The Marriott in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, offers a familiar scene to anyone who’s ever set foot in one of the chain’s properties. Guests are often in town for business and can be found at the lobby cafe grabbing a quick coffee before morning meetings or a glass of wine after work at the bar.
But look closer and you’ll see details that stand out. Here and there on walls and tables are “beta buttons” and on iPads, “beta boards”—both instant-feedback apparatuses that allow customers to weigh in on every aspect of their stay. If your digital check-in experience was pleasant and efficient, for instance, you can click the thumbs-up button. If it was slow and frustrating, give it a thumbs down. These tools are the key to Marriott’s innovation lab, which allows the company to test out new ideas as it gears up for the next generation of consumers—millennials and gen Z—who will soon make up the bulk of the hotels’ customers.
“The demographic of our guests is changing, and it’s very important to stay in dialogue with them,” Mike Dearing, managing director of Marriott Hotels, tells Fast Company “The Charlotte hotel is really our innovation lab. This is where we’re testing our best thinking and new concepts. We’re staying in constant dialogue with our guests to figure out what works and what they connect with best.”
Marriott generally does not own hotels, but rather manages and franchises the properties in its portfolio. The company chose to buy this Charlotte location so it would have more freedom to develop the lab in radical new ways, outfitting it with the latest technology, and testing out new ideas. The company says that as a fast-growing city with a steady stream of business visitors, Charlotte seemed like the ideal location for a beta project. (And given that there may be as many misses as hits in this phase, it’s possible Marriott sought out a locale that is more relaxed and less scrutinized than one like New York or San Francisco.) Guests pay standard rates at this hotel and may not realize it’s in experimental mode until they arrive.
Some of these new concepts—like a new gym and certain cafe concepts—have already been incorporated into the hotel, but more are being added and existing ones tweaked over the next few months.
Before launching the innovation lab in Charlotte, Marriott’s approach to gathering market insight was standard: customer comment cards, focus groups. The findings revealed that while baby boomers expected consistency at any Marriott hotel around the world, the next generations are more interested in unique, culturally specific experiences. They are especially keen on getting a taste of the local community. “One of the key insights from guests is that they want to know they are in San Francisco or Chicago or Omaha,” Dearing says. “They want it to be a localized experience that allows us to make real, authentic contact with the local culture.”
The challenge, then, is to introduce variety into hotels while also ensuring that guests leave knowing they’ve encountered the Marriott brand. One way that the company has navigated this delicate balance is in the amenities. When guests are traveling, for instance, they often search for the best restaurants in town. Marriott is trying to ensure that at least some of the standout local hotspots are in this downtown Charlotte hotel itself—and in all other Marriott properties going forward.
Throughout the Charlotte property, there are local touches. For instance, rather than a generic restaurant and cafe, local chefs and entrepreneurs have set up permanent restaurants in the hotel, bringing with them their own tastes, cuisine, and aesthetics. Marriott has also invited a local business person to set up a wine bar and shop. If guests try a particular wine and enjoy it, they can purchase it on the spot. And instead of the standard Starbucks, an independent cafe from the area is now situated in the lobby.
Marriott also found that guests are interested in mingling in open spaces. Millennials, in particular, see activities like going to the gym or a coffee shop as an opportunity to meet new people and start conversations. So in Charlotte, in place of a sterile gym, guests can sign up for boutique studio classes taught by local instructors, similar to those popular in big cities. At other times, they can pick from a range of fitness videos from celebrity trainers that will be streamed onto a big screen. Many business travelers rely on exercise videos that they watch in their room on their laptop or iPad to get exercise while on the road. Charlotte offers a less isolated experience.
The Charlotte hotel will also have plenty of big lofty spaces, like lobbies with comfy chairs and casual coffee nooks scattered around the lobby, where people can do work or relax among fellow visitors. These spots are especially designed for frequent travelers—like consultants who might be at the hotel for an entire week—and are looking for opportunities to connect with other people while they’re away from home.
Of course, Marriott is currently just hypothesizing that this is what guests are looking for. But the beauty of the innovation lab is that the company can find out quickly if something is working or not. If the video classes are not popular with guests, they’ll push the “thumbs down” button, and the next time they visit the Charlotte location, it might be gone, replaced with a new concept.
Ideas that are successful, on the other hand, will be introduced to other hotels. Every six years, hotels come up for renovation. They’re often totally gutted, then outfitted with the newest technologies and design elements. The 20 most recently redesigned hotels have rooms with wood floors rather than traditional carpet after Marriott guests said that wood made them feel more at home. The innovation lab will provide lots more insight like this for other hotels.
While many of these changes cater to the needs of young consumers, Dearing has found that when Marriott has opened hotels that offer unique, culturally specific experiences, even older clients not accustomed to this style tend to come around. “Baby boomers and even the silent generation give us very high scores for the new approach,” Dearing says.