By Anne Cosgrove
From the September 2013 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
The new Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel has been open for several months, ushering in a new era for downtown Oshkosh, WI. Renovating the 131,000 square foot, eight story facility took a little more than a year, the result of an effort to not only revitalize a languishing hotel property but also to attract new business to the adjoining convention center.
The hotel’s current owner, Oshkosh Investors, LLC, completed the purchase of the existing facility in February 2012, but the wheels had been set in motion several years earlier when Richard Batley, president of RB Hospitality of Neenah, WI, explains that his company had considered purchasing the hotel. “We almost bought it five years ago, and it didn’t work out, but we had stayed in touch with the city since then,” he says.
Batley’s company is one of three entities that make up Oshkosh Investors—the other partners being Pfefferle Companies, Inc. and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Foundation. Leading up to this partnership, the university had been considering building a hotel on its campus to accommodate visitors. Eventually, it was decided that the university would partner with RB Hospitality and Pfefferle Companies to purchase and renovate the City Center Hotel—now the Best Western Premier Waterfront.
Originally built in the 1980s, this facility was operating at about 10% occupancy when the current owner came on board. The team recognized that an extensive overhaul of both the facility and the operational structure was needed. Says Batley, “We knew this was going to be a virtually new hotel after the renovation. Besides the exterior structure, everything is new except for the marble in the lobby and the bathtubs in the guestrooms.”
Dan Schetter, CHA, general manager, arrived at the hotel in April 2012, and his initial focus was two-fold. He was heavily involved in the hotel renovation, while also tasked with bringing the adjoining convention center up to speed. “I first assembled the management team for the convention center,” he explains. “An important part of making this property successful was preselling it. We put our operations team in place for the hotel as well, hiring the food and beverage director, the director of sales, and director of catering.”
Highlights of the renovation included a complete remodel of each of the 176 guestrooms, some of which were developed into executive and whirlpool/fireplace suites; meeting and banquet facilities; a fitness center and swimming pool; hotel lobby and office space; an outdoor patio connecting to the city’s newly revamped Riverwalk; and addition of a full menu restaurant, the Ground Round at River’s Edge.
Surveying The Status
Meanwhile, Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. located in Appleton, WI was hired as the architect and construction manager. Todd Wunderlich, LEED AP, project manager at the firm, headed up the renovation for Hoffman. The first order of business, once the new owners completed the purchase, was to assess the hotel’s condition.
“The outside structure remained largely as it was,” explains Wunderlich. “And the floor plan didn’t change significantly. But it was a complete interior deconstruction. All the drywall and interior finishes were modified.”
Designing to the design parameters for a Best Western Premier was also a leading factor. Wunderlich explains, “There is a list of features that those locations call for, and we worked from the list and incorporated those items into the design. This determined decisions such as whether or not we would specify crown molding in the guestrooms. This process also impacted some of the finishes that were chosen—wallcovering or paint, for instance—as well as the level of carpet installed and ceiling requirements.”
Before the makeover could begin, however, the team investigated the facility’s condition to discover how much deconstruction and remediation was needed. One of the first steps was to hire a hazardous material consultant to survey the hotel.
“This identified some things we needed to remove, and we eventually hired a remediation contractor to obtain a clean bill of health,” says Wunderlich. “Next was the cosmetic demo, which involved removing all carpet, wallpaper, and identifying areas of drywall to be removed.”
The involvement of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh benefited the project during construction by making its faculty and staff expertise available to the project team. For instance, Schetter explains, “When it came to the mold remediation, we were able to work with a professor at the university to give us direction. Being able to consult with him was a big plus. Remediation is a core skill for him.”
The partnership also came into play when evaluating the plumbing systems. Says Wunderlich, “The university was a great partner on the project. They not only helped us with the remediation process, but we also had some underground plumbing issues. Much of the pipe was deteriorated from years of use. The university offered its master plumbers to help us identify key problem areas and to work through what needed to be replaced and what could remain. They were a very valuable asset.”
With the impetus to open by May 2013 (and with a wedding booked early that month), the project team constantly prioritized to streamline the schedule to stay on track. While working on the cosmetic demo, Wunderlich also made sure the mechanical equipment package was underway. Once those items were in place, they could begin to “put the rest of the hotel back together.”
Meanwhile the roof was redone, and nearly 200 windows were being replaced throughout the hotel. The elevator contractor also came in to renovate the elevators at that point.
Due to the condition and age of the HVAC systems, virtually all the HVAC equipment was replaced, and a significant portion of the electrical system was removed and replaced. Lighting fixtures (including some LED lighting) and plumbing fixtures also underwent changes.
To keep the schedule on track, longer lead items were identified early on, explains Wunderlich. These items included the windows and the HVAC equipment, which were specified and ordered as soon as possible so these would be on-site once the team was ready for them to be installed.
Adds Wunderlich, “When the roof was being worked on, we brought the building envelope contractor in to start tuckpointing the masonry and replacing items that needed attention.”
