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Area hotels race to invest in high-tech, high-tone upgrades

Hotels on Route 128 corridor are jazzing up accoutrements

The new entry at the Verve, Crowne Plaza Boston-Natick on Route 9 reflects its extensive overhaul, with the upgrade’s tab reportedly topping $25 million.BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF/Boston Globe

After hunkering down at corporate headquarters during the Great Recession, the US business traveler is hitting the road again.

And hotel operators and investors are betting big that demand for rooms will soar along the highways west of Boston, as they shell out tens of millions on everything from spiffy new décor to high-tech upgrades.

The list of hotels that are rolling out the red carpet to business travelers with an array of upgrades and renovations includes the Boston Marriott Newton, the Crowne Plaza Boston-Newton, the Sheraton Needham Hotel, and the Embassy Suites Boston-Waltham.

Meanwhile, the new owners of Natick’s Crowne Plaza on Route 9 recently rolled out a dramatic revamp aimed at business travelers, and what the hotel says is an increasingly more sophisticated suburban clientele.


The property’s new name - the Verve, Crowne Plaza Boston-Natick - certainly makes clear where the owners hope to head with their rebranding.

With the Natick makeover a potential model, the owners are now on the hunt for hotels along the Route 128-Interstate 95 corridor to reboot as well, according to Lou Carrier, president of Distinctive Hospitality Group.

“This suburban area, I would equate it to what Westchester County is to New York and Tysons Corner is to Washington,’’ Carrier said.

The intense interest in the 128 corridor is a sign of the times, with its booming high-tech and biotech sectors drawing a host of other businesses seeking a piece of the action.

Upscale grocery stores like Wegmans, as well as restaurants, coffee shops, and retailers, are already jockeying for position along the highway.

And the owners of Natick’s revamped Crowne Plaza are hardly alone. Other owners are at work upgrading - and upscaling - business-friendly hotels along Route 128 in Waltham, Newton, and Needham.

Some were scooped up by new owners during the hard times of the recession, as they took advantage of the rainy days, so to speak, to overhaul tired rooms, replace worn carpet, and get ready for the next uptick in business.


The Boston Marriott Newton is just coming off a major renovation, having spent into the tens of millions since 2008 redoing its rooms, and revamping the lobby and its assortment of shops and restaurants.

The work included a major upgrade to the hotel’s heating and cooling systems, allowing guests more control over the temperatures in their rooms, said general manager Mark Jeffery.

“It’s a very competitive market, so we want our hotel showing well,’’ he said.

Straddling the Massachusetts Turnpike, Newton’s Crowne Plaza is in the midst of nearly $15 million in upgrades that it hopes will attract more business travelers and tourists as well.

A Sheraton for the previous two decades, the hotel changed hands in the spring of 2009.

The new owners have put in airport-style soundproof windows while completely redecorating the interior, from carpet and bedding to bathrooms and artwork. Work on the restaurant and lobby will start this spring, said Julie Povall, the hotel’s general manager.

But even more crucial for business travelers, the hotel has boosted its wireless network’s capacity, Povall said.

“Overall, business travel is coming back and the business traveler is that much more demanding,’’ she said. “They want technology, and they want cleanliness, and they want roominess.’’

Waltham’s Embassy Suites and the Sheraton Needham have rolled out their own business-traveler-friendly upgrades.


Since the Embassy Suites changed hands in 2009, its new owners have spent $12 million on renovations, adding granite countertops and high definition TVs to the rooms, and restyling the lobby and restaurant.

The Waltham hotel market, with a total of 1,400 rooms, is seeing a major uptick in business travelers, with midweek occupancy up anywhere from 15 to 30 percent, said Rob Weitz, general manager of the Embassy Suites.

The Sheraton Needham, in a major, $11 million upgrade, added wireless Internet access as well as revamping its ballroom and meeting rooms. The hotel is finishing up a renovation of its guest rooms and is looking to redo its lobby next.

“It is really about getting the hotel back to a level of competition for the midweek corporate customers,’’ and taking market share from the competition, said Bill Young, the hotel’s general manager.

On the northern stretch of Route 128, from Burlington on up, some investors are focusing on building new, not just renovating.

“People have been coming through the door to talk about hotel deals,’’ said Robert Buckley, a Burlington-based real estate lawyer at Riemer & Braunstein.

Meanwhile, a few miles west on the Mass. Turnpike, the Sheraton Framingham Hotel & Conference Center is gearing up for a major renovation, said Susan Nicholl, executive director of the MetroWest Tourism & Visitors Bureau. A hotel spokeswoman said details on the upgrades are still being finalized.

Local taxpayers also have a stake in efforts by hotels to attract more business, with communities able to levy a local-option tax of up to 6 percent of room charges. That is atop the state rate of 5.7 percent.


For communities with a cluster of hotels, the local occupancy tax can produce hundreds of thousands to well over a million dollars a year, according to numbers compiled by the state Department of Revenue.

Natick took in nearly $1.2 million in local hotel taxes during the 2011 fiscal year, according to the Department of Revenue. Newton generated $1.6 million, Waltham $2.7 million, and Framingham $1.2 million from local hotel taxes during the same period, the state’s records show.

A glimpse of coming attractions can be found just off Route 9 in Natick, where Distinctive Hospitality Group has pumped $25 million to $30 million into jazzing up the old Crowne Plaza with new décor, a new restaurant called the Pantry, and the Violet Thorn lounge.

The new owners have also rebooted the hotel’s technology - boosting wireless capacity as well teaming up with the Framingham-based Bose Co. to update conference rooms and meeting halls with the best in audio equipment.

The Natick hotel’s owners hope to acquire another five to 10 hotels in the wider area.

“We definitely have our sights set along the entirety of the 128 corridor and downtown Boston,’’ company president Carrier said.

The activity doesn’t surprise Paul Sacco, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Lodging Association, who said hotels in Boston’s western suburbs have seen a significant drop in the number of empty rooms.


Overall, hotels in Middlesex County saw occupancy rates jump to just over 69 percent last year, up from 66.4 percent in 2010, he said.

That’s higher than the overall occupancy rate for hotels across the state, which was 65.8 percent at the end of last year.

“The focus is on upgrading - that is what is happening all along that 128 corridor,’’ Sacco said.

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at