At many global
hotel chains, every part of your stay – from checking in at the front desk to
closing your room curtains – has been anticipated by designers at little-known
laboratories around the world. Sound creepy? It shouldn’t. It’s all part of a
new research-and-development process used by several well-known brands to
optimise their guests’ stays.
lab is a much more effective tool for developing designs than listening to a
droning Powerpoint on a conference call,” said Karim Khalifa, senior vice
president of architecture and construction for Marriott. “The replicas allow
everyone to easily visualise what’s being proposed.”
In the past two
years, several global brands including Marriott, Westin and Swissotel have
opened free-standing, closed-to-the-public design labs that house full-size
replica rooms and lobbies, and staff and volunteers are invited to test new
features in the hopes of optimising their guests’ stays. Other brands,
including Hyatt, Hilton and Holiday Inn, prefer to test innovations at “lab
hotels”, or specially designated properties where selected rooms are given to
designers to audition amenities and décor in front of randomly selected guests.
much of an impact does this research truly have on your stay? BBC Travel peeked
into the laboratories used by Westin, Marriott, The Peninsula and Swissotel to
witness a few of the innovations possibly coming to a hotel room near you.
In 2011, Starwood
opened a two-storey, almost 11,000sqft design lab at its corporate campus in
Stamford, Connecticut. Today, Starwood’s Westin Hotels and Resorts brand is
using the lab to test a proposed room décor revamp that emphasises the great
outdoors. Curtains are imprinted with the patterns of dragonfly wings and
wallpaper has fractal patterns that resemble a canopy of forest leaves.
Erin Hoover, the
brand’s vice president of design, said the underlying nature-themed design is
based on biophilia, or the theory that people are neurologically wired to feel
better in natural surroundings.
four-person team – made up of architects, interior decorators and industrial
designers – is testing whether adding natural analogues, such as terrariums and
vibrantly green wall coverings, may lead to a deeper sleep.
detail is to have the bed and headboard angled five degrees away from the wall.
"The visual cue is very subtle – that there are no straight lines in
nature," Hoover said. “The angle also signals to the mind subconsciously
that the bed is a star attraction.”
If the feedback
from test visitors is strong, guests may start seeing the redesigns in
Westin's properties worldwide by 2015.
Marriott’s underground design lair
In May 2013,
Marriott International opened an innovation lab in the basement of its
corporate campus in Bethesda, Maryland. The 10,000sqft, three-storey arena lets
guests and staff test amenities and designs for the conglomerate’s 19 brands.
The space has the
lively feel of a theatre workshop, Khalifa said. The white walls echo with the
sound of designers cutting up material and assembling replica furniture.
In October, the
Marriott flagship brand used the lab to mock up a full overhaul of its guest
rooms. It invited 32 guests – chosen from both the chain’s loyalty program and
guests who had submitted insightful comments after their hotel stays – to walk
through and comment on the proposed new furniture, wall coverings and other decor.
Employees were also
invited to chime in. One housekeeper noted helpfully that a particular bathroom
configuration would make their cleaning job more difficult.
design misfire was avoided in September 2013 when the lab did side-by-side tests
of four bedding types. An elaborate combination of designer duvets and pillow
settings ending up being less popular with testers than bedding with a
“simpler, clean and neat style”, Khalifa said.
Peninsula’s techno-centric perks
in 1985 as a research-and-technology office focused on testing guest room
gadgets, today, the Hong Kong-based Peninsula Hotels Group lab includes exact
replicas of the brand’s 70sqm hotel rooms — right down to fully functional
plumbing and fake visible skylines — allowing staff and volunteers to evaluate
prototypes under realistic conditions.
the company’s eight laboratory engineers and 18 designers, the company’s wizard
behind the curtain is Ingvar Herland, general manager of research and
technology. One of his favourite innovations as of late is a bathroom phone
that filters out the sound of running water, thus allowing guests to take a
call without the background noise revealing where they might be.
noise-editing phone has been installed in the Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong
properties, and will be rolled out to Paris next.
every idea is a sure thing however. One misfire was the creation of a bench
that doubled as a luggage scale, Herland said. Engineers couldn’t o guarantee
the device would remain accurate after wear and tear, especially if visitors frequently
sat on it, and the company worried that guests would encounter airline baggage
fees if the scales gave misleading readings.
recent experiments in mood lighting struck testers as being too nightclub-like.
Calmer and more elegant lighting was substituted.
Swissotel’s localised designs
Not to be outdone,
in May 2013 Swissotel Hotels and Resorts unveiled a 35sqm model room at the
entrance to its headquarters in Zurich. The space has the look and dimensions
of a traditional Swiss arvenstübli, a pinewood-lined parlour.
through the lab, which recently showcased a model room for a property opening
later this year in Chengdu, China. The model experimented with a sideboard that
spotlights traditional Chinese ornaments, such as a mandala, a traditional circular symbol. “We’re responding to
comments from globetrotting business travellers that when they proverbially
wake up from jet lag at 2 am, they like to see some geographically relevant
visual cue in the room to remind them where they are on the planet,” said
Lilian Roten, vice president of brand strategy at Swissotel.
on-site experiments have their place, Khalifa said that lab experiments let
teams “fail faster” – on the theory that a certain number of mistakes are
unavoidable before successfully sussing out what customers will like best.
As word spreads
through the industry about their effectiveness in optimising guest experiences,
design labs may become standard practice among hotel chains. And if that leads
to a faster pace of innovation, then that’s good news for future guests.
Sean O’Neill is the future of travel
columnist for BBC Travel