Holiday Inn chain upgrades with style

ByBarbara De Lollis, USA TODAY

NEW YORK -- When the Holiday Inn in Chelsea opens Thursday, you won't find the chain's typical old wall-to-wall carpeting, floral bedspreads, a front desk cluttered with hotel brochures or rows of impatiens planted outside.

Instead, you'll see hardwood flooring, columns made from hand-laid river rocks, and slender Japanese planters outside.

This newly built Holiday Inn hotel is one of the first in the USA to bear the modern version of the green-and-white Holiday Inn logo — a sign meant to convey radical changes underway. As many as a thousand of the chain's existing 3,200 hotels worldwide are expected to earn the new sign this year, with the entire chain completely revamped by early 2010.

The new look is just one part of a sweeping, $1 billion overhaul that InterContinental ihg launched last year to revive the iconic brand.

The new design "brings us 20 years forward and projects us 10 years beyond," says Steven Porter, president of The Americas, InterContinental Hotel Group, during a tour of the hotel earlier this month.

Holiday Inn isn't just slapping new signs on old facilities. Instead, it stepped up quality inspections at all its hotels, and it's providing hotel owners with guidance on how to meet new standards.

The standards cover everything, including the entrance lighting, shower rods, lobby soundtrack and customer service training.

Before the makeover process began, Holiday Inn also stopped renewing contracts of hundreds of hotels that didn't meet standards or had exterior corridors that travelers perceive as unsafe. It also devised a stylish new look for newly built Holiday Inns such as the one in Manhattan to reignite development deals.

Some elements of the plan — such as illuminating the hotel at night in the brand's signature color — will also be carried over to Holiday Inn Express to unify the brands, but the newer Express chain doesn't need as dramatic a makeover.

Not aging gracefully

Created in 1954, the roadside hotel chain flourished by franchising as the USA's interstate highway system grew.

But it's been losing share in recent years as younger chains won over customers, and aging hotels appeared too dowdy.

Drastic action was needed to rescue the brand because older hotels were starting to outlive their lifespan, says Steve Rushmore, president of HVS, the hospitality consulting firm.

"Unless you do a significant renovation to existing properties, or a have them leave the chain, your chain starts to deteriorate and becomes old and obsolete," he says.

Once an existing hotel has been renovated, passed inspections and hung the new Holiday Inn sign, Porter says owners will see revenue per available room — a typical industry measure that considers rate and occupancy — increase by between 3% and 7% above normal inflation.

The contemporary design is meant to appeal to its Baby Boomer customer base, as well as younger travelers who might pick one of the stylish, midprice hotel brands recently launched, such as Aloft, Element or Hyatt Place.

Ellen Kline, a Realtor in State College, Pa., says she quit staying at Holiday Inns about a year ago because she didn't like not knowing whether she'd pull up to a good hotel or a poor one. Now, she stays mostly at Marriott-brand hotels.

"I like to stay in a place that's clean and up to date," she says.

Still, Kline, 50, says she'll consider staying in Holiday Inns once they're overhauled when traveling for conferences or on road trips with her teenage daughter. The chain fits her budget. Holiday Inn's average rate this year is around $97 a night.

But Holiday Inn has advantages beyond price, Rushmore says.

"Holiday Inn still has a very powerful name and reservation system, and being part of InterContinental Hotels has the advantage that they can cross sell," he says. "They're not starting out from ground zero like a new brand."

By the end of this month, about 40 Holiday Inns in the USA will have earned the right to install new signs. The list includes hotels in Dumfries, Va., and Wichita; and near the airports in Santa Ana, Calif., and Austin. Porter expects all 3,000 hotels will be completed by 2010.

Project green light

The revamped hotels preserve little from the past. The primary reminder is the splash of green in the Holiday Inn sign and entry lighting, recalling the old green-and-white-striped Holiday Inn towels.

Walking up to the Sixth Avenue Holiday Inn in Chelsea, guests see black Japanese-style planters and a modern steel-and-glass portico. At night, it is illuminated with that vibrant green lighting.

Guests will hear hip, chart-topping music by singers such as Jack Johnson, John Mayer and Kylie Minogue from built-in speakers both outside and inside the lobby. Rhythms will change by time of day.

In the lobby, they'll see a minimalist front desk. The "check-in" sign hangs from the ceiling, instead of resting on the counter, to reinforce the uncluttered look. Check-in counters will be kept free of promotional brochures, reflecting more sophisticated travelers who know what they want.

The beds feature white cotton duvet covers, white sheets and higher-quality mattresses. The shower has a curved shower rod and curtain that lets in more light.

Hotels have leeway in the design

Since the cookie-cutter look is no longer in vogue, Holiday Inn created design guidelines and color palettes that can be interpreted differently by hotels.

The plan doesn't address the restaurants, which serve at least breakfast, dinner and room service.

It also doesn't target the Holidome pool and activity area, although the chain adopted new standards in the last two years so that only hotels with the appropriate features hold that designation.

Guests, meanwhile, may see improvements before the new Holiday Inn sign appears, as the process can be lengthy.

At the 23-year-old Holiday Inn in El Paso, for instance, the hotel already has the new front desk, bedding and linens. A few more changes must be made before the new sign comes in October, but customers already show more enthusiasm, says owner Bill DeForrest, who's also CEO of Lane Hospitality. Guests have paid an average of $104.72 so far this year, or 13% more than the same period last year — a bigger jump than he would've received without the renovation, he says.

Occupancy and guest satisfaction levels also rose higher than normal, despite new competition in the past 18 months from limited-service hotels such as Hilton Garden Inn and Holiday Inn Express, he says.

"They're paying more and they're happier with the way the hotel's treating them," says DeForrest, who chairs the Holiday Inn owners' committee.

Readers, what amenities would you like to see at the revamped Holiday Inns?

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