Wait, When Did Airport Hotels Turn Cool?

Article published in The Wall Street Journal
May 23, 2018 9:00 a.m. ET

Travelers are finding places they’d actually want to stay the day before they fly instead of the usual dreary spots good only for their convenience

The windows in each guest room have seven layers of soundproofing material and are more than 4 inches thick. Quiet matters at an airport hotel.

The TWA Hotel, built around Eero Saarinen’s iconic terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport, will open next spring with 1960s flair, modern road-warrior requirements and an expected average room rate of $250 a night.

Like airports themselves, airport hotels are going upscale. They once were seen as low-rate sleeping barns for stranded travelers, sleepy flight crews and bargain hunters. Now they are becoming destinations hosting fancy conventions and weddings. Some travelers even use airport hotels as their base for vacation or business instead of going downtown, especially if they have early morning or late-night flights.

The modern and sleek Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has a spa with sauna and steam rooms. At the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Fairmont has afternoon tea, live music seven nights a week and a “fish valet” and freezer to store your catch until departure. The deteriorating Radisson LAX in Los Angeles had a $75 million renovation and became a Hyatt Regency with food from local Asian and Latin American chefs. No need to go out to eat—the trendy local food comes to you.

An airport hotel building boom is under way because the economics of airport hotels turn out to be so strong. Last year, 73.7% of rooms at U.S. hotels within a shuttle ride of an airport were occupied, according to STR Inc., a hotel research firm based in Hendersonville, Tenn. The overall occupancy rate for U.S. hotels was 66%. This explains why three office buildings in the Century Boulevard area in front of LAX are being converted into hotels.

Hotels that are part of airports, either built into terminals or connected by walkways, do even better, with 80% occupancy last year and an average daily room rate of $179. That’s more than $50 a night higher than the average U.S. hotel rate in 2017.

Beyond the 14 operating hotels connected to U.S. airports, Minneapolis-St. Paul will open an on-site InterContinental Hotel in July with private TSA access. San Francisco plans to open a Grand Hyatt adjacent to Terminal 2 next July. Work is under way on a new InterContinental next to a terminal at Atlanta’s giant airport. Chicago officials have asked for proposals on building a hotel adjacent to O’Hare Airport’s international terminal and for sprucing up the O’Hare Hilton when Hilton’s lease expires at year’s end.

Road warriors say they look for different amenities at airport hotels than other locations and will pay a premium for walking distance.

“Shuttles are one of the most irritating elements at an airport,” says Tommy Danielsen, a former high-mileage sales executive who now runs the Frequent Traveler Awards, a group that honors leading programs annually.

Airport hotel rooms need to have blackout curtains for daytime sleeping, frequent travelers say, along with soundproof windows. It helps if the staff is trained to be quiet during the day, travelers say.

Another must: early breakfast service, starting at 5 a.m., so travelers can catch early-morning flights with a full stomach. Fast, 24-hour room service is another necessity for airport hotels, since people are checking in and departing at odd hours. Club lounges with long hours are another plus.

“The number one thing someone is using an airport hotel for is the convenience,” says Brandon Feighner, a Los Angeles-based director for CBRE Hotels’ consulting practice.

Travelers also covet flexible check-in and checkout. The Novotel Bangkok Airport charges for a 24-hour period rather than set in-and-out times. If you arrive in the middle of the night, you get the room for 24 hours rather than having to check out by noon.

At JFK, the Saarinen building was almost torn down twice before preservationists stepped in. After that, JFK’s operator tried twice to redevelop it before settling on Tyler Morse’s idea to turn it into both an airport hotel and a destination for aviation enthusiasts.

Mr. Morse, a veteran hotel operator and chief executive of MCR Development LLC, says he studied the airport hotel landscape before deciding where to spend money on the JFK project. What he concluded travelers most wanted was a better experience even when they were stuck at the airport, not a lousy experience because they were stuck at the airport.

“Think about airport hotels: None are good, but they do great” financially, he says.

That’s particularly true around New York airports. Neither LaGuardia nor Kennedy has walkable hotels on-site, and most nearby badly need refurbishment. “I think bleak would be a flattering term,” says Carter Wilson, STR’s vice president for consulting and analytics.

The asbestos-filled, lead-paint covered Saarinen building, with its giant, sweeping concrete roof and midcentury modern elegance, will become a hotel lobby surrounded by six restaurants and eight bars. The restoration is painstaking: Workers needed to replace 186 windows, each one a unique size.

The building is a structural masterpiece studied closely by generations of architects. There are no columns inside—only four giant outside piers support the wavelike concrete roof the size of Madison Square Garden.

A 50,000-square-foot convention and meeting space is being built underground. A 1956 TWA Constellation aircraft will sit on top and become one of the bars. Two seven-story hotel towers will have a total of 512 rooms, each about 325 square feet with a 1960s martini bar and cans of Tab diet cola in the refrigerator. There will be a 10,000-square-foot fitness center that will not be, Mr. Morse says, “a typical crappy hotel gym.”

Mr. Morse licensed the TWA trademark and name from American Airlines, which bought TWA’s assets in 2001. Hotel workers will wear 1962-style TWA uniforms. A 1962 Chrysler Newport, built the year the TWA terminal opened, will be used to drive guests to terminals. (It’s walkable from the JetBlue terminal.) All power outlets in rooms will be waist-high, a modern convenience.

And in perhaps the ultimate mix of nostalgia and convenience, Mr. Morse bought 512 rotary phones on eBay and had the guts replaced with electronics to turn them into digital phones.