Peggy Roe sees the signs all around her: busy businesspeople awkwardly passing laptop computers across cluttered coffee tables, sitting on lobby floors hunched over a Skype call, and huddled refugee-like near window walls trying to conduct conference calls in deserted prefunction spaces. Hotels designed to meet the business needs of another era suddenly seem far too formal and buttoned-down for the way we work today. It falls to Peggy Roe and her counterparts to tailor a new fit.
“It’s a movement; I don’t think it’s optional,” says Roe, vice president of global operations and the leader of Marriott’s Future of Meetings initiative. “If we don’t change now, the hotel will become so drastically out of sync with the way people are experiencing life and work that we will be left behind.”
For decades, all it took for a hotel to host meetings and events was a ballroom, an overhead projector, and a catering kitchen. That changed dramatically with the new century, which brought not only the widespread use of personal computers and cell phones but a new generation of business people for whom face-to-screen communication and multi-gadget multitasking comes second nature.
Initial fears that all this connectivity might render face-to-face meetings obsolete proved unfounded. As one wag put it, “It’s hard to have a virtual beer.” However, the sudden appearance of this highly interactive workforce posed a far more challenging question: How should hotels adapt to accommodate the wants and needs of this new genus of client? The search for answers has led hotel brands big and small to launch the largest reinvention of their properties and services in a half-century.
“Technology has changed everything,” says Rick Garlick, senior director of strategic consulting for Maritz Research Hospitality Group. “Today, Marriott and other brands that were really set up and structured for meetings now have a wider range of competitors in smaller and midscale properties that have not really focused on that part of the business before. The deck now gets re-shuffled for everybody.”
Recently, Maritz Research surveys of meeting planners, hoteliers, and conferees revealed a strong consumer shift away from traditional meeting settings toward smaller, less formal, and more flexible spaces, ideally with built-in “smart-room” connectivity and display screens. Today, property bandwidth trumps ballroom capacity, anywhere/anytime food service trumps signature restaurants, daylight trumps florescent light, and a concierge with IT skills trumps that friendly guide to local attractions. As for aesthetics, the emerging generation of business leaders prefers new and different to staid and predictable.
“Look around at how many nontraditional meeting venues like libraries and museums are being used for meetings and events today,” observes Garlick. “How to make space interesting, stimulating, and distinctive is going to be a key to the future of meetings.”
Close to Home
A century ago, a small office furniture company called Steelcase solved the problem of office fires caused by smoking employees when it introduced the first steel-wire wastebasket. Today, Steelcase transforms underperforming hotel space into next-generation Workspring meeting environments exclusively for Marriott, who is incorporating it into new builds in Europe and Asia, as well as in renovations here at home.
The 6,500-square-foot Workspring hotel prototype, which recently opened at Redmond Marriott Town Center in the Microsoft tech suburb of Redmond, Washington, features two connectable 25- to 30-seat studios, three eight-seat fixed collaborative studios, a breakout room, two living rooms, and a cafe, all connected by an inviting hallway that features a library and resource center. Steelcase also operates a stand-alone Workspring in downtown Chicago.
“When you walk into Workspring, you’re walking into a stylized living room–kitchen area as you would in your own home,” says John Malnor, vice president of growth initiatives for Steelcase. “When you’re not in an active work session, you would hang out just like you do when you have a party in your home and everybody ends up in the kitchen. When you book a meeting for ten for a day or two, it becomes your space; you can grab a drink or a snack when you want them because it’s all-inclusive. All of the technology is integrated into the rooms so it’s at your fingertips without having to ask for it, whether it’s projection or a Post-It Note.”
Workspring features subtleties designed to enhance work performance and creature comfort: universal device connectivity built into work tables, natural light and lighting programmed to mirror the passing of the day, fixed seating expertly spaced from central display screens for easy reading, and human touches such as coatracks and bookshelves. Its insistence on natural vistas even prompted Steelcase to put a rooftop garden on a building adjacent to its Chicago Workspring so their customers could see greenery.
“At Workspring, you’ll see real plants and flowers and view to the outside world that connects you to living things,” says Malnor. “If we do our job, at the end of the day you’re actually healthier than when you showed up.”
