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Hotel Rooms Get A Major Overhaul
Wednesday, May 11, 2005 - By Avery Johnson, The Wall Street Journal

The hotel room is getting one of its most significant makeovers in years.

Having upgraded their old mattresses with name-brand replacements, a broad spectrum of hotel chains now are turning their attention to the rest of the room, getting rid of the clunky armoires and installing flat-screen televisions, high-design furniture and sleek floor-to-ceiling glass showers. Tacky watercolors are being replaced with more stylish-looking black-and-white photos -- even the minibar is showing signs of going the way of the coin-fed bed.

The hotel-room changes are happening partly as the big chains try to emulate the success of boutique hotels, which are winning the loyalty of Gen Xers and, increasingly, their parents, by emphasizing brighter rooms and improved in-room technology. It also comes as hotels try to shed their stodgy images by, for instance, replacing bedspreads with stylish duvets and adding "Euro shams," basically fancy extra pillows.

The remodeling is being underwritten by the rebounding fortunes of the hotel industry. Many chains put off renovations in recent years amid the travel slump. Now, as room demand rebounds, chains are flush with cash and ready to spend it. For instance, Hilton Hotels Corp. and its franchisees are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to redesign 230 Hilton brand hotels by the end of 2006.

Hotel operators in turn are using the splashy improvements to help justify raising room rates. Marriott International Inc. expects its renovations -- which include 32-inch TVs that hook up to a laptop computer (so a guest can, for instance, work on a PowerPoint presentation on half the screen and watch some basketball on the other) -- to add an extra $30 to the average cost of a one-night stay.

In addition to motion-sensor lights and Herman Miller ergonomic desk chairs, the industry's biggest push is to install flat-screen TVs. Today, Marriott plans to announce a roll-out of 50,000 flat-panel, high-definition TVs in the next four years in its Marriott, JW Marriott and Renaissance hotels. Hyatt Hotels Corp. this year made 32-inch flat-panel liquid-crystal-display TVs its in-room standard. Hilton is adding 30-inch flat-screen TVs as part of its remodeling effort.

For hotels, flat-screen TVs raise all sorts of implications -- just as they do in people's living rooms -- ranging from what to do with all the armoires that housed the old sets, to how to deal with the major indents the massive things left in the rugs. (To get rid of indents, hotels sometimes resort to soaking the dent with water and using a blunt, scissors-like scraper to fluff up the pile.)

It is a boon for hotel-room-furniture resellers, who clear out the old stuff, then turn around and sell it at bargain-basement prices. At one large reseller, Universal Hotel Liquidators in New Haven, Conn., owner David White says his business picked up significantly about three months ago from hotels that are speeding up their redesign processes. The armoires and old-style TVs aren't winding up in landfills: Mr. White says TVs are priced to move at $39. Meanwhile, college kids and down-market hotels are snapping up the armoires and minibars.

The hotels' strategy comes with some risks. The major downside they could face is frustration from the franchisees -- especially in areas where room rates aren't rising at the 5 percent to 6 percent clip that many analysts are predicting this year, says Robert Mandelbaum, research director at PKF Consulting. Franchisees have to absorb the cost of many of the improvements as they renovate.

In addition, individual hotels in a chain sometimes aren't required to fully adopt the new designs, at least not right away, which means that for the next few years, travelers might see considerable inconsistencies from hotel to hotel in the same chain.

For instance, Marriott's first fully redesigned rooms will show up in one -- but not all -- of its Cleveland properties this summer. (The one getting the treatment: Cleveland Marriott Downtown at Key Center.) Hyatt requires hotels to put in the new flat-screen TVs only when they renovate (or build new hotels), which could take as long as 10 years. Hilton isn't requiring the new TVs until 2007.

After the bed and bathroom, the TV is the most important thing in the room, says Bjorn Hanson, a lodging analyst at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Starwood's W brand started putting 27-inch plasma TVs in its higher-end suites a couple years ago. Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., which is owned by Marriott, in December made flat-panel LCD TVs that hang on walls a brand standard. It intends to have them in all its hotels by the end of 2006.

Other hotels are getting even more high-tech. The Hotel de Russie, in Rome, last June installed flat-screen TVs that also are a sort of mood light: They illuminate the wall with subtle colored lighting intended to complement whatever image is on-screen.

The Mayflower Inn in Washington, Conn., two months ago started putting in so-called mirror flat TVs -- when they are off, they look like a mirror hanging there on the wall. Las Ventanas al Paraiso, a Rosewood Resort, is offering handheld TVs that can be carried to the pool.

Hilton has tackled the armoire issue by replacing standalone minibars and dressers with one piece of furniture that stretches almost the length of the room and acts as a desk, drawers and entertainment rack combined. It is topped with a piece of granite.

Marriott's TV will sit on a redesigned desk that pivots 90 degrees. The centerpiece of the design is a "connectivity panel" -- basically, a souped-up power strip -- that hooks up all sorts of gizmos, from home videos to iPods to video games on the Internet.

The minibar, meanwhile, is increasingly being replaced by other services that both take up less space and don't leave customers feeling they are being dinged at extortionist rates for a can of Coke. The Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman Beach Suites, for instance, reopened in December with minifridges that it stocks in advance after asking incoming guests what they want. It still charges a mark-up, but made the switch after deciding that guests didn't actually want standard minibar fare.

In the bathroom, tubs are out and shower stalls are in. Hilton's new showers come encased in a wall of glass. Marriott's new Renaissance rooms also have glassed-in showers, while Hyatt's new-look shower is one-third open and two-thirds glass.

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