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The Good and the Bad of Renovating a Retail and Hospitality Space

Retail, Hospitality, and Restaurant spaces are a broad and ever-expanding category of uses and are one of the single largest employers and economic engines in the entire economy. With such a wide variety of facets, concepts, and operational models, it is impossible to address the array of variables for design and construction, but that evolution is a critical part of success in these markets. Once the original concept is launched and established, the work has only just begun…time to start thinking about what’s next and how to grow the patron base and sustain success.

When determining how to proceed with the evolution of your space, there are a handful of key factors which will play heavily into the decision of where to focus your resources to ensure a successful future for your business. Some items to consider for guiding project goals:

  • What is the core of the successful patron experience?

  • Are there opportunities for operational improvement?

  • Are there deferred items from the initial construction efforts?

  • What items can enhance the experience for existing customers?

  • Restroom quality, cleanability, fit/finish upgrades? (Don’t underestimate a clean restroom experience, to patrons…this reflects how the whole facility operates.)

  • Can the brand experience be refined or expanded to entice new customers? (Often a new addition or renovated experience can create a marketing opportunity.)

No matter the business, every owner at some time or another wishes to modify their space, whether they had initial intentions of renovating or not.

Design Challenge – What’s the occasion?

The most important design challenge to recognize when renovating a retail or hospitality space is to determine exactly “WHY” you wish to renovate in the first place. Generally, business owners choose to renovate to give the interior space and exterior façade an overall fresh and new feel, to better utilize the existing space, and to become more user-friendly. Be sure to set your guiding goals to help provide the framework for weighted decision-making.

Questions like the following will help to determine your “Why”:

  • What can I expect to gain from renovating and are the expectations realistic?

  • Will the changes hurt or improve my current business operation?

  • How much will it cost and how will it be financed?

  • Will the long-term benefits outweigh the temporary disruptions?

  • Will the upgrades make you more competitive in the market?

If a clear “why” has not been discussed nor determined, the renovation process and the resulting product may be more detrimental to a business than beneficial. However, by planning accordingly in advance with a written schedule and timeline, a retail or hospitality renovation can avoid any unforeseen costs or time delays.

Design Challenge – How big are your eyes?

Design challenges occur in every project type, whether it is a new build, historic reno, retail face-lift, or hospitality flip – each will have its own array of unique challenges. Many struggle with determining to what extent the project should be taken. In retail design, renovation ideas may include rearranging the floor plan to provide space for new merchandise, widening aisles to accommodate more customers, or simply updating the walls and floors with fresh paint and new flooring materials.

With hospitality design, renovation ideas are relatively similar and may include other aspects like adding unique amenities such as a pool or sauna, revamping the brand, or swapping out outdated light fixtures for brighter, more efficient ones.

More complex solutions that involve making alterations to structural or existing components, like increasing the amount of natural light by putting in a window or rearranging the floor plan to feel more “open concept” by removing walls, will require more cost and time. However, these alterations may be necessary to improve the functionality and feel of a space.

Once the extent of renovation is determined, even if the goal is big, set the desired expectation and your design professional can help figure out how to break it down into more digestible portions.

Design Challenge – Don’t overdo it.

A key aspect of the process, which is too often overlooked is the consideration of building code, inspections, and agency requirements (health, food service, etc.). Without proper planning, coordination, and documentation, a simple remodel could snowball into an unplanned shutdown, loss of customers, revenue, or worse. Before undertaking any construction on your space, consider consulting a professional resource. Most often, these consultations are part of project evaluation and as such, are done at little to no cost.

There are code requirements to be mindful of before taking a sledgehammer to the wall, for example, the renovation of a retail or hospitality space must comply with ADA requirements. Sometimes, when remodeling older structures, things will be uncovered that we must address to keep everyone safe and healthy. A good rule of thumb is to bring in your design consultant for a walk of the space before starting any project. They can help identify potential issues and plan to address them in advance of beginning work.

They can’t always be predicted, but rest assured that there is a path forward with a bit of planning and an experienced team. Luckily, things like re-roofing, painting, adding wallpaper, removing wallpaper, or changing the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing do not affect usability.

Design Challenge – Cleanse the Palate

Lastly, we challenge ourselves by maintaining what is already existing, while strategically implementing a “fresh” look and feel. Most businesses already have an established brand and aesthetic that should be maintained during the renovation process. Likewise, design professionals are challenged with maintaining the existing structure or architectural components.

