When Joshua Schwandt stayed at the Queen Mary several years ago, he loved the Art Deco woodwork and the way the Observation Bar oozed an old-timey feel.
He wasn’t as ecstatic about his aging hotel room. The shower only drizzled water, and the bed felt like “one of those dorm room beds that have been slept on for 50 years,” he recalled.
“The ship is just super cool,” the 35-year old human resources worker said. “But I think in this day and age, you just have an expectation of more comfort or class.”
With consumers like Schwandt in mind, the city of Long Beach and a local developer are expected to reveal a privately financed $15-million makeover of the ship Wednesday — part of a larger effort to bring more people to the retired ocean liner and develop the 45 acres adjacent to it.
For the renovations, Los Angeles developer Urban Commons — which took over a long-term lease for the city-owned ship and adjacent land earlier this year — said it wants to give the Queen Mary the luxuries of a boutique hotel, while preserving the feel of a “bygone era.”
Hotel corridors will be rehabbed and larger flat screen TVs and faster WiFi will be added to the 346 state rooms and nine suites. Sofas, mattresses and carpets will be replaced within the rooms and showers upgraded.
The sofas will be in their original Art Deco style and existing night stands, head boards and dressers will be refurbished. Urban Commons is even working with Brintons, a U.K. firm that designed some of the original carpet on-board, to recreate patterns that existed in 1936 when the ship embarked on its maiden voyage.
The rooms, which now average $175 a night, are being spruced up in stages and the hotel will remain open during renovations. The work is expected to start in a few months and wrap up late next year.
“What we will do is greatly enhance the guest experience,” Urban Commons principal Taylor Woods said. “We will stay true to the design, but we will bring a contemporary influence to our renovations.”
The remake will go beyond the rooms and include new entertainment options, in part to attract consumers in the large millennial population.
Details must still be worked out with the city, but Woods said his company wants to put a music club or speak-easy in the boiler room and add amenities to the rear deck, including a cinema and sports area, where tourists could play shuffle board or badminton and wade in a shallow pool.
Near the front of the ship, Urban Commons wants to update the Observation Bar, which originally served as the ship’s first-class lounge, and bring in more musicians, while extending seating onto the deck to create an “indoor-outdoor” experience.
“The Queen Mary is one of our city’s most important and best loved assets,” Mayor Robert Garcia said in a statement. “These renovations are a great opportunity for our downtown and the entire city. We are looking to create an entertainment destination with something for everybody.”
Alan X. Reay, president of Atlas Hospitality Group, said existing hotels are increasingly renovating to remain competitive with new lodgings, which are under construction in Southern California at a record rate.
“Hotels that do not renovate or update are going to have a really hard time in the next three to five years,” he said.
In Urban Commons’ case, “they are [creating] the cruise ship experience without having to sail around down to Mexico,” Reay said. “That will definitely allow them to push rates — no question.”
Woods said the renovations aren’t intended to raise prices, but acknowledged that if they make the Queen Mary more popular, a nightly stay may prove more costly.
Over the last 12 months, the ocean liner has had an occupancy rate of 70%, about 8 percentage points lower than downtown Long Beach, Woods said.
The renovations won’t be the first for the Queen Mary, which presents challenges for upkeep given it is a roughly 80-year-old docked ship — not a concrete hotel tower.
In 2008, a previous leaseholder embarked on renovations that included refurbishing the rooms’ original portholes and adding flat-screen TVs. The ship has been periodically updated since it first came to Long Beach in 1967.
Urban Commons’ remake will be more extensive and is also part of a larger, $250-million plan for the area.
The city is working with the company to develop the 45 acres next to the ship, which today are mostly parking lots. For decades the land has been the site of failed proposals to complement the Queen Mary, including a Disney marine park and a science fiction museum.
But Garcia has said none of those ideas advanced as far as the current partnership with Urban Commons.
The Los Angeles firm envisions an additional hotel, carousel, retail shops, restaurants and a small marina — as well as an amphitheater and giant Ferris wheel.
Formal plans haven’t been submitted to the city and may change, though Woods said he hopes whatever is approved could open in three years.
In the meantime, locals and tourists must be content with an updated Queen Mary.
Schwandt, the former guest, said the coming improvements sound fantastic — especially given a more recent experience he had on board.
Earlier this year, the Irvine resident tried to stay on the ship for a night with his girlfriend. But he said the rooms staff offered him were so dirty that he canceled his stay and decamped for a modern hotel in Huntington Beach.
He recalled thinking he would never again book a room at a place that he loves for its history.
Asked if new beds, showers and more entertainment options might lure him back for a third try, Schwandt changed his mind.
“Absolutely,” he said.
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