328 | Curb Appeal: Hotels’ refreshed images designed to attract road trippers

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ROOM TO BREATHE: Hilton in April rolled out a new prototype for its Homewood Suites, an upscale extended-stay brand. Roof lines are more linear in hotels’ newest designs, say industry experts. And biophilic elements as well as more outdoor spaces go a long way in creating curb appeal as domestic travelers hit the road this summer.

Modern designs, green spaces and a promise of safety create positive first impressions

AAA predicts nearly 48 million Americans will travel during the Fourth of July weekend. Of that number, 41 million will drive.

AAA says road trips are the biggest driver of travel’s recovery in the near term.

Destination Analysis this month surveyed more 1,200 American travelers and found 73 percent are excited to travel this summer. More than half plan to stay in a hotel.

The would-be vacationers are in search of relaxation, new experiences and scenic beauty.

That lovely scenery may include your hotel. And if its exterior shows signs of neglect or is weather beaten, now’s the time to give it a facelift because first impressions count when capturing your fair share of business.

It’s the season to think about what your hotel’s exterior looks like from the road – whether a traveler spots it from behind the wheel or while browsing the web.

AAA forecasts nearly 49 million Americans will travel this Fourth of July weekend, most of them by vehicle. The association says road trips are the biggest driver of travel’s recovery in the near term.

Digital Impressions

Ted Arps, chief development officer at Spire Hospitality in Dallas, Texas, said the company is seeing more guests booking while on the road. And they’re using a combination of in-real-life curb appeal and online images to make a decision.

Arps said before the coronavirus pandemic the term “walk-ins” had practically disappeared from hoteliers’ lexicon. But the crisis has renewed the booking trend as more Americans make last-minute decisions on when and where to travel.

“We’ve seen on a weekend about 5 to 8 percent of traffic coming through walk-ins, which is actually an increase,” Arps said. “However, those folks are looking on their phone before they get there.”

Prospective guests are using online photos as a decision-making factor in booking a hotel. It’s the 21st century form of curb appeal.

CURB APPEAL: Episode 328 of Lodging Leaders podcast explores the importance of curb appeal as hotels reposition this summer for a post-pandemic recovery. Choice Hotels International in May rolled out a new prototype for its Comfort brand. In development before the pandemic, the redesign project turned out to be a prescient effort as the coronavirus crisis has forced hotel owners and developers to maximize cost efficiency and capitalize on altered guest behavior, including an attraction to open outdoor spaces. The Comfort prototype has added a porch where guests can spend time outdoors relaxing or dining.

Trust Issue

The coronavirus pandemic has changed guest behavior by creating a heightened awareness of cleanliness and health safety.

A hotel’s website can reassure prospective guest that clean-and-safe protocols are in place, but travelers also are drawn to a hotel that can portray that promise at first glance.

Hotel owners and operators would do well to review their property’s landscaping and outdoor lighting, making sure everything is well-maintained and litter-free.

“All of those things that are sort of standard become important but have been a challenge for the industry because of staffing,” Arps said. “Maintaining the building physically and the cleanliness and safety is a challenge, but it is absolutely fundamental.”

When it comes to cleaning up, include your hotel’s website in that effort. “Your website and all points of contact electronically need to be up to date and need to convey that message of cleanliness and safety,” Arps said. “If your website’s out of date then folks are going to assume that the hotel looks that way.”

He notes your hotel is portrayed online not only by the photos you post, but those that guests share as well. “Those pictures need to signify the same level of quality.”

Online photos of your hotel that show a clean and well-maintained property go a long way in reassuring travel consumers that their experience will be stress-free.

The first impression of your hotel is most likely shared online. The images have to promote what guests will see when they physically show up. If the two are not aligned “then you have a trust issue,” Arps said. “With any guest, when things go wrong at the beginning of a visit everything else is looked at through that optic. You want to have a great first impression then be able to reinforce that through the visit.”

The exterior design of the building is key in attracting business. Road trippers may choose to bypass a hotel that looks dated and unkempt and opt for a competitor’s hotel that appears more modern and thoughtfully designed.

“There’s a huge renaissance going on right now to try and figure out what that guest journey looks like and how the physical facility addresses that,” Arps said.

THE FACE OF IT: In 2018 Hilton rolled out a new prototype for its Hampton Inn brand that is heavily focused on updating the exterior of the property. At top is a before photo of the Hampton Inn Cumberland in metro-Atlanta. Below is a photo after the exterior renovation by Amerail Systems.

Façade Time

Lelia Morgan is a sales associate with Amerail Systems in Erie, Pennsylvania. The company got its start in 1985 by crafting and installing railings for Holiday Inn, which at the time were exterior-corridor properties.

Amerail has grown into a national hotel renovation company. It has reconstructed the façades of 2,400 exterior- and interior-corridor hotels over the past 35 years.

“The saying, ‘First impressions are everything’ really does ring true for hotels,” Morgan said. “Curb appeal provides that first impression of what a guest can expect and really can influence how they feel about their entire stay. Strong curb appeal includes ensuring the outer façade and entrance are clean and pristine. This often can be done on a budget for hotel owners, just a good power wash and repaint. That’s going to hide a lot of sun fading or small cracks in the paint.

“Guests are going to be attracted to modern, updated looking properties. You’ll want to ensure that the property appears clean well-lit and well-maintained to maximize your curb appeal.”

Amerail was busy throughout the pandemic year 2020 with exterior renovation projects, including Hilton’s reimagined design for its Hampton Inn brand.

In 2018, Hampton Inn leaders launched the brand’s new prototype that included a redesign of the exteriors and outdoor public spaces.