A few quick-fix ideas that will freshen up a retail space without damaging the existing structure include going over walls with a fresh coat of paint or adding wall coverings. Wall coverings are making a resurgence in retail and hospitality design. They are a great solution to help incorporate a custom pattern or company colors and logo, plus it is easy to install and remove without causing damage to existing walls! The right remodeling job can increase your sales by encouraging customers to spend more time in a place that exudes quality and updated style. A few small touches can enhance the experience in a space very quickly and cost-effectively while maintaining the overall feel of a space and not diving into the cash register too deeply.

Construction Approach – Hours of Operation

Approaching the renovation of an occupied space, phased, or off-hours are very different from a typical “single push” build. This is often the case with businesses that rely on the cyclical influx of in-person customers; be it daily, weekly, or seasonally. This is often the case with restaurant, retail, or hospitality venues…whose lifeblood is the ability to provide consistent service to their existing patrons, while continuously growing their customer base by evolving with market demands. These sectors, in particular, are extremely competitive and if a patron (new or loyal) has a compromised experience, they may not return at all.

It is, therefore, a daunting challenge to consider the cost/benefit of undertaking more than just the most basic of maintenance construction tasks. Most operations will take the route of deferring any significant degree of work until such time as the number of construction warrants a complete shut down for a limited window to perform a single surge construction effort. This is always a gamble, as patrons tend to be finicky; too much change and the regulars may not agree, but a refreshed experience can bring new customers.

Construction Approach – Small Plates

One solution is to break the design and construction into smaller and more manageable pieces. Smaller phases of an overall effort may maintain the loyal customer base and entice new patrons to join the fold. Incremental changes have several advantages if properly planned and executed. By breaking down the big goal of renovating into smaller and more manageable sections of time, something similar will happen to the cost of such elements. Yes, there is a level of critical mass where construction is more efficient, but that also necessitates having the capital to execute all that work at once. By limiting the scope of each phase, it can become easier to manage the overall expense and impact on operations/revenue.

Construction Approach – Happy Hours

Reduce overall disruption to operations. Foremost, margins are tight and restrictions to revenue generated from prime availability are the most critical part of the equation. Some operations see seasonal increases in traffic, others are weekly or even hourly. Before undertaking any construction efforts, the best practice would be to evaluate the calendar and find the window of opportunity for the smallest amount of disruption.

There will likely be the need to compromise to a degree, as it is not feasible to undertake most construction projects in a matter of hours. An exceptional amount of work can be accomplished quickly if properly designed, phased, constructed, and executed. Bringing this information to the table when you meet with your design team will give them a gauge of how to approach the work, no matter how big or small the desired result.

Construction Approach – Vary the Offerings

Second only to prime revenue times, is the operational model and the degree of flexibility that can be leveraged to maximize revenue and minimize disruption to the customer experience. This will often come with some tradeoffs for the internal staff or operational model, but the key to the success of this aspect is maintaining the customer experience.

This may mean reducing the number of customers which can be served, limiting offerings, or reducing open hours. These are all aspects that most patrons are willing to accept (provided they are clearly communicated), but a sub-par experience is typically a much bigger issue. The only thing worse than having to turn a customer away is a negative experience.

Construction Approach – Plan the Offerings for Success

Designing for these phased scenarios is a challenge that requires a broad view of the overall goals, limitations of the schedule, and implementation of intelligent construction practices. The final portion is the most critical…where the “rubber meets the road.” Historically conventional construction happens in layers, often requiring multiple, specialized crews and time for each to come to the jobsite/work/clean…repeat. This means that there is a staggering of work where one trade must be largely (or completely) finished before the next may begin. Something as simple as a new dividing wall may require five trades to construct over a period of days.

Whereas the same (or largely similar) impact can be accomplished by bringing in a modular structure, shop-built millwork, or another unique approach in a matter of a few hours because much of the preparation work can be completed off-site. These alternate means of construction may involve an increased cost, but the potential lost revenue of a conventional process should be weighed and evaluated.

Close with Dessert

No matter the degree of modification to a concept, it’s important to take a step back at each phase and evaluate the success and influence on the business model. Patrons and conditions are everchanging, forcing the need to evaluate the space continuously to keep up. Long-term success depends on finding that sweet spot with the customers.

If you’re lucky enough to strike the delicate balance of trend and longevity, it’s all about keeping them coming back with minor adjustments. No matter how great the offering, most people yearn for a comfortable degree of change, something sweet, familiar, and with a dash of the unexpected.

There are ever-expanding possibilities for cultivating an experience that speaks to customers, with the voice of your brand. Your design team will help you, as the business owner or operator to determine which solutions may be right for your business and a better space for a brighter future.



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