By Michael Matthews
July 15, 2010 -- A hotel phoenix may be rising from the ashes. So far, a tiny portion of its beak is showing through the dust. But it will be many years, if ever, until it appears in all its majesty, with wings spread and head held high.

In case you haven't heard, Regent Hotels has a new owner. And like so many owners in recent decades, the new bosses claim they will restore Regent to its rightful place in the hotel firmament.

In its prime, Regent International was arguably the world's finest luxury hotel company. It defied all logical design, management and marketing concepts. It was a company that got more ink than any other, had more groundbreaking advertising than any other, won more awards than any other hotel group and outperformed its competition in every locale where it operated.

Founded in the mid-1970s, six of Regent's then-14 hotels rated in the top ten in the world by the mid-1980s. It's an accomplishment of speed, style, quality, planning and marketing that has never been duplicated.

Regent Hotels was also my home in Hong Kong for 14 years of my 17 years there. The Regent Hong Kong, in fact, was the jewel in the Regent crown, a hotel that literally and figuratively redefined modern luxury hotels. Even now, many business travelers refer to the property on the Kowloon waterfront as "the old Regent," even though it has been an InterContinental hotel for almost a decade.

In 1992, with 18 hotels in its portfolio, one of Regent's founders and its majority stockholder, Robert H Burns, sold the company to Four Seasons. Four Seasons changed the name of most Regent hotels to Four Seasons. And since most Regent properties were in the Asia-Pacific region, the conversions gave Toronto-based Four Seasons much needed exposure in the area.

Having converted all but two Regent hotels by 1997, Four Seasons passed on the rights to the Regent name to Carlson. Minneapolis-based Carlson's plan was to expand Regent as its luxury brand above Radisson, Park Inns, Park Plaza and Country Inns. The plan was a disaster. Carlson never understood luxury hotelkeeping and had no clear development strategy. They appointed a succession of presidents and marketing gurus, none of whom had worked at the luxury level.

They opened new Regent hotels in Bal Harbor and other spots only to lose the management contracts in a matter of months. The Regent on Wall Street in Manhattan unceremoniously closed its doors in 2003 after less than five years in business. The building has never reopened. Carlson signed a joint agreement to operate Regent hotels with Rezidor, its European franchisee. That led to several more disastrous contracts.

Earlier this year, Carlson and Rezidor decided to sell Regent. The group was down to seven hotels; only two, the properties in Singapore and Taipei, are from the original Regent portfolio.

Your humble columnist took a look at Regent this year and found that there was little left of what he'd spent many years helping to build. But I made what I thought was a meaningful bid for the company. I saw value in the Regent name, still highly revered in Asia. And there is another asset: Regent Seven Seas Cruises, a former division of Carlson that paid a handsome fee for the use of the Regent name. My plan: Drop the dogs that were costing Carlson/Rezidor millions of dollars and start Regent fresh with four or five top-notch properties.

But I wasn't bidding in a vacuum. There were at least 20 companies interested. The winner? Formosa International Hotels of Taiwan. Formosa International owns one of the two original Regent properties, namely The Grand Formosa Regent of Taipei. The selling price, or so I am told, was four times what my group offered.

Grand announcements are now coming from Steven Pan, the chairman of Formosa International who has also assumed the title of chairman of the newly renamed Regent Hotels and Resorts.

Pan wants "to restore the brand to its former glory with the same global mix of leadership directly linked to the Regent DNA"--or so says the press release. He has even appointed Burns as his Honorary Chairman and says he'll serve as "the brand's visionary." His publicity team is headed by Lynn Grebstad, previously the public relations maestro at the Regent Hong Kong.

"As we bring Regent back home to Asia, expansion in Asia is natural for us and China will play a critical role," the press release quotes Pan as saying. He also says Regent is looking at Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles and London.

I remember writing the same words for Bob Burns in 1978. We actually did what we said. Will the new Regent? And just how high out of the ashes will it rise?

ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

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