Indies navigate operational upsets during renovations
Indies navigate operational upsets during renovations
20 SEPTEMBER 2017 12:27 PM

Hotel renovations at independent properties present industrywide challenges as well as some unique to the indie space for those running the hotels. 

REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Renovating a hotel opens up new possibilities for the property, creating a refreshed feel with updated amenities, modern designs, better technology and an overall feeling of renewal. Getting to that point though presents challenges for any hotel, and that’s especially true for independents operating without the support of a brand behind them.

Though some hotels will close during renovation projects, many owners choose to keep theirs open, which, while maintaining a source of revenue, creates some challenges for the staff running the property. Operating a hotel under renovation requires foresight and careful coordination with every party involved, sources said.

Planning ahead
When Provenance Hotels began its discussions about when and how to renovate the 85-year-old building housing The Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Seattle over 18 months and convert it into The Theodore Hotel, the parties involved had to determine what would be the impact of the project and what would that look like over time, said Chris Lorino, regional director of operations. The company decided it would take 60 of its 150 rooms out of order in various stages, he said, so the impact on inventory was preeminent during planning.

“For us, as the operator, not just the owner, what’s the impact on the hotel itself?” he asked. “The staff, the back-of-house areas, the storage, the driveways, the loading zones, the loading docks in the alleys? What does that all look like. You have to work closely with the general contractor and make sure you’re aligned.”

Though the process varies from market to market, Pacifica Hotels EVP Adam Marquis said his company’s team will sit down with GMs and regional managers to make sure they know what is going on. There are several preplanning meetings to make sure everyone is aware of the project and what it means for everyone involved, he said, addressing issues such as how housekeeping will clean around changes to furniture in the room, what does it do to the property’s guest profile and whether the project would make the property default on certain aspects of a contract with an airline crew.

When bringing in construction and development supervisors, he said, they use a Gantt chart and decide which floors to start on to minimize disruption.

“There’s a lot of debate that goes on for the onsite property operations and the people doing the work,” he said. “It’s almost two different worlds. It can be contentious if you’re not careful.”

When starting the renovation on The Roosevelt Hotel, Provenance executives considered whether it made more sense to close the property for four months instead of keeping it open and stretch the project out to 18 months, Lorino said. Though it made more economical sense to close and renovate, he said, the company felt an obligation to the guests who have come to expect to stay there and to the guests and groups who had already made reservations. 

“Once we made the decision to stay open, it was really about timing it and figuring out, based on the time of season, what do we do first,” he said, adding they chose to go with guestrooms first, since they were further along in the design and procurement process and would have the highest impact on guests.

Generally, the owners and operators who close all the way do so because they have to, Marquis said. Luxury hotels usually have to close because their guests won’t put up with the renovation work, he said, and sometimes certain projects require major permitting and code compliance, meaning they can’t stay open.

For typical room renovations, he said, Pacifica Hotels keeps its hotels open all the time. 

“It’s always a financial mitigation analysis: How will it affect guests?” he said. “During renovation, what is the overall financial disruption?”

Staffing solutions
During renovations, Provenance Hotels starts conversations with hotel staff in advance, Lorino said. For the most part, it keeps many of its associates working full schedules, he said. Calling it a shotgun approach, he said, some room attendants at The Roosevelt filled out their schedules and picked up hours at the hotel’s sister property, Hotel Max. The company also looked at its open positions, he said, as The Roosevelt Hotel temporarily became a 90-room hotel, so it paused on hiring to make sure the existing associates had enough hours.

There’s actually a good deal of labor required for the beginning and end of room renovations, he said, such as removing operating supplies and equipment. At the end of a weeks-long project, it takes a “good chunk of time” to put the rooms back together.

“That allows us to mitigate the impact on staffing declines one would expect,” he said.

When renovating Hotel 1620 Plymouth Harbor, Brian Anderson, area director of operations at Linchris Hotel Corporation, said the company kept the property at its normal staffing levels because of the timing of the work. When the rooms were completed, he said, that allowed staff to work together to get them ready for guests.

Crestline Hotels & Resorts works to ensure it can retain as many employees during renovation work as possible, said David Hill, area GM of the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., so it finds creative ways to find work for the employees, such as clean up or assisting with some of the renovation work itself. He gets as many members of his team involved as possible to get the work done and keep them employed, he said, which could include extra projects in back of house, painting, performing minor mechanical work, hanging art or cleaning out drains.

Informing guests
Provenance Hotels notifies potential guests of renovation work during the booking process, Lorino said, through posts on a property’s website and having employees tell guests when they call to make a reservation. There is also signage at the property to let guests know, he said, and employees are given information to share with guests as they check in.

“We’ve taken the approach that it’s a great opportunity to tell guests and build excitement,” he said. “We tell them what we’re doing and why and that they should come back and see what we’ve done.”

Pacifica Hotels uses storyboards and employee engagement to educate guests about a hotel’s renovation, Marquis said. It’s part of the front desk process, he said, and sometimes marketing comes up with a witty slogan.

There’s a lot of debate over whether to put a renovation disclaimer online, he said, and sometimes it feels like a lose-lose situation. Some people might choose not to stay there, he said, and those who do book a room might come in with worries about their stay. His company likes to focus on the storyboards and a personalized message when they check in with a front desk associate, he said.

The Phoenix Park Hotel kept its guests updated on the current work and pending work, Hill said. For issues that were small and non-intrusive to guests, he said, they posted a note at the reception desk for guests to see upon arrival. When the hotel replaced its guest elevators, he said, the staff posted a notice that suggested guests allow extra time in their day for possible delays in going up and down. 

“If guests have questions on any work, we respond with accurate information,” he said. “If the guest is truly upset at that point, we will always offer to find them another accommodation. We would rather lose a guest for one visit than lose a guest permanently.”

Guest solutions
When guests have a problem with the renovation work, Marquis said, hotel employees make the full-court press, offering free breakfasts, free valet parking or a discounted room rate.

“For independents, it’s easier to lose a guest forever than a branded hotel, which has a loyalty program that retains a lot of people at other hotels,” he said. “You have one chance to impress and retain. We’re very cognizant of that.”

When people choose to stay at an independent hotel, they choose to stay at a specific one, Lorino said, and the cost of acquisition for independent hotels without loyalty programs is higher than those with one. His company takes a conservative approach to overselling rooms and relocating guests, he said.

“It doesn’t happen, because we know someone especially wanted to stay with us for a unique experience,” he said. “To send someone to another hotel, whether it’s one of ours or someone else’s, doesn’t make a lot of business sense at any time.”

When going through a renovation that lowers inventory to sell, he said, that means planning ahead and adjusting strategies.

For guest who decided they couldn’t stay during the renovation of Hotel 1620, Anderson said, staff at the hotel helped them make a reservation somewhere else. 

“At the end of the day, we want the guest to be happy,” he said. “We don’t want a situation where the guest ever feels uncomfortable.”

That only happened a handful of times, he said, and those guests went over to the hotel’s sister property, a Hilton in Plymouth. For the most part, simply relocating guests to another part of the building solved the problem, he said. Other times, the staff offered guests a free breakfast or a gift certificate for another stay.

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