Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A room with twice the view.

Downtown hotels seem can’t seem to get a break.  No matter how valiant the effort of local economic development directors in attracting that major chain (Hilton, Marriott, Intercontinental) and no matter how unorthodox the architects’ designs, the closeted coterie of urban advocates never hesitate to lob their Molotov cocktails at the final proposal.   Perhaps it’s the transformative effect a successful hotel can exert on a downtown’s pedestrian activity; perhaps it’s the ex post facto realization that everyone ultimately overhyped that transformative effect.  (Hotels rarely seem to stimulate further activity, nor do they necessary help to fill vacant storefronts of neighboring buildings.) Maybe it’s realization that biggest and most influential hotels nearly always arrive in the form of a multinational chain; maybe it’s resentment that the bland chains most reliable survive the occasional economic downturn.  Maybe the love-hate relationship simply parallels the conflicting emotions that the locals feel toward the typical hotel’s biggest users: the tourists.

Regardless of the final outcome, hotels in urban settings generate simultaneous excitement and derision, often with little consideration for both the complexity of the deal and the hotels’ extreme sensitivity to occasional lapses in tourism, conventions, or optimal climatic conditions. The most common metric in the hospitality industry to gauge overall hotel performance is RevPAR (Revenue Per Available Room), which equates to the hotel’s average daily room rate (ADR) multiplied by its occupancy rate.  Because hotels are widely variable, the analysis of RevPAR is highly sensitive to both seasonal and weekly fluctuations.  Ideally, any RevPAR study for a single hotel will evaluate using a certain benchmark, such as consecutive Fridays over several years.  RevPAR could also determine regional performances, by taking the median RevPAR for all hotels of a certain size within a city across a single year-long duration, then comparing it to peer cities and their respective year-long RevPARs.  Smith Travel Research is the leading agency responsible for assessing general economic trends within the hotel and hospitality industry. 

Most hotels expect to operate at a median occupancy rate of 60%.  Dipping more than 2% below that suggests either a hotel’s poor performance (if it’s an outlier within the region), an oversupply of rooms (if other hotels are suffering the same rates), or a generally struggling local market.  This low elasticity manifests itself for positive hotel performance as well: persistent occupancy rates above 65% will encourage other industry leaders to test their luck in that region.  But, aside from seasonal vicissitudes in tourism, fickle convention business, or over-representation from particular demographics among visitors, most hotels also struggle to keep those RevPARs high because of continually shifting consumer tastes.  Few hotels better demonstrate this struggle to remain viable than Detroit’s Westin Book Cadillac Hotel.

Overlooking the photo’s smudge, even a person completely unfamiliar with this famous hotel can infer that the building stretches far upward beyond the boundaries of the photo.  Constructed during Detroit’s 1920s automotive heyday at $14 million, the Book-Cadillac was the tallest hotel in the world and the city’s biggest skyscraper (32 stories) when completed in 1924.  Through the city’s ups and (particularly after 1960) downs, the 1136-room hotel changed hands multiple times, mostly under other national hotel chains: Sheraton in 1951, then Radisson by 1976.  By 1980, the Book-Cadillac depended upon city subsidies to survive, and a 1983 proposal to convert it to a mixed-use property stalled.  By 1986, the first-floor tenants vacated a building whose hotel function had already ceased two years prior, and it remained shuttered for two decades.

By the time Detroit rung in the 21st century, the Book-Cadillac had suffered years of pillaging, vandalism, and exposure to the elements.  The exterior looked like this; locals have told me that you could through a football cleanly through the buildings many smashed windows.  The interior may have been an even bigger disaster.  Year after year of attempting to find a developer to resuscitate the building failed, and, naturally, over time, the condition of the building posed a greater challenge, amplifying its cost.  At last, in 2006, a Cleveland developer announced a partnership with Westin Hotel to begin a $200 million dollar renovation; the new hotel opened its doors in the fall of 2008.

