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Retooling Polaris Restaurant

Atlanta Business Chronicle - Friday, January 9, 2009


Polaris, the blue-domed restaurant that once was the highest point in downtown Atlanta, could soon gleam again, although perhaps in another form.

Officials at the Hyatt Regency hotel are considering a rebirth for the once-iconic restaurant, and could turn it into a club lounge for VIPs and frequent guests.

Tentative plans call for the conversion of the dome into a luxury lounge that would include a cocktail bar and possibly meeting space. Hotel General Manager Joe Hindsley declined to comment, and sources familiar with the subject said Hyatt Corp. has not approved final plans and no timeline has been set.

The intent is to redesign Polaris as a Regency Club Lounge for Hyatt Gold Passport members. Depending on the final scope of the project, sources said it could cost about $2 million to renew Polaris, which was shuttered in the summer of 2004.

The structure is in good shape despite damage suffered from the remnants of two hurricanes that passed over Atlanta in 2004, sources said.

The Hyatt Regency was the chain's first full-service hotel when it opened in 1967. John Portman's landmark atrium-centered design helped launch the Hyatt name as an upper-echelon mark and the sapphire-domed Polaris was its crown jewel.

Open-atrium hotels with revolving restaurants quickly became a brand standard, appearing in Phoenix, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago and many other cities.

"It really was the place to go and the place to stay," said Debra F. Cannon, director of the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality at Georgia State University.

The restaurant was consistently named one of the city's finest and Polaris itself was a tourist attraction, Cannon said.

Cannon, who once worked in management at the Hyatt Regency, said lines would wind through the lobby as guests and locals alike waited to take the hotel's signature glass elevators to the 22nd-story revolving perch.

Atlanta wasn't known for fine hotels before the Hyatt opened, said Mark Woodworth, the president of hotel industry analysts PKF Hospitality Consulting.

"The Hyatt itself and the Polaris within the Hyatt played a critical role when it opened in the '60s in furthering the Hyatt brand awareness and furthering Atlanta [as a convention destination], Woodworth said. "When it opened, it virtually overnight became a landmark."

Before taller skyscrapers closed in around it, Polaris had the pinnacle view of Atlanta. The Sundial, on the 73rd floor of the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel, supplanted it as Atlanta's highest revolving restaurant when it opened in 1978.

A lounge for VIPs would be a wise use for the currently unused space, which probably couldn't compete versus the Sundial as a full-service rooftop restaurant, said Dick Stormont, a longtime high-end hotel developer and principal of the former Stormont Hospitality Group.

"To make it something for the general public at this point, [Polaris'] time has passed," Stormont said. "Unfortunately you'd have to go up 100 stories today."

Retooling Polaris into a luxury lounge would give the hotel a "value-added" component to high-end guests and potentially help it retain or increase room rates in a difficult hotel market, said Paul Breslin, a hotel consultant and managing partner of Panther Hospitality Holdings LLC.

"To invest in an asset like that is a very good strategic decision," Breslin said. "If you're going to do some repositioning and re-engineering, now is the time."

Occupancy and revenue per available room (RevPAR), a critical measure of a hotel's health, is expected to drop at least 4 percent each in Atlanta this year.

Demand for hotel rooms is dropping as the economy worsens, and new hotel properties like the W Atlanta-Downtown, Hotel Palomar and St. Regis Atlanta are adding rooms to the city's stockpile.

Hospitality is an $11.4 billion industry for the city and the 1,260-room Hyatt is one of the city's leading convention hotels.

Woodworth said hotels are facing a buyer's market where guests are expecting rates to plunge as demand has slackened and the consumer's spending power has dropped.

"Every hotel owner and manager is constantly faced with the challenge of maximizing income-producing potential of every square foot of their buildings," Woodworth said.

Polaris to shine again?

Hyatt Regency Atlanta officials are considering a plan to relaunch Polaris as a VIP lounge. The reconstruction of Polaris, which was a major tourism draw as the city's highest point when it opened in 1967, is expected to cost about $2 million.