As anyone who’s pulled off the interstate late at night knows, hotels like Marriott, Residence Inn, Sheraton, and Aloft are frequently neighbors, lined up side by side on the outskirts of town. It’s less usual to see them side by side in a basement in Bethesda, Maryland, though. Yet two stories below Marriott International’s sprawling headquarters, they do just that.
The Innovation Lab’s origin story goes something like this: Years ago, an employee accidentally locked himself in the basement of Marriott’s sprawling headquarters. Looking for an escape route, he poked his head through a ceiling tile and realized the space was twice as tall as he thought. “Later, he realized the potential of what he had found, and came up with the idea that started the beginning of our future,” says Aliya Khan, the company’s vice president for global design strategies.
The result of the employee’s accidental discovery of free space is the 10,000-square foot Innovation Lab–a maze of rooms, each a perfect replica of where you will eventually drop your weary head after a day on the road. “Originally we had a series of model rooms offsite, but they were quite far and proved challenging to place new product or test things out as part of an everyday design evolution,” says Khan. “In time, those model rooms moved to Marriott HQ, but it still lacked the white space in which our teams could test out innovations quickly and informally, hence the birth of the Underground!” The so-called Underground innovation lab feels a bit like a life-sized dollhouse, but it’s where designers and architects work to create the hotel room of the future across the company’s brands.
It’s a tall order, as Marriott International, the largest hotel group in the world, owns 30 brands, each with a distinct style and target demographic and a near-constant need for updates and renovations. Marriott has mapped out a challenging plan to add between 275,000 and 295,000 rooms by 2021, and each of those rooms will need a look and feel and outlets. While Marriott International’s brands are growing, adding to the estimated 1.3 million guest rooms it already has (at least according to data tracker STR), it still faces stiff competition from Airbnb, which has nearly 5 million rooms listed, according to AirDNA. To help lure customers from Airbnb, Marriott recently launched its own home-rental business, and those rooms will need to be alluringly designed to appeal to Airbnb customers, a design that will be created in the Innovation Lab.
In practical terms, the Lab is a warren of rooms, each a full-sized prototype, that is the pinnacle of integrative design, where creators can step into the space and live in it, at least for a little while. “We use the innovation lab to perfect the product offered at our brands,” says Khan. “We use the lab to generate and test our ideas before going to market. This allows us to get the feedback we need prior to launching something in the field. From flooring studies to drone cocktails, to the build-out of public space, we can stretch our imagination in all directions and ensure what we deliver is relevant to our guests today and into the future.” In practice, that means the lab where her teams quickly suss out which bed frames and wall sconces and electrical outlets and chairs work best. They make sure the desks are larger–or smaller–for the needs of the guests, think about showers and bedside lamps and drawers versus closets and the positioning of the bed to the window and whether that lets in too much light, even whether the placement of a bed light ensures guests can read a book in bed.
This isn’t just an interior design playground, though. The collaborative space makes it easy for, say, housekeeping to walk into the room, look around, and point out that an element would be nearly impossible to clean, or suggesting a change in layout that would make vacuuming a lot easier. Additionally, the team works closely with customer feedback to ensure that the rooms at each hotel are giving customers what they want–be it more outlets, better amenities, a place to sit that’s not the bed, or a designated place to eat a meal. While guests can’t stay there, Jeff Voris, Marriott International’s senior VP of global design strategy, admitted that he frequently comes down to work at the Springhill Suites room, enjoying the peacefulness of the dark, wood-filled sanctuary.
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