Be the change you wish to see in the world. That became an inescapable conclusion for Jennifer Hsieh and her team a few years ago as they started working with IDEO, the cutting- edge design firm, to reimagine the meeting experience at Marriott International's many conference properties. As they talked to planners and attendees and guests, researching how people want to meet — the expectations and assumptions they carry with them into ballrooms, breakout rooms, and prefunction areas — they realized that the meeting facilities at Marriott's own corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Md., weren't what anyone was looking for.
“We did a lot of research on, how do you foster collaboration? How do you get people the right spaces to work?” said Hsieh, Marriott's vice president of insight, strategy, and innovation. She was standing in a community workspace on the second floor of Marriott HQ, a bright, relaxed area with an assortment of informal furniture sets. “A lot of people are either working' mobilely’ or independently. And nobody wants to be stuck in their cube all of the time. What we realized is, we didn't have a lot of space that fostered that collaboration, because it was a bit traditional.”
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Marriott's office is a classic 1970s corporate bunker — outside, a low-rise of concrete and glass; inside, nests of cubicles framed by dull, gray-brown walls. Over the last two years, the company has tried to break that up with workspaces like the one Hsieh showed off on the second floor, which includes low red couches, a long table with bar stools, a semicircular seating pod, solitary easy chairs, and an entire wall covered in dry-erase board. Down on the first floor, Marriott last year unveiled The Hub, a completely redesigned cafeteria that now doubles as an always-open communal area — flooded with natural light, with a crisp, stylish design, offering a mix of seating, from standard dining tables and chairs to conversation areas to conference tables and work desks. “It used to be that this cafeteria would only be busy between the hours of 11 to 2,” said Laurie Goldstein, director of global brand public relations for Marriott. Hsieh added: “And it was so dark.” Goldstein nodded. “It was dark,” she said. “It was dead. And now, this stays pretty busy throughout the day, from morning through when we wrap up as well.”
Making it easier for people to work together — more conveniently, more comfortably, with more flexibility — is something that Marriott is now applying to its hotel meeting space as well. And so are other hotel companies. Here are five things we learned about how hospitality brands are approaching the design of their meeting facilities from interviews with Marriott, Hilton Worldwide, Hyatt Hotels, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
1. INTIMATE AND INFORMAL
A meeting is a production, often a grand one, so its focal points tend to be onstage, in the public spotlight. But hotels are starting to look seriously at nontraditional meeting spaces — still public, but less formal and more intimate, in response to the increasing commingling of business travelers’ personal and professional lives. “We do a lot of research,” said Erin Hoover, vice president of design for Westin Hotels & Resorts, a Starwood brand. “We don't just look at the hospitality space. We look at lifestyle trends, we get feedback from our global divisions, we look at what our guests are saying and also doing, and we do a lot of observational research where we go and literally sit not only in our hotel spaces but other hotels, and observe how people are behaving and what they seem to be doing.
“This is probably something that everybody knows,” Hoover said, “but lobbies are now where people do lots of things that they didn't used to do, mainly as a result of technology and also a result of the fact that the workday is now 24/7. It’ s not 9-to-5 anymore. People were having informal meetings in our lobbies, and we did a lot with design to facilitate that.” That includes The Dock, which a Westin press release describes as “a central hub that features power outlets, integrated lighting, and access to computers and printers,” as well as flexible seating zones that “can be moved and changed to accommodate a variety of functions and events.”
Likewise, Hilton is experimenting with introducing smaller-scale elements into its event spaces. “Many of our meeting spaces around the world have anterooms which serve as lounge spaces for closing the deal or preliminary social events prior to the formal meeting,” said Larry Traxler, Hilton's senior vice president of global design. At the Hilton Kuala Lumpur, the “residentially inspired” design of Level7even — a chic event venue on the seventh floor of the hotel — is “built around a central living-room concept,” Traxler said, and furnished with rugs, comfortable lounge seating, and other homey touches. And the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, in McLean, Va., offers a 21st-century spin on the hotel business center with its lobby-area Technology Lounge, which is “highlighted by both social and private elements,” Traxler said. “Features include individual workstations and communal spaces that enable guests to work privately or in groups, and a video wall with four seamless panels can either play content on four individual screens or be used to display one channel on a single expansive screen that is useful for meetings.”
The point is to more closely integrate meetings into a hotel's rhythms. “We think of meeting spaces as a microcosm of the entire hospitality experience a guest should experience in our hotels,” Traxler said, “so if you can imagine any social lobby/F&B experiences in our building melding with the meeting space, that is what we are exploring at the moment.”
2. RESPONSIVE AND ON DEMAND
For many attendees, some of the best moments at a meeting are spontaneous and unscripted. They happen in hallways and receptions, when two people bump into each other and strike up a conversation. That isn't something you can predict or control, nor should you really try. But hotels are working to harness some version of that dynamic by creating temporary or one-shot spaces, designed to help people have their own meeting within a meeting.
Westin offers Tangent, a “flexible, temporary, collaborative workspace,” according to Hoover, that can be booked by the hour, with no advance notice. Tangent spaces are outfitted with Steel-case's media:scape furniture, which is embedded with technology that allows participants to easily share information across devices. Tangent is “something that can hold three to four people, where you can have a quick meeting, do an interview — any number of meetings,” Hoover said. “This type of meeting was cropping up, and it really was not being met in the lobby informal space or in the larger meeting space. That also was accelerated by the fact that the hotel business center has really become a thing of the past, and those functions have either bled into the lobby space or they've bled into more meetings spaces. Tangent has a full complement of a lot of things that used to be what you would get in a business center.”
‘We did a lot of research on, how do you foster collaboration? How do you get people the right spaces to work?’
Hyatt is working on something similar, for business clients whose meeting needs are relatively streamlined: “'I need a meeting space for 10 people for two hours. I don't need anything else, I just need to book it.’ Very uncomplicated,” said Matt Adams, Hyatt's vice president of global innovation,