Downtown hotels get elegant makeovers

The Baltimore Sun

Bulky televisions - gone. Floral bedspreads - out of the picture. Desks where you plug in your laptop - so yesterday.

Touches once found in the best hotels are going by the wayside in downtown Baltimore. The biggest hotels are spending millions of dollars to update and upgrade, to cater to tech-savvy guests and compete in a radically shifting hotel landscape.

Hotels are going wireless in the guestrooms, smoothing "popcorn" ceilings, installing flat-screen computer monitors to double as TVs and making bedding more luxurious and lobbies more inviting.

The changes come as hundreds of new hotel rooms are under way or planned downtown and less than a year from the opening of the city-owned Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel, being built across from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"A lot of these hotels are doing the renovations so they can keep up with the Hilton," said Thomas J. Noonan, chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. With a state-of-the-art, 757-room hotel attached to the convention center opening next September, "you better look as good as you can."

Most major downtown hotels have recently started or completed or are planning renovations.

They include an $18 million guestroom makeover at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, a $12 million room renovation at the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor, a $15 million renovation of public areas and the restaurant at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, a $30 million total renovation of the Sheraton Baltimore City Center and a recently completed $20 million guestroom renovation at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore.

The Intercontinental Harbor Court Hotel, which converted two years ago from Harbor Court Hotel, has had $4.6 million in upgrades, including technology updates in the rooms, and is planning banquet space renovations. The Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore will start renovating meeting space next month and is planning a major renovation, including all guestrooms.

The upgrades can only help the city's tourism reputation and ability to sell itself as a convention destination, Noonan said.

Hotel managers say all the sprucing up has more to do with meeting consumer demand than gearing up for competition from the new Hilton, which is being built by the city to bolster its flagging convention business.

But they say it is crucial to offer cutting-edge design and amenities as the city begins offering itself as a potential host of bigger conventions. That means the city will get fresh looks from business groups and leisure travelers alike.

"With all the new competition coming into the market, and development going on in the area, we thought it would be a great time," said Bobby Vaughan, director of sales and marketing for the Marriott Waterfront at Harbor East.

A makeover is usually an effective way for an existing hotel to compete with a new player, especially in the short term, said John B. "Jack" Corgel, Robert C. Baker professor of real estate at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.

"It takes a new hotel anywhere from a year and a half to three years to ramp up, so ... you reinvest in your own hotel and keep customers in place," Corgel said. "In the short term, an existing hotel renovation is pretty competitive against new hotels. ... Past the three-year point, you're looking at a horse race."

The flood of new rooms is a boost for the city's convention center but will take several years to be absorbed, said Rod Petrik, a Baltimore-based managing director and hotel analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. More than 3,000 hotel rooms are under construction or planned for the center city, and there also has been a hotel boom near Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"With all this supply coming on line, a lot of [hotel] owners are fearful about what will happen in Baltimore," Petrik said. After the Hilton opens, "most downtown hotels will have a step-down in their occupancy and pressure on their rates."

This month, the Marriott Waterfront is starting its most extensive renovation since it opened in February 2001. In the project, the 754 guestrooms will be remodeled with tiled entryways, granite-topped coffee nooks, new furnishings, drapes and carpeting. Thirty-seven-inch flat-screen TVs, with "jack packs" for plug-in games, MP3 players and computers, will sit atop new contemporary bureaus. Bathrooms will feature larger ceramic tile. All rooms will have wireless Internet access.

The Marriott's sister hotel - the Marriott Inner Harbor - just completed renovating its ballrooms and public spaces and is launching a renovation of guestrooms that will also replace televisions with flat-screen models and make the rooms wireless.

The Sheraton Baltimore City Center, formerly the Wyndham, is continuing an overhaul as part of a rebranding last January. Renovations will touch every corner of the hotel - the 706 guestrooms, the lobbies and public spaces, meeting rooms, fitness center and corridors, said Richard Bryant, director of sales and marketing. Work is continuing on about 150 rooms, Bryant said.

"There hadn't been a renovation of this magnitude since the 1970s," he said. "Renovations always help, so the timing is good."

The Hyatt Regency, the first hotel built at the developing Inner Harbor 26 years ago, completed a renovation last fall, its most extensive ever. Rooms now have ergonomic armchairs, original artwork, decorative light fixtures, flat-screen TVs, wireless keyboards and walk-in glass showers with granite vanities.

And the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel finished the first phase of its project in July to renovate the public areas and restaurant for the first time in the hotel's nearly 20-year history, a move prompted by new ownership two years ago.

The lobby has been transformed into a "great room," where guests can log onto the Internet, have a drink at the bar, watch TV or relax by a fire. Hotel ballrooms have been redone with new carpeting and furnishings, and the former Windows restaurant, now the Water Table, has had a makeover. The last phase of renovations, to be done by the end of the year, will cover public restrooms, the pool and health club, and bring flat-screen TVs to the 622 guestrooms.

"There's a lot of new hotel product coming into the area," said Hayley Grimes, sales and marketing director, "and you just want to stay competitive."

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