When Waterford Group bought the downtown Hilton in Hartford four years ago, the aging hotel was in such bad shape that Hilton was close to pulling its name from the building.
A year — and $33 million — later, the renovated hotel opened and soon began playing a key role in attracting conventioneers and other visitors to the city.
Now, Waterford, headed by brothers Len and Mark Wolman, has set its sights on another hotel renovation project, this time at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks.
Waterford will announce today that it has purchased a 50 percent stake in the Sheraton at the airport and will join with the hotel's original developer and current owner and manager, Konover Hotel Corp. of West Hartford, in an extensive makeover of the 237-room hotel.
The deal comes as Bradley nears the completion of $200 million in renovations and expansion in a terminal adjacent to the hotel. The airport also expects to begin work on the terminal on the other side of the hotel in 2011 and add another 2,500-space parking garage.
At the same time, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which owns the Sheraton brand, is working to revive one of America's largest and most recognizable hotel chains, which Starwood acknowledges has fallen behind other competitors in recent years. Starwood is in the second year of a three-year plan focused on new construction and renovations to existing hotels that is expected to total $4 billion.
Starwood does not own most of its hotels. Owners such as Konover and Waterford pay to upgrade and maintain buildings.
Neither Waterford nor Konover would comment on how much Waterford invested to purchase the 50 percent stake in the Sheraton, which opened in 1987. They also did not have an estimate on how much the renovations, expected to be completed by the end of next year, would cost, except to say it would be "multimillion."
Based on Starwood's estimate that $1.3 billion would be spent renovating 100 hotel properties in North America as part of the three-year initiative, the average cost would be about $13 million.
Waterford owns or manages 22 hotels in seven states, mostly in Connecticut. In addition to the Hilton, in downtown Hartford, Waterford built and manages the Connecticut Convention Center and the new Marriott.
The company's first development project in downtown Hartford, with partners in the late 1990s, was the Residence Inn by Marriott in the Richardson Building. Waterford has invested $140 million in the city since then, and still manages that location.
Len Wolman, Waterford's chairman and chief executive, said the renovation project at the airport is a natural extension of its holdings in Hartford and will allow Waterford to add the Sheraton to the lodgings it can market in connection with the convention center.
The airport hotel faces increased competition from a larger number of hotels in the area immediately surrounding the airport. Occupancy at the hotel generally is in the 70 percent range overall, said Simon Konover, head of Konover Hotel Corp., a number that's considered to be on par with better-performing hotels in the Hartford area.
Konover, a longtime figure in local development, said the hotel needed to keep pace with the latest amenities and the development of the airport overall.
The Wolmans and Konovers have known each other for 20 years but have not previously worked on projects jointly.
"We felt we could best do this together," Konover said.
Details of the renovation plan are still being worked out, said Mark Wolman, who oversees construction and development at Waterford. In addition to guest rooms, renovations will update the concrete-block exterior and redesign the lobby, he said.
According to Starwood, lobbies of renovated hotels will include free Wi-Fi and computer stations with access to the Web. This will allow guests to search the Web, familiarize themselves with local attractions and print up boarding passes.
"We're committed to being a prototype of this new initiative," Mark Wolman said.
Hoyt H. Harper, senior vice president of brand management at Starwood, said renovations are essential for Sheratons at high-profile locations, such as airports, because they create one of the first impressions for travelers as they depart from their planes.
"We are raising the bar for quality and consistency at Sheratons throughout North America and the world," Harper said.
Len Wolman said Waterford was attracted to the project because the airport is growing, having added its first regularly scheduled international flight to Amsterdam last year. Although the economic slowdown could mean an erosion in both business and pleasure travel in the near future, he sees strong long-term trends, including the strong likelihood of more international flights in the future.
"Clearly, this hotel has the best possible location," Wolman said.
Average room rates range from $150 to $250 a night, according to Konover.
The 164 workers at the airport Sheraton are not unionized. Waterford, which manages hotels with and without unions, has been at the center of a controversy at the convention center Marriott, where Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez and union organizers want the firm to sign an agreement spelling out how and whether the hotel would recognize a union. Len Wolman has said he favors a federally supervised vote by workers.
Konover said no employees will lose their jobs as a result of the renovation at the airport Sheraton.
"There will be no changes there whatsoever," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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