The secret wing: Hilton seeks business-class guinea pigs to test new room designs


Fast food restaurants and grocery stores test-market products all the time by slipping them onto the shelves. So often, in fact, that average consumers may not even notice when they've tried something impermanent. But hotel rooms are a different beast. Renovations are expensive, so they can't just remodel rooms and cross their fingers. And sometimes, ideas that looked good on the drawing board turn out to be hitchy in practice.

Most of the big brands conduct most of their experiments behind closed doors. According to an illuminating exposé from Portfolio.com, Starwood (Westin and W Hotels), Hyatt's Summerfield Suites, and Marriott all run mini-properties stashed in private locations such as warehouses and office basements. Loyal customers are quietly invited to give new rooms a whirl, although they're not usually allowed to stay overnight.

But Hilton operates a wing of an otherwise anonymous Los Angeles-area hotel specifically for the purpose of trying out new room ideas. Regular guests check in and out of the test rooms, conveniently located near Hilton's corporate offices. To ensure that only brand devotees are exposed to potentially disastrous experiments, its El Segundo Hilton Garden Inn property (which is the only one of the 260 HGI properties that Hilton directly owns and operates) assigns the prototype rooms only to people with Diamond frequent-stay status. That translates to folks who stay in Hiltons for about two months a year.


A New Look for Old Brands

    What changed: The 400-location hotel worldwide hotel chain is in the middle of a $1.7 billion project to renovate about half its U.S. hotels. The new look includes brighter colors in the room, with pillowtop beds and white duvets and flat-screen TVs. Sheraton is rolling out a branded line of toiletries, called Shine by Bliss, and fitness centers will get upgrades. Lobbies will feature restaurants, most with a casual dining chain called Relish, and cafes with Internet stations. Some locations may also have a steakhouse developed by Shula's.

    AP

    What changed: Now owned by Stride Rite, which re-acquired the rights to the sneaker brand from hip-hop mogul Damon Dash (a recent foreclosure victim), PRO-Keds are going to get a makeover as they come back into the fold. Stride Rite will focus on classic styles, such as the "Royal" canvas basketball shoe, first introduced in 1949, and give it an overhaul that will hit stores in November and retail for $50 to $80.

    ProKeds.com

    What changed: Hasbro updated the 60-year-old game of Clue with changes that include a fancy new mansion with a spa and theater, and new weapons like a baseball bat and an ax. Professor Plum is now an Internet billionaire and Colonel Mustard is a former football star, and the murder mystery takes place during a party for the rich and famous. The game structure has also changed somewhat, with the addition of a second deck of cards, which is supposed to add an extra element of surprise.

    Hasbro

    What changed: Little girls have been inundated with Disney princess paraphernalia for years now, and the line has been so popular that the company wants to try to do the same thing with fairies. Tinker Bell, a mere side character in J.M. Barrie's 1911 novel and the 1953 movie version of Peter Pan, is going to soon be a leading lady. A straight-to-DVD movie, Tinker Bell, comes out October 28, and that will be followed by a line of books, toys, lip gloss and stationary. The new line could mean big bucks as Tink already brings in about $800 million in retail sales for existing products.

    AP | Disney

    What's changed: Strawberry Shortcake got more than just a new dress or two when she got a makeover earlier this year (just before American Greetings sold the rights to the character to a Canadian company). The '80s icon got a total makeover that includes a few nips and tucks to her physique as well changes to her makeup. She will now spend a lot of time talking on her cell phone and eating fresh fruit in an effort to appeal to a new generation of young girls. A new animated movie and TV series are slated for 2009.

    American Greetings

    What changed: Holiday Inn is in the process of a $1 billion makeover of its hotel locations as well as its logo. About 100 properties will leave the chain, while about 1,000 hotels will be added over the next three years. Existing locations will be upgraded in ways big and small from improved infrastructure to "triple-sheet" bedding. All locations that are spruced up will get the new logo, which will be a stylized white H on a green square, rather than the green script familiar from most highway views.

    AP

    What changed: A new global version of Monopoly Here & Now replaces the streets of Atlantic City with world metropolises like Taipei, Cape Town and the Latvian capital of Riga, which nabbed the Park Place spot in a round of online voting. Hasbro's new board game, which will be printed in 37 languages, goes on sale next week. You'll still be able to find the original version on sale, but the game maker is trying to attract a global audience with this new version.

    Ray Stubblebine, Hasbro / AP

    What changed: Xerox has one of those special brand names that has become the common name of a product or process -- in this case photocopying documents. But in 2008, after 40 years of the same boxy, bland look, the company decided it needed a makeover and it rolled out a new logo and branding campaign. Now, the logo has a red sphere attached to it that is supposed to symbolize the brand's worldwide reach and rounded lower-case letters.

    Xerox

    What changed: Wal-Mart keeps growing larger and larger, but it is also experimenting with getting smaller at the same time. The giant retailer is starting a pilot program of four small Marketside stores in Phoenix, Ariz., and if the concept works it could expand to ten stores, and then perhaps 1,000. The new stores, only 15,000 square feet, will offer groceries and other fresh items that shoppers can get to quickly. Wal-Mart also is testing six Neighborhood Market stores in Tulsa using the same concept of a smaller space and a focus on fresh food.

    Wal-Mart

    What's changed: Ethical concerns about how young calves are raised for food have curtained veal consumption in recent years, but a new campaign is trying to tout the beef product, at least for high-end buyers. "Certified Humane" meat packers raise calves in group housing, which means they are free to move about in pens, and are fed some grain rather than all milk. The resulting veal is sold in specialty butcher shops, for now, and commands only 5 to 10 percent of the veal market.


Just 15 units of the property's overall inventory of 162 are allotted to the tests, but those few rooms (which the hotel calls its "University Wing") constitute a mini-tour of the future Hilton brands, including Doubletree, Homewood Suites, and Hilton Garden Inn. Room 267, for example, is where the new appliances and technology are given a trial run. Don't expect anything too stunning -- new espresso makers, new shower stall designs -- and don't expect to be assured a spot in a prototype room, since they're usually assigned upon check-in.

According to the story, the tryout process can be useful. One platform bed, for example, was designed after one briefcase-toting guinea pig kept battering his shins on an early version.

Marriott also tosses new elements to properties around the country for temporary testing, such as waterproof mattresses and wireless technology in its so-called "X-Room" at a property in Newark, Delaware. Last year, Starwood tested a new room at its Westin Chicago River North property that was designed to soothe jet lag (blackout curtains, noise-canceling fans). Hyatt built a whole test hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona before going out on a limb with its newish Hyatt Place brand.

Do you get any special reward for helping these hotel chains perfect their abilities to make money? Nope. Nothing beside the chance to feel like you're in on something new, and maybe something to brag about to your travel-nerd friends. And either a good night's sleep or some busted shins.


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