Words by Rory Buckeridge
About an hour or so north of New York, depending on the vagaries of turnpike traffic, is the unremarkable town of Stamford, Connecticut.
And in an unremarkable industrial estate is One StarPoint: a smart, but unremarkable corporate building.
It’s beside a yacht-rammed marina, yes, but there are few clues that this anonymous, corporate rent-a-building is the HQ of the Starwood hotel group, and inside, a division of customer-obsessed designers, planners and consultants are feverishly working on the future of the hotel room.
The Starwood group includes the St Regis, W, Westin, Le Meridien, Sheraton, Tribute Portfolio and The Luxury Collection brands, but I’m here to have the curtain pulled back on the company’s vision for the future of its Aloft, Element and Four Points brands, including three complete concept rooms set up as working test beds for the technology that the company hopes to roll out to its franchises over the next few years.
The introduction, given by business-shirt-and-jeans clad global brand leader Brian McGuinness, is littered with buzz phrases presumably plucked from intense, blue-sky sessions.
These include such gems as “access is the new excess”, “looking at the psychographic rather than the demographic” and “alone, but not lonely”. Bed wars are discussed in hushed tones of complete seriousness.
But it’s the approach to concept rooms, treating them, as McGuinness suggests, “like Detroit treats concept cars,” which is novel and interesting. And why I’m here. Just down the corridor are three complete, technology-stuffed rooms created to allow in-house designers to experiment, innovate and test to destruction. And all this without taking expensive, actual rent-paying rooms out of commission.
But first, I’m ushered on to the warm seat of an exercise bike, with an Oculus Rift strapped to my head. This is the virtual-reality headset bought last year by Facebook for $2 billion, and something Starwood aims to roll out to its Element gyms.
The idea is that, rather than sweat your way through a workout in a joyless hotel gym with a view of your plum-coloured forehead dripping on to the handlebars in a mirror, you can select picturesque cycle routes from around the world – in my case a sunny jaunt down an Italian lakeside path, waving at pretend pretty people pedalling in the other direction.
The faster I pedal, the quicker the virtual bike goes. And the more I sweat into the communal headband. This is properly icky, but as a mix up to my usual travelling fitness regime, it’s both novel and pleasing.
The VR tech doesn’t end there. Starwood hopes to offer music concerts, captured on stage in “360 degree-o-vision”, which visitors will watch as if they were there.
The Aloft hotel, for instance, has regular planned and often impromptu gigs in its lobbies as artists – knowing the company’s predilection for live music – will often bowl up after a gig for a post-show jam in the bar. The idea is that these can then be streamed to guests via Oculus.
Next, I’m introduced to Botlr – an autonomous robot butler already in service at the Cupertino and Silicon Valley Alofts.
It’s no surprise that the home town of Apple would be first to get this self-piloting room service drone, who arrives at guests’ doors, its flip-top head stuffed with whatever consumable – toothbrush, toothpaste, slippers – they’ve forgotten and phoned or Whatsapped housekeeping for. After I grab my stuff from its brain box, it lets out an anthropomorphic whistle as it trundles off down the corridor, awaiting its tip – a complimentary tweet.
The first concept room is Four Points - branded, a consumer-technology fest that packs his’n’hers televisions, wireless headphones and a smart mirror.
Developed in conjunction with Panasonic Connected Solutions, alongside your jetlagged, rheumy eyes and bedhead, it’s a touch-screen display, showing local weather, news and sports scores, stories about which can be pulled down to read in full. There are plans afoot to allow this to sync with your smartphone to deliver your schedule, messages and emails, to read while you’re brushing your teeth in your socks.
There’s also the “buzzibooth”, being developed for Four Points communal areas, which is a desk ensconced in a noise-cancelling cocoon that is as strange as it is novel. Sound-battening materials create a virtual cone of silence where you can make and take calls and generally take the hubbub down a notch or two while you work. Complimentary tablets or PCs facilitate this.
The Element room showcases the company’s green credentials. All of these hotels are manufactured adhering to strict LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – certification, and environmental impact is considered at every stage of production, even down to recycled artwork on the walls and the air quality in your room.
Vinyl wall hangings and paint are fretted over and flooring, for instance, is examined to OCD degrees.
A new material – botanol – is being investigated, containing an environmentally friendly mix of canola oil, castor oil and chalk with a polyurethane layer. While outside, you can charge your phone or tablet under a solar canopy charging station, with canopies designed in partnership with Sistine Solar, specifying their “SolarSkin” material: a printable solar panel designed to complement the décor in any finish, as long as it’s not traditional solar “reflective black” material.
Even the mirrors are considered, with touch pads whacking the brightness to “white dwarf” for, say, putting on make-up, and taking it down for ambient light. A lack of input will result in the light shutting itself down, to save precious energy.
Finally, let’s talk about carpets. Hotels are strangely and wonderfully obsessed with carpets, and in Starwood’s case, how to make them useful and even pay their way. So smart carpets are coming. RFID tags in the corridors’ deep pile will track you via your smartphone, directing your individual way to your room via subtle lighting.
That room service tray you just hoovered up? Lie it down outside your room and the carpet will message housekeeping itself to come pick it up. And during the night, a loo visit will be expedited by sensors under the carpet that sense your weight arriving off the bed and illuminate accent lighting in the convenience to ease your travel to the throne as your circadian rhythms announce that you need a 4am comfort break.
Meanwhile, apps will make guests’ stays more tailored than a Savile Row couturier. Having pushed your room key to your phone app or Apple Watch for wireless entry before you’ve even arrived at the hotel, you can duck reception entirely, and having waved your iThing under the lock’s nose, your room then knows exactly who’s in residence and will set the room’s air conditioning and lighting levels to your strict, pre-saved requirements.
Playlists will download direct from your phone or tablet and you can finish streaming a movie you were watching on the flight straight to the sail-sized television. Then, after nodding off to a smart -lighting generated sunset, the ambient lighting will caress you awake with a fake sunrise and when the alarm eventually goes off, you can time your coffee machine to deliver Java as you stir. Then, when you’ve hoteled for all you’re worth, exit the room and sensors detect your absence and shut the lot down.
There’s definitely a lot going on, but the message rammed home is that the customer, and their personal comfort, is at the core of all this head-scratching, and technology is giving Starwood the tools to facilitate this, while personalising the hotel experience like never before. Time saved checking in can be precious minutes earned for staff to ensure that every visitor’s stay is exemplary. The future of hotel rooms is coming and it’s connected.
This article was written by Rory Buckeridge from The Independent and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.