There’s something cathartic about smashing a wall to bits. If you’ve ever watched a TV show about renovations, you’ve likely witnessed the happiness on a homeowner’s face as they wallop a sledgehammer around in an old bathroom, kitchen or bedroom. The art of demolition can be both physically and emotionally invigorating but, let’s get real, it’s a ton of work. Now, take that domestic project and multiply it by 50, 100 or 200 rooms. When a hotel team embarks on major renovations, it’s a massive endeavour; a collaboration of designers, project managers, contractors and trades people, along with hotel staff, working together to create a new space and a new feeling for its clients. Much the same as a home renovation, the results can bring new life and big smiles to a property’s staff and guests.
Unlike refurbishing, which might include new linens and a fresh coat of paint, a major renovation is a serious, sledgehammer-worthy undertaking and hoteliers need to consider how the process will affect the guest experience. Last year, the Radisson Suite Hotel Halifax went full-tilt, undergoing a complete overhaul. When it was purchased by Mississauga, Ont.-based Manga Hotels in mid-2012, the 104-room property hadn’t seen an update in nearly 15 years. “The hotel was stripped down to its shell and rebuilt on the inside, from our pool level on the bottom up to the roof,” says David Clark, GM. The $7.5-million renovation shut down the property for several months — from mid-January to May 2013 — to keep the project on track for completion by peak season this past summer.
“It was a tough decision to close, but it was the right one,” Clark says. “There was so much going on, it would’ve been impossible to have guests on site. When you close, your guests go to your competitors, and you have to win them back when you reopen.” In this case, many loyal corporate clients returned, and special reopening promotions enticed other visitors back to the newly revamped hotel. The renovation included the addition of 16 suites, a spectacular modern lobby and all-new fittings, from drywall and wiring to bathroom and bedroom accoutrements to televisions and teapots. “The response has been fantastic,” enthuses Clark. “The change is so dramatic that guests who’ve stayed here in the past don’t recognize the hotel. People are taken aback by the transformation.”
The hotel will undergo another transformation of sorts this month, when it’s converted from a Radisson property to The Hollis Halifax, a DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel. Clark is excited about the shift and is already looking forward to future renovation plans. “Many hotels in Halifax are in the process of renovating now. You need to stay current and keep up with the competition,” he explains. In three years, Clark envisions new wall coverings, draperies and other high wear-and-tear textiles, followed by replacing hard goods, such as televisions, in five years. “In 10 years, we’ll likely be looking at more major renovations, but I don’t expect to see us stripping the hotel down to the bones again,” he adds. “If you maintain your property well, you don’t get to that point.”
Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York hotel is a prime example of a property that’s been beautifully maintained. The 85-year-old icon remains one of the city’s most popular and luxurious properties, despite the recent appearance of several posh brands in the city, such as The Ritz-Carlton, Trump, Four Seasons and Shangri-La.
Currently in the midst of major renovations, the Royal York remains open for business. “Our operations teams are very focused on delivering the same luxury service to our guests no matter what,” says Edwin Frizzell, GM and regional VP. “We’ve tailored the renovation schedule to ensure a seamless experience. It’s important to discuss time management with project leaders, operational leaders, our director of housekeeping and others to make sure all voices are heard, because what works for one doesn’t always work for the others.”
The $150-million renewal is all encompassing. Nearly 400 rooms are closed for renovations, while this past spring, more than 200 newly renovated luxury rooms on the seventh and eighth floors reopened to guests. By next spring, 900 of the 1,300 rooms will be complete and work will begin on arrival areas, restaurant and lounge spaces, meeting rooms and ballrooms, with all phases finalized by spring 2016. “You have to consider the way noise travels and how you’re going to remove debris,” advises Frizzell, who’s worked on a number of renovation projects at different hotels throughout his career. “All of that must be planned long before you start the work. Often, we’ll build a model room and go through a complete renovation exercise so we can find out about anything that might surprise us. If you fail to plan, you should plan to fail.”
Reduced inventory at the hotel has increased demand, and average room rates have been higher than Frizzell anticipated. “When you invest in your property, and make these major improvements, guests are willing to pay more,” he says. The long-time hotelier explains that renovations at the historic Royal York aren’t about keeping up with the Joneses. “Many lovely new luxury hotels have come to Toronto, but we’re keeping the classic, iconic style that has stood the test of time,” he says. “This renovation will move us into the next era.”
Renovating a hotel requires diligent planning, precise time management and the ultimate attention to detail, so imagine the coordination involved in refreshing an entire brand. In September 2013, Mississauga, Ont.-based Westmont Hospitality Group began its Comfort Inn Revitalization Program, an estimated $45-million investment, which includes a full renovation of 58 hotels by the end of 2014. Guestrooms have been kitted out with new carpeting, wall vinyl, draperies, lighting fixtures, artwork, furniture, mattresses and bedding, as well as flat-screen televisions, ergonomic workspaces, refrigerators and microwaves. The bathroom redesign includes granite-top vanities with new sinks, faucets, mirrors, lights, tiles and showerheads. Lobbies, business areas, corridors and stairwells are being renovated, too, along with exterior enhancements, such as outdoor lighting, landscaping and patios.
“One of the biggest challenges is meeting our timelines,” says Tony Ventresca, Westmont’s senior director of Operations for Western Canada and Ontario. “From an operations’ standpoint, our teams want their properties back so they can start selling again and meet their targets.” During renovations, properties generally schedule about a month of reduced operations. “There are a lot of moving parts,” Ventresca explains. “Project managers, asset managers and general managers are all involved from the planning stage. There are different focuses and budgets at each property, and once the renovations are complete the GM oversees the relaunch program.”
Westmont’s renovation budgets range from $400,000 to $800,000 per property. The Comfort Inn Winnipeg South, for example, was completely remodelled at a cost of about $600,000. Westmont’s Comfort Inn revitalization also includes a new complimentary hot-breakfast program, served in new, dedicated breakfast rooms, of course.“There’s aggressive competition these days, especially in the limited-service environment, and we’re doing everything we can to win loyalty with our guests,” Ventresca says.