Renovations and refurbishment projects are a constant consideration for hoteliers. And, while most renovations can be completed while the hotel remains operational, sometimes it’s simply not practical or possible.
Making the decision to close a hotel for a reno is not easy. The impact such a move stands to have on staff, guest loyalty and, of course, the hotel’s bottom line is significant. In the case of the three hotels cited below, the potential rewards were deemed worth the risk.
Because its business is fairly seasonal, the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, B.C. actually shuts down for a month every year to focus on property-improvement projects. That said, even with these scheduled shutdowns, by 2012, the independent hotel’s Pointe Building had reached a stage where it required a design overhaul. As Charles McDiarmid, the property’s managing director, explains, the inn was in the midst of a four-year downturn by 2011. He saw this as the perfect opportunity to refresh the 12-year-old guestrooms. “I believed business would pick up and we wanted to position ourselves so that when business did return, we were ready for it,” he explains. “In 2011 we made the decision and we had a full year to plan. I would say having the time to plan ahead is critical in something like this. It allows for you to do certain things that just aren’t open to you on a shorter-term basis,” such as sourcing unique design items and having tradesmen lined up to complete the task.
The Pointe Building renovations were not a small undertaking. Not only were all 45 of the building’s guestrooms taken down to the studs, but all of its public spaces, patios/balconies and exterior siding were also redone, as were The Pointe Restaurant and Ancient Cedars Spa it houses.
The bulk of the $2.2 million project was completed during a six-week period, with 24 rooms remaining closed through the first two weeks of March 2012. McDiarmid says being shut down for the initial six weeks of the project had considerable benefits — namely expediency. “The great thing [about shutting down] is that we can also be more efficient about the project. We can put supplies right up to the front door without worrying about guests coming and being impacted. You can work 24/7 if you need to and we did.”
THE QUEEN ELIZABETH
In most cases, it takes more than a couple of months to complete a property-wide overhaul. A prime example can be found in Montreal’s Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth, which closed in June of 2016 and is set to reopen on June 30, 2017. “We’re taking that which was done 50 years ago and propelling it into the future in a modernistic style,” explains David Connor, GM of Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth and Regional VP for Eastern Canada for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. “It’s important to understand that this is not a renovation…This is bigger; it’s a transformation — it’s really transforming the property into what we think the future will be.”
In order to realize the vision of this $140-million transformation, extensive structural changes are being made to the building, including reducing the room count and adding a 22nd floor with an atrium. “You would not be able to do this effectively in an operating hotel,” Connor says mater-of-factly.
A project of this magnitude requires meticulous planning, especially when considering the impact such a large property’s closure has on guests/customers and employees alike. To ensure a smooth transition through the transformation period, a high level of communication and transparency was needed. “The commitment to all our colleagues by ownership was that we would be closed for a year — not a day longer than that,” says Connor. “We sat down with [staff] right from the start and we wanted to make sure we were transparent.”
Employees were offered the opportunity to be temporarily relocated to other area hotels, while the transition team has “stayed very close with our major meeting planners and our major business travel buyers just to let them know that we are super excited to welcome them and their associates back,” Connor notes. Though he hadn’t joined the hotel yet when it closed in 2016, Connor says he has heard great praise for how things were handled.
National Hotel & Suites
In a few rare cases, employees and customers do not play as great a role when making the decision to close a hotel. In the case of the former National Hotel & Suites in downtown Ottawa, the property’s owner, Morguard Corporation, chose to close and rebrand the hotel in 2013 following the expiration of Westmont Hospitality Group’s lease on the space. As Sanjay Rateja, VP of Hotels and North American Residential REIT, Morguard, explains, this meant no employee or customer relationships for the company to maintain, as the previous staff were Westmont employees and the re-opened hotel would be a wholly different product than the existing unbranded hotel.
Following the closure, Morguard explored a variety of options for the rebranding. The company enlisted the services of PKF Consulting (since acquired by CBRE) to perform a market study to help determine the best fit for the location.
Determining the best future use for the property was not a straight line. In 2015, Morguard filed a proposal to replace the site’s two existing towers with two new buildings — a 27-storey, 303-unit hotel and 23-storey condo tower. However, this plan was ultimately scrapped. “By the time we priced it and budgeted it out, it was just a very, very expensive product,” explains Rateja.
Ultimately, the company decided to convert the existing hotel to a dual-branded Hilton product featuring Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites brands. “The conclusion was that there would be a perfect fit for a mixed-use [hotel] — an extended-stay and a transient,” says Rateja. “There is so much Marriott product in downtown Ottawa and Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites are Hilton brands that did not have much presence [in the city].” Though it was a long road to making the final brand decision, Morguard is already receiving accolades for the project. Last fall, the proposed $30-million project was recognized by Hilton with the inaugural Best Conversion for Dual Brand award. “We spent pretty much a year last year getting all the brand approvals — the design, the interior design and the architectural approval. Everything has been approved and stamped and we actually started construction March 1,” Rateja says, noting that the next step will be to bring in the pre-opening team later this year, in order to prepare for a spring 2018 opening.