Making a Space for Innovative Thinking

Author: David McMillin       

The expectations of travelers have evolved, and hotel properties have started to look very different. Robots are replacing receptionists. Phones are replacing keys. In-room beer taps are replacing the need for room service. Hotels may be temporary homes for guests, but they have turned into permanent hubs for creativity.

As the search for ideas to enhance the away-from-home experience continues, Caitlin McKenna, senior director, customer experience and innovation at Hilton, told PCMA that the company identified the need for a new space, designed to test new solutions for guests and explore new theories about the future of hospitality. “We wanted an environment where we could socialize the innovative work that we’re doing for guests,” McKenna said, “but we also wanted a place for a more collaborative atmosphere that could serve our industry and industries outside the hospitality field.”

That place is the Hilton Innovation Gallery, a 4,300-square-foot space that opened in November. Located next to the company’s global headquarters at Hilton McLean Tysons Corner in Virginia, the environment includes a food and beverage studio for new dining concepts, a virtual reality area to preview and iterate on prototypes, rooms, restaurants, or communal spaces at new Hilton properties, a darkroom to explore material sustainability, design, and operational technologies, and a theater gathering space for brainstorming and collaboration.

Many of the conversations taking place in this space are centered around the physical and virtual products that Hilton is currently testing in its properties. For example, the company is currently testing Pilot, a real-time translation solution that has the potential to eliminate language barriers between guests and team members in hotel properties. “As it stands, most translation services are text-to-text or voice-to-text,” McKenna said. “There is a limitation in terms of the seamlessness of communication. We’ve been working with Pilot to help iterate on the product and make sure it’s suited for hospitality — both in front-desk situations but also in back-of-house environments where multiple languages may be spoken among team members.”

At Capacity

McKenna said that there has been no shortage of interest in the Innovation Gallery. “We had great hope that it would be wildly successful when we opened the doors,” McKenna said. “It’s exceeded our expectations. For one reason or another, it has been booked nearly every day.”

Some of those bookings are Hilton’s own employees who want to discuss trends and issues around their segments of the hotel industry, but the environment has welcomed a number of guests outside of Hilton, too. McKenna said that Hilton recently partnered with the venture- capital arm of Intel for a pitch competition among eight different start-up companies. “They all pitched their products to show how they might be used in the hotel industry,” McKenna said. “We chose the two products that seemed like they had the most potential so we could further explore the possibilities. For the six that weren’t chosen, it was still an educational experience.”

In another event, the concepts came to life in the actual space. “We recently hosted the first-ever hospitality hackathon,” McKenna said. “More than 18 student teams competed, and we invited the winners to present to a select group of leaders.”

Those winners developed some concepts that could find a home in Hilton properties. For example, one team presented a solution that would suggest activities for guests based on their actual arrival times. Another offered a way to personalize an experience by analyzing customer preferences and local activities to recommend opportunities to explore solo or with other guests at a property who share similar interests.

Constant Change

While the launch of the Innovation Gallery has been a success, McKenna said that the space will continue to change. “We’ve designed the gallery with the goal of continuing evolution,” McKenna said. “There are multiple areas throughout, where we will regularly change products. Right now, it’s tech gadgetry. Soon, we’ll be shifting our focus to partnerships and how innovation can happen through connecting two different businesses.”

In addition to business-to-business conversations, McKenna sees possibilities for the company’s most important audience to check-in to the Innovation Gallery.

“I am excited about the opportunity to bring guests to the space for more relaxed conversations about what they want out of a hotel,” McKenna said. “Perhaps we can use it to invite 50 of our most loyal members as a reward. Maybe we’ll be able to bring in the guests who aren’t staying with us to better understand their needs.”

“Every great idea can’t happen within our traditional four walls,” McKenna added. “This type of space forces the conversation to be different.”

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