Mr. Habeeb

Architecture & Design

Adaptive Reuse and Hotel Design - Stage Two

Repurposing Historic Buildings as Modern Hotels That Tell Engaging Stories

By Robert Habeeb, President & Chief Executive Officer, First Hospitality Group, Inc.

Adaptive reuse hotel projects have been increasingly popular the last few years due to growing competition for quality locations and with prime urban hotel development sites at a premium. But today, its not just hotel owners and developers proposing historic buildings as revenue generators, it's also customer demand, as consumers are hooked on the concept of unique travel experiences. This increase in interest from the consumers, Millennials in particular, is redefining and shaping the industry's approach to design, requiring us to be even more transparent about the historic adaptation process. Millennials don't just want to see a beautiful atrium and be told it's historic. They want to know who originally built it and why, what is it made out of; they want the story.

To be successful with adaptive reuse hotel projects today, developers need to honor the fundamentals of a historic renovation (which are inherently more complex than a standard renovation or new construction), while seemlessly weaving in the property's unique story. Developers, owners, operators, and investors interested in moving forward on the renovation of a historic property should consider the following list of dos and don'ts as a framework for thinking about adaptive reuse basics in the context of a hospitality project:


Know What You are Getting Into

The technical challenges involved with bringing an old structure not just up to code, but up to date, can be immense. Aside from the potentially deal-breaking construction issues, consider the technical infrastructure required to support ubiquitous and essential features like high-speed WiFi access for guests. That alone can require an extraordinary effort to accommodate. Adaptive reuse projects may include dealing with dangerous or decrepit materials, and systems such as HVAC. Plumbing and electrical will often need to be significantly upgraded or entirely replaced. During the site selection process-long before actually beginning an ambitious renovation project-prospective developers need to make sure that they understand the various technical and construction challenges ahead. All this in addition to the due diligence and research required to vet the area and accurately estimate guest demand.

Document and Share the Process

Proactively engaging the community and future guests with sneak peeks and social media teasers is critical to get them interested and invested in the hotel long before the doors actually open. Some strategies include sharing photos of the reconstruction on social media channels, inviting local media and community members in at appropriate (and safe) stages to see the conversion in person, hosting an event to engage influential groups and more.

Utilize Tax Credits

There is a wide and varying array of tax credits available for hoteliers to take advantage of when engaging in a historic renovation. Not every tax credit is appropriate or achievable for a specific project, but by working closely with an experienced historic architect or expert historian who is familiar with the building, the region, and the application process, you can qualify for potentially lucrative tax credits to achieve maximum benefits of the project.

Honor the Original Design

Historic experts can also help identify key elements of the property's original design: the small-but-important historical details that contribute to a property's charm and unique character. Hotel developers should always go back to the original design of the property, doing away with any adaptations or modifications that may have been made in subsequent generations. Those intervening makeovers might have some foundation in history, but they do not express the original design and intent of the architect, which is a critical component to not only creating an experience but truly highlighting a property's history.

Be Flexible with Historical Detail

While historical accuracy should be a priority, practical compromise is also important. Be willing to let go of some of the originality to make way for necessary hotel updates. Remember the idea is to create a usable space that resonates with a historical aesthetic. A light hand here works best, taking what is available and being respectful to the architectural and cultural heritage of the structure, by preserving essential architectural and design elements to the extent that it is feasible and affordable. Admittedly, this is as much of an art as it is a science, but when it is done correctly, the results can be breathtaking: weaving historical threads into the experiential fabric of the updated hotel.


Sacrifice Comfort for Character

One of the great payoffs of a well-executed historical renovation hotel project is that the property appeals to the oft-discussed Millennial generation, a group which tends to prize (and pay for) the value of experience. But even Millennials will not compromise convenience for experience-at least not too much. Consequently, it is critical to any renovation that comfort and modernity is not sacrificed on the altar of "character." All of the history in the world is not enough to overcome suboptimal functionality or compromises in guest comfort. Guests draw the line when history impacts their ability to enjoy the features of a modern and comfortable hotel experience, and that ultimately impacts the bottom line.

