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A Hip Addition to the Inn Crowd

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The hotel lobby was going off. Opposite the check-in counter, a DJ was spinning tunes, adding another layer of energy and noise to the reunion of Overbrook High School's Class of '89. In the recessed lounge, previously occupied by guests with luggage and plane tickets, revelers chatted up old friends, the conversation flowing as smoothly as the cocktails mixed near the computer station. Outside in the courtyard, a checkerboard of brown and green ottomans, unrequited love got a second chance.

Technically, I was a hotel guest, an unrecognizable face in the crowd, especially this one. But for that night, mingling with the revelers in the lobby's communal space, I was an honorary Panther. (Had I stayed the next night, I could've hobnobbed at a Stop the Violence fundraiser.)

"When you come down to the lobby, you always see an activity," said Nathan White, a local who has stayed at the property near the Philadelphia airport at least 15 times since it opened last August. "It's like a car wreck: You have to stop and watch the scene."

Aloft, the new brand by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, makes it hard to be antisocial, what with so many distractions outside guests' rooms: DJ nights, a pool table, board games, specialty cocktails, private fetes held in public spaces.

Designed by innovator-in-demand David Rockwell (whose résumé includes the Broadway set for "Hairspray," the 2009 Oscars and JetBlue's terminal at JFK airport), the hotel is plugging into iTravelers. "We are targeting the early adopters," said Brian McGuinness, senior vice president of Starwood's Specialty Select brands, "the person who likes Dwell, fashion and music but doesn't need to spend $500 a night at a hotel."

Starwood launched Aloft last June with a property near the Montreal airport and has since opened 25 hotels, many within easy reach of Washington, including properties in Chesapeake and Glen Allen, Va. By year's end, the tally will exceed 40.

The company builds Alofts near airports (e.g., BWI Marshall and Dulles) and in less central locales (Brooklyn, N.Y.; the Hanover section of Anne Arundel County; etc.), competing with such mid-tier limited-service chains as Courtyard by Marriott and Hilton Garden Inn. But although the rates are comparable (in the low $100 range), you will never walk into a Garden Inn and think that you're in party central. Can't say the same about Aloft.

"It's done up like a nightclub. The ceiling is industrial and the rest is modern," said Christopher Koyste, a Wilmington, Del., guest at the Philly location. "This is like junior varsity W." (W is Starwood's higher-end hipster brand.)

Despite its cool-kid vibe, the hotel doesn't have a whiff of exclusivity, nor is it overrun by the skinny-jeans-and-stiletto crowd. The Aloft guest is the family of four who suffered a broken pipe at home and needed an escape during the repairs, and the lawyer who didn't want to drive back to Wilmington after a dinner in Philadelphia, and the single father of five needing some "me" time.

"This is like being at home, but with a lot of different strangers and a bigger living room set," said White, that single dad. "It's not set up like a hotel, but like a little community."

When I arrived at Aloft, I immediately bonded with the kiosk. To prove myself worthy of the place, I checked in electronically. Then I shed my early-adopter pose and returned to my old-fashioned roots, asking the front desk about dining options. I was directed to the 24-hour pantry called Re:Fuel, which is stationed in a corner of the lobby and features evolved vending machine food: veggie wraps, wasabi peas, pints of lemon sorbet. Guests also can eat (and charge their meals to their rooms) at the Sheraton Suites and Four Points by Sheraton, which sit across the way and are part of the Starwood dynasty.

Although the hotel crows about its techie side, my room did not exactly require an operating manual. The 42-inch flat-screen TV, positioned against dark fabric to create a movie-palace effect, turned on like any other basic appliance. It took little skill to use the connectivity unit, which streams iPods, computers and PlayStation through the TV. The retro-looking alarm clock tells time and wakes you up. Simple. Probably the most confusing item was the phone, which I fumbled to answer when the front desk called to ask whether I was comfortable.

When the cocktail hour chimed, I headed downstairs to the W XYZ bar, threading my way through a crowd of huggers. The bar's counter is inlaid with colored LED lights that illuminate like a Lite-Brite board, and at the far end, three large glass containers were chilling with such unorthodox libations as bubble-gum-infused vodka made with 175 pieces of Bazooka.

After collecting my drink, I relocated to the Backyard, the open-air area with easy views of the parking lot. I noticed a concert-tour bus and wandered over to see whom the driver was carting around. Caitlin and Will, he replied, the country duo that was part of the Kenny Chesney tour. The group had booked two rooms at Aloft so they could wash up after the show at the Hard Rock Cafe. "The smell was wonderful," Will Snyder commented, referring to the signature scent perfuming Aloft. "We've been in the bus all day."

Once the posse of 12 had reconvened, including one member who'd been fraternizing at the Overbrook High reunion, it was time to take off for the next gig.

"Are you coming to West Virginia with us?" a manager type asked me.

I considered the offer, but then declined. There are no Alofts in West Virginia.

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