20071129

Many French hotels are shabby, and they stink

It's not just Americans who complain about the French. So do the French.

The Committee for Modernisation of the French Hotel Trade says 25% of French hotels are in a state of disrepair and 24% of customers complain of rude or incompetent service.

The most frequent customer complaint about hotel rooms is noise and lack of sound insulation, followed by unpleasant smells and poor hygiene, according to the report by the industry committee.

"One-quarter of classified French hotels are aging or dilapidated, and one-third is nearing the end of their span. Only one hotel in six is considered beyond reproach by customers,” the report stated.

The committee blamed falling profit margins, changing customer habits, badly-paid staff and conservative management for the poor state of the country's 18,000 officially-classified hotels, and called for their urgent overhaul.

It said 45% of hotel workers are paid only minimum wage. “As a result 24 per cent of hotel clients and 38 per cent of restaurant clients complain of the chronic incompetence of staff, or of a disagreeable or impersonal welcome,” the committee said.

As for management, “even if generalisations are unreasonable, the profession suffers from a nervous traditionalism and a deep-rooted conservatism. The trade has reproduced over generations the same patterns of behaviour, and the same mistakes,” the committee said.

According to the report, France has lost 1,500 hotels over the past decade. Because of new laws on fire safety and access for the handicapped, it is likely to lose a similar number in the next five years.


ON THE WEB
• Hotels on France.com
France Keys
Lodging in France
Dowd's Guides

Bright lights, big city

NEW YORK -- The lights came back to Broadway today.

A 19-day strike by unionized stagehands that took a chunk out of the local economy during what usually is the biggest tourist season ended with people lining up for theater tickets and others changing previously-wrecked travel plans.

New York City officials estimated the strike will have a negative $38 million impact on the city.

In addition to scuttling some show schedules, the strike caused postponement of scheduled openings. They have been rescheduled as follows:

• Aaron Sorkin's "The Farnsworth Invention" will open Dec. 3.
• Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company will debut "August: Osage County" Dec. 6. (Shown above)
• "The Seafarer" will open Dec, 6,
• The long-lost Mark Twain comedy "Is He dead?" will open Dec. 9.
• A revival of Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming," will premiere Dec. 16.
• Disney's "The Little Mermaid" will debut Jan. 10.

The stagehands and theater producers reached a tentative agreement on matters of wages and work rules.

ON THE WEB
• The stagehands union
• League of American Theatres
• Broadway news updates
Dowd's Guides

20071124

2, 4, 6, 8 who do we inebriate?

NEW YORK -- Leave it to a New York business to make money off labor unrest.

The Living Room Lounge at the glitzy W hotel in Times Square has created a new drink called a "Striketini" to mark the current labor strike that has shut down numerous Broadway shows.

"We are known for our martinis, so we wanted to make something special," concierge Marcelo Surerus told reporters. "We'll be serving this for the duration of the strike."

The takeoff on the classic Manhattan consists of 1 1/2 ounces of bourbon, an ounce of Grand Marnier, a half-ounce of white cranberry juice, and a splash each of sour mix and sugar syrup. The finished product, garnished with a maraschino cherry, is darker than the usual Manhattan.

Dark, as in theater lights out.

The drink is going for $15, about normal for high-end Big Apple bars.

ON THE WEB
• The stagehands union
• League of American Theatres
• Broadway news updates
Dowd's Guides

20071117

Seeing daylight in Vermont

April L. Dowd photos (Fire photo provided)


FROM THIS ...

... TO THIS IN 7 MONTHS.

MANCHESTER, VT -- It took a mere seven months, from design to ribbon cutting, for Jerry and Liz Lavalley to achieve their dream: owning a luxurious inn and restaurant in the shadow of Mt. Equinox, part of the bucolic Green Mountains.

Well, there was that little matter of the fire. The one that burned the 1850 structure to the ground exactly 30 days after they moved up from Dallas and closed on the property.

"I've never had a problem talking,'' said the gregarious Jerry. "I've spoken in front of thousands of people many times. But Liz was out of town at her sister's home when I called to tell her what had happened and I literally could not say a word. I was in shock.''

The culprit was an electrical malfunction in a clothes dryer. The resulting blaze destroyed the Reluctant Panther Inn, a building that had become a local icon under a series of owners.

