Airport hotels have become more than a convenient pit stop

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The exterior of the 519-room Westin Denver International Airport.
The exterior of the 519-room Westin Denver International Airport.

Denver's newest and largest hotel is a visual stunner. The 519-room Westin, an example of Starwood Hotels & Resorts' upper-upscale brand, opened last November and is located in a glass-clad structure shaped like the wings of a bird. It offers guests floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic views to the west of the Rocky Mountains.

It also provides a great jumping-off point to explore the city, and visitors are sometimes treated to screenings of classic 1980s films such as "Top Gun" and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" in the outdoor plaza next door.

The property is located on the grounds of the Denver Airport, just steps from the Jeppesen Terminal, but don't make any assumptions because of its location.

"We're not an airport hotel," said Michele Chalupa, director of sales and marketing at the Westin Denver International Airport (DIA). "We're a four-diamond Westin just steps away from a world-class airport."

The Westin DIA represents the first U.S. entry into the global trend of newbuild, expanded or redeveloped hotels that happen to be situated on airport grounds but offer enough amenities and architectural panache to be considered destinations in their own right.

The Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has a 140-foot-high atrium and a cubist design created by Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo.
The Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has a 140-foot-high atrium and a cubist design created by Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo.

In Europe, the Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol debuted last December, featuring a cubist design by Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo (Netherlands Open Air Museum, the U.K.'s Library of Birmingham) and a 140-foot-high atrium. The 433-room hotel, which is a five-minute walk on a covered passageway to the nearest airport terminal, touts its "resort-style amenities," such as an Eforea-branded spa.

According to Shawn McAteer, vice president of global brand management for Hilton Worldwide's full-service brands, the Schiphol's Axis Lobby & Cocktail Bar offers one of the Netherlands' largest selections of gin and jenevers, a traditional Dutch spirit similar to gin.

Also opening late last year was AccorHotels' Pullman Paris Roissy CDG Airport at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. The hotel's 305 rooms include walk-in closets to create what the property calls "a living setting," while the property's restaurant features dishes created with ingredients sourced from local farmers. The hotel's meeting rooms overlook the airport's runways.

However, when it comes to at-airport lodging, Singapore Changi Airport appears to warrant its own category.

Earlier this year, the Hong Kong-based airport services company Plaza Premium Group debuted its Aerotel "airport-transit hotel" concept in Changi Airport's Terminal 1. A second Aerotel has opened at Abu Dhabi Airport, while a third is slated to debut at London's Heathrow Airport next year.

The Aerotel rents out its 70 rooms in six-hour blocks for about $40 instead of by the night, with single units offering in-room coffee and tea, free WiFi and "different pillow options." The property also includes an outdoor swimming pool with a poolside bar. Access is free for hotel guests and available to other travelers for $15.

The lounge at the 70-room Aerotel “airport-transit hotel” at Singapore Changi Airport features a view of the airport’s runway.
The lounge at the 70-room Aerotel “airport-transit hotel” at Singapore Changi Airport features a view of the airport’s runway.

Meanwhile, InterContinental Hotels Group's Crowne Plaza Changi Airport, which opened in 2008 in the airport's Terminal 3, is suspended over a maze of roads, jungle and water features. It expanded from 320 to 563 rooms by adding a 10-story tower. The $60 million expansion offers guests floor-to-ceiling window views of both the airport's main building and the Jewel Changi Airport expansion, which will be completed in 2019.

The concept of an airport having a hotel on-site goes back to 1959, when Hilton pioneered the idea, opening a 380-room property at San Francisco Airport, then debuting another two weeks later near New Orleans' Moisant Airport.

In fact, the category has grown large enough for London-based Skytrax, which rates global airports, to produce an annual list of its best airport hotels, which also includes hotels that are either adjacent to or very near airports. The list is dominated by Asia-Pacific properties.

In 2016, for the second straight year, Changi Airport's Crowne Plaza topped the list, followed by the second-place Regal Airport Hong Kong and China's Pullman Guangzhou Baiyun Airport at No. 4. The Hilton Munich Airport ranked third.

Among U.S. airports, Dallas's 298-room Grand Hyatt DFW, which opened in 2005 and features a rooftop pool, was listed at No. 10 among global airport hotels.

Still, the most recent batch of openings reflect an effort by hotel operators and airport-owning entities alike to make airports a place where passengers might want to spend a good chunk of the day -- or multiple days, for that matter -- exploring the facility's architecture, retail shops and restaurants.

Such a premise has long been practiced in the Asia-Pacific region. Skytrax lists Singapore's Changi Airport as the world's best airport, followed by South Korea's Incheon Airport, while Tokyo's Haneda Airport and Hong Kong Airport are listed at No. 4 and No. 5. (Munich Airport checked in at No. 3.)

Those results offer a great deal of incentive for airports in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East to up their game.

AccorHotels’ 305-room Pullman Paris Roissy CDG Airport opened at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport last November.
AccorHotels’ 305-room Pullman Paris Roissy CDG Airport opened at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport last November.

"In countries other than our own, the airport itself is a destination," said Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice leader at J.D. Power. "Americans focus on efficiency, and what drives the experience is what requires the least amount of time. In other countries, the airport experience is more than that."

And with good reason. With hotel development, opportunities are scarce in the central districts of the world's most visited cities, so on-airport hotels provide their operators access to a steadily growing pool of higher-end air travelers.

Annual global air passenger counts will double, to 7 billion, in 2034 from about 3.5 billion last year, IATA said in a report last November. Regionally, China's annual passenger counts will almost triple, to 1.2 billion, during the next couple of decades, while U.S. annual passenger numbers are expected to jump 83%, to 1.16 billion.

