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Hotels check in to your head

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Leave it to my very inquisitive husband to perfectly articulate what I’d never said out loud: What is with those white duvets in practically every hotel room these days?

This question occurred to him after a particularly restless night of sleep on a business trip in a generic Middle America hotel. I knew what he meant. I’d struggled with these white whales myself — too warm with them, too cold without them. And sharing one when we travel together? My spouse’s habit of stealing — ahem, cocooning in — the covers just adds insult to injury when we can’t even start by getting the temperature control right.

So we had to wonder: Does anyone ever try these things out?

Well, yes, actually, someone does.

Contrary to what skeptics like me may think, decisions about what goes into a hotel room aren’t made in a vacuum by some executive who has never stayed in an outpost of his brand’s midrange chain. At least not entirely. The decisions are the result of research. Research into what you, the traveler, want, need and respond to in your short-term home away from home.

And some of the research is quite democratic. Marriott, for example, tests new shower heads in the company gym. It sends pillows and remote controls home with employees to try out. Paul Cahill, senior vice president for global brand management at Marriott Hotels & Resorts/JW Marriott Hotels, says that he’s currently putting a hair dryer through the wringer.

And that ubiquitous white duvet? There’s a reason for it.

“When you see a white bed, you know if it’s clean or not,” explains Larry Traxler, senior vice president of design for Hilton Worldwide. “It’s pretty hard to hide that.”

We travelers are a germ-averse bunch. Hence the quick, fingertips-on-the-corner toss of the decorative throws and pillows onto that armchair or, worse, the floor.

Hotels know this, because they’ve studied us. A lot.

Cahill has the numbers to prove it. He probably knows you better than you know yourself.

Behavioral design

Standing in the very hotel lobby-esque Marriott cafeteria, Cahill quizzes me about my hotel room habits, knowing full well what the answers will be before I utter them: Do I unpack? (No.) Where do I work? (On the bed.) Why do I remove decorative bed accessories? (Who knows where they’ve been?!)

Marriott takes an anthropological approach to hotel room design, observing the traveler species in its natural habitat. The company has partnered with IDEO, a design consulting firm, to get inside guests’ rooms — and heads. “We’re designing for behaviors,” says Beth Viner, associate partner for IDEO New York.

Those behaviors are influenced in part by the literal and figurative baggage that travelers bring with them into their temporary abodes.

On the literal side, IDEO’s work shadowing guests is how Cahill is able to guess that I — like two-thirds of travelers — don’t unpack. And when we do, only about four items come out of the suitcase.

To show how this might influence the hotel room of the future, Cahill takes me to Marriott’s still-under-construction innovation lab in the lowest level of the company headquarters in Bethesda. The all-white space contains prototypes of two hotel rooms, complete with walls, beds and more, all on wheels.

There’s no closet in the rooms. Instead, they have open shelves and a space big enough to slide in a suitcase for the non-unpackers and a rod for hanging clothes for the unpackers. The openness speaks to another traveler concern that Cahill knows about: the fear of leaving something behind. We may soon start seeing drawer-free nightstands, too.

The other kind of baggage takes a little more probing. IDEO talks to guests about their needs and expectations from a hotel room, as well as what kinds of habits they bring from home.

“Everyone’s kind of leading these double and triple lives when they’re on the road,” Viner says. So there’s the work element, the need to stay connected with folks back home, the daily grooming routine and, if we’re lucky, a little “me” time.

That’s a lot to ask of one room.

In the zones

To understand how guests use their quarters, think of the rooms in terms of zones. These might include the “drop zone,” which is wherever travelers put their belongings, says Peter Antonelli, the IDEO project leader for the Marriott guest room initiative. There’s also the sleeping zone and the work zone.

These days, though, the lines tend to blur. I cuddle with my laptop on the bed. Suddenly the work zone has collided with the sleeping zone, and the original work zone, a.k.a. the desk, is moot. I throw my coat there. It’s now a drop zone.

The bed-cum-business center is resulting in at least one significant upgrade — more electrical outlets near the bed. (That’s also important because many more of us are sleeping next to our phones, Cahill says. We don’t trust wake-up calls.)

Cahill says that hotels have to ask themselves whether there should even be a desk these days. Maybe it should be smaller. Maybe it should face the TV. Perhaps it will be turned into a mobile office and put on wheels, as Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, has begun to see in smaller auxiliary desks that roll out from the larger piece.

And then there’s the “grooming zone.” You and I typically call this the bathroom. “How the guests use the bathroom has changed over the past decade,” Hilton’s Traxler explains. Now we want to be able to use our gadgets there, too, or at least see or hear them while we groom.

One of the demo rooms in the Marriott innovation lab blows up the traditional hotel bathroom, splitting it into a series of spaces that separate the toilet from everything else.

Robson says that checking out the bathroom is one of the best ways to gauge the age of a building. Even so, gutting and reimagining it is complicated, a “huge commitment,” she adds.

The same can be argued for the rest of the room. “In the case of most hotel brands, they don’t own the buildings,” Robson says. Owners must be convinced that any renovation will pay off.

All the more reason to ground these big ideas in “rethinking spaces based on consumer needs,” as Cahill puts it. “It’s not disruption for the sake of disruption.”

Of course, when many of us think about hotel or any interior design, our minds wander to what Robson calls the “soft goods.” These include items such as the bed linens, the carpet and the curtains. Their expected lifespan ranges from about five to seven years, and changing them is one of the easiest ways for a hotel to freshen up its appearance.

Then there are the case goods — i.e., furniture. This may get replaced every second or third soft-goods cycle.

But Traxler prefers to think about “ergonomic, intelligent design,” function over fashion. Rooms should be like a good Armani suit, he says. “We can change the accouterments,” but classic, thoughtful design is timeless.

The final phase

Big ideas are great. Realizing them is another story. That’s one reason for Marriott’s innovation lab. The company plans to bring members of its — and its competitors’ — loyalty programs through the white rooms. (Hilton has a similar “white box” space at its McLean headquarters.) The idea is to get overall impressions: How would it feel if this wall were moved out six inches? Or moved in six inches? Is the furniture too high? Customer reactions will be recorded by a series of webcams (“Real World: Hotels”). Marriott employees worldwide will also use the cameras to peek in and provide their input.

Around the corner, off an identity-crisis-plagued hallway, sit sample rooms for most of Marriott’s various brands. The rooms are uncannily realistic, from the breakfast card and nightstand Bible to the sunlight-imitating lights beamed in through the “windows” in the subterranean space. This is where Marriott can refine room details — fabrics, pillow placement, etc.

After the demos have been picked over and perfected, it’s time for some genuine testing. Hilton owns 40 hotels in North America across its brands, according to Traxler, making initial experimentation a bit easier before the changes are rolled out to franchise properties. Marriott’s testing starts in a smaller group of hotels, too.

And if all goes well, the designs will ripple through thousands of properties, both the companies’ own brands and the imitators that will inevitably follow. “As soon as you do something innovative,” Traxler says, “we become copied quite quickly.”

“It’s just so easy for other brands, other hotels to emulate,” Robson says.

And so the next white duvet is born.

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