Throughout the project, the city of Oshkosh was in the throes of revitalizing the waterfront area on the Fox River, and this was in close proximity to the Best Western Premier Waterfront. “The Riverwalk was being constructed right up to the hotel site,” explains Wunderlich. “There was a lot of coordination.”
Though it would benefit the hotel in the long term, a related issue that could have delayed the hotel’s completion was the city’s decision to replace utility infrastructure and repair some roadways around the site. Says Wunderlich, “It was a logistics challenge, working with those two other major projects nearby, but it worked out in the end.”
- In all, more than 350 trades people and support staff worked on the hotel renovation.
- The total square footage of the new roofing is just over 36,000, equal to nearly eight basketball courts.
- The total square footage of wallcovering, tile and carpet used in the hotel is just over 324,000—enough to cover five and a half football fields.
- Several new boilers, chillers, and air handling units were installed.
- There was roughly 400,000 square feet of surface (existing walls and ceilings, and new drywall) textured by hand.
- Nearly 200 windows were replaced in the hotel, and nearly all of the guestrooms have a view of the Fox River or Lake Winnebago.
As a corporation, Best Western employs and encourages sustainable practices at its properties throughout North America and beyond. Actions taken at individual properties are diverse, but there are also some commonalities. For instance, all North American hotels are required to use key card sleeves made from recycled paper and printed with vegetable oil based ink.
Says Schetter, “We went through the process to meet the qualifications for Eco-Friendly designation. There are two ways to do this. One is to adhere to the American Hotel and Lodging Association guidelines for going green. And there is an alternative method, which involves 25 items; if you comply with at least 15 of the requirements, you achieve the Eco-Friendly designation.”
Additionally, Schetter is applying for Green Key certification. This program awards hospitality facilities a rating of “one to five keys” depending on the level of sustainability at the site.
The renovation project was able to garner some financial reimbursement from Focus on Energy, an energy efficiency and renewable resource program in Wisconsin. The program team analyzed the expected efficiency of the HVAC equipment, lighting fixtures, and plumbing fixtures. “Any item that is above and beyond regular efficiency garners a project credit, which results in reimbursement,” explains Wunderlich. “We received some money due to the efficiency level of the HVAC system, while the LED lighting also earned some reimbursement.”
The decision to incorporate efficiency measures was not dictated by the Focus on Energy program. Rather, it was a result of the project team’s goal of achieving Best Western Eco-Friendly status of the hotel. Schetter explains, “Best Western really promotes eco-friendly design and operations, and they encourage their properties to become eco-friendly.”
During the renovation process, other sustainable measures involved donating all the existing furniture, fixtures, and equipment to Habitat For Humanity. Wunderlich explains, “We recycled whatever items could be recycled. Because of the remediation process, some items could not be recycled, but the furniture going to Habitat For Humanity is an example of how we diverted items from landfill whenever possible.”
Some of the motivation came from the hotel partners, with Batley noting, “The university is very interested in sustainability, so they wanted to be sure we did what we could in terms of waste management.”
Team Effort Prevails
The project was completed on time, and the hotel officially opened this past spring. Speaking at the grand opening in May, Batley spoke on why he chose to open this second Best Western Premier property. “I am a big believer in quality and expect to offer my customers the best property in a market,” he stated. “I believe that this brand represents the upscale hotel experience and amenities that I want my hotels to be known for and my customers to experience.”
“Being involved in this particular renovation, there were unexpected issues that came up,” recalls Schetter. “Todd [Wunderlich] touched on one of them—replacing the sewer pipes was huge. We replaced about 80% of the sewer pipes underneath this building, and that was unexpected. What complicated that is that the building is on a structural slab so we needed to go through 13 inches of concrete to get at those defective sewer pipes.”
This process was done one section at time, and it was a several month project. Schetter notes this could have significantly delayed the timeline, but it didn’t. “The Hoffman crew often alerted us to the fact that this could throw the timeline off, but to their credit they got it done. They coordinated and made it happen,” he says.
Once the renovations were complete and the grand opening ribbon cut, Schetter stepped into the daily task of operating the new hotel. This facility and the adjoining Oshkosh Convention Center make available over 24,000 square feet of flexible meeting and exhibit space as well as a variety of breakout rooms. A skywalk between the hotel and the convention facility enables indoor access for attendees and other guests.
Commenting on the synergy between the hotel and the convention center that he now oversees, Schetter says, “Both facilities are located right on the waterfront, and previously the facilities’ layout didn’t take advantage of that. They were closed off to the water. The convention center renovation three years ago changed that, opening it up with large glass windows along the riverside. Now we have events that are on the water essentially. The city of Oshkosh renovated the convention center in 2009 largely because it was thought that the prior hotel owners would be improving the hotel.”
As it turned out, the city needed to wait until this past spring for those anticipated improvements—brought to bear by the new owners. And it appears that it was worth the wait.