Refit restores luster to historic Louisville hotel

Travel Weekly senior editor Mark Chesnut visited the renovated Seelbach Hilton in Louisville. His report follows:

f you want proof of the Seelbach Hilton's status as an icon, just look at the name. That's what the hotel's sales and marketing director, Stewart Davis, recommends.

"Very few hotels in the Hilton family have their name before the word 'Hilton,'" he said. That, he said, is a sign that this landmark is a true "sister property to Hilton's Palmer House in Chicago and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York."

The guest list at the Seelbach, which first opened in 1905, confirms the hotel's importance. F. Scott Fitzgerald set the wedding scene from "The Great Gatsby" in a fictionalized version of the hotel's ballroom.

The former billiards room, now a restaurant, was a setting for the movie "The Hustler," and Al Capone once played poker in the alcove nearby. Eight U.S. presidents stayed here.

Like many historic properties in city centers, the Seelbach had its bad years. It was closed from 1975 to 1982.

When Meristar Hotels and Resorts purchased it in 1998, the hotel underwent a $10 million restoration that was completed in October 2001. Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Davis aims to make it a symbol of Kentucky's largest city.

"The Peabody and Memphis are synonymous," he said. "I'd like to see the Seelbach synonymous with Louisville."

Although Davis said the hotel appeals to corporate and group travelers, its clientele is primarily leisure on weekends, with most visitors coming from Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia and Tennessee as well as Kentucky.

During the week, Davis said, 35% of guests are group or convention-related and 50% are corporate travelers. (The hotel is three blocks from the Kentucky International Convention Center.) Overall, the property maintains 75% occupancy annually, according to Davis.

The hotel offers high-speed Internet access in all 32,000 square feet of its meetings space and in all 321 guest rooms. There also is a business center in the lobby and on the concierge floor.

According to Davis, the city and the hotel have not yet reached their potential as a destination.

"Louisville is a natural seller because it has so many attractions, including the Kentucky Derby Museum, the Louisville Slugger Museum and bourbon-related attractions, which make it kind of like California's wine country," he said.

In terms of building business, Davis said "travel agents are a huge part of getting the word out."

Rack rates start at about $143 weekdays, double, and $80 on weekends. Commission is 10%.

To capitalize on the attractions in the area, the Seelbach offers some 14 vacation packages. Its Churchill Downs package, called They're Off: A Day at the Track, includes accommodations for two in a deluxe guest room, admission to the Kentucky Derby Museum and a "backside pass" that allows a closer visit with the horses at Churchill Downs.

The price is $149 per room, double, for the first night and $99 for the second (without the extra amenities). The package is not available during Kentucky Derby weekend or Breeders' Cup weekend when the event is held at Churchill Downs.

The Bourbon Trail package includes accommodations for two in a deluxe guest room, a bourbon-tasting and introduction to bourbon lore in the Old Seelbach bar and a self-guided tour of bourbon distilleries with box lunches.

The price is $169 per room, double, for the first night and $99 for the second night without the amenities. A themed bourbon dinner can be added for $50 per person.

For additional information, call (800) HILTONS or (502) 585-3200 or visit the Web site at www.seelbachhilton.com.

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