Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Do historic hotels dream about their past? Some thoughts on the renovation of iconic properties.

Hilton Worldwide, owner of the historic Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York city has begun a phased upgrade and much needed renovation of the crown-jewel in its portfolio. This iconic hotel is not only the quintessential urban luxury hotel, but it is also the flagship property of the company's luxury brand.

On the tail-end of a recession that hit the luxury segment particularly hard, hospitality executives have worked hard to re-tool and compete in a market that has blurred the lines between luxury, lifestyle and boutique. Defining a clear vision for the luxury experience and communicating a compelling brand narrative have become the keystones of renovations, especially when the buildings carry such weight.

The plan to bring the Waldorf Astoria into the 21st century has been carefully considered, and will be implemented over the course of years to come. The Park Avenue Entrance is setting of the tone for the rest of the hotel renovation, which will be overseen by New York based designers Champalimaud and BBG. This area re-opened recently with a few architectural modifications, a renewal of furnishings and lighting, and a focus on the existing murals and flooring pattern. 

So what do we see upon entering?

Gone is the Starbucks which offered a confusing welcome to guests even before they got to the main lobby. Gone is the mezzanine that lowered the ceiling height and removed any sense of greatness upon arrival. Gone is the chandelier that seemed so out-of-place in the Art Deco inspired building. Gone is the characterless carpet. In fact, gone are many layers of decor that were added over the years in vapid refurbishments that did nothing for the space except to hide the natural aging of the building. The designers have been careful in de-layering the existing space and restoring it to a grand, elegant look and arrival experience. The Waldorf is, in the words of its designers, "modern again".

 Park Avenue Lobby - Before                                                                                                             Proposed Design - Courtesy of Champalimaud 
                                                                                       Waldorf Astoria New York 

We can't underestimate the challenge involved in renovating an 80-year old, 1200-room urban hotel running at permanently high occupancy rates and with one of the busiest function businesses in the city. And although the hotel interiors are not landmarked, there is a need to deal with the reaction, not always positive, of the community at large towards any kind of improvement or modification.

There are many parallels to be drawn between the renovation of the Waldorf Astoria and other emblematic hotels in cosmopolitan centers. Aside from this project, I was closely involved in the renovation of hotels that have been key destinations in their cities for at least two generations, and I have gained a significant understanding in to how to best approach these projects. 

The projects I have been involved with include the full renovation of the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles (California), the re-branding of the oldest luxury hotel in China, the Astor Hotel in Tianjin (Starwood Luxury Collection property), and the phased re-energizing of The Dorchester in London. These distinct properties in three continents interestingly have had many aspects in common through the renovation process. 

Hotel Bel Air - Typical Guestroom (Before and After - Image courtesy of Champalimaud Design)

Hotel Bel Air - Lobby/Reception (Before and After - Image courtesy of Champalimaud Design)

Hotel Astor Tianjin - Exterior (Old Building and Renovated Building)

It is interesting to notice that the perceived history of the buildings by the local community and current guests tends to be a somewhat exaggerated view of the truth, and it often veils a serious acknowledgement of how much the hotels need to be renovated. This is true both in terms of the quality of the building's architecture and interiors, as well as the stories and myths inspired by popular culture. Often the most vocal disagreements towards any renovation come from people that haven't really set foot in the building in a very long time. Although time-consuming and sometimes devoid of any real substance, dealing respectfully with these subjective aspects of a renovation is an important step as they can add extraneous uncertainty to the project, and are often key to generate the right buzz around the hotel's re-opening.

While the subjective variables are very important elements, there are also very tangible aspects of historic hotel renovations that designers must address thoughtfully as they work with the Owner to deploy the investment successfully. I find that some questions must be answered very objectively as they are determinant in the programming phase: 
  • How extensive must the renovation be to achieve a measurable increase in the property's competitiveness?
  • How much "newer" must the hotel look like after the work is completed?
  • How will changes affect the hotel's ability to provide increased guest service?
  • What to keep and what to change when it comes to art, furniture, memorabilia, etc...?
  • What investment is required in technical services such as lighting, HVAC, guest technology and entertainment, to increase the guest comfort and experience?

Answering these questions will help focus the efforts and I've compiled here a list of lessons learned, to-dos and not-to-dos when it comes to historic hotel renovations. This is by no means comprehensive, but it touches on a few significant aspects that should be taken into account:
  • Before the concept is developed, a good deal of research should occur. Investing this time wisely will definitely be valuable . In this research there should be interaction with the community that includes existing guests, local residents and any parties that hold a stake in the hotel's future. There are many different reasons why people feel attached to historic hotels, and it isn't always style or function. It could be memories, and it might just be the fact that they are used to seeing it in a certain way. It is very often a question of perception and of emotion. Displaying a respecting for those emotions is easy to do and has a huge pay-off.
  • Every aspect of the current plans must be questioned. Older hotels tended to have large public spaces with no services associated to them. Activating public areas with F&B service, lounging, informal meeting areas or retail can impact the operations very positively and increase the ROI of the project.
  • Avoid giving the new spaces a room-set feel. Hotels with history have too much authenticity to become mere vignette spaces. They need to be imbued with personality: they need to be a child, or a grand-child of the original, but never a distant cousin.
  • Pastiche should be avoided. Re-creating the original is never a good idea, it often appears fake, and no space can ever live up to what it once was, even if the look before was out-dated. The obvious trick of using old photos and memorabilia never really seems to create the connection it intends, and seldom provides a historic link. Curating a high quality collection could work, but it must be done in the right framework (for more on this, read my post "Is curated overrated?")
  • Seek to re-juvenate, re-energize and do not sacrifice comfort for look. Paying proper attention to selection of furnishings and uphosltered goods is critical.
  • Choose a limited number of vendors rather than spreading specifications over a large number of suppliers. Chances are adjustments will be needed as we near installation, and vendors that feel involved in the process are more likely willing to help. Every vendor likes the idea of being involved with a property that stands out in their credentials and they will go the extra mile on this.
  • Lighting is very important, but traditionally is has never been a feature in itself in more historical interiors. Lighting should enhance visual comfort and perhaps a few key interior architecture features, but it should not be too visible a layer. It must be like the pause in music: without it it is not the same, but you never really know it's there.
  • Avoid thinking that major infra-structure investments are restrictive aspects of the renovation. Technical services are often out-dated and must be upgraded or modified to achieve essential comfort and improve building efficiency. However there are very effective retro-fitting solutions for air conditioning and lighting that should be explored. These are not always clean-cut solutions, and might require additional surveying costs, but they can have an impact in overall investment and save valuable dollars that can be directed to the guest's visual experience.

These are just a few key thoughts that should be kept in mind, but my most important learning has been that the renovation of a historic building is most successful when there is adequate time to develop a comprehensive, holistic approach to the building in one effort, even if the implementation will be sequenced across a longer schedule. Soft-cost investment to bring all the consultants on-board early and the allocation of adequate concepting and planning time by owners and operators is bound to yield high returns later in the process. The best approach in my experience is to work on a game-plan that addresses the building deficiencies, that listens to the community concerns, that focuses on the appropriate variables that will increase the hotel's performance, that provides a vision that will create the right product and that sets a clear framework to guide the key decisions by all stakeholders. Then the schedule can be fine-tuned, and the budget can be properly allocated, but it is important that all essential questions about the hotel's identity are asked and answered before the renovation begins.