Reed Travel Features

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Problem: How does a hotelier put the pizzazz back into a slightly aging dowager in a hotly competitive market loaded with glitz and ritz -- and in a short amount of time? Solution: Bring in the best architects and interior designers, pour in a lot of money (not to mention bricks and mortar, tile, marble and stone) and perform a radical face-lift. That's just what has been done at the 420-room San Juan Grand Beach Resort & Casino (the old Sands Hotel) in the hotel-heavy Isla Verde section of San Juan, 10 minutes from the airport.

"This is a new entity," said Richard Abati, vice president and managing director of the Grand as well as the former head of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association. "Only the site is the same, because the only thing we couldn't improve upon was our location."

Abati described the $12 million transformation from Sands to Grand as "a major reconstruction project whose aim was to create a balance between the leisure and corporate markets. We cannot be everything to all markets. The markets we serve are leisure travel, corporate travel and small corporate groups up to 80 participants."The layout of the new Grand is such that "the leisure guest will never be lost in a sea of conventioneers," Abati said.

The major revamp had to be completed in six to eight weeks. Hotel officials wanted the property to open in time to capture the lucrative winter bookings and business. The first guests and small groups were welcomed in early November, although traces of sawdust still hung about. The formal opening is set for December.

Ramon Sanchez, vice president of sales and marketing, said that the changes "begin at the front door and continue right on through to the beach." A skylight canopy porte cochere highlights the new stone, glass and brass entryway; a massive lobby with vaulted ceilings hand-painted with a panorama of sky and clouds offers a dramatic view beyond French doors. The doors open onto a wrap-around terrace overlooking gardens, a free-form pool, 200 feet of beachfront boardwalk and a high-energy cabaret. A curved double stairway leads from the terrace to the grounds.

Dining choices range from Italian to steak to Mediterranean fare served al fresco at a beachfront boardwalk. What could be the start of a trend at other hotels is the Grand Market, an upscale gourmet food court stocked with fruit, cheese, foccacia breads, pastrami sandwiches, pizzas, picnic fixings, snacks, bottled water and drinks. A coffee bar dispenses a variety of blends and beans.

"The 24-hour, fully staffed market offers an amenity that has been lost in the hospitality industry," Abati said. "It's a self-serve takeout facility with an indoor-outdoor seating area for 195 that offers another dining option for our guests." The San Juan Grand also has 24-hour room service. In the entertainment arena, the cabaret is a tapas bar with live entertainment. Still to come are a swim-up bar and a sushi bar in the lobby area.

All guest rooms at the San Juan Grand were gutted, according to Sanchez.

The redone Plaza Club comprises 19 suites and 30 guest rooms in a separate wing and features 24-hour concierge and butler services, private elevator access, breakfast and a daily champagne reception. The Flagship Club on the 15th and 16th floors offers concierge service, breakfast, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Each guest room has marble bathroom tiles and vanities, brass fittings, maple furniture, new flooring, carpeting, chandeliers and dual-line telephones.

A full-service conference facility is equipped with a business center and 10 boardrooms with teleconferencing and dataport connections.

The casino has been expanded to bring it closer to the heart of the hotel. Abati said that the recent changes in the Casino Gaming Law on Puerto Rico permit live entertainment, alcoholic drinks and 24-hour-a-day operation in the casino.

Scheduled to debut next spring is the 5,000-square-foot, two-story, air-conditioned oceanfront spa with 1,800 square feet of enclosed exercise rooms, steam rooms and saunas.

Inter-Continental Hotels handles reservations, marketing and promotions, while Flagship Services Corp. continues to manage the resort.

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