Divining Needs Of Travelers: Don't Ask

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The next time you walk into a hotel lobby or check in for a flight at an airport, look over your shoulder. You may notice someone watching your every move.

There's no need to be alarmed. That someone may simply be a consultant hired by the hotel or airline to help make travel easier and more enjoyable.

As hotels and airlines look for ways to distinguish themselves from competitors, they're turning increasingly to outside firms for help in designing a travel experience that's both appealing to a younger, more style-conscious generation but at the same time cost-effective.

One company that has carved a niche for itself in the area of travel design is Ideo Inc. The Palo Alto, Calif., firm has worked on several travel-related projects, such as developing hand-held in-flight entertainment devices for Lufthansa and helping Amtrak design the interiors of its high-speed Acela trains. Most recently, Ideo was hired by Marriott International to revamp its hotel lobbies and rooms. In addition to its travel work, Ideo has helped design products such as a stand-up toothpaste tube for Procter & Gamble and a kiosk machine McDonald's customers can use to order and pay for food, instead of waiting in line at the counter.

Ideo, founded in 1978, doesn't ask customers what they like or dislike. Instead, the firm's 400 designers, social scientists and researchers, based in locations from Chicago to London to Shanghai, observe how customers navigate while traveling.

"We look at the actual experience," said Tom Kelley, Ideo's general manager and author of the book, "The Art of Innovation."

Marriott asked Ideo to find ways to make its rooms more comfortable and most importantly, more attractive to the growing number of hip, younger business travelers who want a more technology-savvy hotel. Ideo researchers spent six months observing Marriott guests and employees and found that hotels have not kept up with travelers' changing habits. Kelley said many hotel rooms have "outlived" their purposes.

For example, Ideo found that many business travelers, especially those on quick trips, rarely use the room's closets or dresser drawers. Instead, travelers set their overnight bag on the sofa or settee and pick their clothes out for the day from there.

The designers also found that hotel restaurants are too dark and seem better suited for romantic dinners than business meetings. Many travelers prefer to meet in the hotel lobbies over noisy bars. That means the lobbies must be made more accessible for meetings, with brighter lights and high-speed Internet access.

Many business travelers also like a glass of wine while working. Ideo consultant and Marriott project manager Dana Cho watched as one female business traveler drank three glasses of wine while she had her papers spread out on a desk. Cho took photos of the woman as she tried to navigate her laptop, papers and wine. Cho later noticed other travelers with the same preference. To reduce the risk of ruining documents by spilling wine on them, Cho suggested Marriott install duel-tiered desks in the lobbies so guests can use the top tier for their work and the second tier for their drink.

"It's really simple things that tell the hotel guests that the hotel is thinking about them," Cho said.

One of the biggest requests from travelers was the ability to check in at a hotel without having to go to the front desk. As airline passengers, they're already accustomed to checking in for flights using a ticket-dispensing kiosk machine. At hotels, similar technology could be used to dispense room keys, Kelley said. Guests would simply have to swipe their credit cards in a machine in the hotel lobby to receive their keys.

"Checking in is a big sore spot for travelers. The last thing frequent travelers want is an involved process when checking in," Cho said.

Simplicity is also preferred among airline passengers. Kelley said many airlines should consider color-coding their boarding passes to correspond with either an airport gate or terminal to give passengers an easier way to find their flight.

Ideo consultants also found that business travelers don't like to wait. If they do have to wait, they don't want to notice that they're waiting. For example, waiting for a hotel elevator ranked as a major complaint among guests. So Kelley suggested that some hotels place mirrors on the walls near the elevator. That leads the guests to fix their makeup or check their attire as they wait for the elevator.

"It reduces the perceived wait times," Kelley said. "Guests are so busy looking at themselves, they often don't realize how long they've been waiting."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company