Icon Passes to Next Generation

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After his father’s death, Stefan Andersen resumed hotel management studies and a part-time job as banquet manager at a 450-room Marriott in Denver. He also squeezed in a second job as a chef on a gourmet food truck, rising at 5 a.m. to prep ingredients and packing up at midnight when events typically wrapped up.

Stephan Anderson, left in the hotel lobby.
Stephan Anderson, left in the hotel lobby.

Returning to his Laguna Beach home after graduation in 2011 to manage the Hotel Laguna restaurant proved a welcome change.

“Anything would have been slower than that,” said Andersen, 26, now managing the entire 65-room historic waterfront icon that his late father, Claes, first leased in 1985. His mother, Georgia, stays on as president.

Andersen, whose sister Katie also works in a hotel shop, aims to “keep it good for locals” by offering the hotel’s first happy hour and inviting community activities.

Both the hotel and its landlord are seeing a generational shift.

The hotel property remains in the hands of a Central Valley ranching family that purchased the building in 1973. Fourth-generation farmers, Richard Merritt’s offspring — five siblings and their extended families – regularly trek to Laguna to enjoy their other local holdings, ocean-front apartments a block from the hotel.

“As long as things are running like they are, we’re not going to make big changes,” said Merritt matriarch, Naelda, who scorned offers from other hotel operators after her husband’s death two years ago and Andersen’s in 2010. The hotel serves as a financial hedge for the family in poor farm years and farm income bolsters the hotel in recession, she explained.

Both Andersen and Merritt declined to discuss the terms of the hotel lease, which hotel analyst Alan Reay believes expires soon.

“It’s a jewel of a hotel in an unbelievable location and it is under-utilized,” said Reay. “Who owns a hotel and doesn’t want to stay in it? That tells you something.”

Despite its historic charm, the hotel lacks top-end amenities that rivals finance with long-term ground leases as collateral. “I couldn’t understand why Claes didn’t do it,” said Reay, who pegged the hotel’s value at $40 million.

 

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