|By Keith Reed, The Boston Globe|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 6, 2005--BETHESDA, Md. -- The swanky future of hotels is hiding in a basement in this Washington suburb.
There you'll find plush bedding, brightly patterned carpets, funky light fixtures, a big-screen HDTV set, and complimentary Bath & Body Works toiletries in the bathroom.
It'd be a great room to stay in if it had windows and wasn't in a basement.
In fact, the room isn't in a hotel at all. It's one of seven test guest rooms that sit unused, night after night, in the depths of Marriott International Inc.'s headquarters.
The rooms are part of Marriott's effort to capitalize on a decade of research and tens of millions of dollars to figure out what guests want.
They also illustrate how hotel operators are catering to a new generation of travelers whose trips are equal parts work and play, and who more than ever yearn for the comforts of home even when they're thousands of miles away.
"It's very important for them to keep the decor up to what the traveler is expecting," said Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a Washington trade group. "The consumer wants what they would have at home when they stay away from home." If hotel providers don't provide that, McInerney said, "they're going to lose market share."
Marriott will unveil a similar room in Orlando, Fla., tomorrow, which executives say represents the company's rooms of the future. But it's here, in the basement, where designers and technicians dream up and test new amenities before guests get a glimpse.
Several times a year, the rooms get new furniture or fixtures and occasionally they're gutted and rebuilt from scratch. Marriott operates nine hotel brands in all, including full-service Marriott and Renaissance hotels, for which the rooms being unveiled tomorrow were designed, as well as long-term corporate housing chains like ExecuStay.
Marriott has been increasingly profitable in recent years, posting net income of $596 million last year, compared with $502 million in 2003. The company said in its annual report that the bigger profits came as demand for hotel rooms strengthened.
The latest incarnation of Marriott's rooms is part of a larger plan to rebrand itself as a modern, hip chain as it prepares for a shift in its customer base.
Members of Generation X, those who are 26 to 40 years old, are expected to dominate the market as they hit their peak earning years and travel for business and with their families.
Baby boomers will continue to be important, but even their travel habits have changed as they intermingle business and pleasure when on the road, said Michael Jannini, Marriott's executive vice president of lodging brand management.
"These people sit on their beds, laptop open, with a glass of wine, TV on in the background," Jannini said. "If you watch them work, it looks like work and relaxation together. It doesn't look like heavy-duty, sweating-over-a-desk work."
Looking for fresh eyes to bring new ideas for the rooms, Jannini recruited a cadre of young marketing executives who had worked for consumer products companies like Nike and Procter & Gamble, but never for a hotel chain. Then he tapped a research consultancy that specializes in watching human behavior.
"They have people on the staff who are anthropologists, archeologists, sociologists," Jannini said.
"What they do is follow people around, they stalk them a little bit, then they see subtle behaviors and report them to us."
What they found, he said, was that hotel guests wanted rooms where privacy, functionality, and a homey environment were all reflected -- and rooms that didn't necessarily look like every other hotel room.
"The cookie cutter is dead," Jannini said, adding that the new rooms were designed so that hotel managers could choose which elements they wanted without having to order a complete renovation.
In Marriott's basement, a hotel room door opens into a small marble foyer. Room service can be dropped off without the delivery person catching a glimpse of the guest's bed, adding an extra layer of privacy to the room.
A desk swivels out from the wall so that guests can watch the big TV while they work, replacing the old, clunky desk that always blocked the power outlets for a computer. The old television-armoire combo has given way to a big flat-panel HDTV set sitting on a swiveling platform atop the dresser.
Lou Paladeau, Marriott's vice president of technology development, said that in the future, televisions will likely be the focal point for broader in-room digital entertainment centers that allow many devices to connect to each other over high-speed Internet lines, which Marriott has installed in most of its hotel rooms.
Across from the dresser, movable lamps protrude from the bed's headboard on either side, more like small shower heads than light fixtures. Marriott added this touch to keep guests from having to reach across the bed and fumble with a lamp on a nightstand.
The chain is already spending $190 million to replace 628,000 beds this year and add more pillows, plusher mattresses, and white duvet covers.
Hotels use dark or colorful linens to save on cleaning costs, but white duvets give the rooms a cleaner look.
In the bathroom, wooden stools hold bath towels and hide the hair dryer that used to hang on the wall.
Where the generic soap and shampoo sat on the countertop, there are scented candles and "Orange Ginger" soap and body wash from Bath & Body Works, a nod to the idea that travelers want to use familiar personal products when they travel.
Jannini said many of the changes are more subtle tweaks than groundbreaking developments. Still, the process has created revolution within the company, he said.
"This was very expensive, takes many months, and costs millions of dollars. Hotel companies typically don't do this," Jannini said. "Our customers told us, 'Your industry has got to get with it.'"
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