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TRAVEL INSIDER

Hotel Face Lifts May Be No More Than Skin Deep

Lodging: A 'renovation' can mean anything from new carpet and drapes to a multimillion-dollar remodel. If it matters to you, ask before reserving.

November 19, 2000|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

A frequent traveler I know always asks a specific question when booking hotel rooms. "Where," he inquires, "is the construction?"

He doesn't ask whether there's construction, because at any busy hotel there's always some rehabilitation, renovation, rebuilding, refreshing or refitting. Once he knows where it is, he books his room accordingly.

This is a good idea. And looking more closely into the world of hotel habiliments--from furniture to carpet to TVs--is a good idea too.

For instance, the next time you consider staying in a hotel that's bragging about a grand "renovation," a few questions may tell you whether this is a transformative effort costing millions or a mere "soft goods" renovation--a replacement of drapes, bedspreads and such that most hotels undertake every five to seven years.

" 'Renovating' to one hotel might mean it changed the carpeting and the bedspreads," said David Sussman, vice president for hotel development design at the San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group. "At another hotel, it might mean $20 million of construction that took a year."

With hotels making so much money these days, "there has been a lot of refurbishment going on," said Robert Mandelbaum, Atlanta-based research director for hotel industry analysts PKF Consulting.

Conversely, delaying renovations may be the first cost-cutting measure by the hotel whose revenues are falling short. Mandelbaum noted that most large hotels spend $4 to $5 on improvements (for instance, new furniture) for every $100 in revenues. Because that spending is more discretionary than are, say, payroll costs, it's often the first place owners and managers look to economize.

Major hotel management chains such as Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt and Sheraton often require that hotel owners commit to a certain level of spending for improvements. When one of those familiar names drops off the hotel marquee, customers should be wary: It could mean the owner is no longer willing to reinvest as much as the management company thinks is necessary.

Another point of comparison for hotel shoppers is the push for creature comforts and technology.

In the last few years, hotel industry veterans say, the standard TV screen has grown from 20 inches to 27. There's buzzing in certain circles about the new 203-room Park Hyatt Chicago on Water Tower Square, which opened June 13 with a 32-inch flat-screen Sony in every bedroom and a 6-inch Sony in every bathroom.

Meanwhile, the telecommunications revolution continues. Kimpton's Sussman estimated that his hotels typically spend $35 for each one-line phone, $80 for two-line phones. To upgrade a 250-room hotel's phones increases the PBX cost by about $100,000, he said. To add high-speed Internet access to the same hotel would run at least $125,000, he said.

Fancy sheets are another subject of heightened competition. For years, Sussman said, sheets with a 180-thread count, 50% cotton and 50% polyester, were "pretty much the staple of the industry," although the priciest hotels used all-cotton sheets with higher thread counts. But lately, several hotels in the three- and four-star category have been buying more all-cotton sheets with finer weaves.

One notable example: Since August 1999, Westin Hotels & Resorts has been pressing a "Heavenly Bed" marketing campaign, which includes a few pages on the hotel chain's Web site (http://www.westin.com). Those pages feature a "Heavenly Bed Locator" pointing to more than 40 Westins in North America that have the new package of pillow-top mattresses, pillows, sheets and comforter. The sheets have thread counts of 180 to 250.

Westin spokeswoman Gretchen Kloke reported that the Westin is pushing to upgrade bedding at its other North American locations (it has 74 in all) and its 45 foreign locations.

Some terms to remember:

* "Soft goods" renovations cover carpeting, bedspreads, seating and fabric and typically are scheduled every three to seven years. (Hotels that specialize in serving leisure travelers and families usually need to schedule these renovations more often, while business-traveler hotels can wait longer between renovations.)

* "Hard goods" renovations cover furniture. Because furniture is more durable than fabric, those renovations are done about once every 15 years.

* When it comes to historic hotels, "restoration" and "preservation" are terms to watch. Restoration, by the U.S. Interior Department's definition, "depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods."

But it can be a slippery term because even projects with hefty restoration elements often include modernization. For instance, the Victorian Hotel del Coronado in San Diego County is about six months from concluding a $55-million "restoration enhancement" campaign.

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