Forget Community and Context

Preservation for its own sake can seem haphazard. What helps a historical renovation take ahold of the hearts and minds of guests is getting back to the story: the cultural and community context that roots the building in the temporal and civic landscape of a place. Ultimately, history is not about any one single building, but rather what the building means as a symbol of an era of a representative piece of a larger community narrative. Because of that reality, historic structures are a notoriously sensitive issue for many cities and towns: savvy developers are wise to proceed with care and sensitivity to community concerns. An effective renovation is a respectful renovation, and a building that has been restored with obvious respect and affection for its history will be popular with both hotel guests and the surrounding community. One small touch that can have an outsized impact is to feature the history of the building prominently in literature and marketing materials, and to create displays or interactive exhibits inside the hotel (even a simple plaque on the wall that displays the timeline/history of the building) that speaks to the historical context of the space.

Confuse History for Character

When a property is renovated without sufficient regard for historical nuance or context, it risks becoming not just an architectural and aesthetic failure, but a functional flop as well. One project I've seen, a former bank building that has been converted to a hotel, displays a clear example of some of the dangers of an awkward renovation/preservation job. Featuring a double atrium, placing the hotel check-in desk in the middle of a former bank lobby seems forced and out of place. Ideally, the entire layout should have been reconfigured to be an intuitive hotel lobby that just gives a wink to the contours and character of the original space.

Underestimate the Importance of Collaboration

Because adaptive reuse projects-especially hotels-can be a prominent feature in the literal and figurative landscape of a city (as well as potentially an important part of larger urban redevelopment or revitalization efforts), opportunities flowing from community partnerships and government subsidies are frequently available. Taking advantage of those financial perks-successfully moving through what can sometimes be a formidable array of regulatory hurdles-can be made significantly easier if the developer is willing to meet with and work with local historical, civic and community groups. From invaluable assistance with historical detail, to feedback and insight, the contributions from collaboration can be substantial.

Memorable and Meaningful

In Columbus, Ohio, the LeVeque Tower demonstrates that even the most distinctive and iconic structures can work well as a hotel project. Currently in the process of being converted into a 47-story, 155-guest room boutique hotel, the 555-foot-tall LeVeque Tower has been a defining piece of the Columbus skyline since its construction in 1927. The art deco building was once the tallest building between New York and Chicago. With redefined interiors and a detailed historical preservation approach, the hotel project is returning the building to its original grandeur by honoring thematic elements of the original design and updating the restaurant space and modern guest rooms with luxuriously appointed styling.

The LeVeque Tower is a current example of how applying the principles of historic hotel renovation can help create a desirable destination and an architectural treasure. Successful adaptive reuse provides an ideal combination of hospitality assets: a prime location, a quality facility, and a memorable and distinctive experience for guests. When executed correctly, these are the types of projects that are natural standouts: buildings that can emerge as true community icons and civic institutions.

Robert Habeeb has more than 25 years of experience in hotel, resort and food and beverage management. He successfully operated hospitality businesses in virtually every aspect of the industry. He served as the chief operating officer of the U. S. resort subsidiary of London’s Rank Group, PLC, where he was responsible for a multifaceted portfolio of hotel, restaurant and leisure businesses. Mr. Habeeb joined First Hospitality Group, Inc. in 1997. In 2015. He has won a series of awards, including the Illinois Hotel Association's Hotelier of the Year Award and Global Hotelier of the Year. he was promoted from president and COO to president and CEO. Mr. Habeeb can be contacted at 847-299-9040 or Extended Bio... retains the copyright to the articles published in the Hotel Business Review. Articles cannot be republished without prior written consent by

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Feature Focus
Architecture & Design: Authentic, Interactive and Immersive
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