Marriott piloting ideas for next generation travelers at Charlotte ‘innovation lab’

Marriott International is using its uptown Charlotte hotel as an “innovation lab” to test out new features meant to lure travelers, part of its sweeping renovations of the building at Trade and Tryon streets.

During a tour of the 446-room hotel, general manager Crissy Wright said the goal is to identify what travelers want and seeing what the company can scale up and roll out nationwide.

“This is the live lab for the future of this brand...It’s really about giving guests choices,” said Wright. “What does our next-generation traveler want? It’s around flexibility.”

Out: Traditional check-in desks, a plastic room key, a swimming pool.

In: Check-in kiosks, workers with tablets, using your cell phone as a room key, an expanded gym with interactive touchscreens and guided workouts, “wellness” rooms with vitamin C-infused showers and power outlets. Lots of power outlets, in fact – 783 on the ground floor alone, meant to ensure travelers with battery-hungry electronics never feel the anxiety of hunting for an outlet to charge up.

Marriott International, which bought the uptown Marriott City Center in 2013 for $111 million from a franchisee, plans to install so-called “beta buttons” in September. The buttons will be installed near new features and allow travelers to vote in real-time on whether they like the change. Workers are finishing up the renovations now, with a grand opening planned for Oct. 11.

Marriott, with more than 4,300 hotels, is trying to find ways to connect with a generation of travelers who are used to doing everything from ordering food to summoning Uber to booking flights on their phones, often with as little face-to-face interaction as possible.

When guests check in to the uptown Marriott, they’ll see workers standing around raised tables with tablets, instead of a traditional check-in desk. The workers can move around, even checking guests in curb-side – anywhere there’s Internet access. And they’ll have the option to check in via kiosk without talking to anyone. Marriott Rewards members will be able to use their phones as their keys.

“It’s all about technology,” said Wright.

Marriott chose Charlotte for the innovation lab concept because it’s within a one-hour flight from so much of the nation’s population, has a strong business travel market and is growing rapidly, attracting younger travelers.

The hotel has already debuted new food and dining options: Stoke, a bar and restaurant featuring wood-fired ovens and many locally sourced ingredients, and a coffee shop called Coco and the Director, decorated with vintage typewriters and cozy pillows to sit on. They are meant to have more of a sense of place than a traditional, uniform hotel restaurant. Renovations to guest rooms are also complete, including a floor of specially designed “wellness” suites with extra air filtration, special lighting and aromatherapy, although the hotel is still making tweaks.

For example, Marriott took desks out of the rooms, but discovered many guests still wanted them as a place to work. The hotel is adding desks back to about half the rooms to accommodate them.

The hotel also got rid of its swimming pool in order to expand its fitness center from 700 to about 2,000 square feet. Wright said guests, especially the business travelers who make up a majority of the hotel’s clients expressed a strong preference for more workout options. A large touch screen in the gym displays running routes around the hotel, and can send them to a guest’s phone.

There’s more experimentation to come. Marriott plans to open a retail wine store in the lobby in a week or so, to see if the concept catches on.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo