wear or eat. But most luxury hotels offer at least one, and now the practice is spreading.
It's the hotel limousine, and whether you're staying at the Peninsula in Hong Kong or the Drake Swisso tel in New York, there seems to be a luxury car with driver waiting for you.
At certain hotels and resorts around the world, limousines are virtually expected. At the train station in Milan, it is not unusual to see Mercedes limousines picking up passengers from the Orient Express for a leisurely drive to Villa d'Este on Lake Como. Rolls Royce limousines are a regular fixture at the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz. And in Washington, the Hay Adams wouldn't be the Hay Adams without its limousine.
But now, competition in the lodging industry has become so fierce that guests at a growing number of middle-priced hotels can also expect to find a luxury limousine at their disposal. The limousines range from regular Cadillacs in Washington to stretch Mercedes and Daimlers in Hong Kong, from Lincoln Town Cars in California to vintage Rolls Royces in London. Sometimes a hotel has only one limousine; others boast a fleet of luxury vehicles. The cost to the guest, depending upon the hotel and the size of its fleet, can be from nothing (except for the tip) to more than $400 a day (not including tip).
When the new 288-room Four Seasons hotel opened in Boston's Back Bay section last June, the hotel offered a free limousine service to guests. The Drake in New York now offers limousine service to guests, including a free Cadillac used for its Wall Street shuttle each morning. The Huntington in San Francisco just purchased a 1962 Silver Cloud II Rolls Royce and now offers the car to its guests on a complimentary basis. And the Park Hyatt hotel in Chicago has acquired an elegant 1965 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud III.
"One of the first things we did after renovating the entire hotel," says Gary Sain, corporate vice president for The Ritz-Carlton in Washington, "was to come up with a proposal for our own limousine. We recognize its importance as a necessary convenience for a hotel of our caliber." The new Ritz-Carlton limo will be available for all guests during morning business hours, and on a reservation basis at all other times.
At Washington's Watergate Hotel, Managing Director Paul Astburywas one of the first in the city to provide complimentary limousines for his guests.
In Hong Kong, The Peninsula was one of the first to make use of luxury limousines on a grand scale. Its fleet of dark green Rolls Royces is nothing less than legendary.
Since 1970, Peninsula guests have been royally transported by these vehicles. In fact, when the hotel made its first order for seven Rolls Royce Silver Shadow models, it made news in England. Rolls Royce announced it was the largest single order for one model ever received. (In 1974, when the hotel tried to replace the limousines with Lincoln Continentals, the move was met with nearly unanimous disapproval by guests. The American cars were soon replaced by Rolls Royces.)
In 1980, The Peninsula placed another record order for nine Silver Shadows. Today, the hotel operates its Rolls Royce fleet using a team of 17 chauffeurs.
"We look at our Rolls," says Lynn Grebstad of The Peninsula, "as an integral part of our hotel. And so do our guests. After all," she adds, "what would coming to The Peninsula be without arriving via Rolls Royce?"
Indeed, few Peninsula guests deplaning at Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport leave for the hotel in anything but a Rolls Royce. The ride from the airport becomes a welcome -- and necessary -- buffer between the ordeal of the airplane trip and the frenetic pace of the city. The cost of using one of The Peninsula's limos: approximately $40 an hour. However, many guests prefer to hire the cars for the full-day rate of approximately $200. One exception is for guests staying in the hotel's $1,150-per-day Marco Polo suite. A Silver Shadow is put at their disposal 24 hours a day, free of charge.
"Hong Kong is tailor-made for limousines," says Rudolf Greiner, general manager of the Regent, which, like the Peninsula, defines the state of the art of limousines in the crown colony. Greiner commands a fleet of seven Mercedes stretch limousines, two Phantom Rolls Royces and 10 showcase Daimlers.
As a result, the long, circular driveway of the Regent, decorated with a moving parade of dream cars, is truly an impressive sight.
