Patience is not an easy virtue to come by while waiting for the domestic hotel market to fully recover. Architects who thrived during the heady years leading up to the recent recession can’t help but ask: Are we there yet? No, experts say, but we’re close.

The recovery, which is already under way, is characterized by increased demand and a rebound in revenue per available room (RevPAR). In 2010, RevPAR jumped by 5.5 percent, according to the March–May 2011 Horizons Report from Colliers PKF Hospitality Research. The same report forecasts that U.S. hotels should achieve a 7.1 percent increase in RevPAR and lodging accommodation demand should increase by 4 percent in 2011.

The improvement in fundamentals is undeniable, but owners and operators were hit hard in 2009, when the hospitality industry’s average daily rate (ADR) dipped 8.5 percent and RevPAR plunged 16.6 percent, according to PKF. David Sussman, senior vice president, hotel development and design at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, says these factors had some owners asking themselves if they should pay their mortgage or renovate.

“Last year, people really slowed down and stopped renovations,” he says, adding that the sense of uneasiness has begun to quell, and owners are again spending on design services.

Refresh or Reposition?

At the end of January, Smith Travel Research (STR) reported a total of 352 major hotel renovations under way in the U.S. An untold number of smaller projects—a refreshing of a lobby, for example—are also ongoing. What these projects entail varies greatly based on each owner’s specific objectives.

“When it comes to repositioning, it’s likely a more radical intervention, a more comprehensive look at the project,” says Jonathan Wyman, director of development, North America, for WATG in the firm’s Irvine, Calif., office. “A renovation could be updating guest rooms. There’s no set benchmark.”

What is consistent is that hotel owners are constantly considering a host of capital expenditure (CapEx) projects. Some of these are dictated by a material’s life span, while others are part of an operating company’s brand standards—any number of requirements that owners agree to meet to retain a brand’s “flag.”

In CapEx 2007, a study of capital expenditures in the hotel industry focusing on the years 2000–05, the International Society of Hotel Consultants (ISHC) points out that though owners don’t necessarily stick to a set timetable for renovations, there is a pattern of periodic spikes of capital spending. The study attributes this spending, in part, to the brand-mandated capital-improvement programs.

Sussman explains that hotel owners set aside a certain percentage of its revenue each year for capital improvements. “The question,” he says, “is when do you spend the money?”

Once a property is up and running, it’s only a matter of time before an owner has to evaluate soft goods—commonly defined as everything in the room that’s not a casegood—which Sussman says have an average life span of seven years. Hard pieces, or case goods, can easily last 15 years. “Furniture is generally changed more because of the look of the hotel. Soft goods have a useful life,” he says.

The life span of any element of a hotel generally depends on the hotel’s particular brand and its star, says Donald Harrier, an associate principal at HKS Hill Glazier Studio in Palo Alto, Calif. Harrier recalls a project that his firm did for Montage Hotels & Resorts in Laguna Beach, Calif., in 2003. In 2007, the hotel underwent a renovation that involved adding suites and redoing furniture and fixtures.

“Their clientele demands that level of luxury,” Harrier says.

Prioritizing Projects

Joe Erickson, principal in charge of San Francisco–based Cooper Riley, specializing in hospitality owner representation, says owners are focused on doing the most with what they’ve got, capital-wise. Right now, he says, the emphasis is being placed on the “experience of arrival,” though that can mean as little as new exterior paint or lighting or refreshing a hotel lobby with new carpet and freshly reupholstered furniture. “Eventually, owners are going to renovate,” he says. “They are buying time, doing the minimum with cash on hand to see the most impact.”

According to CapEx 2007, even the most sophisticated asset managers have difficulty in accurately predicting the time and cost of a hotel’s major capital expenditures. Though data now exists to evaluate the “typical” capital needs of a property over its life cycle, the “human factor” will always complicate the task, the study says.

Kirby Payne, co-president of HVS Hotel Management in Newport, R.I., says that there are lots of different kinds of owners, with different motivations. At the end of the day, he says, someone is doing an economic analysis.

“Say you don’t have pressure on you [from a brand], you have to ask if this is accretive to revenues, to the bottom line, or is it just going to keep me from losing money? You might have a remodel that is purely defensive.” He cites the removal of packaged terminal air conditioner (PTAC) units in rooms, which a hotel might elect to replace because the noise of the units is hurting business.

Michael Booth, a founding principal of San Francisco–based design firm BAMO, says that guest expectations are also high when it comes to bathrooms. “Today’s [luxury] guests expect four fixtures, including a freestanding shower and a tub,” Booth says. Most older luxury properties were built with just three fixtures in smaller facilities, according to Booth.

Parker-Torres Design, a Wayland, Mass.–based interior design and interior architectural firm, is negotiating bathroom renovations at the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston. Wanting to avoid wall demolition, Barbara Parker, a principal of the firm, says that the firm is studying ways to convert an existing closet into a luxurious shower.

Because hotels operate a number of income streams in addition to the guest rooms, renovations also focus on growing and improving meeting facilities to capture more group business, updating bar and restaurant spaces, and sometimes adding spa services.

Other properties have found new uses for underutilized space. In 2009, the Fairmont San Francisco turned to Freebairn-Smith & Crane, a San Francisco–based planning, urban design, and architecture firm, to design “Intersect: A Fairmont Media Lounge,” a 2,400-square-foot facility featuring contemporary furniture, a Bang & Olufsen music system, gaming systems, a Microsoft Surface interactive table and other state-of-the-art technology that can be used for corporate events and social gatherings.

According to Freebairn-Smith & Crane principal Janet Crane, the lounge occupies space previously used for hotel offices. “This is an unusual emphasis for a hotel of that kind,” Crane says. “They are trying to use contemporary media as a social device to encourage guests of all ages and profiles to have fun together in an atypical setting.”