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The view from the top

The ultimate A-list, Institutional Investor's annual ranking has celebrated the world's best hotels for the past quarter century -- and tracked the shifting definition of what it means to be grand.

Twenty-five years ago Institutional Investor began publishing its annual list of the world's top hotels based on our exclusive poll of senior financial executives. Since then much has changed about the nature and range of luxury hotel services -- but nothing so much as the blurring of distinctions between the needs of vacationers and business travelers.

Today a suite with a wireless Internet connection is a must. But so, too, is an after-hours shiatsu massage or a seaweed body wrap. A quarter century ago only the lonely stayed in to dine. Now great hotel restaurants claim Michelin stars and high Zagat numbers. A couple of decades ago, leading luxury hotel chains guaranteed Western business travelers that no matter how exotic their destinations, they could count on accommodations and food that would provide them with hometown comforts. Any luxury establishment nowadays promises instant cultural access to the city around it and tries to convey to the guests some sense of the country they are visiting.

What is surprising is how long it took the hospitality business to figure out these basic tenets. That's why a trailblazer like the Oriental in Bangkok took first place on the II list (and just about every other publication's as well) for ten consecutive years starting in 1981. In fact, throughout the 1980s, Asian hotels were the establishments most preferred by our panel of experts. European and American hotels caught up to their rivals in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo only after they emulated their devotion to service. (A note: The change has come at a price. Some of the hotels on our list have increased their room rates by 800 percent over the past 25 years.)

These days the hotels found at the top of our 2005 survey are not limited to a single region. Our voters, who last year spent an average of 62 nights in hotels (one executive banked 250 nights away), make the St. Regis in New York, a Fifth Avenue fixture, the overall top-ranked hotel. Europe's highest-ranking hotel, the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme, finishes in second place; and Asia's best, the Four Seasons Singapore, ranks No. 5 in the world. And the same geographical diversity marks our special anniversary ranking, looking back at the top 25 hotels of the past 25 years -- a tribute to the places that have most consistently made travelers feel at home.

To conduct the survey, Institutional Investor asked participating financiers to rate hotels they had visited recently on a scale of 1 to 100. The scores were averaged and ranked according to a formula that assigns greater weight to those panelists who are the most frequent travelers. Any hotel requires a significant number of votes to qualify.

The rankings were compiled under the direction of Director of Research Operations Group Sathya Rajavelu and Senior Editor Jane B. Kenney, with assistance from Associate Editor Michele Bickford.

St. Regis, New York: The top-ranked hotel in 2005

John Jacob Astor opened the St. Regis in 1904 for high-society friends and fellow robber barons because he thought Manhattan needed an over-the-top luxury hotel that pampered the leisure and business classes in equal measure. There have been years, perhaps whole decades, when the hotel lost its bearings by trying to appeal to a broader, less elite clientele. Now past its century mark, the St. Regis is back at the pinnacle of the hospitality industry, having rediscovered the Astor formula.

"We are not a one-night-stand hotel," says Scott Geraghty, 47, who has been general manager of the St. Regis for the past two years after a stint at the nearby Essex House. That means that even in this age of 36-hour vacation escapes and a-city-a-day business trips, guests at the St. Regis tend to linger anywhere from three days to a whole week. They can afford rates that start at $850 a night for a single room and rise past $1,200 for the more usual suite accommodation. "These are people who are looking for somebody to take care of them in New York, and we provide that service," says Geraghty, whose New York hotel career began when he was a teenager.

With 11 concierges for its 256 guest rooms and suites, the St. Regis can arrange, on the spur of the moment, a helicopter to the Hampton beaches or a private plane to Atlantic City casinos; offer behind-the-scenes tours of the nearby Museum of Modern Art; suggest a quiet outdoor Greenwich Village café to while away a sunny afternoon; and get the best possible seats to sold-out Broadway performances or sports events, even if it means hiring somebody to stand in line to purchase last-minute tickets. "We will do anything that is legal and ethical," says McKinley Winston, senior concierge.

Every suite comes with its own butler, provided to ease the business traveler's "little angsts," says Geraghty. Butlers will pack and unpack for a guest, arrange car service, help out with Internet connections and confirm or reschedule appointments, he adds, which "lets you concentrate on that presentation you have to make tomorrow."

As for the hotel's own presentation, the modernist decor of the newly renovated guest rooms is all clean lines and no clutter. Vertical patterns on the wallpaper draw the eyes up to the very high ceilings. The beds have silk-draped canopies, the marble bathrooms are equipped with double sinks, and carpets are plush. Thick walls and double-pane windows mute any sounds from neighboring suites or Fifth Avenue.

Emerging from their rooms, guests take in the stunning beaux arts features of the original hotel: corridors inlaid with a variety of marble, deeply carved crown moldings, museum-quality tapestries and crystal chandeliers. The library has a collection of leather-bound American and British novels and travel literature dating back a century or more. There are conference rooms large enough for a fashion show. And the smaller, more private meeting rooms with gold-leaf wall decorations, suggests Geraghty, "are just the right setting for proposing an IPO."

