Marriott International headquarters occupies a nondescript building on a nondescript street in Bethesda, Md. But two stories below ground is a design wonderland — Marriott's 10,000-square-foot Innovation Lab, also known as “The Underground,” where the hotel company tests out room concepts, technology solutions, and other innovations for its portfolio of brands. A sort of three-dimensional blank canvas — 20 or more feet high, painted white, with a wide, mezzanine-level catwalk offering a variety of viewing angles — the Underground opened for business last spring.
Visitors aren't just welcome or encouraged, but recruited— including hotel owners and guests who are brought in regularly to participate in what a Marriott press release describes as the “design and testing process for guest rooms, great-room lobbies, meetings spaces, and even food-and-beverage concepts.” For example, “there's been a trend in some boutique hotels where you get ideas like, you're going to have the bed in the middle of the room,” said Marriott's Jennifer Hsieh, during a recent tour of the Underground. “While we don't necessarily want to build a finished product around that, we will take it in the early stages and block out these giant platforms the size of a typical bed and have people walk in the room, and say, ‘Does it feel crowded? Does it feel good?’ And they say, ‘Well, I like it if I push the bed this way.’”
We walked past a wall with large posters showing room mockups for one Marriott brand, and over to an assortment of carpet, tile, and laminate samples arranged tic-tac-toe style on the floor. Up a flight of stairs to the mezzanine level, there's a large meeting room, again in all white, that allows Marriott to test out meeting prototypes, and is available for anyone at headquarters to use for their own meeting.
All of that is in the cavernous open space at the center of the Underground. Branching off the big room is a hallway with doors spaced at regular intervals. Each door leads to a guest room from a different Marriott brand — Courtyard by Marriott, Renaissance, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn, SpringHill Suites, TownePlace Suites — one after the other, a mildly disorienting experience. The sample rooms are outfitted with several webcams mounted on the ceiling. “We have programs where sometimes we have our customers log online,” Hsieh said, “and collaborate and view and give us feedback.”
Back in her office, as Hsieh talked about Marriott's ongoing efforts to overhaul its own internal meeting space at headquarters, she clearly if not intentionally drew a line to the spirit of experimentation that suffuses the Underground. “Changing the environment was a big part of change management for how we invest in our hotels,” Hsieh said. “Our leaders and our people need to actually experience something different to be able to understand the value of it. When the work began, we said it was really important to have a proof point here, so the senior executives, the people who are part of the project team, whether it's through architecture or construction — they could actually see what it is that we were trying to create for our customers.”