"We had to make some fast decisions, but I just kept thinking about the fire and the rubble that was left,'' Jerry said. "We had completely changed our lives to come here and all I could think about was what we'd lost. Liz was the one who said it was like mourning a death and that we had to look ahead, not back.''

When they did, what they saw was an opportunity.

The original purple-painted Reluctant Panther had been an organic structure, added to over the years as need and inspiration demanded. A new Reluctant Panther could be what the Lavalleys wanted rather than what they had bought and would have to slowly modify.

They commissioned local architect Ramsey Gourd to help them lay out a grand scheme for a larger complex with expansive suites, a large formal dining room, exterior elements that incorporated structural and design notes from the original inn, coffered ceilings in many public spaces, space for original artwork to be displayed, and an infrastructure that supported modern technology -- iPod docking stations in some rooms, high-tech coffee brewers, unobtrusive flat-screen TV sets, Jacuzzi tubs -- within what for all intents looks like a historic inn.

During the interview process with builders, the Lavalleys (at right) stressed the need to be able to adhere to an extremely tight schedule or not to bother bidding on the job.

"We knew we had to create and maintain a very strict schedule,'' Liz explained. "It was going to be a huge job, and if you didn't keep the pace it would never get done.''

Plus the need to quickly generate a cash flow where one didn't exist?

"Well, yes, that did enter into it,'' she conceded with a smile.

The Lavalleys are used to fast-tracking processes and negotiating to get what they want.

Jerry, a native of Plattsburgh, had been vice president in charge of non-U.S. operations for Fujitsu, the international communications and information technology company. Liz, a native of Washington, D.C., had been chief operating officer of Capgemeni Energy, a French-owned company formed by a collaboration with TXU Corp., where she had been a senior vice president.

"We were fortunate to find enough good craftsmen locally to be able to make this project work,'' Liz said.

However, two Texas transplants played gigantic roles in what became a fascinating and luxurious new incarnation of the Reluctant Panther -- Kyle J. Hugghins, a friend of their son Matt, and Liz herself.

Hugghins is a twentysomething who stayed on after the construction was completed and now, with Royal S. Smith, runs Cross Timbers Builders in Manchester Center. The Lavalleys credit him with the majority of the interior structural design which is marked by unique structural angles and traffic patterns for each of the new building's 11 suites as well as some of the nine suites in three adjacent cottages not affected by the fire.

"Kyle has an incredible sense of design and some really imaginative ways to make best use of the space, especially for someone so young,'' Liz said, as Jerry nodded vigorously in agreement.

She took on the interior decorating, and has created individual personalities for each guest suite while maintaining a harmonious feel to the whole inn. Her deft hand with colors, fabrics and themes is stunning, particularly in such a short space of time.

Money, lots of it, played a large role in the speed and quality of construction and outfitting of the inn. Jerry won't quote a full dollar amount, but does say even though they were decently insured "we put over a million dollars of our own money into this project'' once they made the decision to stay after the fire.

The actual reconstruction began in April 2006 and was completed on Nov. 11 when the three first-floor guest suites and dining areas were opened. Just seven months from start to finish. The eight upstairs suites opened in short order and the Reluctant Panther was back and making people take notice.

So much notice, in fact, that the inn recently won regional honors in the annual awards given by hospitality industry magazine Sante for best hotel/resort bar, then topped that by being named the No. 1 bed-and-breakfast in the state by the Vermont Hospitality Council, an arm of the state Chamber of Commerce.

However, the process wasn't without its rough patches.

In the standalone Porter House, for example, what is known as the Panther Suite has an odd configuration with a double-sized spa tub smack in the middle of the rear room. Kyle thought it would be great fun to emphasize it by putting a column on each of the four corners of the tub. Jerry thought the idea was ridiculous. After much energetic sparring, Jerry gave in.

While it takes a certain appreciation for the pillars, which don't at all go with the bedroom area, the suite has turned out to be one of the most requested in the complex.

"Honeymooners, people looking for a romantic getaway … that's the sort of thing people want the suite for,'' Jerry said.

When I noticed the glass-enclosed shower for two with rainfall shower heads and the spa tub for two and the fireplace in each room, the term "aquatic playroom'' came to mind.

The fireplaces are another frequent touch in the inn. Every room has one or two fireplaces, and several even have bathroom fireplaces. In the Adirondack Great Camp-style Akwanok Suite (above), for example, a see-through fireplace divides the sleeping area with its custom birch bark headboard from the sitting area with its plus chairs and village views.

