By Tim Traeger
WHITTIER – A former musician-turned-hotel general manager is making beautiful music in Whittier.
Under the six-year stewardship of Radisson Hotel Whittier General Manager James Sarkis, the former professional guitarist and native of the Bronx, N.Y. helped persuade Taiwanese owner Terry Lee to invest more than $6 million to improve both the hotel and its sagging reputation.
That money over the last three years has transformed the 202-room, eight-story hotel into the place to stay for people visiting Whittier.
Just a few years ago the hotel just north of Mar Vista Street on Greenleaf Avenue, formerly known as the Hilton, was accommodating a poor reputation. Dirty linens. Filthy glasses. A TV menu that ran from channels 2 through 13.
‘”It was in bad shape,” admitted Sarkis, 46. “Everything is different now – a complete remodel. I started pestering the new owner. We need to make renovations. Renovations. Renovations. Or your business is going to go down the tubes,” he said he told owner Lee.
And the changes are being noticed. Parents of Whittier College students who used to shy away from the Radisson in favor of the Double Tree in Norwalk or the Embassy Suites in Downey are coming back to the Radisson.
“Either he’s going to kill me or he’s going to give us the money. Thank God he gave us the money,” Sarkis said of Lee. “If you don’t give me the horses to run you can bring in a GM from Pluto and he’s not going to be able to help you. If you don’t have the horses, you can’t pull the wagon.”
Now that wagon looks more like a luxury coach. New furniture and linens in every room, a new look to every floor, and an open lobby that’s clean and fresh. The restaurant – Sophia’s California Bistro – has been transformed into a place for locals and visitors alike to gather and have fun while enjoying professional sports and live entertainment.
The investment has also paid off in a fresh reputation with the city itself, which gleans about $750,000 a year from the room taxes the hotel collects, according to Sarkis. That’s a welcome addition considering over the last seven years Whittier has lost all but two of its automobile dealerships along Whittier Boulevard.
“We were missing the opportunity so we decided to get these people back. Just being the only full-service hotel in Whittier, that means a lot. Everyone in the community loves our hotel. Any family event. Any life event. They want to have it here first,” Sarkis said.
“We’ve done everything from our meeting space, totally new, to the rooms. Everything is new. We had intense training with our employees to be up to standards,” said Frank Macias, director of sales and marketing.
He said the hotel is now running at occupancy rates of 150 to 170 rooms rented out of the 202 total.
“That’s not bad, compared to last year where we were averaging less than 100,” Macias said.
“The future looks bright. Already since the renovations there’s a 100-percent difference. We’re bringing back clients that decided to leave us through no fault of their own. They’re coming back, they’re happy and they’re recommending us to other people. It’s growing.”
Sarkis was stark in his assessment of the Radisson’s past performance, and its previously tarnished reputation.
“I’m not going to lie. At one point, we were in bad shape with the city. With the council. With the Police Department. With the Fire Department. As I told Mr. Lee, it’s going to take more than renovations to change the hotel. The hotel had a bad reputation. We had a lot of bad elements around the hotel. So we basically had to clean house from inside out. Meaning, bad-apple employees.”
Mayor Bob Henderson has noticed the difference.
“The Radisson … they certainly have done lot in cleaning up the lobby and the restaurant. They worked to improve the bathrooms and the public facilities,” Henderson said. “What I’ve seen of the rooms is they are more modern. What they provide is the transient occupancy tax and some amount of sales taxes. They seem to be trying hard to bring the standards up. That’s good for the community and good for the hotel. They’re an asset to Whittier.”
“The Radisson hadn’t been renovated in 14 years,” said sales manager Angela Reyes. “We’ve invested more than $6 million, easily over, to repair things that were busted. There were plumbing issues. Now we have brand new linen. The furniture is modern, plush in urban décor. We’ve gotten great feedback. The people definitely love it. We have Wi-Fi throughout the hotel. We have a new sound and entertainment system in the ultra-lounge. We’re bringing back live music on the weekends. Our lounge is taking on a sports-bar direction. Mondays and Thursdays are really fun around here.”
“More corporate clients are traveling from Italy, Greece, China and Japan,” Reyes said. “Everywhere you can think of and they’re staying here and loving it.”
Sibling properties include the Carlson Rezidor, Country Inn Suites, Park Plaza, the Radisson Blue and the Park Inns.
Reyes said the remodel began in 2011 with the renovation of guest rooms completed in 2013.
Depending on demand, room prices range from $109 to $189 a night.
Macias said the metamorphosis is constant and continuous.
“We’re never going to be done with it. It’s an ongoing process,” Macias said. “As we grow, guest comments are our No. 1 thing. Why would our guests and clients go anywhere else? The future looks bright. Already since the renovations there’s a 100-percent difference. We’re bringing back clients that decided to leave us through no fault of their own. They’re coming back, they’re happy and they’re recommending us to other people.”
Sarkis gave his staff any credit due.
“It’s been a team effort. From the general manager down to the hourly employees – we have employees who have been here 30 years, from when it was the Hilton,” Sarkis said. “Now we have something that we’re proud of. We take pride in it. We can actually invite someone to the hotel and not be embarrassed. It’s definitely good for the city.”
Certainly beautiful music for Whittier.
Tim Traeger is editor of 411whittier.com. Reach him at 626-646-7352 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Renovations put the ‘rad’ in Radisson
By Tim Traeger