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In Boston hotels, a renovation boom

Lobbies of many hotels have been dramatically redesigned. In the renovated lobby at The Ritz-Carlton, one of the two smaller registration desks is at right.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Scroll through online hotel reviews left by unhappy guests, and themes quickly emerge: The lobby is a relic, the Wi-Fi barely works, the room’s two measly power outlets are behind the bed for some reason.

Now, hotel managers across the Boston area are replying in unison: We hear you.

Dozens of hotels around Boston are being renovated, shedding tired carpets and drapes and heavy furniture for sleek modern designs and the latest technology. Flat-screen televisions and ubiquitous outlets and wireless Internet have allowed hotels to ditch hulking TV cabinets and desks in the guest rooms, making those spaces airier.

The lobbies of many hotels have also been dramatically redesigned, the old-fashioned central front desk replaced by “pods” where guests and staff can interact more easily. Similarly, stuffy fine-dining restaurants are giving way to casual grab-and-go joints.

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Buoyed by a strong economy that is keeping most rooms filled, and at top rates, hotel owners in Boston and Cambridge invested in about $76 million worth of renovations in 2014.

“Wear and tear on hotels is driven by occupancy, and occupancy in Boston has been off the charts,” said Matthew R. Arrants, an executive vice president at Pinnacle Advisory Group. “Renovations really help keep individual hotels competitive, and because of the strong market, they are able to get a return on their investment.”

Many of these changes reflect the preferences of young, tech-savvy business travelers who prize connectivity and practicality. They also prefer hotels that exude a city’s particular flavor, not cookie-cutter furniture picked from a corporate catalog.

“Hotels have fabulous amounts of data, and they do a lot of research about what customers want,” said Pat Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They’re ahead of the curve in preparing for people in their 20s and early 30s, who are not your father’s business travelers.”

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A room being renovated at Hyatt Harborside hotel at Logan International Airport. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Foremost for every room: more power outlets. Travelers are toting an ever-growing roster of mobile devices, and they don’t want to crawl around or move furniture to plug them in. Outlets and USB ports can now be found on every wall, on bedside lamps, even built into TV stands.

For years, hotel Wi-Fi was better known for dead spots than for hot spots, bogged down by dial-up-like speeds that grew slower as more guests checked in. Stung by scathing reviews, a number of Boston hotels have beefed up their wireless networks to appease travelers.

The Terrier room at the Commonwealth Hotel. Boston University has donated items to the themed room. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Having free and reliable Wi-Fi with appropriate bandwidth is as basic as having clean towels and a comfortable mattress,” said Adam Sperling, general manager of the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square. “It’s not a perk. It’s a necessity.”

Recent renovations at Sperling's hotel, which cost more than $50 million, are emblematic of the changes in the hotel industry.

Hotel Commonwealth is constructing a new wing with nearly 100 rooms and just completed a makeover of its existing 149 guest rooms.

The hotel provides a Google Nexus tablet in each room that guests can use to order room service, request a mini-bar refill, or schedule a dog-walking appointment. The hotel also added locally themed luxury suites, one honoring nearby Boston University and another modeled after the Rathskeller music club. (The Ritz-Carlton last year installed a Ben Franklin-themed suite with sconces modeled after his bifocals.)

Renovations at the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square cost more than $50 million.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

In its lobby, the Hotel Commonwealth is knocking out its big front desk and replacing it with two compact “pods.” The Onyx Hotel spent $2.3 million redoing its lobby, and Le Meridien in Cambridge is soon to follow suit. All three lobbies will be more open, allowing guests to work on laptops and sip coffee by day, or wine at night.

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Many upgrades put an emphasis on wellness: improved gyms, healthier food, cleaner air, “smart” lighting, soothing ambient noise. Another imminent innovation is self check-in, so guests can bypass the front desk and unlock their rooms with a smartphone.

While a thriving hotel market may buy owners a little time before they are forced to renovate again, change is likely to remain a constant.

“The last thing you want is people paying high rates and feeling like they didn’t get good value,” Sperling said. “Sure, you could just not invest in your property right now because the market is so good, and you’ll fill the rooms anyway. But in the long run, you will pay that.”


Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.