Checking ‘Inn’

Nov. 4, 2004
Modernization is a must to interest today’s lodging guests
The drive for new construction in the hotel industry is cooling, but don’t look for it to flatline. Activity is alive and quietly thriving. New hotels continue to go up, but much current construction activity can be found in renovations; particularly in updating tired properties built in the late-1980s and through the mid-1990s. “Rehabilitation” and “reflagging” are the buzzwords in today’s hospitality construction market. Modernization is a must to continue to interest today’s lodging guests – a coterie of tough customers.“There’s been a downturn in the economy for the last number of years,” says James Heath, acting design director at Design Force in Denver. “There’s a lot more reuse and mixed-use construction, and much more renovation than new. We’re also finding more phased construction where we’re working on a project in increments.” The Boom Goes BustThe economic boom of the 1990s spurred new hotel construction. Thanks to improving hotel performance that began in 1994 and 1995, according to HVS International San Francisco’s Hotel Development Cost Survey 2003, hotel projects began hitting the drawing boards like crazy.“As would be expected, the first projects to be built were economy/budget and limited-service hotels in markets with low barriers to entry,” notes survey author Elaine Sahlins, a director at HVS. Projects became more elaborate between 1996 and 2000; however, due to various developmental issues – including environmental concerns, financing challenges, and changing market conditions – many of these hotels are only now being realized.“Our industry is in the waning years of a hotel development cycle that effectively ramped up with the economic recovery in the mid-1990s,” Sahlins writes in the report, which was released at the end of 2003, and provides the updated per-room development costs from 2002.That’s not to say the development landscape is bleak. In its Quarterly Lodging Development Forecast and Trends Report for second-quarter 2004, Portsmouth, NH-based Lodging Econometrics reported increases in the construction pipeline for a second consecutive quarter, signaling that a new construction cycle has begun. The report shows that the total new construction pipeline increased by 48 projects and 9,090 rooms in the second quarter, with a total increase for the first two quarters of 116 projects and 19,186 rooms.“Development projects will be on a much faster track in the next few years,” says Patrick Ford, president, Lodging Econometrics. He explains that developer confidence has vastly improved in the first half of 2004, spurring this current growth. These early increases in new guestroom supply are modest and won’t be coming online for another 2 years, the report predicts. “Projects are being announced today that will not affect supply until 2006 or beyond,” Ford says. At press time, a report for third-quarter 2004 was not yet available.In August, the Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel & Lodging Association released its biennial Lodging Survey which polls all properties in the United States with 20 or more hotel rooms. Out of nearly 48,000 hotels contacted via fax or e-mail, more than 2,150 responded.When queried about major structural renovation activities completed in the past 12 months, 11 percent reported they completed such work, particularly in the luxury segment. Nine percent of survey respondents also reported to be planning major structural renovations in the next 12 months.Twenty-five percent of respondents indicated they had completed some kind of furniture, fixture, and equipment (FF&E) upgrade at their properties in the past year, with the highest response in the luxury and upper-upscale segments. Twenty-seven percent say they plan renovations in this area within the next 12 months. A notable 50 percent of respondents in the upper-upscale category reported that they plan to spend money on FF&E upgrades in the next year. Architects say their drawing boards confirm these numbers. “We’re seeing the bulk of our work in renovations,” says Jonathan F. Douglas, managing principal at Orlando, FL-based architectural firm VOA Associates.Douglas says VOA is in the midst of six different hotel renovations. Plus, the firm is doing two ground-up hotels as part of a large development project out of its Chicago office. But the bulk of the project work in the Southeast is renovations, he says. “The industry is repositioning and upgrading hotel properties in order to recapture loyal customers who now require a higher level of aesthetics,” Douglas notes.Focus on IndividualityWhether the project is new construction or renovation, a common thread exists. Guests are savvier about design and amenities, both in their rooms and in public areas. Up-to-date facilities are a must for marketing rooms to a customer base that’s watching the proverbial purse strings in a tight economy. Cookie-cutter is out. Luxurious and comfortable is in.