Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

This story has been updated with a statement from Ty Warner.

The Four Seasons Biltmore Resort announced it is carrying out an “extensive renovation and upgrade” of the luxury Montecito hotel, putting an end to months of questions and speculation over its ongoing closure amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Biltmore had closed its doors in March as the state went into lockdown, but unlike nearly every other hotel in the region, has remained closed with no explanation, even to its hundreds of employees. That lack of communication and uncomfortable state of limbo prompted a large protest by staff in early August against the Four Seasons corporate office and local owner Ty Warner. They demanded to know if the hotel was going to reopen sometime soon and end their seemingly indefinite furlough, or, if rumors of a sale were true, they were going to be laid off and could expect full severance packages.

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The Biltmore’s announcement came during a one-way conference call between staff and corporate executives a week after the protest. No questions were taken. Staff were told they could continue to collect unemployment but would not be offered any benefits. They are being allowed, however, to accumulate a week’s worth of vacation time during the closure.

Biltmore spokesperson Emilie Plouchart said in a press statement, “The renovation will see many areas of the hotel completely transformed, offering a new design, ambience, and facilities, further solidifying the iconic property as one of California’s leading luxury resorts for many years to come.” The hotel will remain closed for at least six months, with an anticipated reopening sometime in 2021, she said.

Warner provided his own statement on the reason for the ongoing closure, emphasizing a desire to better protect guests from COVID and alluding to a difference of opinion between him and the Four Seasons corporate office about how to communicate their plans:

“As more than 65% of hotel workers continue to be furloughed in the wake of the pandemic, the continued closure of The Biltmore isn’t unique. However, the lack of communication with our value employees at the hotel has created unnecessary confusion. For that, I would like to express my apologies.

“As much as I wish I could communicate directly with hotel staff during these challenging times, Four Seasons, as the hotel operator, is responsible for internal and external communications on behalf of The Biltmore.

“Since April, my team and I have been working directly with Four Seasons to understand the impacts of the pandemic and the implications it will have for guest and employee health and safety. Since May, my team has expressed a lack of confidence with the protocols that the operator put forth for reopening. Unlike my San Yisdro Ranch property, The Biltmore is a high indoor-capacity hotel with added risk for person-to-person contact and aerosolized/droplet exposure that in my opinion has not yet been adequately mitigated. I will not put the staff, our guests, or the hotel’s reputation at risk in a rush to reopen.

“Though Four Seasons’ COVID protocol is on par with or better than other brands, I decided, as the owner of The Biltmore, to take this time to explore state-of-the-art decontamination technologies to eliminate flu/virus exposure. In May, my team submitted a letter to Four Seasons that described this plan and targeted a reopening in early or mid-2021, while recognizing the need to adapt to the evolving state of the pandemic and emerging regulations and protocols. Unfortunately, that information was not shared with our staff. Instead, some employees have said in press interviews that Four Seasons was implying a reopening was always imminent.

“We fully plan to reopen in the safest manner possible. Therefore, we believe it is in the best interests of our employees to keep them on furlough status – where they can receive unemployment benefits – rather than sever their employment – where they would lose seniority, PTO, vacation time, and benefits that they have individually accrued during their tenure.

“As I watched marchers, what stuck with me the most were the signs that noted the length of employment: 20, 30, even 40+ years for one marcher. That really matters to me. I don’t want to sever such dedicated employees who have contributed to The Biltmore across decades. I hope that, together, we can endure these unprecedented times (like we did with the Montecito debris flow) and come back to a hotel experience that is better and safer than ever.”

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