Rooms to spare in the ghost hotel

LIGHTS are on in the lobby. Upstairs a cheerful bar awaits, and the restaurants look cosy and inviting. The guest rooms are made up and ready. Welcome to the Ritz Carlton.

The only problem is, there are no guests. Which is just as well, really, for there are no staff. And no food. The Ritz Carlton, in all its splendour, is a ghost hotel.

Although ready to open last August, the 25-storey hotel occupying a prime site next door to the Furama Kempinski, was caught in a curious kind of limbo when its owner, the Japanese real estate concern GGS, ran into financial difficulties.

Japanese banks that lent to GGS Hotel Holdings Ltd, the subsidiary that built the Ritz Carlton, called in their loans. GGS couldn't pay, so Hongkong-based receiver Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu was called in to try to sell the hotel.

And there the situation apparently stuck until this week when the talk turned to demolition as one option for a prospective buyer. The Ritz Carlton, experts were saying, would struggle to be profitable as a hotel. It could be converted into offices, but even that would be a difficult task. With all this hanging over it, the Ritz Carlton has an air of uncertainty that no amount of plush decorations can hide.

It's not quite correct to say that it has no staff. Telephone the executive office there and it is likely that the phone will be picked up by the general manager himself, Eric Waldburger.

Waldburger, the high-flying hotelier who quit the Peninsula to manage the opening of the Ritz Carlton, now finds himself with a staff of two, director of sales and marketing Christina Cheng, and financial controller Peter Chung.

In the absence of a receptionist, he meets guests personally to escort them around the empty property.

''The reason I'm here is that there is still hope,'' he says. ''I'm not going to throw in the towel. Not after all this.'' He ignores a group of people who are wandering around the executive floor.

''More potential buyers,'' he explains. ''But we get them coming through on a regular basis. I think we would all like to see some money before we take them more seriously.'' The asking price for the hotel has been quoted as HK$1.5 billion, a sum which many in the business feel is too high, given the relatively small size of the property - with 216 guest rooms, the rate of return would have to be high to recoup the investment.

''Look, the financial side is none of my business,'' says Waldburger. ''I cannot comment on that. It is between the owners, the banks and the operating company.

''I can't predict what is going to happen, and all I can say is that as far as I am concerned, no agreement has yet been reached with anyone.'' A tour of the hotel reveals a beautiful property that if it does open will be an instant star of the Asian hospitality business.

The design recalls a country house style, with rich carpeting, European-style furnishings, marble cladding, and crystal chandeliers. Even the lifts are fitted with miniature chandeliers. They have hardly had a passenger yet to spoil the effect.

On the ground floor, at the Chater Road entrance, passers-by can be seen peering through the locked doors at what should be the shopping arcade.

Waldburger, the consummate hotelier in a perfectly cut suit, radiating charm and hospitality, moves among the dust-sheets and through the empty kitchens, waiting for someone with a large cheque book to wave a magic wand and bring all this to life.

''It's all in good nick,'' he says.

''Given the staff, we could open this place pretty well immediately. There is no more construction work to do, no more fitting out.

''But we are now past the Chinese New Year period where you get a sudden movement of staff, and if we had to recruit a complete hotel-full now, it would not be easy.

''I was against letting our staff go, but we had to do it. It was a traumatic and frustrating time. It's unreal.'' Waldburger says that the Ritz-Carlton group will not suffer a financial loss - everything spent will eventually be reimbursed.

''That is not a problem at the end of the day,'' he says.

Why hasn't the hotel, being under receivership, simply opened to generate cash flow? ''That's a question I can't really answer,'' he says, and goes on to surmise that the banks are not prepared to spend any more money on staff and provisioning the hotel: they simply want to ensure they are getting back their initial outlay.

Will the Ritz-Carlton ever open in any form, or will it go down in history as the hotel that never was? ''There are plenty of rumours,'' says Waldburger with something approaching disdain. ''I think I have heard most of them. But at the moment, it is simply a fact that no one knows what the outcome will be.'' It must have been a massive set-back for him personally? ''Yes, it is awful,'' he admits. ''But you know, once I got past that first shock, I began to realise that I was learning a lot - learning the kind of situation that no training course could possibly prepare you for.

''You have to be positive. I have seen how the financial system works, and I have observed the different ways in which different cultures approach business.

''For me personally, that has been an educational experience.'' How does he and his two staff members spend their days? ''There is plenty to do,'' he says, ''although I can't pretend we're over-busy. We have to keep in constant contact with our headquarters in Atlanta, of course.

''But what is important is that we are keeping fresh all the sales leads we have established, and maintaining what is a very important client list.

''If the hotel does go ahead, then this will be vital.'' The phone rings daily with people wanting to book a room, or organise a banquet.

''I have to say, we are not open, and that we don't know if ever will be.

''As I said, while I'm still here, there is still hope. When I go, it will mean that the last shred of hope has gone.

''That's a matter not just of loyalty. It would be very foolish of me to decide to walk out on all this next week, only to hear the announcement that the situation has been saved.

''Then someone else would come in and take over, and get all the credit.'' His voice hardens.

''No one is going to take the credit for what I've done here so far. No way, No way!''