The Claremont Resort, now part of a bankruptcy restructuring

The Claremont Hotel & Spa, a fixture in the Berkeley hills since 1915, was part of a luxury hotel group that filed for bankruptcy yesterday. The Claremont and seven other resorts were part of a $6.6 billion acquisition by Morgan Stanley in 2007. When debt of $1.5 billion came due yesterday, lenders foreclosed on five of the properties (three other properties with longer-term debt did not file for Chapter 11 protection).

The lenders, led by hedge fund Paulson & Co, stated in a press release that they intend to work down the debt and position the hotels to benefit as the economy improves. The last few years have been particularly bruising for the luxury end of the travel industry, and the Claremont has suffered from poor occupancy rates.

The Morgan Stanley purchase came right near the top of the market for luxury properties. Although business turned down soon after the acquisition, there was some investment in the Claremont, including a complete revamping of its main restaurant, The Meritage, refurbishment of guest rooms, and the addition of a new children’s pool.

For many Berkeleyans, the Claremont is primarily used for its health and tennis club (and Berkeleyans also know that the resort has a Berkeley address but is technically in Oakland). Jokey emails were flying around this morning imploring members to make sure they returned towels, but people seemed unfazed by the bankruptcy.

“I’m not surprised, nor am I particularly alarmed because the Claremont will always be a crown jewel in a portfolio,” said Dennis Woodruff, a member at the health club for over 20 years. “I believe the lenders will do their best to maintain the property.”

The press release on the financial restructuring of the portfolio states: “These events have no impact on the management, staff or operations of the resorts, which will continue to provide the same uninterrupted level of luxury service and experience to guests, resort members and other customers, and remain committed to their local communities. In addition, Pyramid Hotel Group will continue to act as asset manager for the eight resorts, providing continuity to the operation and management for all stakeholders in the portfolio.”

Paulson & Co came to particular prominence when the housing market collapsed in 2007, because of a prescient trade against sub-prime mortgages. The Greatest Trade Ever, by Gregory Zuckerman, is all about Paulson’s coup, which earned more than $15 billion for the hedge fund. It’s striking that at the same time the fund was foreseeing the housing collapse, it was also lending at the top of the market for luxury hotels.

Update 9:45 pm Some Berkeleysiders who understand hedge funds contacted us about the last paragraph above. They reckon that it was unlikely that Paulson & Co participated in the initial loan to Morgan Stanley. The probability is that Paulson & Co acquired their interest at a depressed price, which will make a turnaround in the portfolio that much more lucrative for the fund. A spokesman for Paulson & Co declined to comment.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...