Refurbishments and how to survive them

17 March 2005 by
Refurbishments and how to survive them

It was two years of turbulence for the staff of London's Waldorf Hilton. On top of a £30m refurbishment, which meant that building contractors were constantly on site, there was also the uncertainty of the hotel falling into receivership, resulting in the management contract of the Royal Bank of Scotland-owned property switching from Le Meridien to Hilton International.

As general manager of the hotel, which is due to celebrate its centenary in three years' time, Amanda Scott is the person who has had to steer the Waldorf through one of the most precarious periods in its history.

"The staff went through a very difficult time 18 months ago," Scott says. "We all felt very sad when the hotel was put into receivership. But we clung to the fact that we had the Waldorf name and, therefore, everything to fight for to keep the business going and to continue with the refurbishment."

Scott was determined to face the difficulties of an uncertain future in a positive fashion. After the hotel went into receivership in July 2003, several months of speculation ensued, with 23 companies registering an interest in running the property, before it was announced that Hilton would take over the operation of the hotel in January 2004. During this period Scott launched Project Viceroy, an internal initiative to boost staff morale.

"We chose the name Viceroy because it is the name of a butterfly and because it was intended to reflect our emergence from an ugly caterpillar into a beautiful new butterfly," Scott explains. "We used the project as a means of setting ourselves personal objectives, which we measured and updated each week.

"When it was announced that Hilton was taking over the management of the hotel we held a party to celebrate. At last there was a feeling of great relief and optimism - we knew that Hilton was a great brand to be part of."

While staff were encouraged to keep focused on the job in hand, Scott also had to ensure that guests were not perturbed by the dramatic headlines about the receivership that appeared in the business press. "We received telephone calls asking who was going to be taking over and we just had to be completely honest and say that we didn't know until it was confirmed that Hilton was the new operator," she says. "Our message to guests was always the same - it was business as usual."

Probably of more concern to guests was the disruption caused by the refurbishment. The redecoration of all 300 bedrooms, including six suites, was the least disruptive work, as it was kept hidden away with an entire floor or half a floor being blocked off at a time while the work took place.

Each bedroom was decorated in line with one of two distinct themes. The new "design" rooms use bright colours (satsuma, indigo and crimson), glass dividers between bedrooms and bathrooms, and mirrors to create a funky, minimalist environment, while the "contemporary" rooms feature restored original Waldorf furniture and vast illuminated artbox headboards. All rooms, designed by RPW Design, now feature Ligne Roset beds, pique linen, power showers, plasma television screens and high-speed internet access.

The refurbishment became more noticeable to guests once it moved into the public areas. Regular guests, in particular, were aware of the extent of the work because the service of breakfast moved between the old Minstrel function suite, the Adelphi Ballroom, and the Palm Court, before ending up in its permanent home - the new Homage Grand Salon. In addition, temporary reception and concierge desks moved around the ground floor of the building, and for two years only one guest lift out of three, was in operation.

But new guests, Scott says, would have hardly been aware of the extent of the refurbishment. "Whenever any of the public rooms were out of action, we insisted that the contractors partitioned the areas in such a way that they looked permanent," she says. "So temporary walls were decorated with cornices to blend in with the decor of the rest of the building, pictures were hung and the lighting was always properly done.

"We regarded it as our responsibility to ensure that we could offer our normal high standard of service, and getting the contractors to understand the demands of our business was certainly a very challenging part of the refurbishment."

While the builders and decorators were on site between 8am and 5pm, all noisy work was confined to the hours between 10am and 4pm. Guests were kept constantly updated via e-mails and newsletters about the state of the redecoration, and were always told about the on-going work when they booked.

Hilton's arrival resulted in a renewed sense of purpose to complete the refurbishment, and brought in some fresh ideas to enhance the finished look. In particular, modifications were made to the lobby area, which had just been completed to create a stark, minimal look. Hilton wanted to soften the finish and create a more glamorous, five-star experience.

The result, designed by Jane Johnson of Aukett Associates, blends together the old and the new with black-and-white photographs of London during the 1930s and 1940s juxtaposed against Carrera marble flooring, and traditional damask rugs in duck egg blue and chocolate alongside red leather egg chairs by Arne Jacobsen.

While the main function rooms - including the legendary Palm Court and the Adelphi Ballroom, which have been restored to their original subtle colours in keeping with their original English heritage status - were well on their way to completion prior to Hilton taking over management of the property, a decision still had to made on how the restaurant and bar were going to look and operate.

During Le Meridien's management of the hotel, talks had been held with the Restaurant Associates arm of Compass to run the restaurant and bar as a joint partnership operation. Hilton's takeover of the hotel resulted in the arrival of Roy Ackerman on the scene.

Ackerman, who has breathed new life into what were previously considered under-performing hotel restaurants at the likes of the Churchill Radisson (Locanda Locatelli) and the Millennium Copthorne Mayfair (Brian Turner Mayfair), was brought in as a consultant to create a new restaurant concept.

