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.
“A 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.
How 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.
Hoover’s 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.
One provocative 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.
The exterior of Starwood's innovation lab in Stamford, Connecticut. (Starwood)
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.
Another possible 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.
Marriott's lab includes a so-called "war room", where designers meet to dream up new amenities and room layouts. (Marriott)
Peninsula’s techno-centric perks
Started 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.
Among 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.
The noise-editing phone has been installed in the Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong properties, and will be rolled out to Paris next.
Not 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.
Similarly, recent experiments in mood lighting struck testers as being too nightclub-like. Calmer and more elegant lighting was substituted.
In 2012, the Peninsula Hong Kong installed bedside control panels that let guests change the thermostat, adjust the lighting or watch Internet TV. (The Peninsula Group)
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.
Designs rotate 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.
The Swissotel hotel lab has the look and dimensions of a traditional Swiss arvenstübli, a pinewood-lined parlour. (Swissotel)
While 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