Marriott's Charlotte laboratory hotel signals brand's direction

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CHARLOTTE — Marriott International last week officially dedicated its first "laboratory" hotel at the recently remodeled Charlotte Marriott City Center and outlined how the company will use the property to test potential design and service initiatives for its flagship brand.

Marriott, which dubbed the 446-room property its first "M Beta" hotel, is using the laboratory in its efforts to give the upper-upscale brand a more local feel, including having a coffeehouse that features locally sourced coffee and chalk art created by local artists, as well as a food and beverage program showcasing local chefs and nearby microbreweries.

Guestrooms have what Marriott calls a more "residential" feel, with oval "nesting" tables instead of work desks, hard floor surfaces instead of carpet and no wall art.

The hotel added a pop-up bar in its former cafeteria area, where the property can host private events for local companies or frequent guests. The bar serves charcuterie plates featuring meats and cheeses from North Carolina and Southern-inspired craft cocktails.

The hotel also gives guests a chance to offer feedback via "beta buttons" placed throughout public areas, where guests can indicate whether they like a particular part of the hotel.

"From top to bottom, we've reinvented this hotel," Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson said at an Oct. 11 press conference at the property. "We've managed to touch essentially every square inch of this hotel and try to meet what customers want."

The concept and proposed changes reflect Marriott's effort to add amenities to its flagship brand's properties in order to bring them closer to the lifestyle and boutique hotels that have gained popularity throughout U.S. cities during the past decade or so.

Marriott, the world's largest hotel company after acquiring Starwood Hotels & Resorts late last month for about $13 billion, is looking to shed the cookie-cutter image associated with its largest full-service brand. As of June 30, before the Starwood acquisition, the hotelier had more than 600 Marriott-branded locations among its inventory of more than 4,500 properties, including 365 in North America.

Marriott acquired the Charlotte property in 2013 for the purpose of transforming it into a laboratory property, and it spent an additional $36,000 per room on the upgrades, Mike Dearing, managing director at the Marriott Hotels brand, said during the press conference, indicating that Marriott spent about $16 million on the renovation.

Dearing dubbed the hotel "a testing ground for our newest and most creative thinking." He added that Marriott is looking to bring the cost of such upgrades down to between $25,000 and $30,000 per room, and that urban Marriotts will likely start adding the upgrades before suburban properties will.

"Each market is a little different, and each hotel has a different owner, so the economic aspects [of upgrading] will either be easier or harder," Sorenson said in a roundtable session following the press conference. "For a suburban Marriott with a $100 average room rate, it's unlikely that we will be able to do everything."

With the Marriott improvement efforts underway, however, the company has a bit of juggling to do as it looks to integrate the operations of Starwood's 12 brands with Marriott's 18. With the acquisition, Marriott takes over Sheraton, a brand that not only competes with the Marriott brand in the upper-upscale sector but was also Starwood's largest and its primary focus prior to the acquisition. With Sheraton accounting for more than a third of Starwood's 1,200 hotels, the company last year set a goal to add 150 properties to the brand by 2020.

"The question we're asking ourselves now is how to make sure Sheraton stays the fastest-growing brand of one of the largest hotel companies on Earth," Starwood's then-CEO Adam Aron said in an interview last June.

It remains to be seen how Marriott will do that while ensuring that its legacy upper-upscale brands, Marriott and Renaissance, and Starwood's Sheraton, Westin and Le Meridien upper-upscale brands all find their own audiences. Such a balancing act is key within a sector that STR senior vice president Jan Freitag, in a 2014 interview, termed "the workhorses of the industry."

Marriott International global brand officer Tina Edmundson said last week, "It's definitely tricky, because we have brands in the same swim lanes." Stressing that it had been less than three weeks since the acquisition was completed she added: "Sheraton and Marriott is an interesting riddle. We'll need a little bit of time, but we will actually position them quite separately. Sheraton's a huge priority for the company.

In the meantime, Marriott continues to bring its hotel owners to the Charlotte property to see the new initiatives in action. For the beta hotel, that includes amphitheater-type seating at its multilevel Coco and the Director coffee bar and offering rum- and bourbon-based "cocktails on tap" at its Stoke Bar.

Other features that are less local-oriented include replacing its front desk with multiple stand-up tables where hosts with wireless tablet computers check in guests, and a fitness center where guests can take cardio, strength or flexibility classes from a "digital instructor," consisting of a bank of nine screens networked to an inventory of 200 workout videos.

While much of Marriott's marketing efforts this year have been directed toward getting loyalty members to eschew the OTAs and book directly with the hotel company, such improvements give Marriott an opportunity to strengthen its connection with both travel agents and the meetings community, said Marriott International global brand and sales manager Brian King.

"We're doing everything we can do to broadcast these changes," King said last week, noting Sorenson's appearance at the ASTA Global Convention in Las Vegas late last month just after the Starwood acquisition was completed. "You invest what you can invest in these brands to make them right."

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