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Renovating for Rate

Here’s where BITAC® experts think your design money should go.

Thursday, July 21, 2011
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How critical is it to renovate hotels now to better compete during the next few years? Right now, it’s a must for any hotelier who expects to beat a comp set.

That’s the conclusion from attendees at this week’s BITAC® Purchasing & Design East at the Peabody Orlando. In a poll, 81 percent said it’s critical to renovate now.

“Properties are three years behind schedule already,” said Bob LaCour, a partner at the design firm LaCour-Chodos, “and unless you’re renovating at that moment you’re even further behind.”

With budgets still limited, though, owners are being strategic when choosing where to spend the money. So which part of a hotel should get the design dollars? BITAC® attendees were split, with 36 percent citing the lobby, 20 percent choosing the entire guest room for an upgrade, and 35 percent saying that owners can get away with a soft goods renovation.

“It’s the first impression,” said Paula Azevedo, design director at The Gettys Group, of the lobby. “The brands are demanding that. The whole living room, great room concept – we’ve seen it at all levels. They want that interactivity, whether it’s select service up to five stars.”

The nature of the lobby has changed because of technology, according to Deborah Herman, president of Fabric Innovations.

“The lobby was a dead space before the Internet,” she said. “When the Internet moved into the lobby, you had to make it a grab-and-go, have a glass of wine [space]. If a woman traveler is in the lobby, she wants to sit downstairs, not sit at a desk. The lobby has become a profit center for many brands. It’s become very interactive and changed the way people have looked at lobby. The point of contact and point of entrance became very important.”

LaCour said lobbies are the social and meeting centers for many guests.

“I think the guest doesn’t want to be sequestered in their cell,” he said. “As much as you have all of the connectivity there, we’re social animals. If you’re in a town and you have to network with someone, do it there.”

Where else should the renovation dollars go? Two perennial answers, the bathroom and the bed, still apply.

“Obviously bathrooms are very capital intensive, so it’s difficult when they get the numbers to change out an entire bathroom,” said Steven Bolson, vice president of Partners Management Group. “[Owners] start questioning whether they have the capital. But I tell my owners from my experience that the bathroom and the bed are the two most important facets of a new hotel... The bathroom has to be a ‘wow’ if you can afford it, and the bed has to be, ‘I don’t want to leave this bed. I want this bed in my house, I want this mattress, I want to buy it.’ And people will come back to your hotel with those two things.”

Not convinced? Brands have the data themselves, Herman said.

“It’s really important to listen to guest surveys,” she said. “Most of the successful brands right now have read their guest surveys. The first thing you hear, I call them the two C’s – is clean. The guest wants to walk into a room that feels clean. It may be just the smell or et cetera, but it has to feel clean. The second word is ‘comfort.’ I think all of this ‘hip’ and ‘cool’ has lost the ability for the room to be comfortable.”

Bathroom privacy, for instance, is important to guests. Bathrooms that are open – or feature see-through glass – may not have lived up to their hype, Herman said. She cited a Kimpton brand survey that said its top issue with conversions is restoring bathroom privacy.

“A wife doesn’t want to hear her husband pee,” Herman said. “And she’s willing to pay more for that privilege.”

The bathroom should be the focus for properties focusing on leisure travelers, according to BITAC® attendees, while business-oriented hotels should focus on technology.

Bolson said that may mean owners re-thinking what’s important in a room. Guest rooms for business travelers may need desks, he said, but they don’t have to be elaborate.

“The desk is more meaningful in concept than in reality,” he said. “The most people who go to work in a hotel don’t really work.”

The financial reality makes smart thinking about design and purchasing more important than ever, he said.

“My owners are basically renovating or purchasing new for survival,” Bolson said. “My owners retain high end designers for high-end design for the hotels, either renovation or first builds. They are giving me budgets that are almost impossible to purchase. They want that high-end design purchase for that low-end budget. They need it to pay their debt service and have their hotel operating. That’s what I’m facing. I’m facing this in Europe, the Middle East, New York and around the country.”

Another strategic choice, he said, would be making sure a hotel has quality soundproofing and blackout shades in the guest rooms – items that all guests are likely to appreciate – rather than upgrading the spa, which fewer guests will use.

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