From slush to plush again
The Canterbury earthquakes cut deep into Christchurch's hotel industry. ALAN WOOD reports on the repair process at one of the more established properties.
Three years ago today Chateau on the Park general manager Rahul Rai watched as the liquefaction in his hotel office pushed out of the concrete floor.
His briefcase was left high on the pile of slush during the bedlam of the day and picked up later, but the remaining silt was indicative of the damage at one of Christchurch's largest hotels.
"I remember my briefcase was on top of that pile that had risen . . . a couple of hours later it was a bit higher because I didn't (initially) bother picking the my briefcase . . . the floors were totally munted."
Chateau on the Park has brought its 192 room capacity back to full strength after battling through a difficult 18-month repair process, Rahul Rai says.
This is part of a gradual recovery in Christchurch accommodation offerings. The Rendezvous, Ibis and Novotel hotels have all reopened in the period since September 2012 after earthquake repairs.
Closer to the airport, Copthorne Hotel Commodore last year added 25 new guest rooms and suites and the Sudima Hotel Christchurch is in the midst of a $20 million upgrade.
The cost of that Chateau on the Park repair work has been in the order of $10 million.
The owners have been working closely with its insurers on damage from the February 22 and June 13, 2011 and other quakes, and some small repairs are continuing.
"We've hired a (risk and forensic adviser from Sydney) to help us through the whole claim process . . . his job along with us is to work out what is insurance, what is not insurance, what can be claimed what can't be claimed," Rai says.
Sitting on the periphery of Hagley Park, on the corner of Deans Ave and Kilmarnock St, the property is removed from the central city rebuild. But Rai and hotel manager Chrissie Witton remember the chaos around the February 22 event.
The Chateau ended up as a host point for people called in to Christchurch to deal with the disaster that killed 180 people. Many slept on mattresses brought into the big halls with vaulted ceilings usually used for conference events.
There was little danger he says because the high wooden beam supports were "ridiculously over- engineered", Rai remembers of the shaky times that had people in Christchurch cowering from the aftershocks.
"We accommodated people from the emergency services and all in our function rooms because there was nowhere for them to go . . . I remember [the engineers] had said avoid the rooms overnight, but the Great Hall and Camelot should be fine, so they slept on the floor.
"I remember the first night the Great Hall was absolutely packed, we had our own guests in there of course. So we probably had around 100 people on the first night.
"Then our guests were gone. We had emergency services for the next couple of nights, we had some people from the hospital, then we shut for 10 days [to consolidate]."
Following further engineering tests the hotel was opened on a gradual basis.
However, for much of the period since not all of the hotel has been operational with up to half or 100 rooms out of action at any one time.
"The biggest part of the damage was in the . . . floor of the function rooms, the lobby itself, the reception area," Rai says.
Most of the repair work as been done at ground level or below.
There has been radical work around the foundations, with "built in channels" added to the drainage system. In case of a future seismic event the system is designed to allow any liquefaction material and water to flow away from underneath the property.
Part of the above ground rebuild work has included an opening up of the lift and balcony areas around the main reception. A stairwell has been moved and old fashioned balustrades have been replaced by glass.
Outside the glass walkways through the centre of the hotel the pond or "moat" area has been resurfaced with a membrane to repair leaks.
Rai has a dual role as general manager for the Chateau but also as New Zealand chief for Abacus Hospitality Fund, part of an ASX- listed property company. Abacus also owns two Rydges-branded hotels in Cairns and one Novotel- branded property on the Sunshine Coast in Australia.
The company owns the properties within a A$155m fund, but can get other hotel groups like Rydges to manage the accommodation sites, Rai explains.
Abacus has owned the hotel for about seven years, though the hotel dates back to the mid-1970s.
One revenue stream for the Chateau hotel is conference events. But it is yet to see a return to regular business events of the size of 300 to 350 people it can cater for given that conference activity in the city has fallen.
Renowned Christchurch architect Peter Beaven designed the Chateau Commodore later renamed as Chateau on the Park. The hotel is close to celebrating its 40th birthday and the castle-like building has been variously described as of romantic style or a Gothic revival fantasy.
"[It is] a pleasure palace conceived as a wildly eccentric composition of steeply pitched roofs, heavy timbered halls, turrets, towers and moats," one architectural review says. It adds that new hotel wings were added by Sheppard Rout and Dalman Architecture during the hotel's lifetime.
Staff that worked in the hotel in the 1970s have been invited to a March 5 event to relaunch the property to the tourism and accommodation industry.
Liquefaction destroyed the floors of a couple of the rooms used for conferences, and also the main reception area, which has been relaid with slate tiles. These modernise and sharpen the feel of the "character" 1970s building, Witton and Rai say.
Witton points out the post- quake additions. Carpets with a Kiwi motif design by Michael Ballard of Irvine carpets run through the accommodation wings. Other replacement Axminster carpets fitting with the Camelot meeting room took three months to arrive from the United Kingdom.
The Camelot and other rooms such as the Great Hall and Tower and the smaller Ballantyne and Board rooms are well known to the Christchurch business community. Shareholders from South Island corporates often nibble on a sandwich at the end of an annual meeting in summer.
The liquefaction also lifted the swimming pool "right out of the ground" Witton says. The replacement uses heat transfer from the airconditioning system to heat the water, she adds.
Rai says while there has been an obvious pickup in economic activity in the city, and the accommodation sector in January has been busy with tourists, there is still a way to go in the recovery process. But positive signs continue.
"I see that with the airline prices, [going] up and up and up, so that's one way I gauge what's going on as well."
The Tourism Industry Association's Canterbury hotels sector chairman and general manager of The George hotel, Bruce Garrett, says the return of extra room stock is a welcome sign for the city.
At the end of 2012 there were about 4532 rooms in Christchurch across all accommodation types, well down on the pre-quake peak. By December 2015 the industry expects that number to reach 6196.
The Chateau on the Park was one of the larger older hotel properties in Christchurch Garrett says. Before the earthquakes there were others such as the Crowne Plaza, which had in the order of 300 rooms, the Hotel Grand Chancellor, Hotel So (about 280 rooms).
"It's certainly good to have it all back on, particularly on for this summer season . . . the extra rooms from there, from the other hotels that have opened have enabled us to cater for some of that pent-up demand that's been building up in the last couple of years - the coach tours and things.
"One of the things [for the Chateau] over January this year they housed a number of cricket teams all in town . . . for the qualifying rounds of the Cricket World Cup . . . all the teams stayed in the Chateau on The Park."
Other hotel developments include a nine-storey 80-room hotel on the old railway station site in Moorhouse Ave.