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Warning: Renovations May Cause Severe Drowsiness

Hotels: Construction noise or roped-off areas may plague guests as more properties get a face-lift these days.

June 30, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER; Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053; telephone (213) 237-7845

Say you're planning a trip and trying to decide among three hotels. Judging from the guidebook entries and advertising you've seen, they're just about equal. But one is bragging about something extra: It's been renovated just this year. So now you have a winner, right?

Maybe. Renovation is one of those travel-industry words with dangerously elastic definitions. Depending on who's using it, the term can mean anything from an elaborate construction-and-design project to a cursory change of bedspreads, towels and drapes, or perhaps just a bellman leaning an ironing board in the closet and plugging in a coffee pot on a shelf.

Even if a hotel has undertaken a truly major renovation project, there's still potential peril for the unsuspecting guest. An ambitious renovation takes months, often involving disruptive noises and roped-off facilities. But hotels, ever mindful of revenue, are often reluctant to stop renting nearby rooms. Some hotels are careful to warn guests of renovations in progress; some aren't. And among those who make the disclosure, few reduce rates. Result: Every day, many weary travelers wake to the sound of hammers and saws, or discover that a hotel restaurant is closed.

Something like that happened not too long ago, in fact, to frequent traveler Josette Constantino of Heathrow, Fla.

"When you got off the elevator, if you turned left, they were doing renovations. If you turned right, there was my room," she recalls. "All I heard was pounding until about 10 o'clock at night. I finally had to call the front desk and say, 'Enough!' "

If you're a hotelier, you don't want to hear Constantino saying "Enough!" Constantino is the inspections manager for the American Automobile Assn., headquartered in Heathrow. She oversees annual evaluations of 22,000 hotels in 49 states, the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada.

She and other hotel trade insiders suggest that travelers ask a series of questions when they hear the word renovation: Was this strictly a soft-goods upgrade of drapes and beddings and such, or have hard goods, such as furniture, also been replaced? Did the renovation include all guest rooms and public areas? Are all phases of the renovation complete? If not, what hotel services are curtailed?

Now is a good time for those questions. During the recession of the early 1990s, hundreds of North American hotels saved money by slowing their maintenance cycles. Now hotels are reaping record profits; a recent survey by lodging analysis firm PKF Consulting found an "astonishing" 20.5% increase in hotel profits nationwide in 1995. Experts say they see a big surge of reinvestment in renovations large and small.

"Most of what they call 'renovation' in an economy property is really just an update of soft goods--new carpets, new bedspreads and draperies," Constantino warns. To keep guest rooms presentable, industry authorities say, most busy properties need to replace those items at least every three to five years, more frequently for high-end establishments. (Lobbies and other public areas need updating more often.)

Some soft-goods upgrades are merely new orders of the same fabrics and patterns; other involve redesign work. Many hotels make their renovations gradually, working on one floor or wing at a time. The catch there is that fifth-floor guests may find their rooms plush, while sixth-floor customers, paying the same rates, find theirs tired.

Less often, hotels schedule "hard goods" renovations, replacing furniture, wall treatments, televisions, other electronics, and sometimes bathroom fixtures. Bruce Baltin, a vice president at PKF Consulting, says that most hotels from the mid-range and above should be doing hard-goods renovations every seven to 10 years.

Unfortunately, notes Constantino, many hotels "are spending big dollars on things like swimming pools and restaurants, and not doing anything in the guest rooms. In parts of the Midwest and Wyoming, we're still seeing some rooms that are just 1950s. Shag carpet. That's just unacceptable."

Major renovations, the kind that give guests the most pleasant surprises, take place when a new owner or management takes control of a hotel, when the management decides to aim for a more demanding clientele, and sometimes when a hotel chain's officials decide that a new round of investment will boost occupancy and profits in an old property. Since 1990, for instance, Hilton has staged about $250 million in major renovations in Los Angeles (at LAX), Las Vegas, Chicago (at O'Hare airport), San Diego, Portland and Hawaii (at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island).

San Francisco-based hotelier Bill Kimpton has built a West Coast empire through renovation. He finds old buildings, redesigns them from top to bottom, then reopens them as "boutique" hotels, usually with striking design and fewer than 250 rooms. One example is Kimpton's Monaco Hotel near Union Square in San Francisco, a 1910 building that once did business as the Bellevue Hotel, then fell idle for about eight years. Spokeswoman Sara Ledoux says Kimpton and partners bought the formerly "sort of seedy" property in April 1994, spent an estimated $24 million on interior reconstruction and furnishings, and opened in June 1995, with advertised rates beginning at $145 to $170 per night.

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