“There’s more emphasis on differentiation in the marketplace,” Douglas says. “Take the Starwood Properties, for example. They are moving into lifestyle branding. Sheraton now has five different room designs based on location: metropolitan, Palm Beach, Aspen, for example. Retailers have been doing this for years – Ralph Lauren, J.Crew, Gap.”Consider InterContinental Hotels Group’s (IHG’s) new Hotel Indigo, which the UK-based company unveiled in April. Hotel Indigo reflects this commentary on hospitality’s new retail-like approach to design and marketing. The new hotel brand caters to the traveler seeking a hotel experience, not just a hotel room, according to the company’s corporate affairs department. According to IHG, consumers want to stay somewhere that reflects who they are and their varied interests. They also want an environment that changes with them and for them. Hotel Indigo delivers those needs.Based on a retail service model, IHG took a unique approach to hotel design. The hotel is said to provide “a true balance of color and tranquility in its design, a retailer’s approach to service, and the flexibility to refresh the hotel décor continually so that guests feel welcomed, relaxed, and renewed after each visit.”“Hotel Indigo fills a critical gap in our industry right now by addressing middle-market consumers who are ‘trading up’ to higher levels of quality and taste, but still seeking value,” says Richard North, chief executive, InterContinental Hotels Group, in a prepared statement. “Defined more by a lifestyle than a price point, Hotel Indigo is our answer to travelers who desire an experience as much as a destination.”The brand is developed primarily for conversions and is designed to fit a variety of markets in preferred locations where a hotel might not be reaching its full potential. At press time, the first Hotel Indigo was set to open in Atlanta in October and will have approximately 140 rooms with rates averaging approximately $100 per night.  A second Hotel Indigo is expected to open in Chicago during 2005.Breaking Out of Brand BanalityBeyond new brands, this sense of individuality is springing up even in familiar-name chains with strict design requirements. A new construction project at Design Force has designers facing the challenge of meeting corporate design standards but also creating a distinct identity for the property – the new JW Marriott at Cherry Creek in Denver. Being a Marriott property, the architects and designers obviously had to work with a set of standards. But the days of cookie-cutter interiors in Marriott properties have ended, they say.“They have strict and extensive standards. Marriott has a look of its own, but the look can be modified and tweaked to some degree,” Heath says. So tweaking the designers did. “The scale of the public spaces [has] a much more intimate feeling,” says Kristen Spivey, senior interior designer at Design Force. “Your ceilings are at a more intimate scale. We also paid more attention to finish details and used high-end materials.”Throughout the facility, designers paid great attention to detail. Oil paintings and photographs from local artists adorn the walls. Local metalworkers fabricated staircase railings and metal gates. “Custom items help guests know it’s not so cookie-cutter,” Heath says.This focus on detail also translated into the guestroom design. Oversized rooms aren’t sterile and institutional. While they meet required Marriott standards, they don’t look like another Marriott room in another state. Individuality rules. The bathrooms are a perfect example, the Design Force team notes. “Some bathrooms in guestrooms make you feel like you’re in a closet,” Heath points out.The Design Force team created custom vanities that look more like a piece of furniture rather than the standard unit with a granite top. The wooden piece has legs and a shelf, very much like a piece of furniture – a living room console table, perhaps. Underneath, the designer incorporated imported baskets for towels and guest toiletries. The rooms also feature separate tubs and stall showers, an increasing trend in new hotel design and existing bathroom renovations, architects say.Lighting also played a key role. Gone are the days of glaring, buzzing fluorescent lighting in hotel bathrooms; particularly at the more upscale levels. The old lighting is simply unappealing. While fluorescent is still the standard, the designers were able to install fluorescent lighting that mimics incandescent lighting. They also incorporated incandescent wall sconces on either side of the mirror. “The combination