Cheers, maybe some tears as Buckhead Ritz-Carlton becomes The Whitley

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Depending on who you talk to, what's happening at the the southwest corner of Lenox and Peachtree roads is cause for celebration or mourning.

After more than three decades at the nexus of Buckhead’s society set and the scene of numerous celebrity encounters, the hotel occupying this rarefied patch of dirt will cease to be a Ritz-Carlton. As of Dec.1 the property at 3434 Peachtree Road will be known as The Whitley, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Atlanta Buckhead.

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“Progress is great. It’s going to be a fabulous concept,” said Debra Cannon, professor and director of the School of Hospitality at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson’s College of Business. Her perspective is uniquely informed; in addition to her academic and industry expertise, she was director of human resources at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead from 1988 to 1991, having previously worked downtown at the Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta.

“It just has so much history and was such a leader in Atlanta’s lodging community for so many years,” she said. News of the change doesn’t strike her as shocking or sad, but pragmatic.

“I think it’s the marketplace in general. The lodging industry is changing because the marketplace is changing,” she said, noting that the millennial traveler might not be looking for “the formality that maybe was so attractive back in the 1980s and even 90s. We’re probably all a little more informal and prefer to have a little more casualness.”

Atlanta philanthropist Sally Dorsey is also a well positioned observer, after serving as wedding planner and floral designer when friends married there in 1993 and then chairing or co-chairing a slew of charity balls and luncheons over the years. You know how everyone remembers where they were on Sept. 11? Dorsey was at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead meeting with chefs about an upcoming event.

“I am so sad about my Ritz-Carlton closing at the end of this month,” she lamented. (To be clear, the doors aren’t closing; they’ll just bear a new name). “All the general managers have been friends.”

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

As the hotel’s time under the famous blue flag was coming to an end, Dorsey and her husband, Herb Miller, were planning their farewell.

“Herb and I will spend the night at my Ritz to say goodbye,” said Dorsey, who always uses the possessive pronoun when talking about the property. “It makes me sad.”

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Standing at the intersection of the community’s excitement and anxiety (and sounding remarkably calm about it) is incoming managing director David Friederich, whose nearly three-decade hospitality industry career includes a stint as general manager of The Cloister at Sea Island from 2003-08. He’s most recently held executive positions with the Orlando-based Kessler Collection, which operates the Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront and the Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah.

“Having the opportunity to be part of the group that oversees the transition of this iconic property really spoke to me,” he said.

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

The hotel, like the Ritz-Carlton, is part of Marriott’s Luxury Brand Portfolio. Travelers who participate in the brand’s rewards program can still use or earn Marriott points, and guests with room or special-event reservations made prior to the switch need not worry. Notably, this includes Jane Fonda, whose 80th birthday bash, announced in October, will be held there in December.

The Whitley, to be managed by HEI Hotels & Resorts, has held recruitment events to fill various positions.

“About 240 of the existing ladies and gentleman will be staying with us and remain part of the Whitley family,” Friederich said, shrewdly using Ritz-Carlton verbiage. The hotel’s new name pays homage to the area’s history; farmer and landowner John Whitley’s fateful hunting trip in the mid 1800s gave Buckhead its moniker.

A newly added function area also speaks of tradition - it’s called the Legacy Ballroom - and Friederich says guests can expect “gracious Southern hospitality” and top-notch service befitting a luxury hotel.

“Come in, see us, meet us,” he said. “Give me an opportunity to serve you.”

Guests who haven’t been to the hotel in a while won’t recognize parts of the interior on their next visit, thanks to the renovations completed so far. The Lobby Lounge fireplace and the cozy sofas that sat by it (prime real estate during the hotel’s renowned Afternoon Tea), is gone. In its place is a gleaming new bar with televisions on the wall. The concierge desk is now a snack station where guests can purchase coffee or a muffin. The hotel’s redone restaurant is sleek and modern, nothing like the clubby Cafe it replaced, and reconfigured bathrooms on the main level are bright, spacious and stylish (although the lighting is perhaps a bit less forgiving than the previously dimmed atmosphere).

The Afternoon Tea itself will undergo some modifications, as many of the serving pieces were branded and can no longer be used, and the property’s overall vibe, Friederich said, will be “a little bit more relaxed, not as predictable.”

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

It’s all about to break Horst H. Schulze’s heart. The former president at The Ritz-Carlton Company was at the helm when the Buckhead property opened. More than 30 years later longtime employees can recite the signature line of the speech he gave at the pre-launch meeting (“We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”) and recall how he’d come over for meals in the employee dining area. He knew not only everyone’s names but those of their children and details about their families.

