In the highly competitive hotel environment, shaking things up can be a tricky proposition. Travelers crave new and unique experiences but also demand consistency and a level of familiarity. When Aloft Hotels launched in 2008 with its focus on modern design and vibrant social public spaces, it stood out in the hospitality industry’s select-service category, a class of lodging geared to business travelers that had been characterized by mid-priced, cookie-cutter properties for decades.
Aloft made a risky bet. Its bold, savvy design might have been seen as too hip or social-oriented for weary business travelers. Instead, it filled a gap for curious travelers looking for a more stylish and interesting stay at an accessible price point.
In the past decade, Aloft has expanded to more than 100 locations, inspiring countless imitators in the category it once crashed. So how does a brand that defined itself by being different remain unique and fresh in an industry that has now caught up to so many of its original ideas?
Aliya Khan, Marriott’s vice president of global design strategies, and Bridget Higgins, Aloft’s senior director of global brand management, shared their views about the changing role of design in hospitality, and how Aloft keeps evolving while remaining true to itself.
Fast Co. Works: What was lacking in the select-service category when Aloft came along? Was there a gap the brand was consciously trying to fill?
Aliya Khan: At the time of Aloft’s inception, there was nothing in the select-service market that spoke to any sense of lifestyle, let alone design. Hotel bars that you wanted to hang out in, modern design sensibilities, and technological conveniences were basically nonexistent. Popcorn ceilings, on the other hand, those were everywhere.
Bridget Higgins: Back in 2008, the select-service landscape was targeted to baby boomer road warriors. They were looking for a hotel that optimized function and work productivity above all else. When Aloft’s big sister brand, W Hotels, launched in 1998, it offered a really different experience from a design and lifestyle perspective, something that was never seen in hospitality’s full-service segment before. It proved that there was a desire for a hotel offering a more social experience.
Aloft emerged a few years later as a natural complement to W. There was an opportunity to bring that social, design-led experience to another hotel segment that just didn’t have anything like it, and make it accessible to a lot of people at the same time.
FCW: How has that category changed since then? Do you feel Aloft’s approach has pushed its competitors to become more design-focused or to add certain services that weren’t standard before?
AK: At the time the brand was launched the focus on design was unique. Today, good design is everywhere. And not just in hotels. The most basic packaging at Target or the simplest of looks at H&M all demonstrate how design has touched every part of life at every price point. People just expect it now.
This is why we can no longer rely only on design to differentiate our brands. We have to offer something more, which is why we also place so much importance on programming. Things like food and beverage programs, live events, happy hours—these keep things interesting and unique in a market that’s flooded with good design.
FCW: Now that the brand is well established and, as you say, good design is everywhere, what do you do to keep things fresh from an aesthetic standpoint?
AK: We’ve just embarked on a substantial design overhaul we call Aloft 4.0, which has a real focus on simplicity and problem solving while retaining that fun, quirky sense of style and the open “loft” feel we’re known for. We played with new colors, materials, and details, while maintaining the same ethos, which is really important for a brand with a strong personality like Aloft.
As time goes on, we keep updating our look and feel with seasonal refreshes. We think about it like this: You might change the accessories on your black dress to keep it relevant, but once in a while you need to buy a whole new dress, maybe even switch to a really cool jumpsuit.
FCW: Aloft always seems to be willing to experiment with new devices and tech offerings. What role has technology played in the brand’s evolution? Do you feel that new technologies guide the brand out of necessity as they become popular, or do you actively try to push towards new technologies to stay ahead of the game?
BH: We’re guided not by what’s trendy, but by staying relevant to our guests. We don’t adopt things for the sake of it, but to make the travel experience and, more specifically, the hotel stay more seamless and better aligned with how they live their life.
For example, we are putting digital kiosks into our Re:fuel 24/7 food market so guests can shop, order and pay—whether by credit card or room charge—in a seamless way, and get on with their day. It’s novel to order like this, but more importantly, it’s making their experience that much easier and faster.
FCW: What can other brands learn from Aloft when it comes to evolving a brand without alienating a loyal following?
AK: Things move so fast in this business, you have to stay nimble in order to stay relevant. You can’t constantly redesign your entire offering, but you can integrate smart, quick, and interesting design tweaks, sensory adjustments and seasonal changes, like cocktails and visual styling that work together to continually keep a fresh face forward.
This article was created for and commissioned by Aloft Hotels.