Boom at the inns

November 7 2011 | Latest News
Hotels are being renovated in larger numbers...

The attention may have been on the Hyatt Regency as construction crews worked to deliver a sparkling new hotel last month following a six-year closure. But it was hardly the only hotel in New Orleans undergoing a renovation.
hilton_1024.jpgTed Jackson, The Times-PicayuneThe Hilton New Orleans Riverside is one of the more than two dozen New Orleans area hotels undergoing renovation. "You're seeing an entirely new face put on the hotel industry in New Orleans," said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.

More than two dozen New Orleans area hotels are currently undergoing, have recently completed or are about to begin renovations, according to the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau and interviews with hotel general managers throughout the city.

"You're seeing an entirely new face put on the hotel industry in New Orleans," said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. "All of this is happening because it's frankly the right time to do it and we're trying to get set up for the next five to eight years."

While some of the work is routine maintenance, changes at other hotels are being driven by upcoming special events, market demand and competition.

The Hilton New Orleans Riverside is investing $20 million to give 1,162 rooms and suites at the hotel new carpet, window treatments and lighting among other things before the end of next summer. The hotel also is undertaking a construction project at its health club.

The revered Windsor Court Hotel will spend $22 million replacing 80 percent of the hotel's furniture, General Manager David Teich said. The property's bathrooms will also receive new fixtures and showers, and a spa is being added on the fourth floor next to the pool. Renovations started in June and will end later this year.
hyatt_1024.jpgJohn McCusker/The Times-PicayuneThe Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which reopened last month for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, underwent a massive renovation.

The Sheraton New Orleans is putting $45 million toward guest room, public space and lobby refreshing to begin in December and commence at the end of next year.

Those hotels join the New Orleans Marriott, Hotel Monteleone, the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, Royal Sonesta and others.

"There is a tremendous amount of investment happening in this city and not just at hotels," said Al Groos, general manager of the Royal Sonesta. "There's a little bit everywhere."

This recent wave of hotel updates follows one of not too long ago, when some properties damaged because of Hurricane Katrina used insurance proceeds to conduct renovations.

The Hilton, for instance, redid 460 guest rooms in the low-rise portion of its building in 2009. In 2007 and 2008, the Marriott also completely remodeled its lobby and elevator systems.

Both are now undergoing renovations.

"After Katrina was the first phase of renovations," Perry said. "What our properties are doing now is taking those renovations to another level."

Groos, whose hotel will spend $16 million by December 2012 to renovate its guest rooms, said he believes many of the investments reflect a renewed commitment in New Orleans by hotel owners nationally.

"Owners of these types of properties don't invest in things they don't think have long-term potential," Groos said. "What you're seeing is people putting their money where their mouth is. They are investing in the long-term viability of the city as a tourist destination."

Poised to capitalize

The push to renew is also being driven by a need to prepare for several major events in the next 18 months. Next year will mark Louisiana's bicentennial. New Orleans will also host the men's Final Four tournament that year. The following year, the city will play host to Super Bowl XLVII, marking the first time the National Football League Championship game will have been played here in more than a decade.

"With the upcoming events, not only do you want to be ready for these events, but the aftereffect," Sawyers said. "The Super Bowl gives you so much exposure on an international level that you want to be ready for that."

The larger properties aren't alone in their preparation. At the St. Charles Guest House on Prytania, co-owner Joanne Hilton has spent $2,000 to $3,000 making updates to her 22-guest room bed and breakfast.

"We're about to go into good business times. We recognize that," Hilton said. "The next 16 to 18 months are going to have an opportunity for more revenue than the opportunity that's been there in the past 10 years."

Because she doesn't have a lot of money at the ready for the improvements or a large line of credit, Hilton did most of the work herself.

She bought a new runner for the guest house's entrance, but she made curtains and tablecloths.

"Even my daughter, who is my worst critic, said 'Mom, everything looks good,' Hilton said. "Everything that I've had to do, I've had to do it myself."

The spate of hotel renovations will improve New Orleans' competitiveness with other tourist destinations, Perry said.

"The reason that this is so important is that New Orleans competes with destinations that have many new properties," Perry said. "New Orleans is a historic city. It's not a modern corporate city. It becomes a tremendous selling point for us when you come to an historic place and see a whole new product."

In the past that old-world charm has sometimes worked against New Orleans when visitors demanded instead the latest and greatest, Perry said. The current renovations come at a most opportune time for the city in terms of growing it's ability to compete.

"During the recession there was a credit freeze and not many new properties being built. What happened here in that time was that we used that time to modernize properties," Perry said. "The fact that we have invested so heavily gives us an edge now."

Some hotels are hoping that their changes not only give them an edge on properties in other cites, but on neighboring sites.

Closed for six years following the 2005 storm, the Hyatt New Orleans reopened last month. The hotel that opened by many accounts is far different than the failing property that preceded it. With new restaurants, meeting facilities and the latest technology in guest rooms it has become a worthy competitor for other large hotels that once held the upper hand because of their closer proximity to the French Quarter and convention center.

"It's just very competitive now," Sawyers said. "Us other guys have to keep up."

Designed for modern tastes

The renovations also give New Orleans hotels the opportunity to introduce some of the latest lodging industry trends to the New Orleans market.

At the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, most connecting room doors are being removed following a decline in requests for adjoining rooms and complaints about noise from unrelated guests whose rooms connect.

The Hilton also is removing full-sized beds in rooms with two beds and replacing them with two queen beds and removing minibars and putting minirefrigerators in their place, trends that are been taking place across the country.

"It's a response to the industry," said Fred Sawyers, the hotel's general manager.

Reflecting the growing dependence of Americans on the latest technology, several hotels including the Marriott and the Royal Sonesta have improved their Internet connection. The Marriott has also added high-definition televisions in all of its guest rooms.

The change most likely to be noticed by locals is the addition of named restaurants headed by well-known chefs.

"The hotel restaurants, in general, that are run by hotels are not all that successful," Groos said. "It really has nothing to do with the quality of food and service. It is really the desire of the public for independent restaurants or bars."

At the Royal Sonesta, Restaurant R'Evolution, led by renowned Louisiana Chef John Folse and Chicago Chef Rick Tramonte, will make its debut in March. Similarly, the The W French Quarter will be adding a new restaurant "in conjunction with a world class culinary partner" as part of a $10 million hotel renovation, said Cara Banasch, area director of sales and marketing for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., which operates the property.

The newly opened Hyatt will introduce Borgne, led by John Besh, later this year.

"We live in an era of all kinds of chef shows. They've become celebrities through their talent," Groos said. "The public at-large wants to visit one of their restaurants."