Signia hotel in San Jose brings back a familiar Fairmont face

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It’s been a while since San Jose has had as lavish a party as the ribbon-cutting celebration Wednesday for the Signia by Hilton, which has reopened the doors of the former Fairmont hotel overlooking downtown’s Plaza de Cesar Chavez.

A raft of speakers, including owner Sam Hirbod, General Manager Jimmy Safraz and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, talked about what the hotel means to San Jose and even what “Signia” means (It’s kind of a portmanteau drawing from both “signature” and “insignia”). And then the stylish, invite-only crowd was let loose inside the entirely remodeled first floor to sample drinks and bites from the Aji Bar and Robata.

Samuel Haile, greets a guest Ewell Sterner of Hunger at Home, as he arrives to the official grand opening celebration and ribbon cutting of Signia by Hilton Hotel in downtown San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (Photo by Josie Lepe) (Photo by Josie Lepe)

It really did feel like downtown San Jose was being brought back to life and things were a little closer to normal after more than two years of not normal. And seeing Sammy Haile on Wednesday was one of the things that made it even better.

Haile has been greeting guests from the valet station of the hotel’s portico since he was hired at the Fairmont in 1991, welcoming everyone from conventioneers to U.S. presidents. He’s so well known among people who frequent the hotel that Liccardo gave him a shout out during his speech. It’s true; it would have been folly to re-open the hotel without Haile, who says it feels great to be back after two years away because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everybody’s coming back slowly, and it’s nice to see some familiar faces,” said Haile, 56, who immigrated to the United States from Eritrea in 1987. “I’m a people person. I like to be around people.”

Some of the famous people he’s met on the job have included Queen Rania of Jordan, Barbra Streisand, Prince and Luciano Pavarotti, and he says the trick to not being star struck is to just be genuine. “That’s what they see, and that’s what they appreciate,” he said.

But, he adds, that’s what he tries to do with every out-of-town guest or local regular who comes by for a nonprofit event, wedding or just an after-work cocktail at the bar. “We have an iconic hotel, and when we share the rich history of what we have here with the community, it’s phenomenal,” he said.

Unfortunately, Wednesday was the last time that regulars will be able to catch Haile’s smiling face for a while. He’s taking a few weeks off to take care of his ailing 92-year-old father until he can find him regular care. It won’t be as long as his last break during the pandemic, which he said was difficult. But being home with his family — he’s been married 24 years and has five kids ranging in age from 11 to 22 — was a moment that he cherished.

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