Image: aloft
Paul Johnson Photograpy
Lobbies in aloft hotels are designed to be social hubs — a little bit of Starbucks, a little bit W Hotel and plenty of upscale style.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/14/2007 9:18:27 AM ET 2007-08-14T13:18:27

When you’re designing a new hotel chain, there’s a lot to keep in mind. Building codes and construction costs. Staff training and operating procedures. Target markets, in-room amenities and daily rack rates. Ottomans.

The little footstools, it seems, can be a bit tricky.

Just ask Brian McGuinness, vice president for aloft, a new hotel brand from Starwood Hotels & Resorts (the folks behind Westin, Sheraton and W Hotels). Set to open in May 2008, the chain is designed to offer boutique style and high-tech amenities at rates starting at around $125 per night.

More specifically, the hotels will feature cozy bars and “grab-and-go” pantries, free Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs, and multi-functional lobbies where guests can work or relax, socialize or not and, as McGuinness says, “drive their own stay.”

Which brings us to the ottomans. Unfortunately, the first ones the company tried were big and square, leaving people feeling “boxed in.” Next, they tried cylindrical ones, which, alas, tipped over too easily. Finally, they found ones that fit the bill — stable yet portable and stylish to boot.

Better by (re)design
The pursuit of the perfect ottoman may sound silly, but it’s actually part of an innovative effort that goes far beyond footrest physics. Even as construction continues on the first alofts — Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and Lexington, Mass., among them — McGuinness and his team are busy fine-tuning the concept.

It all takes place in a warehouse/test lab hidden in a back corner of an industrial park in Westchester County, 45 minutes north of Manhattan. There, amid the semi trucks and loading docks, a steel door and plywood walkway lead to a series of set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in a City of Tomorrow display.

The company calls it Hawthorne, and it consists of a full-size aloft lobby and several guestrooms (including some from Element, an extended-stay brand Starwood will also introduce next year). Inside, McGuinness and his team have spent the last 18 months testing and tweaking everything from color schemes and construction materials to guest-employee dynamics and traffic patterns.

They’ve done so by sponsoring events in the facility and soliciting feedback from developers, franchisees and members of Starwoods’ guest rewards program. (The company also gathered input from a virtual hotel it opened on the Second Life Web site, although it’s since been shuttered.) Whether it’s fewer glass counters — the underlying glue was too obvious — or more electrical outlets, the goal is to road test every aspect of the guest experience before the first paying customer shows up.

Take the lobby. According to McGuinness, the room’s large-high-backed couches were intimidating to solo travelers, so the design team came up with fold-down back cushions that could function as armrests. “Guests will be able to carve out their own space,” he says. “They can be alone, but not lonely.”

Meanwhile, testing continues in an ongoing effort to lower construction costs, facilitate operations and provide a glitch-free guest experience. “Hotels are measured in generations,” says McGuinness. “We’re now on our third or fourth generation because we’ve engineered and re-engineered everything.”

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Hip digs for tech-savvy travelers
So what can you expect from an actual, fully functional aloft? A circular, centrally located front desk and table-top monitors for those who’d rather check themselves in. Guestrooms with signature bedding and 42-inch flat screen TVs. From the airlock-style entry to the indoor/outdoor fireplace, it’s all designed to be inviting, yet edgy — “infused with the DNA of W hotels,” in the company vernacular — and geared toward “a new tribe of travelers.”

Other features are strictly for fun: A pool table and iPod-stocked vending machine. A stock ticker display over the elevator that can be customized with personal messages and pressure-sensitive panels in the floor that change color as you walk across them. The idea, says McGuinness, is to create “branded experiences” that will inspire guest loyalty and help the chain stand out from the competition.

Clearly, there’s a lot riding on the concept. For one thing, Starwood hopes to open 28 alofts by the end of 2008 and up to 500 by 2012. For another, the chain will compete against other new brands, such as Cambria Suites and Hyatt Place, that have opened recently. They, too, have staked out the middle ground between budget and upscale hotels with stylish rooms, high-tech amenities and nightly rates in the $125–$200 range. Only time will tell if that “new tribe of travelers” is big enough to support them all.

In the meantime, look for more outposts of all three to pop up. Step inside and you’ll find yourself in a place where you can have a meal or a meeting, socialize or surf the Web, or simply flop on a couch, put your feet up and chill out. You probably won’t give the ottoman under your feet a second thought, but rest assured, someone else already has.

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