Budgets have been tight, but hotelier are finding room for renos again.

Hammers have been swinging and dust has been flying.” Dan Mc- Cowan, general manager of The Fairmont Palliser in Calgary, isn’t kidding. A certain amount of controlled chaos is the new norm at the hotel, where a massive renovation project is underway.

So far, $8.2 million has been spent. More specifically, 127 guestrooms — three entire floors — have been refurbished, the bathrooms completely tripped and refinished, the main corridors redone. Another two floors of rooms are under construction, with a new lounge and even more gold-premium rooms added to the inventory. And, those are just phases one and two; by the time the project is completed in 2014, all of the guestrooms and some of the public spaces will be renovated, refreshing the 96-year-old hotel and adjusting the suite count from 405 to 407.

If you ask McGowan, it’s a huge, but necessary, undertaking. Renovations like these are simply good business, he says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the guest’s needs. Guests are looking for a better experience,” McGowan adds. “And, it’s just simply time to make these changes. We know in our very competitive market the majority of the players have already done so.”

Renovations are an ongoing cost of business for hoteliers. Whether simply keeping up with the wear and tear of age and use, converting an old hotel to new brand standards or modernizing to meet changing guest expectations, hotel operators such as those at the Fairmont Palliser know investing in renovations is a priority. Although the recession tightened purse strings, causing some hoteliers to delay renovation investments, today’s economy is causing many to reassess property needs.

But where should priorities lie, what renovations make the biggest impression and how should hoteliers invest their capital improvement cash?

Bathrooms, if you ask Amy Hulbert, go a long way. A newly renovated washroom can make a great impression, says the director of Design for Best Western. Just as Fairmont Palliser’s bathrooms were fully updated — with marble floors and vanities — Best Western has changed certain bathroom requirements recently, too, as part ofoverall aesthetic guidelines. “It’s an area every guest uses,” Hulbert says.

What kinds of standards are guests expecting these days? First of all, say goodbye to laminate or cultured marble countertops. Best Western, for one, no longer allows them, and many of its hotel owners are renovating to install granite or quartz instead. After all, such materials have become the norm in many residential homes, and guests expect them when they travel, too. “There are so many great options on the market now,” says Hulbert. “If owners haven’t addressed  them yet, they’re the top priority.”

The economic downturn has meant some hotel owners have been slow to invest in renovations in recent years, Hulbert adds, but now many are starting to feel more positive and are beginning to spend again. In general, Best Western suggests refurbishing guestrooms every 10 years and doing public space renovations approximately every seven years. Those timelines will vary, depending on overall traffic and public space use. But, how an hotelier executes those renovations can vary from location to location. “Every hotel approaches renovations a little differently — some put a little of their revenues aside every year and invest in the property by doin small projects — and some like to save up and undergo a complete renovation less frequently,” Hulbert says.

Of course, for those converting an existing hotel to Best Western brand standards, a complete renovation is often the only route available, unless you want to build from scratch. In fact, before the recession, Hulbert was seeing more new-build hotels coming into their product count, while today conversion hotels make up the bulk of their new inventory — a less expensive option in most cases. For a hotel’s descriptor to change from Best Western to Best Western Plus, for example, those renovations can be pretty extensive. “Our team that does compliance reviews will go out and tell them exactly what they have to do to meet our requirements. And, that acts as a checklist for them,” says Hulbert.

Designers at the Toronto-based Skyline Hotels & Resorts will soon learn the challenges of renovating a newly acquired hotel to bring it up to company standards. In March, the company took ownership of Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville. While plans for the property are still in the works, and the full extent of changes are undecided, “soft” renovations are scheduled for the hotel’s Pavilion guestrooms in its main lodge. There, the case goods will be reconfigured  and the bathrooms updated with new fixtures, wallpaper and tiles. “That’s our first blush at Deerhurst. That’s the thing I know we’re going to do,” says Kevin Toth, Skyline’s president and chief operating officer.

But, that’s not all Skyline has coming down the pipe. Company execs have an investment policy that sees them having rooms renovated every six to eight years, at the very least. “It seems like it’s continuous,” Toth jokes. At The Inn at Horseshoe, outside of Barrie, Ont., they’re in the midst of revamping one-third of the property’s 90 guestrooms. The rooms “were ready to be renovated,” says Toth, and Skyline has put half-a-million dollars into the project. It will include a bathroom update, which will mean replacing the tub/showers with stand-alone showers, adding in new granite and marble surfaces, updating the soft and hard goods and replacing the windows. “Our clients are looking for a higher level of product at Horseshoe,” Toth says.

Skyline is updating 14 spa suites at the Pantages Hotel in Toronto, modernizing the kitchenette facilities with marble countertops and vented convection ovens and upgrading the bathrooms to meet guest expectations. Last year, the company renovated the public spaces and approximately 20 rooms in Toronto’s five-year-old Cosmopolitan Hotel, updating the bathrooms to granite countertops, for example. Finally, Skyline is a co-owner of the historic King Edward Hotel in Toronto — with partners Dundee Realty Corporation, Alex Shnaider and Serruya Realty Group Inc.—where a “massive revitalization” is expected to occur, although exact plans for those changes are yet to be finalized. “In our properties there’s a quality expectation an our goal is to meet and exceed those expectations,” concludes Toth.

As is the case with many hoteliers, renovations are just another facet of Skyline’s mandate to provide a superior guest experience. Still, as much as hotel owners want to keep up their renovation needs as soon as they notice them, most have budgets to consider, and it’s not always feasible to do everything at once. Prioritizing renovation investments is key, Toth advises. “We try to listen to our colleagues and our guests and, based on their feedback, try to make our renovation investments accordingly.”


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