Check out, check in: Longtime manager departs one hotel after upgrade to oversee expansion of upstart competitor

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The other one has a hot tub. This one has what could certainly be referred to as a hot seat – and it’s even more intimate and personal.

A custom-designed leather sofa under a set of skylights graces the Polar Bear Suite on the top floor of the new wing of the Svalbard Hotell (yes, with a double “l”), one of numerous unique furnishings in the expansion that adds 31 rooms, a dining area, fireplace and bar to the original 17-room building.

“The leather is the same as they use in a Ferrari,” said Stein-Ove Johannessen, the hotel’s manager.

Other custom touches – mostly from Norwegian designers, but also from other parts of Scandinavia – range from the chairs in the lounge to the somewhat oddly shaped coffee cups that lack handles.

An official opening reception for the hotel with coffee and cake is scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday.

The new 45-million-kroner building on the opposite side of Longyearbyen’s main pedestrian walkway from the original building that opened in 2011 comes about a month after a major upgrade was completed at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel. Johannessen – who worked for 14 years at that hotel, primarily as its food and beverage manager – departed just as the upgrade was finished to oversee the completion of the relatively new competitor.

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Alex Winge, service manager at Svalbard Hotell, stacks wood into a bin near the fireplace in the new wing that will become the hotel’s main building when it opens Friday. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

While the Radisson has the advantage of brand-name recognition and is more likely to be perceived as upscale, Svalbard Hotell (whose guests during its first months included Prince Harry before his North Pole expedition with a group of wounded veterans) has its own advantages, Johannessen said.

“I think our best thing is the location, even if everything is a short distance in Longyearbyen,” he said. “People want to be where everything is in the center of town.”

Being a smaller hotel should also allow the hotel to provide more personalized service, Johannessen said. And while Svalbard Hotell lacks the Radisson’s near-waterfront views of the fjords, extra efforts were made to take advantage of the natural highlights available to the upstart.

The lone 40-square-meter Polar Bear Suite, for example, was designed to look over the two large glaciers at the south end of town and window placement was done with Northern Lights viewing in mind. It also, of course, features conspicuous artwork of its namesake predator.

“Just for fun we’re going to have a penguin as well,” Johannessen said. “We’ll make sure he has a sign that says ‘just visiting.'”

Both hotels have a fireplace, although the newer hotel’s is arguably more intimate since it’s in a much smaller gathering space. A few meters away is a bar whose beer selection will come exclusively from Svalbard Bryggeri, with wine coming from Huset’s famous collection. Johannessen said the dining area will initially serve only breakfast, but all-day service should begin soon.

Svalbard Hotell’s top-end room costs a cool 4,490 kroner a night during the summer (a website search turns up no vacancies during the peak spring season), compared to 1,690 kroner for a standard room in the original building and 1,790 kroner for a standard room in the new building. By comparison, a standard room at the Radisson costs 1,990 kroner and a top-end 30-square-meter suite 3,590 kroner.

The upgrades at both hotels are part of a significant expansion of guest rooms that started a few years ago and is expected to continue for at least a few more. Among the planned projects are two new hotels at Elvesletta with a total of about 200 guest rooms, along with features including restaurants, a winter greenhouse and recreational areas.

Some local travel industry officials have questioned if all the new rooms will drive down rates – and possibly by association lower the perception of Longyearbyen as a premium travel destination. But Johannessen, who said virtually all of his hotel’s new rooms are booked through the spring season despite being available at the company’s website for only the past month, said the opposite is happening so far.

“Our rates are double that of two years ago,” he said.Many tourism companies reported record earnings in 2015, due in large part to the record number of overnight visitors during the days surrounding the March 20 total solar eclipse as well as a sharp drop in the value of the kroner, making Norway a far more affordable destination than usual.

Local industry officials, as well as local and national government officials, are also seeking ways to double Longyearbyen’s tourist traffic during the next several years as a way of partially making up for the hundreds of jobs being lost as Store Norske brings its coal mining operations to a near-complete halt.

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