Afterward, the participants can celebrate in the King Cole Bar, where the Bloody Mary was invented in 1934. Salvador Dalí, a St. Regis resident during most of the 1960s, used to outrage some patrons by sketching on the bare backs of fashion models. But that is just the sort of eccentricity that would have won Astor's approval. It's his mischievously smiling face that painter Maxfield Parrish placed on Old King Cole, the central figure in the 1906 mural that gives the bar its name. Just why he is smiling is a secret too indelicate to be published -- but readily revealed by the barman. -- Jonathan Kandell

Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme: Tops in Europe

In the three years since the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme opened its doors on the ultrachic rue de la Paix, it has won praise for its unique style -- a mix of decadence and refined simplicity. "We provide luxury with a contemporary, feel-at-home, down-to-earth touch," says 55-year-old, Swiss-born Michel Jauslin, the hotel's general manager since it opened and the man most responsible for bringing together the disparate qualities that have taken the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme to the No. 2 position in our ranking of the world's Best Hotels, and to No. 1 in Europe.

Jauslin's take on the less is more concept has shaped every aspect of the hotel, beginning with its appearance. From a short list of candidates, he chose Seattle-born, Paris-based architect Ed Tuttle, who is noted for his ability to fuse traditional and modern design, to transform the five separate late-19th-century buildings on the site into the Vendôme. Historic façades have been preserved, but on the inside the courtyards and colonnaded public rooms, all in polished beige limestone, exhibit a stripped-down, neoclassic style. The 178-room Vendôme has the elegance of an antique-laden mansion without the pretension and the modernity of a high-design boutique hotel without the too-cool atmosphere. But the spacious and elegant guest rooms (a typical double rate is €500 [$600] a night) come with all the perks of today's trendiest hotels, including wi-fi service and Bang & Olufsen entertainment centers. The mix, says Jauslin, "has caused surprise among many in the hotel business who are used to stereotypes, especially in Paris, where the finest hotels tend to be classical palaces."

The concierge and desk manager service, too, is attentive but easygoing. "Our guests love the relatively laid-back ambiance and personalized attention to detail," says Jauslin. The concierge service, for example, will use its pull to provide escorted visits to the Eiffel Tower, saving guests the hassle of standing in line, and the front desk offers free in-room use of laptops on request. "I think what people want from a top-quality hotel is changing," adds the general manager.

Jauslin began looking for an appropriate site for the hotel back in 1992, when he was a vice president in charge of southwestern Europe and North Africa for Hyatt International Hotels and Resorts -- a post he still holds -- and managing the Hyatt Regency Paris near Charles de Gaulle International Airport. "We had no luxury hotel in central Paris, so finding the rue de la Paix site and developing it was a kind of dream project for me," says Jauslin, who lives at the Vendôme with his wife and two sons. That the development process took a decade did not surprise the graduate of the prestigious Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne. Jauslin's uncle (a former InterContinental Hotels Group president) gave him a sustaining bit of advice early on: "He told me, 'Work very hard, always see projects through, never complain, and success will come.' To make the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme a reality, I just followed that relatively simple advice." -- David Lanchner

Four Seasons Singapore: Tops in Asia

What distinguishes the Four Seasons Singapore? "An obsessive attention to detail," says Christopher Norton, the hotel's general manager.

He's not exaggerating: At the 254-room luxury hotel, which Institutional Investor's survey respondents ranked the best in Asia, a dedicated "guest historian" tracks and logs all requests made to hotel staff, feeding each one into a sophisticated client database. Notes on a single customer might include the fact that he or she prefers orange juice served not cold but at room temperature, or that a certain guest always selects the Asian Wall Street Journal over the seven other dailies offered. Such meticulous recordkeeping makes travel especially easy for returning clients, who are typically met by the guest relations manager at curbside and escorted directly to a suite, bypassing the check-in desk entirely. Wake-up calls requested for between 4:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. are personally delivered to the guest's room with coffee or tea.

The idea, says Norton, is for the hotel to become nothing short of a "support-function mechanism" for business travelers on packed schedules. But leisure clients, especially those traveling with children, are not forgotten. "Nothing is more important than the happiness of the child," says Norton, 48, an American educated in France and Switzerland who has been with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts for the past 16 years. "I can send you Krug champagne and caviar, but it doesn't have as much impact as if I have the ability to make your child happy." Chocolate-chip cookies and milk greet youngsters, along with goody bags stuffed with dress-up costumes of princesses and bumblebees. "Service must be customer-specific," Norton explains. "Your needs might be different from mine, but if I can tune into them and exceed what you expect, I'll have a customer for life."

Norton, who has been general manager there for two years and travels within the region to oversee the Four Seasons properties in Bali, Jakarta and the Maldives, also credits good design for the Singapore hotel's popularity. The 11-year-old, 20-story tower, located near the bustling shopping centers on Orchard Road, has "great bones," he notes, pointing out the high ceilings, wood finishes and marble bathrooms of the generously proportioned rooms. (The standard rate for a deluxe executive suite is $620 a night.) "Space is what makes you feel at home. Although we have 254 rooms, we're still the smallest of the five-star hotels in town, and we deliver a very boutique feel with our customer-centric service," he says. Asian and international artwork make the hotel feel more like a grand private residence.

