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The 583 room Marriott City Center in Downtown Minneapolis Getting
 a $20 million Renovation; Opened 25 Years Ago as the Amfac Hotel

By Susan Feyder, Star Tribune, MinneapolisMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Feb. 16, 2007 - Twenty-five years after opening as the Amfac Hotel, the Marriott City Center hotel still holds a decent share of the downtown Minneapolis hotel business and earns good marks from guests who post reviews on travel websites such as Orbitz.

But the favorable remarks dwell on the hotel's great location in the heart of downtown and its friendly service. Comments about the 1980s-era design, on the other hand, are far less kind.

"A major renovation should take place," said one review from 2005.

Tom Chase, general manager of the Marriott, couldn't agree more.

"This is all pretty dated," he said recently, pointing to the tepid burgundy and moss-green flowered carpet, light oak paneling and shiny ceiling with marquee-style lights just outside the Grand Portage Ballroom. That's why he's pleased that Washington-based Marriott International Inc., which has owned the hotel since 1985, is opening its corporate wallet for a $20 million renovation that will dramatically alter the hotel's look and amenities.

The 15,000-square-foot ballroom, already redone, offers a glimpse of what's to come. The new carpeting has a starburst pattern of vivid gold, blue, green and deep red. The wood paneling has a rich cherry tone. Modern, airy light fixtures hang from the neutral-tone ceiling.

Chase and Leslie Knight, director of sales and marketing, both say the hotel's top-to-bottom renovation is necessary to keep up with the changing demands of guests.

"More women are traveling for business now. Gen X-ers are making up more of the traveling public, and they have different tastes and needs than baby boomers," Knight said.

While Chase said plans for the renovation were discussed about five years ago, the project's timing isn't a coincidence. The prospect of increased competition from a new crop of downtown hotels makes the case for renovating the Marriott "compelling," he said.

Late last year, the upscale Chambers Hotel opened at 9th Street and Hennepin Avenue, just a couple of blocks away. New York-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts is entering the downtown market with a Westin in the renovated Farmers & Mechanics Bank Building, a W hotel in the renovated Foshay Tower and a hotel that is part of its Luxury Collection in the Ivy Hotel + Residences under construction near the Minneapolis Convention Center. The Midland Bank Building also is slated to become a hotel to be managed by Morrissey Hospitality, managers of the St. Paul Hotel. Hotels outside the downtown core near the Guthrie Theater and in Uptown also are in the works.

"Everyone's spending money," said Gerard Viardin, general manager of the Marquette Hotel, which underwent a $13 million remodeling a couple of years ago and is getting ready to spend $2.5 million more to renovate some of the guest-room bathrooms. "You want to stay competitive, especially with all these new kids on the block," he said.

John Luke, general manager of the Hilton Minneapolis, agreed. "You always have to be aware of the competition and meeting the standards of your [hotel] brand," he said.

Hotel guests increasingly book accommodations through the Internet, where they can check reviews and comparison-shop, Luke said. The Hilton last year began a $15 million makeover initially planned to take three years; now the work will be done in about 18 months, he said.

Hotels nationwide are investing more to upgrade facilities and services, according to a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which estimated such expenditures at $5 billion last year. Besides new furnishings and high-thread-count bed linens, the enhancements include flat-screen televisions, cordless phones and high-speed Internet service in all guest rooms.

As the travel industry has recovered from the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, hotels here and elsewhere have been in a better position to boost room rates, said Steve Scherf, senior vice president with area hotel consultant GVA Marquette Advisors.

"That's how the improvements are being funded. Hotels are investing their cash flows back into their properties," he said.

Chase said the Marriott's makeover, which will involve temporarily relocating its restaurant and lounge while the existing ones are redone, should be completed by September. Besides the ballroom, about half the hotel's 583 guest rooms already have been renovated with improvements including new bedding and furniture, including ergonomically correct desk chairs. Bathrooms have granite-topped vanities and shower curtain rods that curve outward to spare guests the unpleasant sensation of getting stuck to a wet curtain while showering.

"We want to appeal to all the senses," Chase said.

That includes one recent enhancement that can't be seen -- an aromatic infusion Chase called "China Rain" that's pumped into the air exchange system in the hotel's common areas. Designed "to create an environmental experience," Chase said, the product is similar to those used by other Marriott hotels, as well as some competitors.

Susan Feyder -- 612-673-1723 -- sfeyder@startribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2007, Star Tribune, Minneapolis

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