The elegant Pierre Lamotte Suite is named for the French military man and eventual governor of Montreal credited with establishing the first European settlement in what became the state of Vermont. Coincidentally, an ancestor of Jerry Lavalley served under him. The colonial-style suite takes up a major piece of the rebuilt main house and offers a private entrance for those who might be seeking anonymity.

The Justin Morgan Suite (at right) is a paen to the late-18th century local composer and teacher who was the developer of the horse breed that bears his surname. As one might expect, the suite has an equine theme in a spacious sitting area that features a hand-built brick fireplace.

Adjacent suites -- The Lady Slipper, with an elegant four-poster bed, and the Taconic with its graceful sleigh bed -- can be joined to form a two-bedroom, two-bath suite.

The descriptions can go on, but the point is made. Liz's designs utilizing a mix of the couple's own family furniture and antiques, items purchased locally -- many from the eclectic Depot 62, an odd combination of furniture store and cafe -- and artisan-crafted decor (hand-flocked wallpaper in the public women's restroom; a handpainted street-scene mural on canvas by decorative painter Kimberley Ray of nearby Londonderry that covers every wall of the first-floor reception area) have resulted in a truly unique inn.

For those whose purpose is to eat and drink rather than stay over, there are several possibilities.

The downstairs Panther Pub (right) is a funky collection of rich woods, plaster walls, a sparkling bar, even a Wurlitzer jukebox Jerry used to have in his house, complete with mood-inducing recordings such as "To Know Him Is To Love Him'' (The Teddy Bears, 1958) and "Runaround Sue'' (Dion, 1961).

After drinks at the bar made by drinks manager Josh Cohen, we went into the plush main-floor dining room (below). Windows on three sides create a light, airy feel despite the heavy counterpoint of coffered ceilings and a grand piano on the premises. Dining is presided over by son Matt (the Lavelleys also have two daughters, one in high school locally, the other in law school in Texas).

In October, Justin Dain took over the kitchen from startup chef Daniel Jackson. He trained at both the Culinary Institute of America and the New England Culinary Institute and previously cooked in Boston. If the dinner I had is typical of Dain's cuisine, the Lavalleys are blessed.

His tuna tartare appetizer was of such quality "I took one taste and told Liz this is the guy we have to hire,'' Jerry said with a laugh.

Liz confesses she is so in awe of Dain's cloudlike ravioli she can't get past it to try something else. I agreed with the tuna tartare evaluation, and such perfectly-prepared entrees as handmade gnocchi, silky diver scallops and bold filet mignon show the chef's versatility. His pastry chef, Peter Adams, is an added bonus with his feather-light desserts such as poached pear with spice cake.

It has been a long road since Sept. 11, 2001, when the idea of a huge life change began forming in Jerry Lavalley's mind. He was on business in Japan when the terrorist-aimed planes hit the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

"I was stranded there with flights being shut down all over,'' he recalled. "All I wanted to do was be with my family but I couldn't beg, borrow or steal a ride and the ocean was too much of a swim. I knew then and there I wanted to change my life and never be separated from Liz and the kids like that again.''

Liz had the same epiphany, and it led to a lot of brainstorming. A dress shop at a mall? A consulting business of some sort?

"Liz said `How about running a B&B in Vermont?' just as a suggestion of one sort of thing we might want to consider. We eventually started to actually consider that path, and we looked at possibilities all over the country -- mostly anything south of the Mason & Dixon Line because of the weather. But then we broadened the search.''

The final decision was made when a visit to another Vermont property up for sale was scuttled over an odd bit of business.

"The owner had a rule that no children under 14 could stay there, and he wouldn't even bend it for a potential buyer with a very worldly and sophisticated 13-year-old daughter,'' Jerry said. "That really ticked me off, so I told the real estate agent I was out of there.

"He said he knew a place that probably would allow my daughter to stay over with us and it just happened to be for sale. That was the Reluctant Panther. Funny how things work out."


LAVALLEY IN THE RECEPTION AREA, WITH A KIMBERLEY RAY PAINT-ON-CANVAS MURAL BEHIND HIM.

THE PRIMROSE SUITE IS FULLY HANDICAP-ACCESSIBLE.

THE LIBRARY SUITE ACTUALLY OVERLOOKS THE TOWN LIBRARY.

