Hyatt is a business-traveler hotel, but now VUEs itself as more
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On the morning of the fourth Republican presidential debate, as national news trucks rumbled by and police barricades were erected and Milwaukee prepared to be at the center of the political universe, everyone inside the Hyatt Regency dining room, it seemed, was on their phones.
Everyone, that is, but Maria, a doting and gregarious server who was enthusiastically telling a table of white-shirted and indifferent men with Fox Business credentials hanging from their necks about "the best pancakes in the city."
Milwaukee, most people agreed, put its best foot forward Tuesday as host of the GOP debate – perhaps the affair's only consensus winner. And the city's ability to attract such prominent events and carry national appeal is advanced by people like Maria, who brighten the breakfasts of even the surliest egg-eaters, and the Hyatt, which is comfortable – in terms of both amenities and reputation – being Downtown's foremost hotel for the myriad business travelers and convention center-goers that visit here.
The hotel at 333 W. Kilbourn Ave. is well-appointed and well-positioned to accommodate them. With 18 floors, 481 guest rooms, nearly 34,000 square feet of functional meeting space, an upscale bistro and bar, glass-window elevators facing inward that showcase the gracefully massive "Wings of Welcome" suspended sculpture and VUE, Milwaukee's only circular rooftop ballroom, the Hyatt is the kind of hotel you want out-of-town VIPs to see when they come to this city.
When I stayed there, I was neither an out-of-towner nor a VIP. But I was there on business, so I got two sides of the Hyatt experience – the guy who had to go to work in the morning and the one who was a staycationer at night.
Check-in was easy and pleasant, as were most interactions during my stay. Getting a room on the 18th floor, I had access to that level's exclusive Regency Club, a swanky lounge with big-screen TVs, plush couches and a stocked bar. Sensing that Mark, the affable employee who oversaw the Regency Club, was close to locking up for the night, I grabbed a couple of decadent cookies and a carton of milk. The high life, indeed.
My room wasn't large, but it was spacious. Containing a king-sized bed, armchair with ottoman, desk, dresser and TV, it felt just right. The bathroom, though, was cramped. The large windows provided a panoramic view facing south, which isn't as nice as facing east, but hey, buildings have four sides and you can't always win. The room was clean, the décor was generically attractive and the huge bed was more comfortable than expected. For the hotel's typical guest, a corporate traveler with efficient packing skills and little time to spend in the room, everything was utilitarian and that was fine.
Wandering around, I scoped out the expansive second-floor meeting rooms. Apparently, the Midwest Archeological Conference had just ended and, apparently, those artifact-dusters like to party.
In the gift shop, the friendly cashier picked up on the fact that I love touristy Milwaukee stuff and also "seem to really like discounts," to use her words. She showed me to the reduced-price items, where I managed to spend $20 on postcards, stickers and clothes.
The Hyatt connects with the Wisconsin Center, Grand Avenue Mall and other offices via a series of skywalks that I'd never noticed or used before. It was fun to explore a small part of the city from above the streets and within the Minneapolis-like walkways, one of which was charmingly decorated with the historic Milwaukee Neighborhood posters.
The next morning, after a restful night's sleep, I took a shower, which was excellent in every crucial way. Never discount the importance of a good shower head with a strong stream of hot water and a curtain rod that bends outward from the tub so as to not constantly encroach on your bathing body. The soft bathrobe was a comfy perk.
And then it was down to breakfast, where I had a coupon good for the hot buffet.
This is the one place I will level a complaint at the Hyatt. I went down for breakfast at 7 a.m. and was told all of the tables were occupied and there was a 10-15 minute wait. Fair enough; it's a busy hotel and early morning is when businesspeople get going. I raised the possibility of sitting outside the dining room at one of the many tables in the lounge area that are used during dinner, but I was told that wasn't an option because they weren't set up with silverware. Huh, OK.
When I was finally seated, I counted eight empty tables that were either completely cleaned or just needed to be bussed. But when I mentioned that to the hostess, she said they weren't yet ready. The whole episode was strange and made the staff seem pretty ineffectual. But then I met Maria, who was wonderful, got a good cup of coffee and a mountainous breakfast in me and felt much better.
When I asked a Hyatt front office employee later if such a situation was regular, I was told it was probably just a busier day than usual. Still, a hotel that caters primarily to professionals that need to eat and get going ought to have a better backup plan in the morning than making guests wait.
After Maria insisted I take a to-go coffee, I walked the three blocks to work.
That night, I tried Bistro 333 for dinner. The chic restaurant and its adjoining bar manage to feel cozy and secluded even while remaining a dynamically attached part of the downstairs lobby area. I had the bistro burger with steak fries and both were deliciously enormous; my girlfriend got the turkey Havarti sandwich (with pear on a pretzel roll). We're not critics, but we found the food very tasty. The Bar 333 drink menu was extensive and fascinating, written more like a book about cocktails than just a listing, and I enjoyed reading about the history of American bourbon.
The bistro, bar and lounge area have an up-tempo and lively vibe at night, probably because guests who don't know the city prefer to stay in and have a drink at the hotel. If you do know the city, though, the nightlife scene on Old World Third Street is just a few blocks away, and theaters and arenas provide nearby entertainment, too.
Crowning the Hyatt is VUE, the recently reopened and very-recently renamed top-floor event space. This was formerly the Polaris restaurant, which closed in 2009 because of dwindling customers and profits. Jaime Smith, the Hyatt's director of sales, told me the hotel did extensive research on the Milwaukee marketplace for the service and hospitality industries and decided the prime vista was better utilized as a ballroom and reception area than another local restaurant.
VUE's views are indeed spectacular, and Smith said the space is already being booked for 2016 social outings and corporate functions.
With the rise of boutique hotels like the Brewhouse and the forthcoming Kimpton, the presence of grand historic icons like The Pfister and Hotel Metro and the arrival of premier tourist attractions like the Iron Horse and Potawatomi, it's easy to forget that sometimes a hotel just needs to be a place where weary businesspeople, surprisingly rowdy conference attendees and GOP staffers can rest their heads at night and have a decent breakfast in the morning. At its core, that's what the Hyatt Regency is.
And Maria was right. Those pancakes really were the best.
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