Hollywood Events Shun Beverly Hills Hotel Even As Power Lunchers Return to Polo Lounge
It's been nearly two years since Hollywood (mostly) turned its back on The Beverly Hills Hotel amid controversy surrounding the owner of the Dorchester Collection (its hospitality group parent), the Sultan of Brunei. Stars and industry leaders led the movement, fomented by the Human Rights Campaign, to boycott the famed Pink Palace, which the sultan purchased in 1987 for $185 million. The issue: the sultan's move to institute Sharia law in Brunei, with its cruel implementations against women and gays. Ellen DeGeneres tweeted that she wouldn't visit until the issue was resolved. Longtime guests Elton John and David Furnish stated, "We can't lie in a suite at the Beverly Hills and ignore the fact that the hotel is stained with the blood of gay people."
For a while, people stayed away completely. Talent agencies WME and CAA reportedly prohibited their staff from stepping inside, and celebrities avoided the hotel's restaurant, The Polo Lounge, like the plague. But it was the hotel's events business that took the biggest hit, losing tens of millions as dozens of marquee industry and philanthropy lunches and soirees backed away from its 800-person ballroom. Last year, the Motion Picture & Television Fund, chaired by DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, moved its starry The Night Before pre-Academy Awards fundraiser from the hotel, where it had been held since its inception in 2003. Instead, members of the host committee, including Jennifer Aniston, George Clooney, Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon and Ben Affleck, headed to the 20th Century Fox lot (where a studio was painstakingly decorated in the style of The Beverly Hills Hotel). This year, the Feb. 27 festivities will take place in Hollywood's Raleigh Studios with catering by Jon & Vinny's Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo.
These days, industry leaders are returning to The Polo Lounge — without a clear endgame, passion for the boycott largely has petered out.
At the Pink Palace’s genteel eatery, at least, the boycott appears to be cooked. Over the course of four weeks in early 2016, THR spotted the likes of STX’s Bob Simonds and Sophie Watts (with potential Asian media partners), Dana Brunetti, Kevin Spacey, Rick Nicita, Lorne Michaels, John Goldwyn, Jennifer Meyer, Calvin Klein, Jami Gertz, Diane Martel, Gerard Butler, Jimmy Buffett, Lukas Haas, Diane Martel, Djimon Hounsou, Beverly Johnson with socialite Nikki Haskell, Doug Davis, Lloyd Braun and Chris Meledandri partaking of breakfast, lunch or drinks. Bai Ling was seen enjoying a soufflé.
Taylor Swift was spotted obliging fans with a photo. “It’s so easy to forget about things after time passes and go back to supporting businesses with unethical practices,” says Jennifer Howell, founder of nonprofit The Art of Elysium. “It saddens me deeply that nothing has changed.”
But for branded events, the hotel still is avoided. "We've pitched it for certain clients, and there's always that concern of offending," says veteran event producer Gina Wade. "Especially with the high competition rate of so many different events happening on any night, people don't want to put themselves in a situation where somebody they really want to attend wouldn't simply because of the venue."
So where can Hollywood party in the style to which it has become accustomed? "Traditionally, events have always been in hotel ballrooms, and some are still being used," says Caravents founder Cara Kleinhaut, pointing to stalwarts The Beverly Hilton (the Golden Globes) and the Beverly Wilshire, where she will produce the Feb. 27 Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon featuring Shonda Rhimes, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lupita Nyong'o; the OWN-televised program moved from The Beverly Hills Hotel two years ago. But reducing the town's ballroom options has thrown a wrench in many large events. "The struggle is real to find event space for more than 500 people," says one planner. "And the limited options often drive up hard costs." With the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza set to shutter March 1 for a two-year, $2.5 billion renovation, one more option is off the map.
Clients and planners increasingly are choosing "smaller, more intimate events, not just a 500-person party with a logo on the wall and branded napkins," notes Wade. "We're doing a lot more 100-person dinners in places that feel warm." As a result, restaurants, especially buzzy new spots with great design and high-profile chefs, are in high demand. "We're planning an event at Estrella, on Sunset," says Wade of the 4-month-old restaurant by chef Dakota Weiss. "It's just got a really cool vibe." She also loves The District by Hannah An. "We did Fox Searchlight's Hollywood Foreign Press Association holiday party there, and what I loved about it was if you need 60 to 70 people, do an intimate [cocktail] party in the upstairs and then a sit-down for dinner downstairs." Other popular spaces include Hyde Sunset Kitchen & Cocktails, where Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence is expected to attend the Women in Film pre-Oscar soiree Feb. 26, and Laurel Hardware, for the Irish Film Board's event Feb. 24, co-hosted by Colin Farrell and Jim Sheridan.
Chateau Marmont and Sunset Tower retain their allure — for smaller studio or agency dinners held in private penthouses to honor nominees as well as larger events like CAA's annual Golden Globes afterparty at The Terrace at the Sunset Tower, attended by nominated couple Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. "There's a familiarity," says Kleinhaut. "Celebrities know how to get there and they have great views and that Old Hollywood vibe." Newer properties also have emerged: The London West Hollywood, with its screening room and expansive rooftop, and Montage Beverly Hills, where The Weinstein Co. hosts its annual pre-Oscars dinner and Sean Penn his Help Haiti Home gala. Mr. C Beverly Hills hotel's 12th-floor Starlight Ballroom, which holds 350 people and offers 360-degree views of the city, will host the 13th annual Global Green pre-Oscar party (with performer Stevie Wonder).
Soho House West Hollywood, a prized setting for its exclusivity and gorgeous panoramas, reportedly has enacted a new rule: Spaces can be bought out only by members, making it more difficult to secure private events. However, CAA hosted its pre-Golden Globes party there, celebrating talents like Will Smith and Cate Blanchett, while The Weinstein Co. historically takes over the garden terrace on Oscars night. NeueHouse Hollywood — the New York-based workspace, social and arts club — opened in October in the landmark CBS Radio building and is a prime spot for music-focused events, such as Emporio Armani Sounds, a private concert held Feb. 11 with performances by Brandon Flowers and Mark Ronson, fresh from his Super Bowl appearance.
"I think the main thing that everyone is looking for is a new place that no one has been to yet," says Kleinhaut. "I'm getting a lot of requests for the use of unexpected locations, whether it's a retail space that hasn't opened or a loft space downtown." A perfect example of this trend is Vanity Fair's Social Club, a series of panels and parties held during Oscars week in a soon-to-open restaurant in Culver City's new retail and office development Platform. This year, Vanity Fair's high-wattage Academy Awards afterparty will be held in the same place as 2015 — a custom construction connecting The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and Beverly Hills City Hall. "That's a newer trend — doing something that's completely customized and creating an experience," says Kleinhaut, noting that unique onetime venues seem to inspire more social media sharing.
Social sharing in turn is driving another trend: uber-exclusive events hosted in private homes. WME held its pre-Oscar party in 2015 at the home of Sarah and Ari Emanuel, and UTA chairman Jim Berkus usually hosts his agency's fete. Says planner Bronson van Wyck, "Homes are emerging as the most exclusive, glamorous and exciting locations for both brands and private events. They provide privacy, compelling backdrops and generally don't have restrictions like a traditional event space."
A house in the hills with jetliner views of the glittering city below — what could be more Hollywood than that?
A version of this story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.