At midnight last Wednesday, I found myself hovering just off an island in Argali waters, trying to get a sneak peek at the construction of an Aloft hotel, the new "select service" brand from Starwood. But whenever I actually tried to cross the shoreline and fly over the island for a better look, I was impeded by a sign warning, "You are not allowed into destination."

You won't find Argali on a map. And the first real Aloft hotel isn't scheduled to open until 2008. And, alas, I cannot hover or fly. But in the simulated online world called Second Life (, an Aloft hotel is under construction, and you (and any of the other 389,000 registrants) can watch it go up.

When it's finished, you'll be able to go into the property for a tour and even hang out with other Second Life citizens in the hotel's W XYZ lounge.

Starwood is not the first commercial entity to set up shop in Second Life. This is a virtual world created by citizens and businesses that purchase an "island" and the tools to build upon it. Clothing retailer American Apparel has a "store" there, and Major League Baseball built a 3-D ballpark where the real MLB Home Run Derby was simulated on the field (and shown simultaneously on the stadium's virtual Jumbotrons).

To alleviate any frustration felt by those of us hovering at the edge of its island while the Aloft is under construction, the company that Starwood hired to build it is keeping an illustrated blog describing how the work is proceeding (

Although a lot of the blog is somewhat technical, it nonetheless makes a fascinating read. It's written by Sara Van Gorden, one of the developers (she works for a firm called the Electric Sheep Company in Washington, which builds projects in virtual worlds for businesses). Her enthusiasm for the project comes through in a voice that's a refreshing change from corporate copy writing.

All of this bodes well not only for Aloft and Starwood, but for the entire select-service hotel segment. This is a group of brands badly in need of a Vitamin B12 shot.

"Select" in this instance really means "limited." It's a category that includes hotels aimed at business and leisure travelers that tend to be midsize properties (200 rooms or fewer), with large guest rooms but modest (if any) meeting space or restaurant options. Courtyard by Marriott, Hilton Garden Inn and Holiday Inn Select are among the best-known players in this space.

So Starwood's entry into the category with Aloft, and Hyatt's announcement of Hyatt Place a year ago, are welcome news. (Hyatt Place, like Aloft, will be raising the bar on amenities and food choices in the segment, and it also promises a hip vibe.)

With Aloft's newbuild in Second Life, the travel industry is entering what I think is interesting, new territory in the product-placement landscape. Logo branding within computer games and virtual hotel tours are not ground-breaking concepts -- both have been around for years. But previous iterations have been passive: A player in an action game drives by a Pepsi sign, or a visitor to a hotel Web site simply wanders through a virtual rendering of a property.

In Second Life, things are a bit less controlled and less predictable. If you're exploring the grounds of the virtual Aloft, you're likely to run into another Second Life citizen, and you can exchange comments about the hotel -- positive or negative -- that can be "overheard" by anyone else in the vicinity. In Second Life, everyone's a critic.

But herein lies tremendous power: The Aloft that's under construction is not just a showcase but a marketing lab. Though the population of Second Life is, for the time being, small, it has the potential to be a potent focus group.

When the virtual Aloft is completed, perhaps it's asking too much to suggest that Starwood not "plant" visitors on its island to talk about how cool and hip Aloft is. But if they can resist that urge -- or better yet, plant citizens to ask questions and listen -- they will be truly entering a brave new world, a world where Vitamin B12 is in endless supply. 


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