THE GROUNDS INCLUDE SITTING AREAS, EXTENSIVE PLANTINGS AND A FOUNTAIN.

A CLUSTER OF THREE COTTAGES STANDS NEXT TO THE INN.


ON THE WEB
Manchester and The Mountains
Manchester Designer Outlets
Manchester Music Festival
• Hildene: Lincoln Family Home
Summer Festival Horse Shows
Orvis Fly Fishing
• Golfing
• Vermont ski centers
Dowd's Guides

20071116

Cheers to Walt Disney World Resorts

It was a Disney world when the editors of Cheers, the beverage industry magazine, released its 2008 Cheers Awards for Beverage Excellence.

The awards are widely considered the adult beverage industry's highest honor for beverage program operators in chain and multi-concept restaurant companies.

They are divided into 12 categories, two of which were won by Walt Disney World Resorts. Each award is given based on the innovation and creativity of an establishment's beverage program and its impact on the sales and profitability of the establishment. Additional consideration is given to the level of operator support of the program, such as a high level of staff training or unique marketing efforts.

The winners:

Best Overall Chain Beverage Program: Walt Disney World Resorts
• Best Signature Drink: Walt Disney World Resorts
• Best Chain Hotel Beverage Program: Hilton Hotels
• Best Chain Wine Program: Carrabba's
• Best Chain Beer Program: Buffalo Wild Wings
• Best Chain Spirits Program: Bennigan's
• Best Beverage Merchandising Program: Hard Rock Cafe
• Best Beverage Menu: Outback Steakhouse
• Best Drink Program: Ruth's Chris Steakhouse
• Best Adult Non-Alcohol Drink Program: ESPN Zone
• Best Responsible Alcohol Service Training Program: Applebee's
• Best Multi-Concept Beverage Program: Back Bay Restaurant Group


ON THE WEB
Walt Disney World Resort
• Epcot
Orlando Travel & Visitors Bureau
Dowd's Guides

20071115

Citrus tequilas enlivening Canada

For Americans heading north, perhaps the fact that a rare happenstance -- the Canadian dollar now is worth 7% or so more than the Yankee dollar -- has taken place will lose its sting when they use their deflated money to purchase something new to the Canadian market: flavored tequila.

Kaban Tequila, a new offering from Mixology Canada, combines a 100% blue agave spirit base with citrus-infused flavors in lime, tangerine and tropical: i.e., pineapple.

The tequilas are distilled and bottled in Mexico and are Canada's first naturally flavored tequila.

A number of national restaurant chains, pubs and resorts already are offering Kaban.

For example, Nathan Cameron, master mixologist for Prime Restaurants, is featuring what he calls a "Kaban Caesar" throughout the Casey's restaurant chain in Ontario province. It features Kaban lime tequila, garnished with a new specialty Caesar salt and a spicy bean.

Kaban is offered in a tall, slim 750ml bottle and has a retail price of $34.95.

ON THE WEB
Canadian restaurant chains
Dowd's Guides

20071114

Small, smaller, smallest pub on the planet

I've written a few items about which bar is the world's smallest (here and here). I thought it was settled when a former railroad signal shack in Cleethorpes, England, took the title away from Sam's in Colorado Springs, CO, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Now comes an e-mail from one Detleff Summer, who says:
"This is not correct. The smallest bar of the world is in Sta. Maria V.M. Graub√ľnden Switzerland. See here: http://www.smallestwhiskybaronearth.com."

Sorry, Detleff, you've jumped the gun. The web site for this establishment says it is due to open on Nov. 24, a full 10 days from now. Thus, the original posting remains correct until then.

Incidentally, the Guinness Book, the accepted arbiter on such whimsical things, still recognizes the Cheethorpes pub as the world's smallest. So, even after 10 days the title will remain unchanged until the Guinness editors verify the claim.

ON THE WEB
Cleethorpes Online
• Cleethorpes: An Overview
Boxing at the Winter Garden
Dowd's Guides

20071102

Mexico flooding a disaster

If your travel plans include the Mexican state of Tabasco, call them off.

Devastating floods have affected virtually the entire state, with the International Red Cross saying 80% of the area is under water and more than a million people are affected. Military and emergency services personnel are sandbagging many main roads to try to divert water or at least ease some of the flood damage.

President Felipe Calderon said the situation was "extraordinarily grave" and called the flooding "one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the country."


ON THE WEB
Flood news updates
Dowd's Guides

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