Despite seeing a drop in guests recently, the hotel has poured money into its traditional holiday lights display, which, according to management, drew over 40,000 people to the lighting ceremony last year. And it's investing in new projects, including a swanky wine bar and a cupcake shop.
"It's been very difficult, but we're doing better than anyone else in the area," said hotel owner Duane Roberts, who took over the property in 1992. Roberts was an unabashed fan of the hotel, which was built in 1876 and is considered an eclectic architectural monument. The virtual community center of Riverside for decades, the hotel was visited by luminaries ranging from Susan B. Anthony to Albert Einstein. It's been a stopover for U.S. presidents including Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, JFK, and George W. Bush. "We've spent money that very few hotels have done trying to get us to where we're better, more unique, and we're set so when things turn around a little bit better, we're the place for it," he said.
Set in the middle of Riverside County, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, the Mission Inn is surrounded by a region still reeling from the disastrous effects of the housing market meltdown. Riverside was one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the United States when the housing bubble popped. In November of last year, local housing prices were down almost 51 percent from their peak in June 2006 and unemployment stood at 15 percent, considerably higher than the statewide average.
The Mission Inn is just one of the institutions in downtown Riverside struggling to change a tarnished public perception of the city. In 2006 the city approved a $1.57 billion initiative called "Riverside Renaissance" to overhaul everything from the sewer system to parks and libraries. The newly reopened Fox theater just down the street from the hotel underwent a $32 million face lift, paid for by the city.
The economic squeeze has made rebirth anything but easy. The revamped theater's opening show, "Annie," had three of eight shows cut from its run because of poor advance ticket sales before it opened Feb. 3.
"It was really disappointing for the media not to pick on up the opening of the Fox, to tell you the truth," said City Council Member Rusty Bailey. He says the city is trying to separate its identity from the rest of the battered county and overcome stereotypes that have plagued Riverside even before it became infamous for its recent economic cratering.
"The OC (Orange County) calls us 'dirt people.' We had to overcome that for a few years," he said. "Those perceptions are erased almost immediately after you take them to the Mission Inn and over to the Fox and down through the Main Street mall."
Inside the walls of the Mission Inn Hotel and Spa in downtown Riverside, it is easy to forget that the magnificent building is in the center of a community in economic despair.
Taking up an entire city block, the hotel is a full-service resort that exudes eccentric luxury. There is a AAA Four Diamond steakhouse named for the hotel's owner, Duane, a presidential lounge with pictures of the many Commanders-in-Chief who have visited the hotel over the past century, and a maze of hallways filled with exotic trinkets, including a giant Buddha, waiting to be explored. Some estimates have placed the value of the antiques and art housed in the hotel at more than $5 million. One look inside the Francis of Asisi chapel, adorned with Tiffany's stained glass windows and a huge, graceful, gold-leaf inlaid altar, explains why the hotel hosts over 300 weddings a year. Any bride could picture her fairytale wedding here.
Outside of the hotel, however, the fantasy ends.
Along the renovated Main Street pedestrian mall, a project that cost just under $12 million, several storefronts sit empty. The many "For Lease" signs in the windows are a reminder that recovery is still elusive. Above one window, a Christmas wreath still hangs, out of place in the February sunshine. The shops still open for business are mostly silent. The Riverside Convention Center squatting behind the Mission Inn Hotel looks out on a huge, deserted concrete square punctuated by three lonely flagpoles. There is no murmur of crowd noise on Main Street, only the sound of light jazz pumped in by unseen speakers.
"We didn't think we were going to make it to December. We are here by faith," says Gigi Hernandez, who owns an antiques shop across the street from the Mission Inn Hotel and who has lived in Riverside for 14 years. She said she has never seen things get as bad as they did last year.
The Mission Inn's Roberts, however, isn't giving up and is determined to weather the storm even with a big dip the Inn is feeling in corporate travel clients. "Business travel has been down about 20 percent at least," he said. "Salesmen that would stay two to three days are doing a one-day trip."
To remedy this, the Mission Inn is marketing itself as an affordable getaway to people who no longer have the funds to fly to Europe, and to companies that do not want to get flack for staying at better-known, pricier retreats.
"We're really going after the higher-end corporate market," Roberts said. "A lot of those are staying closer to home instead of going to Vegas or something else."
Roberts said unlike most hotels, his earns only 30 percent of its revenue from its rooms and the rest from the other services on site, mainly the restaurants. This means the economic troubles plaguing Riverside residents are also affecting the hotel, as disposable income for many local families are down.
Still, he said, the Mission Inn restaurants are bringing in money. He places so much faith in them that he added a wine bar named 54 Degrees to the lobby of Duane's Restaurant and installed a cupcake shop named for his daughter, Casey, on the outside of the hotel late last year to keep up with the growing popularity of the food service trends.
"I always want to be first," Roberts said of Casey's Cupcakes, "so by doing this we're the first one that's a straight cupcake shop" in the Inland Empire.
Roberts said the money spent on the city will eventually bring Riverside the business it needs to survive the tough times. As much as he loves the city, he acknowledges the stiff challenge of trying to lure clients to a resort hotel in a place so associated with financial ruin.
"If there was a way to do it, I'd sure love to be able to pick it up and move it along the coastline," he said.
Roberts, meanwhile, is banking on Riverside emerging from the recession, and is busy planning even more improvements to the Mission Inn.
"When things get a little better, hopefully at the end of 2010 or probably the start of 2011, we're going to do a big Margarita bar."