Fast Track Restoration

Last summer's rash of hurricanes created a nightmare for Florida residents and businesses alike. Months later, a sea of bright blue tarp-covered roofs greets visitors flying over the state, while row upon row of trees stoop naked, stripped of their foliage.

The hospitality industry too suffered huge losses, and has yet to fully recover from the economic, as well as physical, lashing.

Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa, Fort Myers, FL, overlooking Sanibel and Captiva islands, took a glancing blow from quick-moving, yet devastating Hurricane Charley as it slammed into the west coast of the state. While luckier than some, the four-diamond luxury resort sustained significant wind and rain damage, enough to shut it down for the past four months. It's slated to reopen February 1, following a $30-million restoration.

We spoke with hotel representatives and the design team's leader for a look at what it takes to get a damaged property back up and running quickly. It's a lesson in teamwork, patience, accommodation and many compromises.


The Sanibel Harbour & Resort, owned by Liberty Mutual Insurance Company and managed by Liberty Hospitality, comprises the original grand hotel — the Tarpon Inn with 234 rooms in the main building — and a separate tower with 107 rooms; a conference center and ballroom. There are also two condominium towers with approximately 50 units that participate in the hotel's rental pool.

With 40,000 square feet of dedicated meeting space, the resort also is a magnet for business and social functions. One news story estimated the meetings business lost in the first three months following the hurricane was in the millions of dollars — all the more reason to get back on track as fast as possible to recoup lost revenue.

Damage from the hurricane was mainly caused by wind-driven water intrusion. Landscaping was also beat up. Roofs, windows and doors, particularly sliding glass doors, were compromised. With power out for four days, the region's high heat and humidity only exacerbated the situation, further damaging fabrics and wallcoverings.

Extensive remodeling includes redecoration of guest-rooms, the lobby, meeting space and other common areas, as well as a reconcepting of restaurants and lounges. Chicago-based Gettys Group, under the direction of Gintaras Lietuvninkas, AIA, senior vice president, is leading the restoration.

“Water got into the rooms, carpet became waterlogged and furniture started to wick up some of the moisture, resulting in wood splitting,” reports Lietuvninkas. “The environment was so humid that the owners were concerned with the long-term effects of moisture on the upholstery. Basically, the insurance company threw up its hands and said ‘start over with a clean slate.’”

The resort had been renovated just two years prior to the storm, which must have been frustrating to consider that all that work and expense had gone to waste; and yet, in some ways it was a blessing, says Lietuvninkas. Vendors were able to call up old orders and find duplicate furnishings and fixtures. The original design plans were still familiar to the designers. “We had to make sure things were still available and that the pricing hadn't changed too much, which it hadn't.

“The client decided to hit the replay button and recreate the existing look,” says Lietuvninkas, “because we needed to get back up and running quickly with no time to rethink the design, plus the owners were very pleased with the original renovation two years earlier. Our intent was to create a carbon copy.

“We came down in late August to evaluate what had to be done and develop a plan of attack with the clients. They formally engaged us in mid-September.”


In addition to restoring the damaged rooms, the owners wanted to make some capital improvements, adapting the guestroom design for the hotel building to the inn, reports Lietuvninkas. “It was an opportunity to piggyback on the design they already had and realize some economies of scale. So the challenge we're faced with is that while we started with mostly a recovery project, it grew into a recovery-plus-capital-improvement project, while the time frame for completion never changed.”

A comparable design project might normally take about 18 months if started from scratch, suggests Lietuvninkas. What's been compressed is the design decision-making period and approval process. “But we didn't have that luxury at this point,” he says. “What helped was there was a great deal of trust on both sides. The client had to put trust in us. The guestrooms were easy to do because they understood the look from before. But for the public areas we had to pull together the design in very short order.

“We had an intense two-day design and review period here in Chicago,” continues Lietuvninkas. “Things were not very well developed; it was more about feel and mood but not specific. So they (the owners) took a leap of faith that what they would get would be similar to but not identical to what we presented.

