"I've opened many hotels and have never seen this demand," said Carralero, who opened the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace in Budapest, where he served as general manager for nine years, and also managed the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris.
The $200 million luxury hotel opens as the U.S. travel industry is recovering slowly. But the hotel — long planned as one of the final pieces of the Harbor East neighborhood of offices, condos, apartments and shops just east of the Inner Harbor — should help boost tourism downtown, experts said.
The opening of the hotel, one of five in Harbor East, also comes on the heels of a double whammy: the recession and a hotel building boom in Baltimore. Average hotel occupancy in downtown Baltimore has declined over the past couple of years, though business has been recovering along with the economy. Occupancy grew 3 percent to just over 60 percent in 2010 over the previous year.
Business travel, driven by strong corporate earnings, has been the first tourism segment to recover, followed by group and convention business, which is growing slowly, said Rod Petrik, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus in Baltimore, who added that the leisure segment has remained flat. Experts say tourism nationwide is not likely to recover fully until at least 2013.
"The concern with the downtown marketplace is we probably went from having too few hotel rooms to having too many in a matter of a few years," Petrik said.
Baltimore's biggest hotel — the city-owned, 757-room Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel — opened in 2008 with a goal of boosting convention center business.
"Now that we have the rooms … [downtown] is going to go through a couple of tough years with oversupply," which can slow the growth in room rates, Petrik said.
The 256-room Four Seasons, just steps from the harbor, offers rooms and suites with waterfront views and features such as Blu-ray DVD players, 40-inch LCD TVs and marble baths with soaking tubs. Guests have plenty of options: a spa and fitness center; an elevated deck with an infinity pool, hot tubs and cabanas; and a tavern and café. Rates range from $279 to $1,500 per night for most rooms.
"It's a positive reflection of downtown Baltimore's health that we have continued to open up new product" in a still-struggling economy, said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. "It's always in downtown's benefit to add a high-caliber hotel like the Four Seasons."
With the Hotel Monaco, an upscale boutique hotel in the center of downtown, and the Four Seasons on the waterfront, he said, Baltimore has "two strong pillars for high-end travelers."
Though it touts itself as an urban resort, the Four Seasons is unlikely to attract guests who come just for the hotel, Petrik said.
The hotel will likely appeal to a mix of business travelers, downtown tourists, convention-goers seeking high-end accommodations, and patients undergoing long-term care at nearby medical facilities, he said.
"I don't think that the Four Seasons is a destination unto itself," Petrik said. "It will be the highest-priced hotel in the city. It remains to be seen whether Baltimore can support a hotel like the Four Seasons."
The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, which operates the hotel, as well as H&S Properties Development Corp. and city tourism officials are all betting on the hotel's success.
"I look at the Four Seasons as balancing out our entire [hotel] package," said Tom Noonan, president and chief executive of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism and convention bureau.
Continued Noonan: "What I tell customers, when they're looking at us as a convention destination, is: 'Thirty years ago you had fish markets and fruit stands. … Thirty years later you have Ritz-Carlton [condominiums] on the left and on the right is Four Seasons.' And that's symbolic of how much the city has changed. Those are two higher-end brands and both are in downtown Baltimore."
Noonan said he expected the Four Seasons would inspire other area hotels, much as the Hilton did when it opened as a convention center hotel.