On seeing the space available to him - with the former Minstrel function suite at its centre - Ackerman immediately thought he had stumbled on a gem and was inspired to pay tribute to the grand caf‚s of Europe. As well as turning Minstrel into the main restaurant - the Homage Grand Salon - he has also created Homage Bar and Homage Patisserie.

"One of the most frequent complaints we received during the refurbishment related to the fact that we had no restaurant and only a temporary bar," Scott says. "The only food offer we had for two years, apart from functions, was breakfast and room service."

It was not Scott's policy to discount rooms if complaints were received as a result of the refurbishment, but she did offer room upgrades on future visits and invited guests for a complimentary meal in the new restaurant. "We are currently enjoying welcoming those guests back and are receiving some fabulous feedback regarding the hotel's new look."

After a very difficult couple of years, Scott is now feeling enormously positive about the future. "Having been quiet over the past two years in our marketing activities, we are now working hard at repositioning the hotel as one of the best in London," she says. "As a result of the refurbishment we have created a modern classic, and with the Waldorf name above the door and the Hilton brand behind us, we are driving the business forward in a major way."

To close or not to close?
While the Waldorf remained open during its refurbishment, some hotels have opted to close their doors for the duration of extensive building and decoration work.

The 248-bedroom Dorchester hotel famously shut up shop for 23 months between December 1988 and November 1990 when it underwent a £100m complete refurbishment, covering all areas of the hotel, back and front.

Currently, Brown's hotel - the 129-bedroom London flagship of Rocco Forte Hotels - is closed while undergoing a total refurbishment.

"Ideally one would try to trade through a refurbishment in order to maintain a level of income, ensure continuity of staff and to keep customers satisfied," says Richard Power, managing director of Rocco Forte Hotels (UK operations and brand marketing). "With Brown's we originally thought we could keep the hotel open as the property has two distinct entrances - one on Albemarle Street and one on Dover Street - and so the idea was to refurbish one half of the hotel at a time, while continuing to operate the other half. But it soon became apparent that the work that needed to be done on the roof would require the entire building to be encased in scaffolding. The extensive work needed inside also meant that there was a risk of not being able to maintain all essential supplies, including electricity and water."

The hotel closed in April last year and is due to reopen at the end of May/early June, following a complete refit of the 18th-century building, which will include the replacement of every single piece of copper piping and electrical cable, as well as the renovation of key historical features such as ceiling mouldings, wall panelling and architraves. Once completed, Brown's will feature the Grill restaurant, the Afternoon Tea Room and the Terence Donovan Bar.

Brown's is the second property Rocco Forte Hotels has closed for refurbishment. The Savoy in Florence was closed for one year, but the Balmoral in Edinburgh, the Amigo in Brussels and the Astoria in St Petersburg all remained open during extensive redecoration work.


The Waldorf Hilton Aldwych
Tel: 020 7836 2400

General manager: Amanda Scott
Head chef: Gerry Rae
Restaurant directors: Daniel Morgan
No of bedrooms: 300
No of staff: 200
Occupancy in 2004: 70%
Projected occupancy in 2005: 80%
Rack rate: £198 for standard double

InterContinental Keeping guests well informed of any disturbances that may occur during a refurbishment is the key to keeping guests happy.

This is the view of Jennifer Ploszaj, director of public relations, InterContinental Hotels & Resort, who is referring to the major redecoration which is just starting at the InterContinental Hotel at Hyde Park Corner, London. It is expected to take just over 12 months to refurbish all 451 bedrooms and public areas, as well as establish a new spa and health club.

"Staff have been trained in how to communicate what is happening to the guests and the guests themselves will receive letters each day to let them know where the major disturbances are going to be," she says.

All work is being undertaken during the working day, when most guests are out of the hotel. The first phase of the refurbishment, involving 90 bedrooms, is expected to be completed by May, when work will stop until the end of the holiday season.

Gleneagles Refurbishment work is an ongoing activity at the 270-bedroom Gleneagles hotel in Auchterarder, Perthshire. Over the past four years, all the public spaces have been redecorated and the refurbishment of all 16 suites is nearing completion. Bedrooms are constantly being updated, with 20-40 bedrooms each year being given a new look.

In order to ensure disturbance to hotel guests is kept to a minimum, an entire block of bedrooms in one wing of the hotel will be cordoned off at a time for refurbishment. If a single suite is to be decorated, then all rooms either side, as well as above and below, will be closed. For every suite out of service, an additional eight to 10 bedrooms are likely to be unavailable for hire to the public.

"We take every step to ensure that guests are not inconvenienced by noise or dust caused during a refurbishment by isolating the rooms concerned," says hotel general manager and current Hotelier of the Year Patrick Elsmie. "If there is a complaint, then work will cease until the guest leaves. If there is an on-going problem then, of course, we will make a gesture to the guest as we want all our guests to leave happy."

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