Guests at Aloft hotels will be able to order customized, healthy fare that they pay for at a kiosk. (Photo: Marriott International Creative Services)
LOS ANGELES — Four months after merging with Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Marriott International is starting to put its stamp on the brands it has acquired.
The largest hotel company in the world is taking two of Starwood’s brands, the boutique Aloft and the eco-conscious extended stay Element, and testing out new design and food and beverage concepts.
Marriott has an “innovation lab” at its headquarters in Bethesda, Md. In October, the company unveiled its first M Beta hotel for its flagship Marriott Hotels brand at the Charlotte Marriott City Center. Marriott will unveil a temporary innovation lab Monday at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit in Los Angeles.
The company tries out new programs and products at the functioning hotel. It is testing out keyless entry, new technology in the fitness studio and other prototyping. Guests are asked to provide feedback in real-time.
Among the design features piloted at Element is a communal room that will be located in the center of four guest rooms. The guests will have their own rooms to sleep in but will share a kitchen, dining room and lounge area, so they can socialize or collaborate on projects.
“We took a look at why people travel and what people need,” says Toni Stoeckl, vice president of lifestyle brands at Marriott International. “Our lobbies have become more communal and social hubs, but we saw a need for something in between. There are a lot of opportunities for people to have their shared common space and be together but still have their private space.”
Marriott will add suites with communal living rooms and kitchens to select Element Hotels. (Photo: Marriott International)
Aloft will debut a food and beverage program with fresh, healthy ingredients such as spinach, quinoa and avocado. Guests will be able to order customized “pots,” healthy meals in a colorful to-go container.
Travelers can order and pay for them at digital kiosks. The pots will have time-stamped personalized labels with their chef’s emoji.
Marriott will try tech-centric beverage concepts such as a portable wine cart for Element that automatically pours wine when activated by a hotel room key card.
Stoeckl says Marriott chose Aloft and Element because they have always been the places where Starwood has tested out new initiatives. For instance, Starwood used the Aloft brand to try out a robotic butler, known as the Botler.
“What we want to do is to invite our owners, our partners, our guests into the whole process of how we think of innovation for these brands,” Stoeckl says. “We really wanted to do this openly, get feedback and bounce our ideas for consumers and stakeholders. Those brands have always been about innovation.”
After Marriott’s purchase of Starwood, it has 30 brands. Along with Marriott Hotels, Marriott’s signature brands include Renaissance, the Ritz-Carlton and Residence Inn. Starwood’s include Westin, W Hotels, St. Regis and Sheraton.
Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, who runs the combined company, has said several times that he will keep all the brands. This innovation lab is the first example of Marriott trying to make consumer-focused changes with any of Starwood’s properties.
There are 127 Aloft and 23 Element hotels worldwide. An additional 136 Aloft and 66 hotels are in the pipeline for construction.
This year, Marriott expects to open 33 Aloft properties and 14 Elements in cities such as Seattle and Seoul.
"One of the value propositions for buying Starwood and brands like Aloft and Element is growing them in a way that Starwood wasn’t able to," says Eric Jacobs, chief development officer for select-service and extended stay.
The brands are popular with younger business travelers. They are select-service brands that have rooms at a lower price point but still provide amenities. It’s a sector in the industry that is particularly booming these days.
"The day-to-day traveler today, they are self-sufficient, they carry their own bags, they’re looking for ease of travel, they’re looking for a quality sleep experience, they’re looking for some food and beverage, but they’re not necessarily looking for the full service experience," Jacobs says. "They're there for a night. Do they really need a huge spa and banquet spaces?"
Guests who experiment with the new initiatives will be able to provide their feedback in real-time through Swurvey, a swipe-able survey. The company expects to incorporate changes in a more widespread way by this fall.