Lots of people want to stay in a new hotel, but nobody wants to get stuck in one that's renovating. Unfortunately, the two go hand in hand.
On a recent trip to Charlotte, I ended up in a hotel undergoing a massive renovation -- a ripping-out-the-walls, tearing-up-the-floors style renovation. The hotel is the Blake, one of Charlotte's largest, and general manager Jerry Anderson (who has renovated five hotels in his time) gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of what goes into reinventing a hotel.
Even classic hotels need periodic renovations to stay fresh. Changing tastes demand that hotels get major upgrades every 10 years or so -- and if you wait 15 or 20 years, you'll be "dead in the water," Anderson said.
At the Blake, that means ripping out restaurants, pools, carpets, walls and sinks; "replacing just about everything" in a hotel that was last updated in 1989. Some of the changes are big and visible, like dropping in a new spa with a juice bar and rock-climbing wall, or installing a new pool with cabanas. Some are more subtle, but just as appreciated -- like having many more electrical outlets in the room, and putting them at an accessible height, for modern gadgets.
"Twenty years ago, outlets were supposed to be hidden," Anderson said.
Out go small tubs. In go "rain showerheads." Out goes a cheap family restaurant with steam trays. In goes a steakhouse.
Out go old designs. In go new designs, again, and again, and again. When you're doing a ground-up renovation, designers set up a sample room so the management can check out the new style, Anderson says. Managers critique the room, tear it out, and keep putting it together until it's right. Only then are they willing to commit to designing hundreds of rooms that way.
All of these changes take lots of time, and millions of dollars. Even just cleaning and painting the outside of the hotel building took a month, Anderson said.
And you have to keep the hotel open the whole time, so you're still bringing in cash. At the Blake, that means renovating a floor at a time and closing nearby floors for buffers. At the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, which finished a $187 million, four-year renovation in January, that meant doing the work in the off season, when the hotel wasn't full, said said Bob Pfeffer, the resort's marketing director.
The Marco Island resort moved one of their pools, transformed another into a "fantasy pool," added a ballroom and a spa and renovated the rooms. But a lot of the most expensive changes aren't visible to tourists, Pfeffer said.
"We put in hurricane-proof glass, four inches thick, in all the guest room windows," Pfeffer said. "Our 25-year-old HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) needed to be upgraded. In our laundry facilities, we added a lot of green-type equipment, and we don't outsource our laundry," he said.
At the Blake, they had to custom-build a new boiler in the boiler room, Anderson said.
"The first things you have to do are mechanical: roofs, boilers, water, cooling and heating systems," Anderson said.
Making The Best of Renovations
Maybe you got stuck in a hotel being renovated. Maybe you even might want to seek one out. The Blake, which is walking distance from Charlotte attractions and has spacious rooms with iPod docks, is a great deal for as low as $129, provided you can work around the work being done.
"We are more than a $129 hotel, and we certainly will be more than that once we finish the product," Anderson said.
Even if you can't get a discount on the room rate, sometimes other pluses come with renovations.
"Instead of dropping our room prices, we gave everyone a $50/day resort credit," Pfeffer said. And the Blake now throws a "manager's reception" every evening, with free drinks.
"Since the product's not there yet, we try to give services," Anderson said.
But keep your eyes open and ask the right questions. Don't assume the Web site is up to date in terms of amenities -- ask what's out of order. And make sure to ask:
- Is the hotel under renovations? The first hint you might get would be on travelers' review boards like TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.com). The Blake, for instance, has wildly varying reviews. That's because the recent reviews come from people staying at different phases of the renovations.
- How full is the hotel? If the hotel is pretty empty, you'll have a choice of rooms. If it's full, you may be stuck with what you get. "If the hotel's sold-out, there's a chance you're going to be put near the work," Anderson said.
- What hours does renovation work go on? Try to check in during that time (and not while the contractors are at lunch.) Then you'll know if you want to switch rooms. "We had work going on seven days a week, nine to five," Pfeffer said.
- How far away from the renovation will they put you?
- Is there a special class of renovated rooms? Many hotels don't segregate their old rooms from their new ones in their reservation systems. If they don't, you may be able to ask for a renovated room at check-in; the front desk staff will know which floors have been renovated.
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