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, on the phone from California, where from January to June he's both taking and leading classes in design thinking at Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. “Developing online booking tools, or having the ability to book it through a LiquidSpace-type of environment, is also important, and something we're working on as well.” The idea is to make the hotel's meeting space available to anyone who needs it, not just guests or group clients. “I think what we're seeing is that there are many people that have that desire,” Adams said. “I live in New York, and if you need to meet someone somewhere in town, if you're not meeting at their office, where do you go? These are things that are happening in Starbucks or other types of locations. We're just trying to be the connection point for those types of meetings that happen every day.”
While it's the use of those Hyatt and Westin facilities that's temporary, Marriott is offering meeting space whose entire existence is on-demand — popup Steelcase configurations that planners can order for their prefunction spaces or within a larger room set. The idea comes from a Marriott general managers conference a fewyears ago, where Hsieh and her team, motivated by their work with IDEO, outfitted the prefunction area with a variety of furniture sets reminiscent of the collaborative workspaces at Marriott headquarters. “There were some long tables, there were some couches, there were small little pods where people could sit,” Goldstein said, “so when they got out of the larger group sessions, they had these spaces set up in every function area.”
Hsieh added: “You create these informal meeting spaces and open collaboration spaces, so all of those times when you're seeing people huddle in the foyer, or they're wandering through the meeting space to try and find a spot, or they're pinning [down] their meeting planner to say, ‘I've got an impromptu meeting of six people. Where can we go?’ — we're trying to solve that need.”
‘People now want to be able to have a meeting where it is not just someone presenting them information. They want to have the ability to interact.’
3. COLLABORATIVE AND INCLUSIVE
As Adams’ team at Hyatt studies how meetings are changing, they're seeing that it's not just a hotel's physical space itself that needs to respond. It's the usability that space affords. “What we're doing is this concept of collaborative meetings,” Adams said. “People now want to be able to work in an environment or have a meeting where it's not just someone presenting them information or working in a traditional boardroom-style setting. They want to have the ability to interact and have everyone in that meeting participate on an equal, peer-to-peer level.”
That means designing meeting spaces that can facilitate that. Hyatt is experimenting with whiteboard walls and built-in technology with “the ability to have everyone connected,” Adams said, “so anyone can push content on the screen.... Meetings are shifting from ‘I'm going to present to you’ or ‘We're going to sit around and discuss what's going on’ to more of an actually doing type of environment.”
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“Doing” includes everything from hands-on learning to experiential programming to networking. “We're finding that especially in countries like India, and in Asia, the networking component is much more important than going into the meeting and getting the message [from a speaker],” Hsieh said. “And so, one of the principles that you'll be seeing in the upcoming iteration of guidelines around meeting spaces is, how do you create more collaborative breakout spaces where people can do the informal networking? What does the future boardroom look like? It's no longer a room with one giant table, with a built-in monitor in the back. Does it have space for not only the portion of the meeting where you're doing formal business, but also informal seating to help that relationship building?” Indeed, Westin is seeing a move away from auditorium and classroom sets and toward lounge seating, because “people tend to like those, and they seem to promote dialogue a little bit more,” Hoover said. “I think if nothing else, people are very conscious of space in a way that I don't think they were before.... In some ways, it has never been more important for people to work collaboratively. And also, time is the ultimate luxury at this point, so when you do bring people together, you want to make sure that as an organization you're getting the most out of that meeting, and more and more the design of the space is playing a huge role in that.”
4. WIRED AND INTERACTIVE
It goes without saying that hotels are integrating more and better technology into their meeting spaces. That might seem like the easy part, because dealing with machines, which are predictable and programmable, is usually more straightforward than dealing with people, who aren't. But that's only if you're just interested in having the latest bells and whistles. The hotel companies we talked to want to go beyond the low-hanging fruit of robust Wi-Fi and responsive social-media channels, and figure out how technology can help attendees have a richer, more fulfilling meeting.
“Our approach to design blends style with technology and modern comforts to meet the needs of our guests,” Hilton's Traxler said, “which extends to our meeting space. Hotel design is evolving in that spaces are becoming multifunctional in response to the way guests use hotels.”
At Hyatt, that's translated into trying to create a more seamless experience within a meeting's physical footprint as well as beyond, in ways that leverage some of the other attributes of innovative design, including collaborativeness and responsiveness. “An example is, in the prefunction space, building small areas where two or three or four people can sit in a semi-private space to have a quick meeting,” Adams said. “We're looking at having prefunction spaces that will allow content from a meeting to be pushed out to a public area, so if I'm on a deadline and I have to be working on something but I still don't want to miss the content, I can be participating in the meeting outside the meeting itself.”