The flat roof remains but with more straight lines and a porte-cochere that blends locally sourced elements such as wood grains, brick and stonework with earthy paint colors.

Morgan said the trend toward straighter roof lines is not exclusive to Hampton Inn as many refreshed or new hotel building designs feature roof lines that are more linear and sleek. “We see a lot of removal of decorative cornice features and the addition of higher parapets and flat roof lines that provides a very modern look to properties,” she said.

Despite the pandemic’s disruption of the lodging business, Hampton Inn continued to refresh in accordance with the new prototype.

Meantime, franchisers rolled out new prototypes for other brands.

Hilton in April rolled out a new look for its Homewood Suites, an upscale extended-stay product.

In May, Choice Hotels International launched a refreshed design for its Comfort brand, an upper-midscale hotel.

Although the prototypes encompass the whole hotel, the schemes change the exterior designs of the hotels. They reduce the building’s footprint, enlarge the outdoor spaces that serve as an extension of the hotel’s public areas.

NIGHT SHADES: Hotel designers recommend hoteliers post online images of their hotel’s exterior at night as creative lighting adds another welcoming dimension to the hotel’s image. Pictured is a nighttime view of Choice Hotels International’s new prototype for its Comfort brand.

‘Indoor-Outdoor Space’

During the Hunter Hotel Investment Conference in May, Lodging Leaders caught up with David Pepper, chief development officer for Choice Hotels, who talked about the Rise & Shine prototype as well as Comfort’s redesign history.

The new prototype, Pepper said, was driven by franchisees in search of a more cost-efficient building to operate and maintain. The redesign was in planning before the pandemic struck.

“We were really thinking ahead of the pandemic, I guess, because we have this indoor-outdoor space as well to kind of use for your breakfast and social area to use outdoor spacing, which today is huge, huge to have,” Pepper said.

Like Hilton, Choice Hotels turned to owners to learn what design changes would ultimately make business sense.

The refresh strategy began pre-pandemic, but it turned out to be a positive move as the crisis has caused inflation in building products and made financing more challenging to come by.

The Rise & Shine Comfort prototype was designed with a cost per key of around $85,000. But the pandemic’s impact on the supply chain and the cost of construction materials such as lumber as well as the cost of labor have pushed that per-unit price tag to around $100,000. Pepper is hopeful as the crisis eases, costs will fall back in line with the original projection.

The last time the Comfort brand underwent a major redesign was in 2014 as the lodging industry recovered from the Great Recession.

Mindful of financing challenges owners faced at that time, Choice Hotels offered owners financial incentives that totaled $40 million.

Pepper said the program also removed about 500 outdated Comfort-branded hotels from the system and made room for new-build Comforts. Today, Choice has 1,600 Comfort hotels open in the U.S.

The Rise & Shine redesign is the next evolution of Comfort’s revitalization, Pepper said. “It was a declining brand from a size standpoint because we were taking so many products out, but you saw in the last year, if you read our earnings reports, Comfort is now growing system again, and we need a new prototype to show how fresh the brand is and show what the future is.”

As with most branded design packages, franchisees can chose from several color and material schemes that align with the hotel’s market.

Comfort offers developers three options called City, Sea and Sun.

Along with the introduction of natural elements to a hotel’s design façade, Hampton’s beige exteriors have transitioned to mixed hues of grays.

Hoteliers are rethinking their building’s exterior colors as well as the materials that will complement the overall design.

“Color schemes are like a lot of architectural details, very dependent on the location of the hotel,” Morgan said. “It’s important to pick colors that complement not only your hotel brand, but your geographical location. What will look good on a Southwest desert environment may not be the best pick for a beach town or a ski resort area.

“Even before the pandemic, we were seeing an increase in biophilic design features. Simply put bringing more elements of nature into hotel design. We’ve seen a continued use of more faux wood and stone materials.

“We also see a major focus on green design and sustainability. A lot of our recent projects have been including new energy efficient windows. So we really believe that moving forward design trends are going to continue to focus on wellness and sustainability and the biophilic design.”

GREEN MOUNTAINS: Spire Hospitality manages the Topnotch Resort in Stowe, Vermont, pictured here at dusk.

Competitive Edge

The pandemic’s negative impact on travel forced some hotels to close or scale back operations. Meantime, new hotels continued to open. The challenge is for the so-called older hotels to compete with fresher, more modern-looking properties at a time when cash flow is significantly reduced, said Arps.

“Some owners had the opportunity and were fortunate enough to take the downtime to renovate,” he said. “If you had the opportunity to do that it’s going give you a competitive advantage in ’21, ‘22 and ’23.”

While many brands have waived PIP requirements for the time being, Arps said owners and operators of existing hotels should be aware that as they look for the money to ramp up business, new hotels have opened and are competing for that same business.

“There’s a lot of aging product that is reopening now, and it’s going to be tough.”

The coronavirus crisis created an unprecedented level problems and challenges for hotel owners and operators. As COVID-19 vaccines increase and the pandemic’s impact on travel eases, more and more Americans are hitting road this summer. That development presents the hotel industry with a new set of challenges.

“The signs are encouraging. It’s going to be an amazing summer,” Arps said. “We as an industry need to continue to find ways to attract team members back to the properties, to help keep guests happy. That is a huge challenge right now.

“I think we’re going to ramp up quicker than we originally thought. And we just need to be prepared for that. So now is the time to do that. This topic is very timely. Committing the capital, even just committing the team-member capital to be able to go back to providing a clean, comfortable place to stay is important.

“It may be a little bit painful to get there, but we’re going to start seeing guests coming back in the door and they’re going to have a choice, as they always have. And they’re going to pick the places where they feel comfortable.”

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