Billionaire wishes on (five) stars in Houston

HOUSTON—When you’re a Texas billionaire like Tilman J. Fertitta, big isn’t out of the question when it comes to building a hotel. Neither is better. But being the best? Even Fertitta knows that’s something money can’t buy.

The entrepreneur, familiar to TV viewers for his reality show Billion Dollar Buyer on CNBC and to the hospitality industry for his ownership of Fertitta Entertainment Inc.—which umbrellas affiliates the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino brand; several hotels (Fertitta Hospitality), including The Westin Houston Downtown; and the multi-brand, mega-restaurant enterprise Landry’s Inc.—is out to have a five-star hotel he can literally call his own—and share it with the world.

The executive currently is underway with The Post Oak at Uptown Houston, a 38-story tower offering 250 guestrooms, 20 residences, 35,000 sq. ft. of event space including a 16,000-sq.-ft. ballroom; spa and salon; restaurants Mastro’s Steakhouse and Willie G’s (part of Landry’s Signature Group); and luxury retail that includes a two-story Rolls-Royce and Bentley showroom (with some Bugattis for good measure)—a first for a hotel. And they can all be parked in the 10-story garage. For guests who don’t feel like driving, he hotel’s heliport will be an option.

Sited on 10 acres in the city’s Galleria/Uptown district, the mixed-use development, which also includes 150,000 sq. ft. of office space, is slated to open this winter.

“As great a city as Houston is, what it lacks is luxury hotels. That’s just the way it is,” said Fertitta. “Our luxury hotels here are three-fixture-bath hotels; there hasn’t been a luxury hotel built in Houston in almost 40 years, and that’s what you had back then.”

While the Four Seasons hotel on Lamar St. (named the city’s first AAA Five-Diamond hotel in 1996) or the JW Marriotts on Main St. or Westheimer Rd. might beg to differ as to their positioning, Fertitta is unperturbed and quick to point out The Post Oak’s standard rooms are 500 sq. ft. with five-fixture baths. “It’s just on a different level,” he said of the rooms that are coming in at approximately $800,000 a key.

But Fertitta knows there’s more to it than just what the eye can see. So while guests will be able to rest their heads on monogrammed pillows and select what type of linens they wish to sleep on during their stay, the executive stressed the biggest goal “is to make the service level as nice as any hotel” in the United States.

“One of the reasons we haven’t flagged it is because the Four Seasons or Ritz [-Carlton] or Mandarin [Oriental] flags want to manage the hotel. They all do an excellent job but they’re not going to manage the hotel as well as we are when it’s next door to my corporate office,” the CEO observed, noting all his current hotel properties are corporate managed.

“This is my baby in my hometown, and people are [coming]here to stay with me and I’m going to take better care of them than anybody else,” said the executive.

Fertitta has hired industry veteran Jorge Gonzalez as general manager of The Post Oak at Uptown Houston development. Gonzalez most recently opened and served as GM/area VP of Mandarin Oriental Miami.

While Fertitta considers his gestating project unique, he expects the property to be very business-oriented during the week with robust transient/leisure and social activity in the mix to take advantage of the pool, salon, spa and event spaces.

“It’s one liquor license so, for example, people will be able to charge in Mastro’s to the hotel,” he noted.

In the works a little over two years, Fertitta said he’s been talking “for years” about doing such a project. “During the oil glut,” he laughed. “But you have to build for the long term; I’m not a flipper. This is a hotel that is a generational property and will stay in my family forever when I’m long gone. That’s what I do. I’m not a seller. I’m not looking at this short term. I’m not looking at what it’s going to make its first year; it’s what it’s going to be worth in 25 years.”

Right now, Fertitta Entertainment, of which its namesake executive is sole owner, has both assets and revenues in excess of $3.4 billion, according to company data. Its subsidiary, Landry’s, operates (not franchises or licenses) more than 500 properties in 34 states, including some of the most popular restaurant brands, running the gamut from Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. to McCormick & Schmick’s.

Its gaming division has Golden Nugget locations in Atlantic City, NJ; Biloxi, MS; Lake Charles, LA; Las Vegas and Laughlin, NV.

Other hospitality assets include the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, Kemah Boardwalk, Aquarium Restaurants, the Kemah Boardwalk Inn, San Luis Resort, and Hilton and Holiday Inn on Texas’ Galveston Island.

With that full plate and a couple of sides like community, civic and charitable endeavors, along with television appearances on CNBC, MSNBC and FOX, The Post Oak project appears to be the right dessert at the right time for Fertitta.

“I’ve always loved the hospitality business. This is my hometown, I’m very involved and I think there was a need for a hotel like this in the city of Houston—and I love being the one to do it,” he said.

And as for getting those coveted Five-Star, Five-Diamond awards, Fertitta’s as no-frills as any hotelier could be: “We have to earn it.” HB

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