A Magical Makeover

Sometimes a renovation just isn't enough. A hotel's physical assets may be so run down and its image in the market so tattered that a traditional slap-on-the-paint, buy-new-furniture upgrade project won't cure its ills or give it a chance for long-term success. Such was the dilemma facing AMC Delancey Group and its operating partners, Paramount Hotel Group when they purchased a rundown, but well-located full-service hotel in Maitland, FL, a northern suburb of Orlando.

Where some would see a tired, well-past-its-prime hotel, the owners saw “an opportunity to add value to a great real estate asset,” says Jay Burnett, AMC Delancey's asset manager. “We saw demand generators in the marketplace that with the right product could make this hotel a success.”

So instead of tackling a typical renovation on the go, the owners closed the 20-year-old property in August 2005 and spent 11 months and millions of dollars to, in essence, build a new hotel. The reconstructed Sheraton Orlando North, which reopened last September, has the look, feel, facilities and spirit of a brand-new hotel.

The decision to close the property during the project was really a nobrainer, says General Manager Peter Valenzuela. “The renovation — actually it was a total gutting down to the studs — was so extensive that we knew we couldn't remain open during the process. Also, closing and then reopening as a new hotel gave us greater impact in the market than if we would have tried to keep operating.”

Centerpiece of the new hotel is a massive atrium with a tropical feel, a waterfall and lots of light. The atrium features casual seating areas, a three-meal restaurant and bar and a Starbucks kiosk. The property has 390 guestrooms, all with the Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Bed and linen package, flat-screen TVs and high-speed Internet access.

Public areas include 15,000 square feet of meeting space, business center, gym and gameroom. One prominent feature of the project is the outdoor pool area. What was previously a modest pool and nondescript deck was transformed into a showpiece with lots of seating, rock features, a Jacuzzi and a giant waterfall at one end.

“While it's primarily a business hotel, we also needed to consider the leisure side of the market,” says Burnett. “We knew we had to make the outdoor areas as memorable as the interiors.”

Labor was a major challenge for the management team, as many employees moved on to other hotels or industries when the property closed. And, of course, in a tourism-centric market like Orlando the competition for good workers is intense. Valenzuela saw it as an opportunity.

“One of the advantages of being closed during the project was that we had a year to find, recruit and hire the right line-level and management employees for the hotel,” he says.

The story of the Sheraton's turnaround is as much about sales and marketing as it is about the renovation. While technically in the Orlando area, the Sheraton is five miles north of downtown and well away from Disney, Universal and other resort attractions. Instead, it markets itself as a classic transient hotel with a mix of groups and individual travelers, along with strong weekend business. The property benefits by its location within the 6.4 million-square-foot Maitland Center business park as well as its visibility to busy I-4.

Much of the heavy marketing lifting fell to Director of Sales & Marketing Anita Blackwelder and her sales crew. Most of the marketing team came from other properties in the immediate market so they knew where to find the business. Black-welder had been GM of a nearby Homewood Suites by Hilton before joining the Sheraton.

“The hotel had such a bad reputation that Anita had to spend a lot of time in the community spreading the word of what we were doing here,” says Valenzuela. Part of the effort was an extensive public relations campaign using the slogan “Soaring to New Heights.” In fact, Black-welder says that all through the preopening marketing effort, she and her team stressed that the hotel is “an all-new Sheraton, not a property that is being renovated. This way, we were able to position it as the new kid on the block.”

As part of the renovation process, the team convened a series of focus-group lunches with 25 key accounts in which they asked customers what they'd like to see in the new property. Based on the feedback, some of the services and facilities incorporated into the final incarnation of the hotel were 24-hour roomservice, a Starbucks in the lobby, refrigerators in the guestrooms and Smart Board technology in the meeting areas.

Central to the pre-opening marketing campaign was a steady stream of updates on the progress of the renovation. The marketers used e-mail campaigns, website updates and face-to-face sales blitzes to build momentum for the reopening. Just prior to reopening, the hotel staged several Hawaiian-themed parties to further rev up interest.

The sales team had 30,000 roomnights on the books at opening and for its efforts was named 2006 Transition/New Build Sales Team of the Year by Starwood Hotels.

Now, a year after reopening, the hotel is enjoying strong group business, especially from associations and government groups. Also, the levels of social catering business are “triple or quadruple” original forecasts, reports management. Because of the strong group business, the owners are considering creating additional meeting space for the hotel, perhaps another ballroom.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.


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