In Travel & Visitors Guide

Little guests are clearly not an afterthought at The Peninsula Chicago.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Even the tiniest guests get a taste of the good life.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Guests of all ages will marvel at the view from The Peninsula pool.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The Peninsula's lobby "gallery" offers window shopping and a warm atmosphere.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The alluring pastries are a highlight at Pierrot Gourmet.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Enjoy an espresso in the sky at the Lavazza Expressions Cafe atop the Hancock Center.

Chicago hotels court family fun-seekers

Kids may not have always been a key part of the equation for success at all the hot hotels in downtown Chicago, but times have changed.

Now, more than ever, it seems that hotels -- from the Best Western to the Four Seasons -- are courting families.

A recent visit to The Peninsula, a five-star hotel with all the amenities located in the heart of the Michigan Avenue tourism and shopping district, made that abundantly clear.

On a spring weekend, The Peninsula, 108 E. Superior St., was full of kids of all ages. There were teens and toddlers swimming laps and dipping in the rooftop pool -- with its stunning view of the Water Tower and the John Hancock Center. There were babies and dapper little preschoolers brunching in The Lobby on Sunday morning and well-behaved tots headed out for, or back from, a day of absorbing everything the Windy City has to offer families.

For anyone who stays even a couple times a year in downtown Chicago hotels, it was a somewhat unexpected sight.

But it shouldn't be anymore, according to Jennifer Chase, managing director of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association Education Foundation (IHLAEF), which works to help hospitality industry workers continue their educations and to mentoring future hotel employees.

"Chicago hotels are working harder to expand their partnerships to market to a number of different groups of visitors," says Chase.

"Several factors play in such as location, timeliness of events, brand loyalty and partnerships between hotels and attractions and destinations. Hotels also know many travelers are bringing their families, even extending business trips to enjoy all the finest in attractions, dining and shopping Chicago has to offer."

If you expect a place like The Peninsula -- whose other U.S. properties are in Beverly Hills and New York; the remainder are in Asia, and a Paris hotel will open in 2012 -- to feel stuffy and overly formal, you will be surprised.

Of course, the luxury hotel is well-appointed, so clean it nearly sparkles and staffed with a quality team. But while everyone will rush to open the door for you, help with your bag and address you personally, they are eager and smiling rather than staid and uncomfortably deferential. And when they see your kids ...

"Our General Manager (Maria Zec) always says, 'If we are aloof or arrogant, we're missing our mark,'" says Susan Ellefson, director of public relations at The Peninsula. "You can teach service, but you have to start by hiring people who enjoy helping others, who are hospitable people, smiling people."

The Peninsula Loves Kids (and Their Parents)

"Families are important to us," says Ellefson. "We're into families. We're into pets." And, she adds, "The Peninsula has always been family-friendly."

The Peninsula is also into research.

If you find that you're drawn into a conversation when reserving a room at the hotel, don't be surprised by the personalized welcome you receive upon arrival. On a recent visit, we arrived to hear a CD recorded by my band eight years ago playing in our room. And later that evening, a knock on the door brought sweets and some White Sox baseball cards. A hotel staffer had seen a blog I wrote about flipping baseball cards with my child.

"In the registration process, the staff will ask what brings you to Chicago and we gather information," says Ellefson. "Preferences for some (hotels) mean just smoking or non-smoking, type of bed and feather or foam pillow. For us preferences mean a lot more than that.

"If a customer gets chatty, we will know what size robes to have in the room, for example. If their child is celebrating a birthday, we can spell the child's name correctly (on the cake) and make sure we have their favorite color frosting."

And so it was that we arrived to find sweet treats for our preschooler and soft toys and a crib for our younger child, too. Of course, there were plush robes and slippers in all our sizes.

But the research doesn't stop when guests arrive at the hotel.

"If a guest was traveling alone our housekeeper would notice what side of the bed they slept on and would know to put the slippers and the bottle of water on that side. If the radio was left on and was playing jazz, we'd note that the guest enjoys jazz," says Ellefson.

"If we discover they like golf, we would put golf magazines in the room. We like to anticipate needs before the guest even knows they need them. But they have to be willing to share. If they're not interested, of course, we respect their privacy."

The advance work done on us helped us enroll our child in the great Little Bakers program. He spent time in The Peninsula kitchen decorating cookies and mini cupcakes with Executive Pastry Chef Celine Plano and Pastry Sous Chef Amanda Rockman.

When he arrived he got a chef's jacket with his name on it and a tall baker's hat. When he left, he walked away with an experience to remember, a box of cookies and cupcakes, and an awesome souvenir chef's coat to boot.

It also helped get us going on the fun Chicago scavenger hunt that helps families discover the city's landmarks and important sites. When kids finish the hunt, the hotel concierge presents them with a special gift.

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Travelin' Man | April 15, 2010 at 12:18 p.m. (report)

This looks like an awesome place!

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