Starwood Hotels & Resorts is taking the unusual step of testing the design on stage sets to work out kinks before opening.
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Walk into a nondescript warehouse 45 minutes north of Manhattan, and you're in an Aloft lobby. A runway-like rug made of recycled tires leads through sliding glass doors into a high-ceilinged space with exposed pipes and vents. There's a small circular "aloha" reception desk, gumball machine and pool table, plus check-in kiosks for those who want to zip to their rooms. The centerpiece is a living-room area with conversational seating areas and bar. The aim is to offer a "lifestyle" hotel that's a fun place to play and stay for everyone from families to Gen-X and Gen-Y to what Aloft president Ross Klein calls "silver surfers" (older folks who love to travel). The name of this less-costly cousin of Starwood's W brand was coined by Klein, who also presides over W. Asked early on to describe the concept, he blurted: "It's a loft." (Well, in spirit, anyway. Though lobbies are lofty, guestroom ceilings don't soar past 9 feet.) The brand will bring hip digs to places not famed for them. The first Alofts are due next spring in Lexington, Mass.; Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; and Rogers, Ark. The goal is 500 properties in five years. Aloft — which made its virtual-reality debut on the popular Second Life website — is like the Mini Cooper of lodgings, Klein says, offering value-priced style and high performance. Rates at Aloft, which won't have frills such as room service or fancy restaurants, are due to run $125-$200.
Influenced by Starbucks' success, hotel lobbies are now designed as places to hang out. "People said they felt anonymous on the road," Klein says. Aloft's lobby will foster what Klein, trendy in a lavender shirt and spiky hair, calls "re-socialization." High-backed banquettes offer "interactive isolation": Guests can nest unobtrusively while people-watching and pull down cushioned armrests to guarantee personal space. Jargon flies when any brand brainstorms a new product. Klein and designers talk about "creating a culture in a generic (hotel) landscape," "being like the coolest, fun store in the mall" and "biorhythm settings" (lobby music and lighting change according to time of day). Today's hotels are big on multisensory experiences.
Design is a work in progress, says Aloft design manager Aliya Khan. Potential franchisees and frequent Starwood guests have been invited here for feedback on Aloft and on model suites created for another new brand called Element, targeted at extended-stay travelers.
The result: changes in fabrics, colors and furnishings. Visitors congregating in the Aloft lobby disliked the open-back bar stools, so they were replaced. Ottomans replaced heavy chairs, as they could easily be moved to form conversational groupings. More electrical outlets were added at the request of laptop users.
Informality reigns: Food and drink from a deli-style nook (famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is consulting on menus) is "grab and go." Breakfasts may feature eat-on-the-run egg wraps.
Gadgetry is king, too. Alofts will offer free Wi-Fi. A lobby vending machine stocks high-tech toys such as PlayStations and iPods. Rooms have 32-inch flat-screen TVs that can be hooked up to computers, personal digital assistants and music players.
Guestrooms aren't loftlike, unless you count the platform beds with cutting-edge headboards made of springy cork. The look is that of a compact (280 square feet for a standard room), contemporary Manhattan studio apartment, without the kitchen.
Luggage is stored in sight, under a bench where tall sitters might bump their heads on the wall-hung TV. Closets are tiny, hidden by a flimsy curtain rather than a door at this point in the design process. Small bathrooms have sliding doors.
Rooms still are a work in progress, says designer Khan. They'll probably end up with shades that can be wiped down rather than drapes — guests perceive drapes as dirty, Klein says. Room safes have charging plugs inside, a suggestion from road warriors.
The simulations are so realistic that one early visitor took a bathroom break, Khan says — not realizing the plumbing isn't hooked up. That was one fix she and her ever-remodeling crew hope never to make again.
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