To build or not to build? That is the question that has weighed on the minds of many hoteliers over the last few years as COVID, inflation, supply-chain issues and the labour shortage continue to disrupt new development. As a result, many owners have shifted their focus onto renovating and re-branding existing properties.
“Rather than solely focusing on new builds, [these challenges have] forced developers and designers to appreciate the beauty of dormant assets that just need some TLC,” says Alessandro Munge, founder and design director of Studio Munge in Toronto. “A quick fix may sometimes work, but sometimes a ‘surgical’ design intervention is needed to fundamentally re-balance a project and ensure that it will behave more effectively and purposefully.”
Given the Choice
Graham Marsh, national director, Franchise Development at Choice Hotels Canada, says the brand has always been active in both new builds and conversions. Of the 68 hotels it opened since 2019, however, 58 were conversions. “Earlier in the pandemic, we shifted our strategic efforts to conversion growth,” says Marsh. “We saw an increase in hotels that were looking to make a change due to the circumstances, and some moved over to us to maximize the brand opportunities we have.”
He says the constant shut-downs and delays that impacted new development, combined with financing issues and weak feasibility studies, added up to time and money. Conversion opportunities provided a more cost-effective, time-sensitive and advantageous alternative.
Larry Traxler, senior vice-president, Global Design, Hilton, agrees. “Renovating an existing property is typically the preferred avenue. From a financial standpoint, it is certainly a lot easier to secure loans for renovations than it is for new builds. Not to mention the initial investment needed to secure new land and kick-off construction is significantly higher for a new build than for a renovation. Also, renovations are often quicker to market since you are working with an existing building and a brand that may already be a known entity.”
Functions and Features
Traxler says Hilton’s 2023 Trends Report highlighted a “hybridization” of hotel spaces. As travel returned and guest preferences shifted, so too did the brand’s focus. “Providing flexibility in lobbies and guestrooms allows for a multitude of uses when it comes to accommodating different types of travellers,” he says.
The report also found that wellness was more important than ever. Hilton responded by installing more stationary bikes in fitness centres, as well as “suite shops” that replaced high-calorie foods such as soda, chips and cookies with dried fruit, kombucha and organic frozen meals.
Traxler says some Hilton properties are also moving towards a more residential ethos and relaxed, lifestyle-oriented spaces. “Some of our focused-service brands, for example, are embracing ‘lifestyle-creep’ [through] curated gallery walls and locally inspired murals. Also, our hotels are incorporating ‘biophilia’ by bringing the outside in, which we envision is here to stay.”
Marsh says some of the shared features among their renovated properties include re-configured common areas due to spacing considerations, as well as a renewed focus on guestrooms for those who choose to spend more time there. “While the comfort of beds used to be the main concern of guests, now it is the strength of Wi-Fi, [the number of] charging stations for multiple devices, and lighting. Also, guests are using stairwells more, so consideration is being made when renovating with respect to safety, lighting, and carpeting to make the stairways more inviting and accessible.”
Munge, whose studio recently completed an extensive renovation of the Park Hyatt Toronto, and revitalized Pendry Chicago in the heritage Carbide & Carbon building, says he’s focused more on timelessness rather than trends. “We isolate elements that can be preserved, saving time, money and, most importantly, natural resources, such as beautiful stone counters, mosaic floors or wood crown moldings.”
Take it outside
Outdoor spaces, too, continue to be re-assessed and re-imagined. Marsh says designers have incorporated multi-season patio areas into existing properties featuring casual seating, fireplaces and covered areas. Jon McGinn, executive vice-president of Chamberlain Architect Services Ltd in Burlington, Ont., sees the same. “Similar to Europe, where people have coffee on a patio in the middle of January, there are opportunities to install more heaters, gas lines and fire pits [which increase] food-and-beverage sales.”
Munge says he prioritizes a fluid guest experience between indoors and out. “Soft and hard landscaping, even indoors, have been great tools to drive that connection,” he says, citing his design of the Edition Residences Miami Edgewater, where lush planters bring nature indoors. “Retractable bi-fold glass partitions are another great tool we’ve used on rooftops like Westlight at The William Vale in New York and [Toronto’s] Kost at the Bisha Hotel to connect guests with the local environment.”
With most indoor gathering restrictions lifted, many hoteliers are revitalizing those spaces to draw people in. “Projects we’re working on are trying to get people back in the lobbies,” says McGinn. “People don’t want to sit in their room, they want to sit in the bar with other people. They feel they’ve spent two years in their homes, they want to get out and do things. It’s re-creating that active lobby, or extended foodservice beyond breakfast. Hoteliers are [contemplating offerings] in the evening hours — snacks, finger foods [to serve] in the lobbies where people can gather with a glass of wine at the end of the day.”
Munge agrees. “We’re witnessing a renewed interest in social spaces; people want to get together and have fun.”
Renovations and re-furbishments have also provided the opportunity for brands to incorporate more sustainable aspects into their designs. “Increasingly, corporate, government and leisure guests want to see specific initiatives from our hotels on environmental programs related to water conservation, energy efficiency, carbon emissions and waste reduction,” says Marsh.
To that end, he says Choice’s ESG strategy centres on people, planet and purpose, i.e., how to take care of people, how to be good stewards of the planet’s valuable resources, and how to foster a shared purpose that benefits all its stakeholders. “For example, we are working towards broader accreditation of the Green Key Global initiative. And many initiatives are already making a difference, including low-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads, LED lighting, EV charging stations and the elimination of single-use plastics. Owners are also incorporating green spaces into their design and considering solar panels, run-off water management and other sustainable practices.”
Those other practices include sourcing from local communities, as Munge did for Muir, Autograph Collection in Halifax. “We designed an entire furniture collection . . . locally manufactured in Canada by expert craftsmen,” he says.
For their part, Traxler says the newly opened Hotel Marcel New Haven, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, is anticipated to be the first net-zero hotel in the U.S. “It was designed to give power back to the grid by featuring a power-over-ethernet lighting system that reduces lighting energy use by more than 30 per cent and re-purposed building materials throughout, such as light fixtures and restored wood-paneled walls in suites. In addition, the hotel utilizes renewable solar power sources on site to generate the electricity needed for its common areas, restaurant, laundry, meeting rooms and 165 guestrooms and suites.”
Renos for Re-set
Marsh says there are many advantages to renovating and re-branding. “The scope of renovations can vary greatly depending on brand standards, with some properties requiring more renovations than others. Re-branding can offer a property a “re-set” opportunity and a chance to reposition itself. Renovations can also be undertaken in a tighter timeframe than new-build projects and can realize a more dramatic, immediate impact and therefore a greater upside.
“But in the end, no matter the quality of the construction, no matter how well-appointed and comfortable the hotel is, the ultimate success of the property is largely attributable to the recognition and execution of attentive, accommodating, and memorable customer service,” says Marsh.
BY ROBIN ROBERTS