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Atlanta Hotels Watch Trends and Renovate
 Guest Rooms to Match Customer Expectations

By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

July 15, 2006 --The next time you stay in an Atlanta hotel, don't be surprised to find rooms with luxurious down comforters, 32-inch plasma TVs and bathrooms with spa-influenced amenities like rain-pour shower heads.

Metro Atlanta hotels, trying to stay on top of an increasingly competitive market, are pumping millions into renovations to meet the expectations of travelers who are demanding the kind of swank they see on the Travel Channel and HDTV.

And it's coming at a price.

Ten years ago, the typical room cost about $8,000 to $9,000 to renovate, said Joe Hindsley, general manager of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta. Now the work costs about $15,000 to $20,000 per room.

Hoteliers also have to address the lost revenue while doing the work. Taking rooms or meeting space out of circulation means slimmer profits.

The Renaissance Waverly, for instance, lost an estimated $1 million in room revenue and food and beverage sales when it couldn't book convention business in June because of renovations to two ballrooms and a meeting area, said General Manager Debbie Karcanes.

"Thank goodness we had good contractors who stuck to the timeline," Karcanes said.

But if you don't renovate and keep the building fresh, you risk losing customers, said Brenadette Salter, general manager of Regency Suites, a boutique hotel in Midtown that recently completed a $4 million renovation.

When the Regency opened 20 years ago, it catered to small-business owners and Georgia Tech students and their families, she said. Today, the hotel also attracts guests of the Federal Reserve or the area's recently relocated law firms. And they demand more than just a clean room in which to sleep.

"Midtown's demographics have changed, and we needed to reflect that," she said. "Guests today have a different style and expectation than when we first opened."

Widespread trend Those renovating include the Hyatt Regency downtown, the Four Seasons in Midtown, the Renaissance Waverly at the Cobb Galleria and the city's largest hotel, the 50-story Marriott Marquis, which is spending $38 million to remodel its 1,600-plus rooms.

And it's not just where you lay your head that is getting the makeover, Atlanta hoteliers say.

The front desk is being scaled back to half its size, while the lobby is being redesigned to create conversation group seating.

The ubiquitous hotel restaurant is also being transformed, morphing from comfortable but generally uninteresting eatery to a trendy or sleek destination -- think dining establishments Lobby at Atlantic Station's Twelve hotel or The Palm at the Westin Buckhead Atlanta.

Typically, hotels renovate every five years, operators said. Most of the work is to replace worn carpet, bedding and linens.

But they also must keep up with trends and implement them in rooms and other areas, like the addition two years ago of high-speed wireless Internet access.

Hotel operators say the current changes are being spurred by competition among hotels -- especially boutiques, which have made upgraded bedding and bathrooms with aromatherapy items a must.

Also, the home remodeling trend is contributing to the makeovers.

"There is an expectation now that the hotel must meet the qualities of the residential home," said Hindsley of the Hyatt Regency.

That means guests are looking for the granite countertops they have at home, the throw pillows that cover their beds and the brighter curtains that make their houses inviting.

The Marquis' makeover will attempt to make the hotel a little more like a boutique, said Marketing Director Mike McMahon. Not only are they upgrading rooms, Marquis officials are moving and reinventing all five of the hotel's restaurants, including the introduction of Pulse, an eatery the hotel hopes will become a destination.

"Image is very important to a lot of customers," McMahon said. "We want to be a landmark, destination hotel."

Not every brand is going all out on renovations, operators said. While each is doing something, officials said the extent to which a room or public area is upgraded has to make economic and demographic sense.

Teri Fox, senior vice president of operations for Atlanta-based Microtel Inns and Suites, said the budget brand is testing upgrades to its bedding, but it likely won't include 600-thread-count sheets.

"My guests won't pay for that," she said.

Instead, they are looking for little, inexpensive touches, like bowed shower rods in the bathrooms.

"The customer is still driven by cleanliness and service," she said.

Mike Jannini, executive vice president of brand management for Marriott, said the types of upgrades the 18 chains under his company's umbrella will get depend on the demands of the customers.

"There is a level of luxury for all, but it's not the same for a Fairfield Inn as it would be for a Ritz-Carlton," he said.

The hotels are also being sensitive to when they renovate. The downtown convention hotels will do the brunt of their renovations in late fall and around the winter holidays when few meetings are held.

Marsha Middleton, a spokeswoman for the Four Seasons Atlanta, said the hotel is currently renovating -- one floor at a time -- because the corporate travelers it caters to are on vacation.

"The key to doing this is timing," she said.

Mark Vaughan, executive vice president for sales and marketing at the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, the city's main convention and tourism agency, said the result will be helpful not only to the hotels but also to the city. He said convention planners notice the touches, which they consider when deciding where to hold meetings.

"That only helps us sell the city better," he said.

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To see more of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.ajc.com.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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