Interior design is seen as a key source of added value, judging by the large number of refurbishment projects, both planned and underway, in Europe’s competitive luxury hotel market. London is currently a hotbed for top-end refurbishment projects, so we spoke to some of those involved in such projects.

Michael Gray is general manager of Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill, which is in the middle of a 15-month, multi-million-pound refurbishment, including the redecoration of all 445 bedrooms and suites plus the Regency Club Lounge.

The project is currently entering phase II, which will see the remaining 220 rooms made ready for the hotel’s full opening in June 2007. Throughout the duration of the project, a large number of the hotel’s rooms as well as its banqueting rooms, conference facilities and restaurants will remain open for business.

Lynne Hunt is a partner in design firm Hunt Hamilton Zuch, which specialises in luxury interiors, and is the lead designer on The Churchill’s refurbishment.

Jörg Freyer is managing director of Witex International Flooring, a supplier of high-quality flooring materials that is now turning its attention to the hotel market. Witex has developed laminate materials for heavy traffic areas with a view to offering more options, easier maintenance and simple installation, and its Ceraclic and Elastoclic products are attracting interest from several clients in the hospitality sector.

“There is a huge amount of refurbishment in London at the moment.”

There would seem to be a surge of refurbishment activity in the luxury hotel sector at the moment. What do you feel are the factors driving this investment, and is it a trend confined to the top end of the market?

Gray: “There is a huge amount of refurbishment in London at the moment, and I am amazed by the number of rooms out of action this year and next. It may be just timing, with all the hotels wearing out at the same time.”

Freyer: “In the last few years, there has been a big change in the quality of accommodation, service and food offered to customers in the international hotel market. On the one hand, we are seeing an increasing demand for hotel accommodation in the four-plus and five-star categories, but we are also seeing an increasing demand for low-cost, budget hotels – so traditional three-star hotels have a problem.

“Many mid-range hotels are trying to upgrade, so they have to refurbish their buildings. This is one of the reasons for all the refurbishment work happening in the global luxury hotel market.”

Guests’ expectations have risen significantly in recent years, so how much influence do these changing needs have on how hotels approach the process of refurbishment?

Gray: “Some of their needs – such as comfort, service and dining – stay the same, but they have certainly changed with regard to technology. They need high-speed internet, for example, but that is a given. In terms of how the hotel should look, my philosophy is to create an ambience of contemporary elegance.”

Hunt: “Across the industry there is a desire to improve quality, and guests’ expectations are certainly getting higher. There is a lot of competition, so hotels must work hard to offer the right level of comfort and the right amenities.”

What is the impact of this drive for quality and the growing competitive pressure on the suppliers of fabrics, finishes and furnishings designers work with?

Hunt: “More of them are having to compete on price and quality. Hotels must be competitive, so suppliers to the hotel industry must be competitive too. Nowadays, they are aware of that from the outset of any project, as there will be tenders going out to their competitors.

“They need to know which of their products will perform and they must be able to meet deadlines.”

“Across the industry there is a desire to improve quality, and guests’ expectations are certainly getting higher.”

Freyer: “The flooring market for the hotel industry is very competitive. So it is extremely important for us to meet the needs of the hotel sector precisely in order to be successful in this market. In our opinion, the best way to differentiate ourselves from our competitors is to focus on the main priorities of customers in the hotel sector: the design, quality and economic efficiency of the products, and excellent service.

“We have a number of product lines suitable for hotels: our high-quality laminate floors are perfect for restaurants, bars and hotel rooms, and Ceraclic, with its unique stone designs, is ideal for busy areas like restaurants, hotel rooms, bathrooms and the lobby.”

Working with reliable suppliers will obviously make the refurbishment more efficient, but what are the most important considerations when trying to ensure that a project runs to schedule and, more importantly, to budget?

Gray: “You need a designer you can relate to. We’re notorious for changing our minds, so the last thing we want is a prima donna. A good designer is one who can guide us, but who also allows us to respond to their ideas.

“We want to work with people we feel comfortable with. That is very important. If you are at odds over the budget or the practicality of the elements in the project, then the process won’t work nearly as well as it should.

“What you spend on a hotel room depends on the return you will get on that investment. You have to gear what you are doing towards the likely room rate. You will probably find at any London hotel that the spend on refurbishment depends on the average rate.

“Delivering a refurbishment project within budget is critical. You could end up spending any amount you like, so you need to have a very clear idea of what you are trying to achieve right from the outset.”

Hunt: “You need to develop ideas together at an early stage. We looked at the designs with Hyatt in a mock-up room. The team from Hyatt assessed the room over two days and everything was critiqued, from the colours to the heights of the chairs relative to the desks. There was obviously a lot of consultation before that, but the mock-up looked good and they were very happy with it.”

The quality of relationships between hotel management, designer, suppliers and contractors obviously have a major bearing on how well a refurbishment project develops. How crucial is the contractor relationship in determining whether a hotel can remain open during a major refurbishment?

Hunt: “Relationships are very important for project management. At Hyatt, the hotel has remained operational by doing phases of room conversions and dividing the floors up so the work is staggered. This requires a lot of cooperation from the contractors that are doing the work.”

Gray: “I don’t believe in closing the hotel. You lose momentum. As long as you act reasonably, guests are very understanding about refurbishment work. Remember, though: there is never a good time to do a refurbishment.

“We planned for some revenue loss. It would have been our worst nightmare if we had needed to extend the project, so there was a lot of negotiating with contractors to get the right balance between getting the work done on time and disrupting the activities of the hotel.”