Hotel Axel hails different lifestyles

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BARCELONA, Spain -- It should come as no surprise that yet another avant-garde "lifestyle" hotel has opened in cosmopolitan, style-conscious Barcelona, Spain's chic capital of architecture, couture and design.

But the new Hotel Axel here put a unique spin on the term when it opened this July as the city's first higher-end property specifically targeted to gays and lesbians -- an "alternative-lifestyle" hotel, if you will, that also cheekily markets itself as "hetero-friendly."

Even more cheekily, the upstart Hotel Axel is taking on the competition in the higher-end and boutique -- and lower-end but gay-friendly -- hotel segments by courting travel agents with 20% commission on bookings at least through Dec. 31.

Juan Julia Blanch, owner and general manager of the $12 million designer property, said that as a result, his 66-room hotel is siphoning guests, both gay and straight, from exclusive hotels, such as the Hotel Arts, as well as from budget properties like the Hotel California that are popular with gay travelers.

The Hotel Axel opened in Barcelona as the city's first higher-end property targeted to gays and lesbians. "Since opening, our clients have been 85% gay and 15% straight, and we even have had families with children staying here," he said.

"This is a hotel where you'll find gay people, and if you're comfortable with that, you're welcome," Blanch added, noting that the point of opening a gay hotel is not to exclude heterosexuals but to provide a safe and accepting environment for gays and lesbians.

"I would love it if this type of hotel weren't necessary, but other properties can claim they're 'gay-friendly,' yet their staff still may not be comfortable with gay clients," he said.

The generally youthful staff at the Hotel Axel, which is centrally located in the trendy Eixample district, is a mix of male and female, Spanish and foreign, gay and straight. And on a recent visit, clientele appeared to be a similar hodgepodge, although younger gay men predominated.

According to Blanch, the hotel is experiencing about 50% occupancy, which he expects to rise to 65% by year's end. U.S. travelers make up about 30% of guests. Those figures exceed initial expectations, he said, given that he hasn't marketed to mass-market tour operators or retailers in the U.S., relying mainly on word-of-mouth and advertisements in gay publications.

"People are booking because a friend stayed here," he said. "I've even had people pop in to take a look, and then go back and check out of another hotel to stay here."

And why wouldn't they? On a recent one-night stay, I found the Axel a jewel of a hotel, if still a bit of a diamond in the rough.

All the promised avant-garde touches were there, including high-end furniture; luxurious bedding on king-size beds; hydro-massage baths; mosaic tile flooring; and custom in-room art installations.

Wait and reception staff were polished and friendly, and the restaurant served excellent nouvelle cuisine fare at almost cut-rate prices.

Although my junior suite was a bit small, the private, stained-glass terrace made up somewhat for the lack of space.

Best of all, if feeling cramped, I could race up to the roof deck to swim in the pool or relax in the Jacuzzi.

But I was disappointed to find the gymnasium and spa complex still under construction.

Although Blanch said the facilities will open by Nov. 1, agents should be aware the Axel was still very much in the final stages of construction as of mid-September.

Hallways were being painted, and the guest elevator was on the fritz, forcing me to reach my sixth-floor suite by service lift.

Still, these were minor inconveniences far overshadowed by the hip, friendly ambience of the Hotel Axel.

To book or for more information, call (011) 34-93 414-2816, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.hotelaxel.com.

Room key: Hotel Axel
Address:
Aribau 33, 08011 Barcelona, Spain
Phone: (011) 34-93 323-9393
Fax: (011) 34-93 323-9394
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.hotelaxel.com
General Manager/Owner: Juan Julia Blanch
Rates: $140, single; $190 to $210, double; $245, junior suite; $345 for Suite Axel.
Commission: 20% until end of 2003, negotiable thereafter.
Opened: July 2003
Rooms/Suites: 55/11
Facilities: Restaurant/bar, gym, sauna, library, boutique, rooftop pool and whirlpool, meetings/conference room, business center with Internet.
Amenities: Air conditioning; soundproofing; hydro-massage bath, robes and slippers (in suites); flat-screen TV with on-demand video; high-speed Internet ports; desk with PC and printer (in Axel Suite); non-smoking rooms; safe; room service; free, unlimited bottled water.
Review: Set in a renovated, 19th century apartment house in the heart of the Eixample district -- popular with gay residents and visitors, and a short walk from many major Barcelona sights -- the "hetero-friendly" Axel caters to gay and lesbian travelers' needs while welcoming all. Stylish rooms are small, but some feature terraces. Staff are friendly, competent and proficient in English. On-site restaurant offers excellent fare at reasonable prices. However, in September 2003, final construction was ongoing, gym was not ready, and some glitches (eg., faulty in-room air conditioning and elevator) still needed ironing out.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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