|By Gary Dinges, Austin
American-Statesman, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 20, 2012--As Austin gets set for an influx of new hotels, some of the area's existing hotel properties are stepping up their games with remodeling projects to stay competitive.
Among the projects in the works are a massive, 1,012-room convention hotel at East Second Street and Congress Avenue. Also on the way are a 296-room Hyatt Place at East Third Street and San Jacinto Boulevard and a 137-room Hampton Inn and Suites at West 17th and Lavaca streets.
Against that backdrop, renovations happening at several Central Texas hotels involve a whole lot more than just slapping a fresh coat of paint on the walls.
Operators are spending wads of cash on things such as trendy furniture, fresh linens, new flooring and wall coverings, and technology upgrades.
Soon-to-be-completed work on the top five floors of downtown's Omni Austin Hotel, 700 San Jacinto Blvd., cost more than $1 million per floor, General Manager Gene McMenami said. That works out to about $78,000 per room.
"Really, this was more than a renovation," McMenami said. "It was a reconstruction. It was almost like building a new five-story hotel on top of an existing hotel."
The upgrades include granite countertops, beds with leather headboards, faux cowhide bathroom walls and, in some cases, in-room fitness equipment.
McMenami said the incoming competition prompted the Omni to rethink its renovation project.
"With all the new condos coming into town and the prospect of new hotels, we took another look and went from urban chic to urban luxury, while keeping the flavor of Austin," he said.
Downtown isn't the only area renovations are happening. In the Arboretum area, Inland American Lodging Advisors, the new owner of the 25-year-old Renaissance Austin Hotel, 9721 Arboretum Blvd., is set to kick off a round of upgrades in October.
The Renaissance Austin's restaurant will be redesigned, the patio bar will triple in size and all 492 guest rooms will be refreshed, General Manager Rob Gillette said.
"We're going to reinvent everything, everywhere you turn," Gillette said. "It'll be more modern, more chic, more comfortable."
The goal is to offer guests a "pure Austin" experience, he said, through careful selection of items such as artwork, furnishings and linens.
"With many hotels, you could pick them up and put them in another city, no problem," Gillette said. "We're going to try to reflect the appeal of Austin in every element of the design."
Many upgrades are dictated by hotel franchisors, such as Marriott, said Kevin Grandin, regional vice president for White Lodging, which operates about 20 Austin-area hotels.
Properties affiliated with Marriott's Courtyard Inn and Residence Inn brands are typically required to replace "soft goods" such as carpeting and drapes about every six years, he said, while dressers and furniture are replaced after about 12 years.
"Most people don't do it more often than that, but ownership can decide if they want to do something earlier based on the market," Grandin said. "Austin's a great market, and owners love to invest in Austin because it's so strong."
White Lodging has renovations under way or planned at seven Central Texas Courtyard and Residence Inn locations. Planning starts about a year before crews get to work, Grandin said.
"Guests can definitely tell the difference, and they love it," he said. "It's like you're the first person to stay in the room. No one's ever walked on the carpet, sat in the chair ... things like that."
Construction takes place in phases, he said, so the hotels won't have to close, and it's typically scheduled to happen during times of the year when business slows down, such as early January, summertime and late December.
"You won't see us doing this during South by Southwest," he said. Hotels citywide are typically booked solid during the music, film and interactive festival, which happens each March.
In addition to sprucing up rooms, lobby upgrades are popular with many chains right now, Grandin said. Though costly, the work helps pay for itself when impressed visitors post glowing reviews on popular travel sites such as TripAdvisor.com, he said.
"Whether you've just renovated or give good service, people want to talk about it," he said.
Contact Gary Dinges at 912-5987; Twitter: @gdinges
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