In fact, Hong Kong boasts perhaps the ultimate limo perk. There, the Miramar hotel has become the first to have its fleet of Mercedes limousines licensed to operate in both Hong Kong and mainland China.
At the Regent in Bangkok, General Manager Clyde Min presides over a fleet of beautiful maroon Mercedes limousines. Anyone who has ever stayed in Bangkok knows that the Regent's limousines are not only the nicest, but the most necessary of hotel amenities. The hire fees are reasonable (about $15 an hour), the drivers are knowledgeable and have mastered the most difficult art of negotiating one of the toughest traffic situations in Asia, if not the world.
The hotel limousine has also invaded Hawaii. Almost all the major hotels in Waikiki offer special limousine service. However, more often than not, the cars are used for airport pickups and deliveries.
However, on the neighbor islands -- especially the Big Island of Hawaii -- limousines are now being used for just about everything. The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel was the first to have a fleet of limos: six stretch white Cadillacs. The cars meet all arriving guests for the 30-minute ride down the Kohala coast to the resort.
But the cars are also hired out for individual guests. "The island is a big place," says Francine Duncan of the Mauna Lani, "and our guests seem to prefer to see it in comfort." One of the hotel's more popular outings offered for guests is a private limousine tour of the island, complete with an elaborate picnic lunch prepared by the hotel's chef from a menu planned by the guest. The cost: $43 an hour (quite reasonable when you consider that two couples usually take the tour together).
In London, the Savoy hotel group boasts the largest chauffeur-driven fleet in the United Kingdom. Since 1973, the hotel has offered its guests more than 50 Daimler and Jaguar limousines. The cars can be found at either the hotel or at the Savoy's Heathrow Airport office.
It's taken awhile, but now throughout London other hotels are rushing to offer similar services.
When the Mayfair Intercontinental purchased a Rolls Royce last year, the limousine became instantly in demand. "To say that the car has been extremely busy ever since," says General Manager Patrick Board, "would be almost an understatement. In fact, the limousine is sometimes used 24 hours a day."
And, since the limousine has become available, the Mayfair's guests are not just using it to go to the airport. "Our guests have become very demanding when it comes to the Rolls Royce," says Board.
One guest regularly hires the car at 6 in the morning to drive to Scotland -- to shop -- returning to the hotel after midnight. Another regular guest, who doesn't like to fly, frequently asks that the Rolls Royce be driven to meet him wherever he may be in Europe and deliver him back to the Mayfair. After one recent request by that guest, the Rolls was put on the Channel ferry and then driven to Geneva to fetch him. "The tab to drive him back from Switzerland was about eight times the cost of an airline ticket," says Board, "but our guest arrived well rested. On the other hand," he concedes, "our chauffeur was exhausted."
And, once a month, Paul Astbury gets a call from a wealthy female guest in New York. The Watergate's limousine is dispatched and drives the woman to Washington. "The cost is roughly $500," says Astbury. "Slightly more than a $49 shuttle ticket. But as offbeat as this request may sound, it really isn't," he says. "After all, that's what the limousine is all about, and we're happy to do it."
One word of caution: Many hotels claim they have their own limousines, when in fact they are renting them from private companies; others do offer their own limousine service but their cars or services may be limited by time of day or hours of use. Some hotels, for example, advertise free limousine service to downtown business areas during peak morning hours, but the cars may not always be available in the afternoon or evening.
Finally, in Atlanta, there's a new "limousine" service for hotel guests. Just call Private Chauffeur, and the company provides a trained, uniformed driver to take you just about anywhere. The fee is $11 an hour (with a three-hour minimum) plus a 15 percent tip. What's special about this service? The company doesn't provide the car, you do -- usually a rental car you don't want to drive that you've picked up at the airport.
If you're going to use this service, do yourself a small favor. At the very least try to rent a classy car. Somehow a chauffeur-driven Fiesta just doesn't make it.