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Hotel Brands Feeling Competitive Pressure - Luring Customers
 in What Resembles an Interior Design Arms Race
By Christopher Boyd, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Sep. 18, 2006 - Plasma televisions, granite countertops and designer armchairs are no longer trappings of the rich and famous. Fiercely competitive hotel chains are spending millions on high-tech gadgets and luxurious furniture to lure customers in what increasingly resembles an interior-design arms race.

Some hotels, many not very old, are undergoing complete renovations. Others are upgrading in phases, replacing ordinary furnishings with exceptional ones and making costly enhancements to common areas and meeting space.

Regular remodeling is standard practice in the hospitality industry, but modest makeovers have given way to reconstructive surgery that turns rooms into places seemingly fit for kings.

"Consumers are really expecting a lot of amenities from hotels, things like 24-hour service," said Chris Haack, consumer-market analyst with Mintel, an international research firm. "The tricky question is how much money to spend in order to keep old customers and attract new ones."

Travelers' expectations are contributing to the trend. High-speed Internet service, considered a luxury several years ago, is becoming ubiquitous. High-quality bedding and elaborate, free breakfasts are now standard in most midrange to high-end hotels.

'Internet is spurring this'

Competition is driving the major hotel brands to spruce up. Big-name chains are requiring franchisees to buy 600-thread-count bed linens and pricey duvets so that they project an image of quality.

"The Internet is spurring this," Haack said. "You can go online and check out hotels using 20 or 30 criteria, considering only those that meet your standards."

That's what Megan Storer of Pittsburgh did when she planned a Labor Day trip to Orlando.

"I spent a lot of time searching for a hotel with a modern look," Storer said. "The look of the hotel was very important to me. I wouldn't pay more than $50 a night extra for the room I really want, but I would pay more."

Storer, 23, settled on the DoubleTree Hotel off South Kirkman Road near Universal Orlando.

Storer's $50-a-night premium raises a question for an industry intent on adding ever more creature comforts. What do customers really want, and how much will they pay for it?

D.K. Shifflet & Associates Ltd., a Falls Church, Va., consumer-travel research firm, recently released a study showing that hotel guests rate quality of service and a smoke-free building as much more important than expensive bedding and high-end toiletries.

"If all of the major hotels invest in 600-thread-count sheets and flat-screen TVs, they won't differentiate themselves from anybody else," Shifflet spokesman Jim Caldwell said. "We're not saying don't spend your money on these things, but by all means look at the ones that will yield the most benefit. Every chain needs to look at its target audience first."

The Shifflet report concludes that travelers generally like the room improvements but don't like higher hotel bills, which it says are driving travelers to pick hotels that are a notch below where they would really like to stay.

'Industry of followers'

Scott Berman, a Miami-based partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers' hotels and leisure division, said hotels often don't see an alternative to making costly investments.

"There is definitely competitive pressure to stay in touch with the customer," Berman said. "If you find yourself in a hotel room with a superior bedding product, you will remember the places you stayed that didn't have it. Hotels are aware of this. This is really an industry of followers."

Berman said some of the improvements might be made to justify increased room rates. In Central Florida, hotel rates have climbed substantially during the past year, topping an average $90 a night in July, according to Smith Travel Research's monthly market survey. Occupancy rates, however, have dipped.

Higher room rates could play a role in declining occupancy. But Berman said hotels that hold back on renovations to hold rates down could ultimately be damaging themselves.

"If you don't do these things, particularly at the upscale end of the hotel curve, you are likely to drop behind in occupancy," Berman said. Seasoned travelers, the ones who spend a lot of nights in hotels, crave luxuries, including spas and bathrooms with lots of extras.

The Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa in Lake Buena Vista is one of the region's hotels undergoing a major renovation. Greg Hauenstein, general manager of the 1,000-room hotel, said people want hotel rooms and suites that are more luxurious than their own homes.

"It comes from our research and the consumer research we have received," Hauenstein said. "People are willing to pay what a room is worth. It's all about staying competitive. It is about maintaining and growing your market share."

At Walt Disney World, the upscale Contemporary hotel has undergone a makeover that includes flat-screen televisions and high-tech work areas, features that appeal to business travelers as well as tourists.

More high-end hotels

The trend to draw in customers with high-end amenities shows no sign of weakening. A newly announced batch of high-end condominium hotels around the theme parks and the Orange County Convention Center will add thousands of rooms to the market that cater to customers who want the very best.

Frequent travelers get the most exposure to the latest trends, and industry experts say they are more likely than others to focus on details.

Bill and Janie Benton, Satellite Beach retirees who take frequent road trips, have become hotel connoisseurs. They recently spent a night at the Renaissance Hotel at SeaWorld Orlando, a lodging undergoing major renovations.

"A no-smoking hotel is our No. 1 concern, but a comfortable bed is a close No. 2," Janie Benton said.

Bill Benton said he's looking forward to the Renaissance's renaissance. He said he and his wife stay at the hotel each time they visit Orlando. When they checked in late last month, the manager said they would be the first to occupy one of the newly refurbished rooms.

"It's always nice to stay in a new hotel," Bill Benton said. "We've been coming here for six years, and we have always loved it. But new is better, and we're really looking forward to staying here tonight."

Christopher Boyd can be reached at cboyd@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5723.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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