He saw the end coming when The Dining Room, the hotel’s jewel box of a restaurant, closed in 2009 after 25 elegant years.

“It was no longer a hotel of exceptional experience,” he said. “It was a place where you go to sleep.”

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

The former Dining Room, once the province of hailed chef Guenter Seeger, is a level above the hotel’s lobby and more casual restaurant. It will now serve as an additional special-function area.

“I have beautiful memories,” a wistful Schulze said, stressing that he could be in no way objective in talking about the hotel’s rebranding. “I feel like the Ritz-Carlton’s birth certificate is being burned. It’s a sad moment for many. I’m particularly sad for the employees.”

“Sad” is the word Tony Conway used, too. The founder of Legendary Events, he is the guy celebrities such as Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey look to for flawless party planning. Working at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead years ago offered early experience at working with prominent clients.

“That’s where I met Sir Elton John, Jane Fonda,” he recalled. “It was definitely the place to be for all the galas, all the big events. I remember the New Year’s Eve parties there, the Crescendo Ball.”

Then there was the time The Lady Chablis visited. The Savannah drag performer made famous by the 1994 book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and its subsequent film adaptation was running at full diva level when Conway was summoned to smooth things over. The room wasn’t up to standards, Chablis sniffed. Neither was the second one offered. Before things ran completely off the rails Conway despaired that the venerable property might be tragically unable to meet Chablis’ demands, genteely suggesting that passage back to Savannah could be arranged.

“I was like, ‘OK girl, what do you want to do?’” he recalled with a chuckle. Chablis turned in for the night without further drama, having seared another memory about the stately property into Atlanta lore. Less dramatic but equally memorable was the time a caller rang Conway’s phone saying her daughter was on the way and could the hotel pull together a birthday party? Like, now?

Of course, Conway assured her, and Bette Midler’s daughter turned 12 in style.

“It was like wow, Bette Midler,” said Conway, who was director of catering and conference services. Whispers about the rebrand started circulating ahead of the official announcement, but Conway initially dismissed them. Then he started getting phone calls from employees interested in jobs at The Estate and Flourish event venues, which Conway’s firm operates.

“They get one opportunity to get it right,” he said of the transition. “In my seven cities in working in the hospitality world Atlanta is the city that wants you to take care of them and wants you to get it right.”

The Ritz-Carlton has excelled at getting things right, as evidenced by its steady stream of prominent guests and high-profile events.

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

When Julia Child stayed at the hotel during a 1996 promotional tour, she popped into the kitchen to say hello and fired up a blow torch to christen a creme brulee for the heck of it. Comic actor John Cleese once yanked a pork chop bone off someone else’s plate in the hotel’s stately Dining Room and pretended to gnaw on it. Mick Jagger seemed more accountant than rocker in the subdued business suit he wore to dinner one night.

During a 1984 stay, Frank Sinatra needed help figuring out the hotel’s newfangled telephone and was so thoroughly charmed by the catering manager who helped him call his wife that he insisted they pose for the photo below.

“Oh my goodness, he was the most kind person, said Martha Jo Katz, by her reckoning the 23rd employee hired there, who helped the Sinatras connect. She retired in 2011 after stints at the Swissotel (later the Westin Buckhead Atlanta) and Intercontinental Buckhead, but her time at the Ritz-Carlton remains a cherished memory.

News that the venerable property was to be rebranded left her stunned: “I can’t imagine Buckhead being without a Ritz.”

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Perhaps she won’t have to, suggests Paul Breslin, managing partner of Panther Hospitality and a 30-year veteran of the hospitality industry.

“Don’t ever underestimate Ritz-Carlton from coming in and building a brand new one around the corner,” he posited. (There’s been no such announcement, although the chain’s other two Georgia properties, downtown and at Lake Oconee, continue operating as usual).

Breslin hailed the change as an exciting and timely one.

“It’s great for Buckhead. It’s great for Atlanta,” he said. “Atlanta has become an epicenter of hotel stays and Buckhead is at the heart of it.”

Like Cannon, the former Ritz-Carlton human resources director turned hospitality director, Breslin sees changing tastes of the marketplace and industry desire to remain relevant and unique at work.

“Your goal when you build a Ritz-Carlton is when the customer walks in they go, ‘Oh, this is a Ritz-Carlton,” he said. He suspects guests who walk into the The Whitley will say instead, “Oh, this is cool.”