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Bring the Wow Factor to Hotels
Hotel Journal
August, 2007

Bring the Wow Factor to Hotels

The era of urban “cheap chic” is waning and the big brands are well on the way toward introducing contemporary style elements into limited-service hotels in major markets. As the saying goes: “been there, done that.”

Where can today’s increasingly demanding traveler find “wow” factor of a fantastical guest experience without staying at a cookie-cutter branded hotel in a major market? And from an owner’s perspective, what does it take to develop such a product? My development experience at The Roxbury hotel may provide some answers.

Located about two hours from Manhattan in the scenic Catskill Mountains, The Roxbury was, until a few years ago, just a motel with nothing very exciting or different.

After a renovation of the original property in 2004, our development company, Masserson Properties, broke ground on a major expansion in late 2006. We expanded the footprint from 11 rooms and suites to 18, added a brand new wing, a deck with a glass fire pit and a stylish spa and embarked on a unique design process that created a series of themed rooms and suites with outstanding luxury and state-of-the-art amenities. The idea was to give guests more than just a routine boutique experience, something more fantastical, whimsical and memorable.

Beginning from the concept of offering the coolest possible design and unique attention to detail in each room, we decided on loose inspirations from an iconic American film, television show or cartoon from the 60s and 70s. The inspiration was loose because there was no intention of copying actual sets or in any other way opening the possibility of copyright infringement. Instead, we were inspired by the colors, textures, and the general feeling of the shows and let the design take its own course.

The end result was original room decors with names like: Fred’s Lair, The Mod Pod, Golightly-A-Go-Go, The Partridge Nest, Genie’s Bottle, George’s Space Pad, and Samantha’s Cloud. Children love the whimsy and the parents remember the TV shows, cartoons and films. Each room was given pampering amenities and comfortable furniture so guests get jaw-dropping design and elegant comfort.

The Partridge Nest, for example, is decorated in the colors and patterns of a famous Mondrian-inspired school bus that you can see on a TV rerun. Golightly-A-Go-Go offers luxurious design elements in shades of light blue and rich wood molding similar to the world’s most recognized high-end jewelry store where Audrey Hepburn once had breakfast outside the store window.

The property’s largest suites, Genie’s Bottle and George’s Space Pad, were outfitted with out-of-this-world bathing experiences. For Genie’s Bottle, a 70-gallon Japanese soaking tub was installed and George’s Space Pad was outfitted with a glowing red Space-Age bathtub and sink.

It was an ambitious expansion plan, one that relied heavily on creativity and sound project management rather than a padded corporate budget.

Local artisans chopped the wood and sourced the materials, an in-house design team provided the flair and style and spent countless hours surfing the Web for just the right furniture, fixtures and equipment elements. Lots of dollars were saved by using the Internet to shop for competitive prices for items all over the world. Tile work was outsourced very early on to a manufacturer who had tiles made in China and shipped inexpensively via cargo container. Very high-end tiles that would have cost $30 to $60 per square foot only cost around $7 per square foot.

The total price tag from the project: just in excess of $1 million , including the 2004 renovation of the property, the 2006 expansion construction and FF&E costs for the new wing and spa.

Is it just another example of “cheap chic?” Not by a long shot.

Located as it is in the Catskills, the motel’s quirky, unforgettable experience paradoxically both stands out from its tranquil environs and accentuates them. The point is that people really want the “wow factor” and want to stay in a room that makes their jaws drop when they enter. But they don’t want to spend a fortune for it. Neither do hotel developers.

That doesn’t mean the motel won’t be radically profitable, too. The property’s ADR prior to the expansion was $118. Since the completion, we are in excess of $160. Furthermore, $350 per night, which today buys barely four walls and a morning newspaper in many major markets, buys you Genie’s Bottle at The Roxbury and a getaway experience you won’t soon forget.

So what comes next for a hotel that pleases the senses as much as it defies conventional hotel development norms? One possibility is to turn the Roxbury’s business model into a franchise – a series of hotels that are destinations in and of themselves regardless of geographic locale.

What’s different about the Roxbury’s model is that it works particularly well in secondary resort areas that don’t have the infrastructure of a Las Vegas, Aspen, CO, or Miami, but offer enough recreational activities to give travelers a fun, unique vacation. The Catksills offered the perfect launching pad for this kind of property.

The Roxbury’s register of guests is growing. It now includes an impressive international clientele from more than 27 countries. That is remarkable for a hotel in a sleepy village that only had one restaurant and no other hotel.

Meanwhile, it is pretty clear that corporate boardrooms are no the only places for designing trendy, satisfying and developer-friendly concepts in our industry.