aloft Also Rises

Starwood Hotels & Resorts has unveiled aloft, a select-service flag that extends what company officials call the DNA of its stylish, breakthrough W.

Starwood launched aloft at The Lodging Conference in Phoenix in late September, underlining its innovative, user-friendly design at a news conference bursting with aloft balloons. Elegant collateral supported presentations by Starwood executives eager to discuss a leisure-oriented brand designed to complement Starwood's other select-service offering, the business-oriented Four Points by Sheraton.

According to a news release trumpeting aloft, known for months as XYZ as Starwood executives focus-grouped a permanent name, aloft will offer “urban-inspired, loft-like guestrooms, enhanced technology services, landscaped outdoor spaces for socializing day and night, and an energetic lounge scene.”

Remember, Starwood developed the Heavenly Bed, triggering bed quality wars and raising the bar for hospitality bedding. It also created W, its upscale, style-drenched urban hotel concept. Now, it has spawned aloft — you know you'll remember the name, if only because it's lower-case — in an effort to extend the “lifestyle aspirations” at the core of its marketing efforts.

“The world is our oyster,” says Chuck Tomb, senior vice president, development, Starwood Real Estate Group. “Other than Four Points by Sheraton, we have nothing in the select-service segment. This hotel can really go into any market. We're targeting urban, suburban, resort and lifestyle center developments, really anywhere at this time. And we're going to be controlling the process” on aloft sites “very carefully in the initial 100 to make sure we roll out the brand correctly, in the highest RevPAR markets first.”

In a recent conference call, Tomb and Bill Linehan, Starwood Real Estate Group's vice president of marketing and strategic partnership development, said that several high-profile real estate development companies, including Noble Investment Group and HEI Hospitality, have signed letters of interest, preliminary agreements to pursue sites for aloft. Signing a similar document: noted AAHOA figure and Atlanta-area hotel developer H.P. Rama.

Aloft will be new-build, with ADR of $100 to $125. Alofts will be 125 to 175 rooms. “We are committed to bringing in the aloft hotel at between $90,000 and $95,000 per key excluding land and development fees,” Tomb said. Five company-owned sites are in various stages of development or entitlement for aloft (technical name: W Hotels aloft). The first alofts will be in Lexington, a toney suburb of Boston; Tucson; the San Francisco and Philadelphia airports; and Cherry Creek, CO. The aloft UFOC, or universal franchise offering circular, took effect Sept. 28, allowing Starwood to offer aloft licenses to qualified hotel owners and operators. Starwood expects to break ground on the first alofts in early 2006, opening the first ones a year later. Its aloft plans are ambitious: 500 properties worldwide by 2012.

According to the Tucson (AZ) Citizen, a 136-room aloft hotel will be built near the University of Arizona. Cost will be $12 million to $15 million, Starwood spokeswoman K.C. Kavanagh told the newspaper. “The college town is something we're really keen on,” Kavanagh said.

Designed by the team that concocted W, aloft will target Starwood Preferred Guest customers, Courtyard and Hilton Garden Inn customers, and “our great, traditional Starwood hotel guests,” Tomb said.

“W hotel customers cross all age groups, all generations,” he said. “We feel that the select-serve customer of today and tomorrow is going to demand a better social environment under which to interact with others.

“Our customers are more sophisticated and expect more than just a place to sleep,” Tomb says. “We're shaking things up a little bit by offering an aspiring, ultimately more fun and fresh approach to the select-service segment.”

Aloft design arrives with pedigree: David Rockwell and The Rockwell Group are responsible for it. Rockwell's projects include the Kodak Theater, W Union Square and the super-hip restaurant Nobu.

The guestrooms will feature nine-foot-high ceilings and oversized windows, a signature, comfortable bed, a workspace that includes a MP3 docking station, and a flat-panel television. W-derived Bliss amenities (aloft-branded as QuickBliss) will be showcased in the bathroom, which also will feature walk-in, oversized showers.

But it's not just the guestrooms that will distinguish aloft. Like W, aloft will stress sociability and urbanity. As W does with its restaurants and bars, aloft will do with what could be called its function and comfort stations.

Each aloft will feature Relax, Re:Fuel, Fresh Air, Train and Splash. These are, respectively, a bar; a food and beverage center offering fresh bagels and fruits and drinks; an outdoor area serving light meals; a fitness center; and a swimming pool.

According to the news release, aloft also will “feature flexible meeting and function space and offer wireless Internet access throughout the properties.”

“We anticipate that in the local community, this will be a place to stop in for a cocktail, meet friends for a cup of coffee,” Tomb said. “It'll be open, it'll be airy, it'll be fun, it'll be fresh.”

PREPARING ALOFT

“We were involved in the development of aloft for a year,” says James Woods, vice president of acquisitions and development for Starwood. “In developing the product, we talked to Courtyard and Hilton Garden Inn customers in 12 cities. We also consulted with Starwood's Development Board of Advisors (DBA) to get its feedback.”

Where W targets urban and gateway markets, aloft is “a connector product and fills the need for a differentiated lodging product at a lower cost,” Woods says.

“Aloft skews a little younger than its competitors, yet it also will appeal to boomers who expect something a little different in their lodging experience, as well as women travelers, whose needs have not been adequately met in this segment,” he says.

The benchmarks weren't other hotel brands so much as consumer brands, like Jet Blue, an airline with a distinctive service culture and aspirational marketing. Jet Blue delivers “a traditional product in a new way,” says Woods, calling it “an alternative carrier, not a low-cost carrier. We believe we can do the same thing with aloft, that is, create a lifestyle sell.”

“Affordable doesn't have to be boring as brands like Jet Blue, Mini Cooper, (furniture/home furnishings company) West Elm and Target have proven so brilliantly,” Starwood CEO Steven Heyer said in June, when Starwood debuted its Project XYZ, the working name for what would become aloft, during the New York Investment Conference.

“Steve Heyer pushed us to talk to consumers over and over and along the way in the development process,” Woods says, “not just when we had a finished product.”

As for f&b, aloft processors found that many select-service customers complain that the offering in this segment is “terrible,” Woods says, “and developers want to know why they even need to have it.”

Starwood discovered that these customers want fewer offerings but ones of higher quality. As for technology, it was integrated into the guest-room design, not tacked on as an afterthought. It also was designed to accommodate technology as it evolves, Woods suggests.

“In our consumer groups,” he says, “we heard over and over that guests want their technology to be simple and seamless.”

As for aloft overall, “our DBA members told us not to make the product so edgy that they can't attract the soccer team on weekends.”

THE BIG IDEAS

Know your customer

Consumer research told Starwood aloft could skew young and appeal to the techno-savvy and sociable.

Know your segment

Select service with personality and flair could compete with Courtyard and Hilton Garden Inn, Starwood thinks.

Know your product

Since W has been a hit, Starwood figured extending its style and atmosphere to select service would work. Is extended-stay with W DNA in the cards?

The flat-screen TV, state-of-the-art communications technology and metal brackets that resemble bedside desks are common to the aloft double (above) and king.

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