“What has helped is a willingness of the client to be flexible and to understand things are going to be more costly in terms of our time involved in the projects. We've had to designate a large team for the project, working late during the week and on weekends. We have easily 10 people on the project. We set up a design war room in one of the meeting rooms on property with computer stations and working with an architect out of Miami.”

The interior design aims to capture the ambiance of a stately Floridian plantation home. Guestrooms feature warm sand tones, antique-look bamboo furnishings, marble baths and soft botanical accents.

In addition, arborists have been retained to clean up the landscaping. Initially the landscaping damage was so great the roads to the property were impassable. Lots of flowering plants have been incorporated to draw the eye away from the thinned out ficus trees that line the main drive to the resort.

Public areas are being completely redesigned to reflect a warm island-inspired elegance. The grand hotel is being redesigned with furnishings and fixtures in elegant earth tones, polished stone tiles and natural wood accents. A majestic water feature and a renovation of two grand staircases in the hotel lobby welcome guests and frame island views beyond.

“Early on it was very intense getting documentation together so contractors could order materials and make order permits based on the drawings,” says Lietuvninkas. “We tried as much as we could to keep changes to a minimum. With time such an issue here we had to urge the client to make decisions and stick with them. Drawings were not as complete as would be otherwise. Things come up that aren't anticipated, and there's lot of on-the-fly decision making, but it is a very cooperative environment.

“We tapped into our good relationship with vendors focusing on in stock items versus custom,” says Lietuvninkas. “We found a good contractor. It's been tough, I hear, to get materials, and another difficulty was the permitting process. Everyone wants to get their buildings up and running. Getting permits expedited was a real challenge.”

But somehow it's all coming together. “We're moving at a fevered pitch,” reported Barry Brown, director of sales and marketing for the resort, in late December. “The hard construction is done, finishes are going up, and just moments ago I passed three delivery trucks. No one does a renovation of this magnitude in five months, and it's been an awesome task.

“We've taken meeting planners and travel agents around to see how the restoration is progressing,” continues Brown. “They'll see the designers complete a sketch and hand it to the architect next door who in turn hands it to the contractor saying ‘this is what we want; get a permit and make it happen.’ The intensity and dedication shown by all is fantastic.”

According to Brian Holly, managing director, Sanibel Harbour's 500 employees are pitching in to help with the restoration and undergoing an extensive service training program before the grand reopening. “We pride ourselves on being a premier destination for travelers, meetings and events, and we're working diligently to ready ourselves to provide a guest experience that's better than ever.”

Bermuda Properties Complete Recovery Efforts

Last August, the 593-room Fairmont Southampton, Bermuda, re-opened its doors after closing for seven months to recover from Hurricane Fabian. The $60-million hotel restoration project, which includes renovations that began prior to the hurricane, is said to be the most comprehensive of its kind in the history of Bermuda. Its sister property, the 410-room Fairmont Hamilton Princess, was able to remain open after the hurricane and with the refurbishments made before and after the hurricane has now completed a total of more than $32 million in renovations.

A process that would normally take 15 months took just seven months with the help of the Bermuda government, Bermuda Industrial Union, Fairmont Southampton staff, contractors, and design and construction staff all working together, reports Norman Mastalir, managing director of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Bermuda and general manager of The Fairmont Southampton. “More than half of our 500 full-time staff stayed on throughout the temporary closure to accomplish everything that needed to be done, from collecting trash and painting to repairing air conditioners and assisting with construction work.”

The Fairmont Southampton restorations included installing a brand-new 100,000-square-foot hurricane-resistant roof, painting the exterior building, and refurbishing the Fairmont Gold Lounge, Willow Stream Spa and 483 guestrooms.

The Fairmont Hamilton Princess restorations included repairs to interior corridors, all three roofs, the main dock and harbor sea wall. The saltwater pool was completely redone, adding a new arbor to the pool area, and restorations to more than 150 rooms and the Heritage Court were made.

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