The Four Seasons also boasts the only air-conditioned tennis court in town and one of Singapore's best Chinese restaurants, Jiang-Nan Chun, which is known for its weekend buffet, an Asian brunch that features more than 100 items. Hervé Potus, named pastry chef of the year at Singapore's prestigious World Gourmet Summit 2005, supplies the sweet ending. -- Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop

Suite success

Our anniversary ranking of the most celebrated hotels of the past 25 years -- and a survey of other noteworthy achievements.

EDEN OF EAST: The first decade of Institutional Investor's World's Best Hotels survey, beginning in 1981, practically belonged to one establishment: the Oriental in Bangkok. The 393-room, famously serene riverside hotel, which has had the same general manager, the legendary Kurt Wachtveitl, since 1967, took first place for ten straight years. But it was edged out in 1991 by another haute Asian hostelry, the Regent Hong Kong (which also won the following year). Yet the 129-year-old Oriental, a true dowager empress of the Far East, has reclaimed the No. 1 spot three times since then: in 1994, 1995 and 2000. Ranked No. 18 this year, it has appeared on our list for 25 years straight. Another notable multiple-first-place finisher -- in, fittingly, the home of the serial (and the rerun) -- is the Bel-Air. The Los Angeles hotel was No. 1 in 1993, 1996 and 1999 and has ranked high so consistently over time that it tops our list of the most celebrated hotels of the past 25 years.

DUBAI'S THE LIMIT: Designed to resemble the taut sail of a dhow in a full breeze, Dubai's spectacular Burj Al Arab sits on its own man-made island 280 meters offshore in the Persian Gulf. In 2003, when Dubai hosted the World Bank­ International Monetary Fund annual meetings, the hotel captivated our panel, taking first place with score of 97.0 -- the highest ever.

THE REGULARS: Only five hotels can claim the honor of appearing every year since 1981: the Oriental in Bangkok; the Berkeley, London; Claridge's, London; Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong; and the Shangri-La, Singapore. (Honorable mention goes to the Peninsula in Hong Kong: It fell off the list only once, in 2003, following the outbreak of SARS that year.)

LITTLE . . .: The smallest hotel ever to appear on the Best Hotels list (at No. 6 in 1994) was Frankfurt's elegant 58-room Schlosshotel Kronberg -- once the home of Empress Frederick and still owned by the Hesse royal family.

. . . AND LARGE: At New York's Waldorf-Astoria, chambermaids keep the linen fresh in 1,245 rooms, the most of any hotel that has appeared on our list. Our voters regularly stay at the hotel's 180-room Waldorf Towers (last ranked No. 65 in 2003), a luxe-on-luxe hotel-within-a-hotel.

PLACE LIFT: Geneva's Des Bergues, which opened in 1834, is the oldest hotel to make II's ranking. No. 36 in 1981, it had fallen to No. 62 by 2004, but may be on the verge of a comeback. Purchased by Saudi Prince al-Walid bin Talal bin-Abdul Aziz two years ago, the Bergues has been closed for renovation (it does not appear on the 2005 list) but is due to reopen this month as the Four Seasons Hotel Des Bergues.

FAST-RISING NEWCOMER: Although the Mandarin Oriental New York in the Time Warner Center opened just two years ago, it shows up at No. 3 on this year's ranking. The view of Central Park from the 35th-floor lobby is breathtaking.

HEIGHT OF LUXURY: The Grand Hyatt, Shanghai (No. 31 in 2004) occupies floors 53 through 87 of the Jin Mao Tower, the city's 88-story, 1,380-foot-high skyscraper.

WIRED: Way back in 1987 the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles outfitted its rooms with data ports and multiple jacks to cater to techno-hip executives who carried "portable" computers. So it should be no surprise that the hotel, now the Regent Beverly Wilshire (No. 15 in 2004), these days offers high-speed cable in every room and wi-fi in the lobby.

EXTREME MAKEOVER: Two hotels on our list could be nominated for having carried out the most elaborate expansions. In 1989, Egyptian tycoon Mohammad al-Fayed finished a $150 million, ten-year makeover of the Ritz in Paris (No. 8 that year), which, among other things, added a $4 million swimming pool with ornate Romanesque frills and an adjacent spa carved out of a subbasement. In 1994 the Peninsula, Hong Kong (No. 9 that year) spent $200 million on renovations, adding the small but flashy Philippe Starck­designed Felix Bar on the 28th floor as well as two rooftop helipads. The Paris Ritz last ranked in 2004 at No. 41; the Peninsula, Hong Kong is No. 9 again in 2005.

COST-OF-TRAVELING-WELL INDEX: Then . . . In 1981 a deluxe double room at the Oriental Bangkok set guests back $180 a night; at London's Connaught, a double suite went for $96 . . . And now: That double at the Oriental goes for $440, and the suite at the Connaught fetches $740. Thanks to inflation, of course, the '81 dollar is worth $2.14 today. -- Lois Reamy