After decades under the care of hotelier Jurgen Wolter, the much-loved Hyatt Regency is closing, writes Kevin Sinclair
On the roof of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Nathan Road is a weird contraption. It looks like a railway line running to nowhere. It's a rare life-saving device; turn the hand-cranked wheel and a bridge snakes across a seven-metre gap to the roof of the adjoining building.
It was devised in 1985 by the hotel manager, Jurgen Wolter. "It's 1.5 metres wide and has sturdy hand rails," he says. "If there was a fire, guests could go to the roof and there would be an escape route."
It has not been required, but such attention to detail is typical of the doyen of Hong Kong's hotel managers. Mr Wolter has been in the same position in the same hotel for 25 years. When the Hyatt Regency closes with a bang on January 1, after a New Year's Eve party that promises to say farewell with pride, it will be the end of two landmarks in the city's hotel industry.
One sees the end of a leading hotel. The other sees the retirement of a top hotelier. When the 723-room property opened in 1963, it was the wonder of Hong Kong, the first major hotel built that side of the harbour since The Peninsula opened in 1928. The building, which dominated lower Nathan Road, started life as The President Hotel. In 1969, the owners signed a management contract with the US-based operating company and the hotel in Nathan Road became the first Hyatt International.
In many ways, it set the pace for the expansion and style of the global hotel chain. Mr Wolter joined Hyatt in 1976, as head of the rooms division. He was already a hospitality industry veteran.
After training at hotel schools in Switzerland, France and his native Germany, he worked as a chef at leading hotels in St Moritz and Paris. Then he was recruited in 1969 by the Mandarin Oriental as assistant food and beverage manager. He crossed the harbour to be food and beverage manager at the Sheraton, then was general manager at the Hong Kong Convention Centre, before joining the Hyatt in 1976.
It's always sad when a familiar hotel closes down. The Hyatt Regency has been watering hole, meeting place, luncheon rendezvous and business haven for thousands of people. Mr Wolter stresses his valued customers are not only the loyal business travellers who fly into Hong Kong two or three times a year. Equally important to him are the Hongkongers who drop in every week for a drink or a meal.
Some regulars have been doing that for even longer than Mr Wolter has been running the place. Stan Freeman is one of them. The American textiles man remembers when the hotel opened. Today, he still drops in for a drink almost daily. "The Hyatt's like home to me," he says. "I was going there when it was still the President Hotel.
"The Hyatt took over and there was a bar on the top floor called the Ponderosa. It had a lovely dance floor. Hugo's restaurant opened in 1970. I threw a dinner party there two days before the official opening so I was their first customer.
"I went to the Chin Chin Bar on St Patrick's Day, 1974, to see the executive chef, Bob Hauser, who was also a horse owner. There were two ladies at the bar, one European and one Chinese. We got talking. I married the Chinese lady, so I owe the Hyatt that, too.
"I'm going to miss the place. People ask me where I'll be having lunch after January 1 and I tell them I don't know."
Like many of his customers, Mr Wolter is not too sure where he'll be going next. One thing is certain; he's not leaving Hong Kong. For more than three decades the hotel has been his home as well as his workplace.
But he's moving to Hong Kong Island when the hotel shuts its doors. As to work, he shrugs; he's not sure what, if anything, he'll do in future. He won't object to taking a break. As manager of a major hotel, he's at his desk at 7.30am every day and it's usually after dark before he leaves. Lunchtime is brief.
"There are regular guests at all our restaurants - Hugo's, Nathan's, our Chinese restaurant and the Chin Chin Bar, coffee shop and so on who expect me to drop by their tables and say hello. That's important. So I don't have much time for lunch myself."
He looks around the superbly maintained second floor of the hotel. At one end is the famous Hugo's Restaurant, unchanged - except for menu prices - for 35 years. A few years ago, Mr Wolter considered renovating the spacious room; there was almost a violent revolution by some regulars who had been dining there daily for most of their adult lives.
The lounges, restaurants and bar on the floor are packed daily. Mr Wolter is a perfectionist. His insistence on quality is renowned. The marbled floors are impeccable. The furnishings are spruce. The tiled floors in the toilets gleam; it looks like they were laid the day before yesterday, rather than a generation ago. "They built well then," Mr Wolter says. "They used top materials. The structure is absolutely sound."
Still, the building must go. The owners plan to redevelop. Some rumours mention a commercial office tower. Others say a high-rise mall akin to Times Square. There's no mention of a new hotel. There would be no point; the present structure occupies the maximum plot ratio and is built to last several lifetimes. But it is going ...
"A hotel is all about people," Mr Wolter says. To him, that means not only the guests, but his 600 staff. About 80 of them have jobs at the Grand Hyatt in Wan Chai. Two weeks ago, he hosted a careers bazaar where 38 other hotels sent human resources executives to interview Hyatt Regency staff. He's confident that in the tourism boom there will be no problem for well-trained staff finding employment. But for many, their hearts will remain in Nathan Road.