"We are increasingly witnessing the development of 'airport cities,' whereby airports are no longer simply transit hubs but shopping, leisure and business destinations in their own right, and our airport hotels are no different," McAteer said.

Granted, building a hotel within the confines of an airport isn't a simple process. Aside from the obvious space constraints and the need for features such as soundproof windows, the development requires a public-private partnership because the airport entity, which almost always involves a government organization of some sort, owns the real estate.

"It's a little bit harder to do, because, obviously, you have FAA restrictions, and the airport is your partner instead of the person who owns the land," said Jan Freitag, senior vice president at hotel-research firm STR. "And public-private partnerships are a little more tricky."

The trade-off, though, is that such facilities offer a selling point for members of the group-business sector who are strapped for time. 

On-site meetings facilities can reduce the number of nights required to stay and in some cases allow for day trips instead of overnight stays, Freitag said.

A guestroom in Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.
A guestroom in Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

Moreover, these properties are becoming more convenient because of an improving transportation infrastructure that better connects the airports to the cities they serve. For example, the Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is a 15-minute train ride from central Amsterdam.

And while Denver Airport's massive footprint puts it 23 miles northeast of Denver, giving it a "middle-of-nowhere" vibe, a light-rail line that opened earlier this year ferries both travelers and Westin DIA guests to downtown Denver's Union Station in 37 minutes.

With such benefits in mind, some airports and hotel operators are going downscale by building midscale and economy hotels.

Such properties offer an alternative to the classic select-service hotel that's a shuttle ride away from the terminals as well as the tiny but ultramodern "capsule hotel" facilities operated by companies such as Yotel and CitizenM at airports in Amsterdam, London and Paris.

For example, along with its Pullman hotel, AccorHotels last November added an Ibis-branded property at Charles de Gaulle. That hotel complements its 305 rooms with space-age memorabilia and amenities such as a children's play area.

And last month, AccorHotels reopened what had previously been known as the Junrui Hotel Shanghai at that city's airport as the Mercure Shanghai Hongqiao Airport after its renovation. The 224-room economy hotel, which offers free WiFi and includes "privilege rooms" on the higher floors (they have coffee machines), is located across from the airport's Terminal 1.

The Grand Foyer meeting area of the Westin Denver International Airport, an upper-upscale hotel that opened last November on the grounds of the airport and has the amenities of a four-diamond property.
The Grand Foyer meeting area of the Westin Denver International Airport, an upper-upscale hotel that opened last November on the grounds of the airport and has the amenities of a four-diamond property.

As for demand, Chalupa said the Westin DIA, which is part of the 21-year-old airport's new $600 million hotel and transit center, is "performing a little better than expectations," though she declined to disclose room-rate averages or occupancy levels.

Chalupa, who said that Denver's other airport hotels were at least seven miles from the facility, said that business travelers account for about 60% of the hotel's guests, while leisure travelers make up about 40%. And most stays typically last one night, transient stays often run two or three nights, with guests drawn by the combination of the hotel's architecture and local-art installments.

"What really captures so many people's attention is the architectural design," she said. "It makes people want to know more about the building. It's not just a box."

As for room rates, Westin DIA's midweek rates for early November start at $317 a night and work their way up to $1,100 for the 1,500-square-foot Renewal Suite. That compares with the $400 starting rate at the Westin Denver Downtown.

Meanwhile, rates at the Pullman Paris Roissy CDG start at $265 a night and increase to $503 a night for the 650-square-foot Exclusive Suite. That's slightly less than the $367 starting rate at the Pullman Paris Centre -- Bercy, though it's about half the price of the Pullman Paris Eiffel Tower.

The Pullman Paris Roissy CDG Airport includes a bar that adjoins the Culinaire Bazaar restaurant, luxury accommodations and an indoor pool.
The Pullman Paris Roissy CDG Airport includes a bar that adjoins the Culinaire Bazaar restaurant, luxury accommodations and an indoor pool.

Hilton Amsterdam Schiphol's rates start at about $280 a night, which is comparable to the rates at the Hilton Amsterdam near the city's center.

The trends looks as if it will continue as two of the most visited U.S. cities are slated to add high-profile airport hotels within the next three years.

In September 2015, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York JFK's iconic TWA terminal, which opened in what was then called Idlewild Airport in 1962 and closed in 2002, will be redeveloped into a 505-room hotel that's slated to open in 2018.

The $265 million project, to be developed by MCR Development with JetBlue Airways as a minority partner, will add two, six-story hotel towers to the terminal building, while the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey will add an AirTrain station connecting the hotel to the JetBlue terminal.

And in 2019, San Francisco Airport will come full circle 60 years after its first hotel opened (that property was shuttered in 1998 to clear the way for ramps to the airport's international terminal). The airport will spend $187 million building the Grand Hyatt San Francisco International Airport adjacent to the international terminal.

In addition to 350 rooms and more than 17,000 square feet of meeting space, the hotel will include a sushi bar and wine bar as well as "luxury-level finishes" and rooms with views of the San Francisco Bay. Located near the airport's AirTrain system, the hotel also offers guests rail service to San Francisco via the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.

"There is a strong need for an upscale hotel experience at [the San Francisco Airport], given the established and growing economic and leisure activity in the Bay Area," said Kimo Bertram, vice president of real estate and development of Hyatt's Americas region. "This hotel will also continue to elevate the San Francisco Airport as one of the premier airports in the world."

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