BUILDING work has started on a £1m refurbishment programme to convert Durham's Swallow County Hotel into a Marriott Hotel by March 2001.

The move follows the recent announcement by Marriott to refurbish the hotel - along with the Swallow Hotel at Seaburn in Sunderland - as part of a multi-million pound rebranding strategy.

Over the next four months, The Royal County Hotel will have 46 bedrooms refurbished and receive major improvements to its lounge and reception area to bring it in line with US-owned Marriott's four star brand standards.

Although many of the hotel's renowned qualities and features will remain, the refurbishment work will ensure that guests and customers are guaranteed the same quality service and bedroom sizes provided by other Marriott hotels in the region and throughout the world.

Derek Harvey, general manager of the Royal County Hotel, said: "The refurbishment work represents the next exciting chapter in the long history of the hotel.

"Operating as a Marriott hotel assures customers of high standards of service and care."

The decision to refurbish the Royal County and Sunderland hotels - together with the Gosforth Park - follows the £600m acquisition of the Swallow Hotel chain by Whitbread, which will operate and manage the hotels under the Marriott brand name in the UK.

Nationally, more than £50m is being spent on converting Swallow hotels to the Marriott brand.

The Gosforth Park Hotel recently became the Newcastle Marriott Hotel - Gosforth Park, while the company already operates the prestigious four star Newcastle Marriott Hotel Metrocentre