Not Your Father's Courtyard

Because the media pods are taken, I have to sit at a table in the lobby of the Courtyard by Marriott Fairfax Fair Oaks, the prototype for a thorough update of Marriott's successful Courtyard brand. Mine is one of six tables for two, bespeaking the intimacy and casualness that characterize this fresh, imaginative space.

This Courtyard in suburban Washington, DC is the test site for a modernization that aims to bring the successful, highly researched brand into the 21st century. It joins Courtyard to Renaissance as the most forward-looking brands in the Marriott stable. The new Courtyard is high-tech, high-touch, media-savvy, empowering — and, surprisingly, anything but impersonal.

As I await my breakfast, a clutch of young executive types sit on high, modern chairs lining a rectangular table, a kind of bar for non-button-down business meetings. Along one wall are three of those media pods, semicircular seating arrangements that open into the room; one of each pod's walls features a small high-definition television so occupants can keep their conversation current.

I've just ordered from Centro, the breakfast bar (featuring Starbucks coffee, of course) that's the new Courtyard's take on the old-style lobby restaurant. You sidle up to Centro, order anything from a modest pastry to a hearty bacon-and-eggs repast, and the waitress brings it to you.

As I look toward the entrance, I see the concierge's desk (actually, three pedestal-like structures with cutout shelving) and The Market, a small, self-serve convenience store to the side. On the other side is the Go Board, a big, television-styled “portal” with a way-cool touch screen for local directions. Think of it as a “go-to” board, because it also features The Weather Channel, USA Today, and airport information. It's a signature of the new Courtyard.

The palette of the lobby is beige, orange, black and crimson; the overall feel is honeyed. The space is decidedly modern; backless, fuzzy chairs facing the wall attest to the playfulness at its core.

THE COURTYARD GUESTROOM

The palette in my guestroom is honeyed, like the lobby. There's a sharp, new high-definition television, along with many conveniently placed plugs, good lighting — and a somewhat dated bathroom area. The aesthetics are orderly and contemporary. Behind me is a sofa, with a shelf on one end on which to perch your laptop, book, or drink — though the drive behind the new Courtyard is to get the guest into the lobby to interact, to be seen, to engage.

In front of the sofa are stackable tables; at its right is a two-stage lamp. This is a comfortable, contemporary room. The bed, a king, is firm and fine, the bedding plush but not pretentious. Lights, with individual switches, bracket the headboard, and the wallpaper highlighting the headboard is red and tawny, a striking pattern of plant life with a vine motif. Guestroom and public space work to blur the line between socializing and business.

SOCIAL BUSINESS

Brian King, Courtyard's vice president/global brand manager, says when Courtyard made its debut 25 years ago, the guest mindset ran like this: “Get me to my room, let me do my work, let me leave.”

Now, the attitude can be summed up in the phrase, “social business,” with travelers “looking for ways to get out of the room and socialize with colleagues,” King says.

The industry used to think of the guest as a kind of light switch, “either on and working or off and sleeping.

“Today, it's more about dimmers. There are increments between work and rest that [guests] didn't have before, and we have to give them choices to fill those increments.”

That may be why there's a library area to the side of the lobby displaying books, art and ceramics of local interest and manufacture. That may be why those fuzzy stools flank the sofas; the idea is to make the environment palpable, to infuse the book shelves with local publications, to make the space feel organic and specific. And to give it cross-generational appeal.

“Gen X and Gen Y think it's urban and chic, contemporary and very social,” says King. “And boomers say, ‘We love the clean lines, it's sophisticated.’ Trying to satisfy those two audiences was my charge in terms of design.”

X, Y and boomer agree on one thing: They love the technology. “One of our customer insights was that the laptop is the center of the business traveler's life,” King says. “It's your music, it's your TV, it's everything; it's not just work anymore. Your laptop is an extension of you.”

Bjorn Hanson, PricewaterhouseCoopers' hospitality guru, doesn't speak of boomers in interpreting the latest Courtyard iteration. He fixes on Gen Xers 31 to 42 years old, and Millennials, 13- to 30-year-olds who typically enter the travel market in their mid-20s.

“Courtyard has been through several reinventions to remain current,” he says. “The most recent was to respond to the indications of research about younger GenXers and older Millennials.”

Among shared preferences: big, open lobbies where people can gather to work on group projects or socialize; easily accessible, ubiquitous technology with high-speed Internet access; design to accommodate those who don't conform to a fixed schedule and want to get a bite or more from the Market or Centro, 24 hours a day; inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness.

Also stressed in the new Courtyard: natural fabrics, areas open to natural light, use of local materials and imagery (as in the Library), even square umbrellas, unlike “what your parents have on their deck,” Hanson says.

Helping Marriott fashion Courtyard 2008 was Ideo, a San Francisco design firm. First, Marriott conducted consumer research, which Ideo incorporated into its process. Then, when Marriott brought prospective developers to visit this Virginia test site for input, Marriott forwarded that feedback to Ideo, too.

“Marriott brought Ideo its consumer research, then built the lobby to scale in a San Francisco warehouse out of white foam core,” King says. “The idea was we could play and move things around, bring customers into the space and let them react to the concepts. It was like play dough…we did it all in white for a reason. We didn't want the customer to get caught up on aesthetics. We really wanted them to focus on the concepts.”

“We didn't want our own people to get hung up, either,” says Nick Kellock, senior vice president, select service and extended stay franchising for Marriott.

“The difference with this particular product is that while we were working through the mockup, we were transferring ideas into a live situation in the form of this property — at the same time,” Kellock adds. “What you see here is an interpretation of ideas that came from Ideo as well as ideas that were evolving through our own design team and research. It was an iterative process; normally, our process is linear: You complete the concept development, then take the concept and develop a test example. In this case, we were effectively working on both at the same time.”

Despite a dicey economy, King and Kellock expect that developers will embrace the new Courtyard; Marriott executives hope to keep costs below $1,000 per key more than the current version.

“Because it was so well-received and getting it out into the marketplace is so important for the brand and Marriott, we have taken a new approach,” says Deborah Huguely, Marriott's vice president of interior design. “Marriott has launched a dedicated, multi-disciplined team that has architecture, construction, food and beverage, operation and brand management representatives focused solely on this initiative.”

Rob Reinders, Marriott's vice president of design management, calls the new Courtyard lobby an “amazing space,” a “special place where people really want to be.”

As of mid-March, there were 180 new-build projects in the Courtyard pipeline, and in almost 70, owners have decided to incorporate the new Courtyard elements.

“That's a significant commitment,” says Reinders. “I think that's a good example of the buy-in we have from our franchisees for this concept.”

“My expectation is that the overall economics of the Courtyard brand for an owner will improve as a result of this evolution,” Kellock says. “This is about improving from an existing position of strength and success.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.


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