Bridging the Gap
Workspring is designed to fill the growing void between large meeting venues and such awkward impromptu workspaces as lobbies, Starbucks, and Panera Bread shops currently under invasion by small but mobile working groups.
“It’s cumbersome to collaborate in a Panera; you see people passing their laptops around and picking up their stuff to use the restroom. That’s not a very effective way to work,” he says. “Workspring is really positioned as a premium experience. We’re trying to play to those meetings that are really important to where people expect a certain level of service.”
Marriott’s Peggy Roe says the Workspring initiative dovetails well with the hotelier’s ongoing expansion of its lobbies into great rooms with ready meal service for busy multitasking teams.
“There is a lot of underutilized space in the hotel today; concierge lounges, business centers, even traditional boardrooms. Even some of our restaurants could be optimized into more of a work/food and beverage kind of space,” she says. “The traditional model in the hotel is to silo things: you eat here, you sleep here, you meet here, you check in here. Now we’re trying to combine all those because that’s how people’s lives are.”
For meeting planners long accustomed to less-than-optimal choices when charged with coordinating a spontaneous group meeting or executive session, Workspring can seem dreamlike. “It’s a totally new concept for most meeting planners, but once we get them into the space to experience it, they get it immediately,” says Malnor. “Because it’s an all-inclusive package, they don’t have to plan every single detail about the meeting and the menu and the price of every food item or beverage.”
Group productivity improves as well. Rather than losing valuable work time wandering down to the lobby or local Starbucks, they can settle into a relaxing, secure environment that combines the comforts of home with the functionality of the office. Malnor says Workspring, together with a new meeting-rooms-by-the-hour service called Marriott Workplace on Demand, aims to become the most productive offsite workplace in town.
“Our hope is that we can make it a one-call setup for those customers, especially the second time. Then we’ll know your preferences as a team—how you like to work, who prefers Red Bull to orange juice, who has a food allergy—so when you come back, you feel like it’s your space,” he says.
A New Lease on Life
While Marriott’s ambitious Future of Meetings initiative focuses on reconfiguring its current and future meeting space to accommodate a more social, mobile, and collaborative clientele, other traditional luxury brands such as Mandarin Oriental adapt based on how their guests use their facilities. Tom Ernsting, Mandarin Oriental’s director of group market sales for the Americas, says changes in customer preferences oftentimes lead to surprising discoveries right under a hotel’s roof—and sometimes on top of it.
“In Las Vegas, our hotel had an art gallery that moved, leaving a raw space—cement floors, high ceilings, an empty art gallery. That space is now unexpectedly in high demand for just about any kind of event,” he says. “The same hotel has a sky bar overlooking The Strip and I don’t believe they realized how popular and in-demand it would be, not just for receptions but for breakfast and lunch meetings. The lesson is, don’t keep your blinders on with the current space you have. Traditional spaces can be more interesting when they’re used for something that is unexpected.”
Even the menu at Mandarin Oriental reflects changing customer tastes. “We’re trying to get away from traditional steak dinners,” says Ernsting. “We’re trying to do sushi and lighter, healthier, more ethnically diverse foods. Family-style food service where we place the dishes at the table and they’re passed around just like home has grown in popularity as well.”
But don’t expect a Workspring-style solution for Mandarin Oriental. “As a brand, we deliver an experience that is unique. Certainly, drop screens and rolling technology and lots of natural light are going to be a big part of any new facilities, but I don’t necessarily see walls and properties themselves changing; just the way we approach it is changing,” Ernsting says.
Onward and Upward
How might this bright new future of meetings affect meeting planners? Rick Garlick says those who change with the times best stand to reap the rewards.
Part of the challenge will involve adapting to changing opportunities within the meetings and events space itself. “Now that meetings have become mobile, we see this as breaking down to much more regional meetings that feed into global companies. That’s giving a lot of the smaller hotel venues in more secondary cities an opportunity for meetings business,” says Garlick.
Meeting planners who once selected venues on the basis of four- or five-star ratings may find ratings less important as new venues emerge that better match their client and budget.
“The whole industry has shifted from accommodating a large group at a certain rate to designing this whole meeting with a series of very specific objectives built around the brand and the learning objectives they want to achieve,” says Garlick. “Meeting planners really look to align the brand and values of a venue they’re selecting with the brand and values of their company. There is so much more in play now than ever before.”