Renovating hotel without closing takes careful planning

A fresh look for rooms at the inn

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Less than seven hours after the last guest stayed in this fifth-floor Holiday Inn Express room, it has been stripped down to an empty white shell.

Three days later the same room will be welcoming its next guest, looking to the untrained eye like a room in a freshly built hotel.

Renovating a 80-room hotel , at a cost of $1.2 million, without closing for a single day isn't easy. But it's a challenge best not avoided in a growing hotel market such as Iowa City-Coralville.

The Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites at 970 25th Ave., Coralville, which opened just more than 12 years ago next to the Coral Ridge Mall, was the top ranked hotel in guest satisfaction on TripAdvisor, a position it held regularly over the past several years.

It also had the benefit of a franchise affiliation that provided one of the best guest rewards programs.

Neal Roth, the hotel's veteran general manager, knew that tougher competition was ahead. Several new hotels were slated to open in the Iowa City area.

Not only would they be new, several were associated with top hotel brands such as Hilton and Marriott that offer strong rewards programs to keep guests coming back.

Kinseth Hospitality, the North Liberty-based owner of Holiday Inn Express Coralville, decided two years ago it was time to refresh the hotel and seek an extension of its licensing agreement with the Holiday Inn brand from Intercontinental Hotels Group.

After sending a team of designers to determine what the hotel would need for a new license agreement, Intercontinental provided more than 30 pages of recommendations that provided a starting point for the project.

Freshening the look of the hotel was only part of the equation. Regulations and industry norms have changed since the hotel was built.

The list included items such as a lower wheelchair accessible front desk counter next to the existing counter and lifts for helping people with disabilities enter the swimming pool, along with a number of cosmetic updates.

Then it was time for Kinseth's own design team to provide its input. Kinseth likes its hotels to have a unique look and feel, Roth said, but a crucial issue was how everything tied together.

When it was all submitted and approved by Intercontinental, the cost estimates were about 25 percent higher than the minimum required.

The end result was "everything you can see, touch and feel" had to change inside the hotel, Roth said. Kinseth wants its renovated hotels to have a look that won't be dated one decade from now, he added.

Some of the touches might seem unnecessary, such as exercise room treadmills equipped with on-board televisions. But they could be the difference a guest notices when determining whether to return.

Mixing old and new finishes is dangerous territory.

"If you don't do certain things, they stand out," Roth explained.

More important, renovating rooms in an operating hotel requires careful scheduling and planning.

Work is scheduled to avoid the heaviest occupancy seasons, primarily the fall months that bring thousands to Iowa City and Coralville for University of Iowa football games.

The project started with renovations to the lobby-front desk area, the club room where breakfast is served to guests, and the fitness room.

Once the renovations got to the upper guest room floors, it became a matter of scheduling work around guest reservations.

Work takes places only during the day time when rooms are generally unoccupied. Managing guest expectations is important, according to Amanda Turner, manager at the hotel.

The most common approach is to close off an entire floor to guests while it is renovated so that there's no reason for guests to come face-to-face with renovation work or trip on an extension cord.

If a guest needs a room and the only one available is on a floor in renovation, they might be offered a discounted rate. Guests who need to sleep during the day are booked into a "quiet zone" away from the renovations, Turner said.

Placards placed on lobby and breakfast room make playful references to the construction work under way, and a notice to guests is posted in the elevator. Otherwise, there's typically no discussion about the renovation at check-in time unless the guest will be on an affected floor.

Very rarely does a hotel general manager's first renovation go smoothly, Roth said, because there are so many different factors to consider and so much more work than normal. Roth has been through several such on-the-fly hotel renovations, however.

"We're fortunate to have a great team of experienced people," Roth said. "Even though it's a challenge because you're selling rooms while you're renovating, at least you have a good team."

Kinseth tries to stick with known contractors who have worked on hotel renovations before and understand its renovation process. Much of the work, such as moving furnishings in and out of rooms and hanging wall fixtures, is done by Kinseth's own personnel.

Because Kinseth has other properties in the area, it can bring in additional staff from other hotels when there's a special need, such as clearing out the furnishings and fixtures from a series of rooms, or cleaning up a renovated floor to get it ready for occupancy.

Roth insists on getting his own hands dirty on occasion. In fact, he'd rather perform certain tasks such as hanging wall lamps and bathroom curtains himself. That's because moving a fixture once it's been installed leaves behind holes that require a costly and time consuming repair of the wall's finish.

More hotel renovations are expected in the Iowa City-Coralville-North Liberty market, according to Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Within a two-year period, Schamberger expects five hotels to open.

A new 95-room Homewood Suites is coming soon to the Iowa River Landing area of Coralville. A new 93-room Hampton Inn opened recently in Iowa City, and a new 100-room Residence Inn debuted this year just a shout from the Holiday Inn Express.

In addition to those hotels, Schamberger said Kinseth is expected to build a new Holiday Inn/Staybridge Suites combination hotel to downtown Iowa City, and a new Drury Inn is anticipated to open at the former Econo Lodge location at Iowa River Landing.

"It's probably the largest amount of (room) inventory that has come on line since I've been here," Schamberger said. "I'm sure many properties will start renovating to stay competitive."

Schamberger said the Heartland Inn in Coralville, which renovated one floor after the June 2008 flood, already is considering renovating other floors in the next year or two. He said Peter Patel, owner of the Big Ten Inn and the Best Western Canterbury Inn, recently bought and renovated the former Motel 6 into a Super 7 hotel.

Occupancy in the Iowa City-Coralville hotel market has been growing about four percent annually, Schamberger said. In the midst of that growth, he said the Holiday Inn Express Coralville has had one of the highest occupancy rates.

Itís averaged 80 percent occupancy, he said, compared to 60 percent for hotels in that category.

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