Frequent Renovations Essential to Hotel Success : Business: A number of recent refurbishments support the truism that guests may not return if they think an establishment has seen better days.

You’ve probably been confronted with this scene before: After checking into a hotel, you head for your room, open the door and survey the scene. It is not a pretty sight. The room carpet is torn, the bedspread is frayed, the walls look dingy and the bathroom is poorly lighted.

Even if the staff attitude is great and the service is spectacular, the image of a hotel badly in need of renovation remains. As it turns out, the hotel has been open only a few years. You vow never to return.

When it comes to the hotel business--and with apologies to Cole Porter--everything old is not new again. And everything new doesn’t stay that way very long unless a hotel maintains a vigilant and aggressive maintenance schedule.

In the past few years, dozens of major hotels have embarked on substantial--and much-needed--renovation programs.

The Waldorf-Astoria in New York City recently completed a $30-million renovation. The 620-room Regent in Sydney, Australia, is in the middle of a $36-million renovation. The Maui InterContinental Wailea just finished a massive $37-million face lift.


In London, hotel renovation is the name of the game: The Churchill is spending $50 million on refurbishing; the 100-year-old Savoy has completed a five-year, $115-million renovation, and the legendary Dorchester recently reopened after a massive, budget-busting makeover.

Hoteliers say there are basically three cycles in a hotel’s life: refurbishment, basic renovation and complete renovation.

The first cycle can occur in the first three to six years: a refurbishment of furniture, fixtures and equipment, averaging between $8,000 and $12,000 a room.

After about 12 years comes basic renovation, averaging $20,000 per room. Finally, after about 50 years, comes a massive renovation, which can cost upwards of $100,000 per room.

“More often than not, a hotel manager today must begin planning to renovate the hotel almost as soon as it opens,” says Nicholas Rettie, general manager of the Athenaeum in London. “In fact, to run a good hotel, it’s almost inevitable that you have at least one part of the hotel being renovated at any one time.

“If you don’t renovate,” he adds, “your guests will fade as fast as you do.”

“Hotels reach a certain point in their evolution,” says Alan Rose, managing director of the Loews Summit in New York City, “where the wear and tear begins to show and is in direct proportion to the drop-off in guests. If you don’t anticipate that moment and deal with it immediately, you’re in trouble. Word of mouth that a hotel has seen better days will kill you, and it may take years to recover your guests or attract new ones.”

The Summit, the first new hotel built in New York City after World War II, opened in 1961. It recently completed a $26-million renovation. “We didn’t just put new furniture in the rooms,” says Rose. “We concentrated on things guests don’t see, like water pressure, soundproofing, fire safety and other important maintenance items.”

Indeed, the key to a great hotel often can be found in how that hotel defines its own maintenance program. A great hotel anticipates, not just reacts to, normal wear and tear, and reacts quickly to unusual situations.

An example is the luxury Regent hotel in Hong Kong.

The Regent recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. But the hotel looks virtually brand-new. “It is not a case of restoration or renovation,” says Rudy Greiner, president of Regent Hotels (and until recently general manager of the Regent), “but of a sound plan of ongoing maintenance. “

Many hotels wait five years to replace curtains, carpets, upholstery and wallpaper. BUT Greiner keeps on duty an in-house staff of carpenters, cabinet makers and handymen. On any given day they are replacing torn wallpaper, repainting ceilings and regrouting the tile work in showers and tubs.

The Regent maintenance program COMES WITH a hefty price. Most hotels spend about 4% of their room revenue on basic maintenance. The Regent spends about 9%.

On the flip side, if hotels aren’t careful, the ongoing renovation process can be disruptive for guests.

When the Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel in San Diego recently began a $12-million renovation, General Manager Larry Saward worried about the construction intrusions at the 710-room structure, especially when it was time for the $2-million upgrade of fire safety systems.

“There was no avoiding unsightly scaffolding, platforms and noise,” Saward says. In an attempt to counter the problems, arriving guests received a magnifying glass and an invitation to inspect the hotel’s work.

Guests who used their magnifying glasses and found special “clues,” and returned them to the front desk, were rewarded with 50% discount vouchers for their next stay at the hotel.

Sometimes renovations require a complete shutdown of a hotel.

The 693-room Hyatt Union Square in San Francisco was closed for two months and nearly stripped down to a concrete shell for its $20-million spruce-up. When it reopened, it had a new name: Grand Hyatt San Francisco.

And on Manhattan’s Central Park South, the 58-year-old Essex House closed its doors on New Year’s Eve in 1989 for a 15-month, $55-million renovation.

Just a few weeks ago, the Dorchester hotel, a London landmark since 1931, reopened after a two-year renovation that could only be called a landmark itself.

The nearly $125-million project involved renovating everything without altering the hotel’s design.

“It was an incredible challenge,” reports Ricci Obertelli, the hotel’s general manager. All new plumbing, ducting and wiring, new state-of-the-art kitchens, elevators and 30 fewer rooms doesn’t begin to describe the attention to detail and the restoration of the original design.

Discontinued textile patterns were commissioned for carpets and furniture, marble was imported for the spacious (and functional) bathrooms, and nearly 60% of the original fixtures and furniture were repaired and restored.

Still, in some cases, hotel renovation is more a case of ego than necessity.

In New York City, the upscale Stanhope was expensively renovated and refurbished each time ownership changed hands, whether it needed it or not.

At one point, the 64-year-old building was called the American Stanhope, and was furnished with early Americana.

When it was next purchased, the rooms were elaborately redesigned and renovated to accommodate a Louis XVI style: baccarat crystal, mahogany, antique furniture, marble floors, rich tapestries and artwork.

The renovation was so costly that in 1988 the hotel declared bankruptcy. A year later, it was purchased by the Tobishima Corp. of Japan.

“And, believe it or not,” says Guenter Richter, managing director of the Stanhope, “we are about to embark on another renovation to bring this from a four-star to a five-star hotel, without going bankrupt in the process.”

One of the traditional hotel renovation cycles is the refurbishment of public rooms. This often takes place before work is done to guest rooms.

A good rule of thumb: If a hotel boasts that it has just undergone a major renovation, find out if the renovation extended beyond the first or second floor.

Reducing the number of rooms also is often a major part of renovation. When Georg Rafael took over the old Madison Avenue Hotel in New York City to transform it into The Mark, the extensive $34-million renovation left 182 rooms from an original 330.

In Pittsburgh, Westin has poured untold millions into renovating the 74-year-old William Penn Hotel, which first opened in 1916 with 1,000 rooms (and now has 595).

And in Cleveland, Stouffer spent $35 million renovating the Tower City Plaza Hotel as part of a five-year program. The renovation was long overdue. The original 1,000-room hotel, which opened in 1918, now has just 500 rooms.

“You don’t want to change for the sake of change,” says the Dorchester’s Obertelli, “or incorporate a new design simply because it is new. You want to make everything functional and luxurious without hurting the essence of what made this a great hotel in the first place.”