One of the biggest considerations that had frustrated numerous prior attempts at redevelopment had been the hotel’s configuration; the rooms simply didn’t meet the size standards for today’s hotel patrons, by either a luxury or budget hotel classification.  This situation—coupled with the catastrophic economic decline of Detroit in the second half of the 20th century—killed the hotel’s profitability by the early 1980s and forced developers to question how it could ever return to viability.  Obviously Cleveland’s Kaczmar Architects found a solution, which manifests itself when one investigates the details to the typical room in the renovated Westin.

A double at the Westin Book Cadillac looks like the photo above.  Nothing terribly remarkable, featuring a cleanly spartan interior in keeping with modernist revival trends.  Is there anything abnormal, in fact, about the look or shape of the room?  Here’s another angle:
Doesn’t seem to be.  But check out the hallway on that floor of the Westin:
By today’s standards, it appears unusually narrow—almost claustrophobic.  Yet the continuing the unadorned motif almost helps to mitigate the narrowness: if the designer had filled the walls with decorative bric-a-brac, the space would feel cluttered and even constraining.

It doesn’t take any great powers of discernment to determine what has happened here.  The architects and developers decided to sacrifice hallway space in order to make the sleeping quarters larger.  But that still doesn’t explain the considerable decline in the number of rooms at the Book-Cadillac, from more than 1,100 at the time of the hotel’s founding, to a mere 455 rooms today.  Is it possible that rooms also expanded in width?  Reassessing the rooms’ configuration through one of those photos, I don’t see any other way.
The small pair of windows is atypical.  Though I didn’t include the photo, the bathroom lies directly through the wall to the right (behind the dresser and television) is.  But perhaps the Book-Cadillac of the past offered rooms that were essentially squares, with the wall bisecting at the space between the two windows.  Meanwhile the window on the left, sequestered from its neighboring window through a partition, would bring light into a second bedroom whose bathroom would rest to its left, leaving the two windows of the bedroom in the next room to host both a very small bedroom and its respective restroom.  If that sounds confusing, the best way to describe it is that the two rooms of today were big enough to squeeze in three rooms of the Roaring Twenties.  This would result in an essentially one-third decline in the number of rooms—significant, but nothing on par with the 60% actual loss of rooms.

So what accounts for all those other missing rooms in the hotel?  While it’s possible that the Book-Cadillac may have crammed more rooms in by simply offering a single restroom shared by a cluster of rooms (such configuration was still common at that time), my guess is the building lost another share of rooms through space devoted to amenities that most high-end hotel patrons have come to expect: swimming pools, fitness centers, a spa, a breakfast lounge—not to mention over 60 luxury condominiums on the top floors.   Only a handful of these features would contribute to the Westin’s overall revenue stream.  Thus, the real coup for the hotel chain is the comfier rooms accompanied by a smaller overall baseline—that is, denominator in the “available room” quotient used to devise RevPAR.  A smaller city than in 1920, Detroit simply doesn’t need a hotel that big, but Westin sure needs a confident bottom line established by desirable occupancy and RevPAR numbers—exactly the sort of variables that investors seek in Westin’s parent, the publicly traded Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc.

Older downtown hotels in cities across America have languished due to the lack of marketability of their small rooms, regardless of how winsome or visionary they are.  Developers routinely hesitate to touch such a costly redevelopment, because most hotels have an inordinately high density of plumbing, much of which the construction team will need to reconfigure—or completely extirpate—to accommodate those bigger bedrooms.  The Westin Book Cadillac seems to have found a solution, but there’s nothing to say that cultural shifts in taste for hotel rooms won’t render the existing layout obsolete someday.  In fact, most evidence suggests that precisely this sort of thing could happen.  In contemporary US living, we take for granted the standard of a unique bathroom to every bedroom, but someday in the future, the notion that people at one point had to share ice machines, business centers, or even exercise rooms may seem unthinkable.