Renovating a Heritage Hotel.
By Erik Stuebe
Friday, 21st June 2013
Exclusive Feature: Australia's history might be shorter than that of its European cousins, but that doesn't mean we don't have a proud portfolio of charming heritage listed hotels to conserve and maintain for future generations to enjoy.

Heritage buildings are an integral part of Australia's history, many of which have great value in our cultural inheritance. With owning or managing a heritage building, including a heritage hotel comes the responsibility of preserving it and presenting it in the best possible way.

Heritage factors – preserving the old whilst modernising

When given the immense honour and custodianship of a heritage hotel, there are many factors to consider when undertaking and investing in a renovation program. After all renovating to update and modernise with preservation also in mind is not always an easy task.

There is of course there is the responsibility of knowing the hotel has a long history and you cannot change things in the hotel without applying the right style and having respect for what was done so anything new you might add needs to complement the existing structure and building character. Commercially, it makes sense to modernise for the continued comfort and business of guests.

However, if you do modernise then a true respect and regard for the heritage and traditions of the building adds a genuine challenge not only for those overseeing the refurbishment, but all contractors, designers, architects and tradespeople involved in the process.

For example, if you choose to expand the property and add new rooms or features like restaurants, a bar or spa facility, then it's important to ensure that the new parts of the building feel part of the rest of the hotel. Put simply, everything needs to integrate well.

Other challenges with very old heritage buildings is that you inevitably always have more maintenance issues than a brand new hotel that can be designed with all the latest technological advancements and comforts in mind, making it more labour intensive for contractors and staff. 
Cost of maintaining heritage listed parts of hotel

When renovating a heritage hotel, don't be so quick to replace the old with the new. The fact is that the rehabilitation of older buildings uses 23% less energy than new construction. Using (or reusing) materials that are salvaged, or similar to the original, will better suit the original heritage character of the hotel, and best of all cost you less to execute.

Repairing original plaster walls, particularly ornate historically significant pieces, and windows for example is much less expensive than sourcing and replacing these items.

There are some traditional and historical hotels in Australia and around the world that continue to live off their past notoriety and heritage, failing to update and maintain those very features that make them popular in the first place.

After a while, it becomes too late, and any renovation needs to be done from the foundations – a very time consuming, and costly exercise that could be avoided with regular maintenance and refurbishments to keep the past refreshed and ‘alive'.

How to combine old with new

If you manage or are involved with the maintenance of a heritage hotel, there are always opportunities to improve and make it nicer for guests to experience. It's important not to rest on the past success and profile of the building and to stay ahead on your competition with a 21st century sensibility that doesn't impact the heritage feel and appeal of the hotel.

Updating while preserving is vital to remain a place that people want to visit and return to time and time again.The emphasis of course is always on providing a genuine and friendly atmosphere for guests. 

Whether to engage an architect or go alone

Whether you choose to commission an architect to assist with the hotel update, or project manage the refurbishment yourself, having a clear vision, timeline and budget are essential.

To save time and money, and ensure that heritage features are treated and restored with the respect deserved, it's important to research first in order to understand the history of the building and grow the plan from there. Researching the hotel and its history is an essential starting point, whether the information is given to an architect to speed up the process, or taken on board by management and the owner to guide the supervision of the renovation process.

Questions to ask might be who lived or used the building that became or was the original hotel before us?  When was the hotel building built? What did it look like?

Museums, local libraries, early maps, city directories and census record and even newspaper archives and photos can reveal a lot about the look, feel and heritage character of a hotel. With these extra details, restoring the building to its former glory, in authentic style, will be a much simpler process. 
It makes good sense to use designers and building professionals who have heritage expertise. Their understanding of architectural heritage and assistance with building codes can be invaluable.

In addition to an architect, or experienced project manager, it's also important to contract a team of like-minded contractors to help on the ground. Having building suppliers, craftsmen and other tradesmen, who have experience with older buildings, can save your budget and keep your renovation on schedule.
How to manage guest's expectations during the renovation

The community at large has high expectations for heritage buildings, including hotels, and largely so do their guests, particularly repeat and regular visitors. It's given that they do feel some sense of ownership and fondness for the heritage hotel story and the initial response to the news that a heritage hotel is undergoing renovation might generally be excellent and very positive.

Afterwards, there is rarely a guest who will complain that a room is too comfortable or convenient and easy to manage from a technology perspective. Of course guest response and support can be entirely different during a renovation if the process is not communicated correctly prior to and during the event.
Generally if there are both heritage and modern elements to a hotel, guests will want to experience both products to understand and step back in time, while indulging in the modern comforts of the present. If you have two different ‘wings' for example (a historic and more contemporary style accommodation offering), then don't be surprised if guests on a leisure break want to book a couple of nights in one room type and two more in a different style.
Of course if the renovation itself is not planned carefully from beginning to end and guests are not advised in timely way about possible disruptions, then issues can and will arise. Managing expectations is vital to the success of any renovation, and never more so than when renovating a heritage hotel. 

Mood boards that illustrate architect plans or design themes, on display for all to see in a public area within the hotel or on the exterior, are a great way to keep guests informed and part of the process. It also reassures them that the integrity and heritage features of the hotel are not in jeopardy during the refurbishment period.
Pre-emptive emails to guests prior to arrival (preferably on reservation) are also essential to avoid disappointment. From the moment the guest makes a reservation, it's important to start the communication process, to have them on board as an ambassador for the heritage hotel, and to also lessen frustrations or inconvenience that may be caused by additional and unavoidable noise or service disruption during the renovation.

A regular newsletter during the refurbishment period keeping stakeholders up to date is another great way to communicate and build excitement in the lead up to the grand unveiling.
A little ‘extra' service for guests during renovation time also never goes astray to keep them upbeat and positive about the renovation at their favourite heritage hotel.
Preserving, recording and communicating our national hotel heritage is vital, commercially and from a broader community minded perspective. With many stakeholders willing and able to assist, including government bodies and the volunteer labour of heritage homes society and National Trust members, owners and management can create renovation programs that will help maintain these important buildings for future generations and guests.

By researching and staying informed a heritage hotel renovation strategy can be a collaborative and affordable affair. How you decide to renovate can help keep costs down.

Erik Stuebe - Managing Director
Over 30 years, Erik has worked throughout every segment of the industry, from motels to 5 star luxury, with experience in design, new build, renovation, rebrand, spa, multi-property management, rebranding, CBD and country properties.
A passionate believer in the power of service to transcend the ordinary and create life's most memorable experiences, Erik obtained his qualifications in Europe, and has since spent 12 years with Sheraton Hotels, 14 years with Accor Hotels, and most recently created Chateau Élan at the Vintage in the Hunter Valley, whilst also being responsible for over-seeing the rebranding of the hotels now known as Ballarat Lodge & Convention Centre and Yarra Valley Lodge.
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