The secret wing: Hilton seeks business-class guinea pigs to test new room designs
Sep 2nd 2008 6:30PM
Updated Sep 3rd 2008 11:51AM
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.
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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.