gives a nice warm glow,” Spivey says. “We also incorporated a make-up mirror with double magnification into the bathroom wall. You can pull it out.”Guest Demands Drive DesignVOA’s Douglas says a guest’s reaction to a space is a critical component to design. “We look at it in terms of the emotional, physical, and intellectual response guests have to any property,” he says. “It all comes back to the guest experience.”Today’s guest experience covers the gamut of room features. It used to be that a decent mattress, a pillow with enough stuffing to lay one’s head, and a working television made road-weary guests content. Not so today. Modern travelers are savvy. They know what they want, and what they want is something like home – but better: like home with the office mixed in.“The challenge is to provide them with all of the comforts of home, but also with the conveniences of the office, too, and having them mix nicely,” Heath says. “You have to allow the guest to use the room in a multitude of ways.” It’s more than a spacious desk, a comfy bed with a nice comforter, turndown service, and designer chocolates on the pillows – although all of those amenities are important. Guests demand quality and convenience in every aspect of the room. They want more working space. More lounging space. They want high-speed Internet access (preferably free) and entertainment systems complete with CD and DVD players and high-definition and plasma televisions. They even want user-friendly, controllable HVAC systems that run with little or no noise.At the JW Marriott at Cherry Creek, designers paid attention to electronics, adding such things as a simple push-button control box for the air unit; ports for Internet connections in logical locations; adjustable lighting; and even clock radios with large, easy-to-use buttons. “We find lots of guests fiddle with the electronics,” Heath says.As small as they might seem, such features make a property memorable. And memorable is what brings them back for repeat stays. “You want guests to know it’s a great property,” Douglas says. “You want them to feel they are getting an above-average return on their money spent, and you want them to know the property wants them to come back again. You don’t want to lose a happy client.”Robin Suttell ([email protected]), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.It’s All About the BedAt long last, hoteliers have realized that nothing gets a well-traveled guest more excited about a hotel than a good night’s sleep in a big, soft, comfortable bed. Forget swaybacked mattresses and flat, lifeless pillows. Say goodbye to flimsy, polyester bedspreads in ugly prints.Thanks to Barry Sternlicht, chairman and chief executive officer of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., properties across the globe have a hard act to follow. Sternlicht has spent the past 6 years revolutionizing the humble hotel bed on a grand scale. When he launched Starwood’s W Hotels in 1998, he modeled the brand’s bed after his own bed at home. But that was just the beginning. In 1999, Sternlicht scrapped all of the old beds at Westin Hotels and introduced the Westin Heavenly Bed®. “I’ve always been somewhat astounded by how little hotel companies invest in their beds, considering that our primary product is a good night’s sleep,” Sternlicht says.The plush, all-white Heavenly Bed consists of: A custom-designed pillowtop mattress set by Simmons with 900 individual coils.Three sheets – ranging in thread count from 180 to 250.A down blanket – three versions for three different climates.A comforter and a crisp white duvet.Five goosedown/goose feather pillows. The concept works. Shortly after introducing the bed in 1999, guests ranked the comfort of the bed at 8.96 out of 10 in an internal Westin guest loyalty and satisfaction survey. This year, the score climbed to an impressive 9.19 and is the brand’s highest-rated guest satisfaction score.“The Heavenly Bed and our other Heavenly in-room products have created a halo effect on the entire Westin guest experience,” says Sue Brush, senior vice president for Westin Hotels & Resorts. The halo extends to Starwood’s Sheraton brand as well. Bolstered by the success of Westin’s bed, Sheraton rolled out its own bed – the Sheraton Sweet Sleeper BedSM in September 2003. The multi-layered bed features an 11.5-inch thick, high-coil-count Sealy Posturepedic® Plush Top mattress, down and allergy-sensitive pillows, and crisp cotton sheets. The beds feature a selection of duvet patterns, including tattersall checks, houndstooth, and pinstripes in rich colors.By the end of this year, all Sheraton hotels will feature the Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Bed, totaling more than 70,000 rooms in 200 hotels.

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