‘Hotel design is evolving in that spaces are becoming more multifunctional in response to the way guests use hotels.’
That would just be the beginning. Adams also envisions “the ability to have meetings broadcast to different phones,” he said, “so as the presenter, you know you're presenting to a larger audience than just the people in front of you.” Another possibility? Glassed-in suites within a larger meeting room, “so I could be in a breakout session, watching content that's happening live, and then when that's over I'm already with my team working on the next level of what that meeting was about.” The goal, Adams said, is to use technology to create an environment where “people can react and participate in the same meeting in different venues around the meeting.”
The technology on display — and in active use — around Marriott's headquarters offers a glimpse of how a hotel's meeting space might become more interactive. Some of the building's collaborative meeting spaces are wired for videoconferencing and screen-sharing. And in Marriott's basement-level Innovation Lab (see sidebar, p. 46), a long, white, two-story hallway just inside the entrance is designed so that a row of four or five overhead projectors can beam a cascading series of images, synchronized to follow people as they walk, creating a sort of ambulatory presentation.
“Instead of sitting everyone down and going through the deck, we'll lay the story out as a journey,” Hsieh said, as she walked slowly down the hall. “So we'll have, what's your journey when you go through as a [Marriott] Rewards guest? Or what's your meeting journey? And we'll have everything from when you begin to consider a trip or a meeting, all the way down to what happens afterward. This is something that not only tees up your visual [sense], but also your kinetic.”
5. HEALTHY AND NATURAL
Possibly the most radical design innovations that hotels are exploring center on attempting to mitigate the unhealthy aspects of the traditional conference — the sedentary programming, the heavy food, the absence of daylight. “Sometimes you'll walk through our hotels and you'll see that the natural light is actually going into the hallway,” Hsieh said. “You'll walk down the hall and you see this entire beautiful bay of windows, but the poor people who are stuck for eight hours in a breakout, they're the ones who need the natural light the most.”
Last September two of Marriott's European properties — Munich Marriott Hotel and Amsterdam Marriott Hotel — debuted completely redesigned meeting space that is “bright and energizing,” according to a press release, “with a focus on natural light, a residential color palette, and vibrant accents of color.” “Some of their spaces look residential,” Goldstein said, “such as, they have an open kitchen where, when you're on breaks, you might go and help yourself to things that are in the refrigerator.” All of those architectural and aesthetic details are designed to produce a healthier, more stimulating meeting environment, where attendees can move around, soak up sunshine, and enjoy refreshments on their own schedule.
‘You want to make sure that you're getting the most out of [each] meeting, and more and more the design of the space is playing a huge role in that.’
Health consciousness is also a component of the new lobby concept that Westin rolled out a year-and-a-half ago, which includes not just The Dock work hub but also vertical gardens — custom-designed, 100- to 300-square-foot structures, each of which “integrates wall-mounted plant modules with infill panels of unique textured materials,” according to a press release, “inspired by the interior architecture and the location's regional identity.” The gardens are designed specifically “not only to improve indoor air quality, but also to create a calming, more natural environment.” Westin is bringing that approach to other details as well, all the way down to its Performance Meeting Chair, which “we designed about three years ago,” Hoover said. “It’ s really focused on being comfortable while you're sitting in a meeting. If you've ever sat in some hotel meeting chairs, that's not always the case.”
In an ideal world, every hotel company could fully renovate or retrofit all its existing properties based on the newest, best innovations in meeting design. But, of course, that isn't possible. “That affects capital investment,” Hsieh said, “and so obviously you can't rebuild all your hotels at once.” She was sitting at her desk now, in the home base of Marriott's design and innovation team, a compact suite of offices and cubicles on the fourth floor of Marriott headquarters that, as you might expect, is bright and almost funky, with a more relaxed vibe than the surrounding departments. Even the wallpaper in Hsieh's office is offbeat, a testament to the subtle fun you still can have within a traditional professional environment. But if you talk to Hsieh long enough — or any of the other design experts we interviewed — you begin to understand that, particularly within the self-contained ecosystem of a hotel, meeting space is more than a physical notion.
“The other concept we're in testing on is called ‘Meetings Imagined,’” Hsieh said. “This is really around, how do you change the fundamental experience of the meeting? I'd say that the concept is grounded in this notion that at Marriott we understand that every meeting has a purpose. And when we design an experience based on that purpose, it really helps the customer deliver a better experience for the attendee.”