BETHESDA, MD. – There’s a “war room” in the basement of Marriott International’s headquarters, and it’s not one where its executives plot against Hilton.
No, this war room is part of Marriott’s new 10,000-square-foot Innovation Lab, a place where employees and hotel owners brainstorm, design and refine their ideas for what the hotel of the future will look like.
But they’re not doing it all on their own. They’re taking their cues from the people they want to please the most — their guests — as part of a new effort to “co-create” with their frequent travelers.
“It’s really consumer-driven,” says Michael Dail, vice president of Global Brand Marketing for Marriott Hotels. “Rather than someone at the company coming up with the idea and letting consumers validate it, with co-creation the idea starts with the consumer.”
Hotels have always turned to focus groups to provide input on ideas and initiatives. But social media has empowered guests to let hotels know what they like and don’t like in real time. Hotel companies are now responding to this more demanding traveler by including them in their design and development process in a much more collaborative way.
“For the longest time, hotel brands have followed the ‘closed’ model of innovation by creating amenities in-house and force feeding them to guests,” says Chekitan Dev, an associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “With an increasingly dynamic marketplace, and the emergence of a younger and more sophisticated travel consumer, this model no longer works.”
A millennial thing
Co-creation, or “crowd-sourcing” opinions from the public, is another play for lucrative Millennial travelers, whose purchasing power is rapidly rising. Millennials, those born in the 1980s to the early 2000s, have unique habits that are influencing hotel design. They like to stay constantly connected through social media, they like to work and play in coffeehouse-like spaces, they pay attention to design, and they want instant gratification.
“When it comes to the preferences of the newest emerging market — the Millennial — firms have realized that to respond to the guest mantra of ‘I want what I want and I want it now,’ a smart way is to open the innovation process to the collective wisdom of its guests,” Dev says.
Starwood Hotels unveiled its own design lab last year at its headquarters in Stamford, Conn. Employees, hotel owners and customers are invited in to take a first look at model rooms, new technology, and food and beverage initiatives. Guest feedback, such as adding electrical outlets near the bed and eco-friendly LED lights, was considered when redesigning the Westin brand’s guest rooms, set to launch next year.
In addition to inviting frequent guests to its Innovation Lab, Marriott Hotels and Resorts launched a “Travel Brilliantly” campaign this year aimed at Millennials. The company solicited ideas from travelers on everything from design to technology to food and beverage on its website, travelbrilliantly.com.
Among the 700 submissions, a panel of judges awarded the grand prize to Roswell, Ga., resident Anjana Kallarackal, a 21-year old Georgia Institute of Technology student. Kallarackal proposed developing a vending machine with healthful options.
This week, Marriott sent her to the London Marriott Hotel Grosvenor Square to work with chefs and designers. A prototype of her idea could end up in Marriott properties in the future.
“I think it’s really interesting that they’re kind of open to innovation and bringing in outside ideas,” Kallarackal says.
Conversations all over
Last month, Hyatt Hotels partnered with innovation consultancy gravitytank at Chicago Ideas Week to solicit ideas from travelers on how they would re-imagine the hotel experience.
In September, Hyatt also hosted what it called “The World’s Largest Focus Group,” during which Hyatt employees around the world led discussions about travel via Twitter and Facebook.
The focus group was the second phase in Hyatt’s 18-month listening exercise, which includes more than 40 group discussions around the world. The company says the talks have led to new amenities such as Hyatt Has It, a service providing forgotten items like deodorant and curling irons, and healthier menu items.
Consumer input was key in the redesign of InterContinental Hotels Group’s Holiday Inn lobbies. IHG reached out to about 5,000 consumers for direction on the kind of food, design and amenities they wanted to see in the lobby. They took the best ideas and created a full-size mock-up of the “Active Lobby Concept” in a warehouse in Boston. Eventually, the concept, which turned separate public areas into one cohesive space for work and play, was tested out at the Holiday Inn Gwinnett Center in Atlanta.
To renovate guestrooms at Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites, IHG turned to graduate students from Savannah College of Art and Design. The students stayed at various properties and talked to guests to come up with such ideas as adding a hutch to the desk so guests can store items and customize their workspace.
“We wanted something that was out of the box in terms of design,” says Robert Radomski, vice president of brand management for Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites.
For IHG’s new fitness and wellness-themed brand, EVEN Hotels, customers are driving the design and amenities, says Adam Glickman, head of EVEN Hotels, which is set to open its first hotel early next year.
Designers visited travelers at their homes to ask them about their eating and exercise habits, what helps put them to sleep and how their bathrooms look.
They then created a 3,000-square-foot Brand Experience Space at IHG’s Atlanta office featuring two guest rooms, a guest room corridor, and a space designed to feel like the lobby and the gym. A separate test kitchen was set up to develop recipes, also with the help of consumers.
Glickman says consumers led them to offer in-room exercise equipment, which planners didn’t consider necessary because they were building a state-of-the-art gym. But they learned that some people like to exercise in private.
“It’s learning what’s most important to your customer and learning how to meet those needs,” Glickman says. “Our ideas have to come from the customer.”