Brian McGuinness calls it the “polyester promise”: Visit a mid-priced chain hotel anywhere from Salt Lake City to Shanghai, and you'll no doubt find, along with a color TV and those tiny, paper-wrapped bars of soap, vast expanses of polyester—usually in the form of a queen-size, hallucinatory floral bedspread.
That and enough furniture for a room twice as big, says McGuinness, brand manager for aloft, a new global hotel brand. An armoire, a bureau, a table with chairs— “Who has this in their home bedrooms?” he asks.
A division of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, aloft was conceived as a sister brand to the company's much-hyped W Hotels, which trade the gilt-and-crystal décor of the standard luxury hotel for an airy, contemporary look. Much as W has helped usher in a new perception of luxury, aloft is intended to shake up the select-service category—which includes Courtyard by Marriott and Hilton Garden Inn, among other chains—for a market that's growing more sophisticated about design.
David Rockwell, founder and CEO of the New York–based Rockwell Group and designer of the first W, started working with Starwood on aloft's architecture and interiors about two and a half years ago. He found that many mid-priced hotels lacked the sense of being real, socially interactive places.
“The typical select-service hotel has a place to get breakfast and a place to sit in the evening. It has all of these discrete pieces, but what they hadn't done is integrate all of those into a synergistic, exciting whole,” says Rockwell. “The space we created is one social hub that within it has all of the things you might want.”
At aloft hotels—the first of which are scheduled to open next year in Las Calinas, Texas; Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; Lexington, Mass.; and Beijing—the lobby will draw guests around the clock, serving as a café and meeting area by day, a bar/lounge by night. (An adjacent snack bar, “re:fuel,” will operate 24 hours a day.) The lobby furnishings will be modern and modular; exposed ductwork and lighting, oversized windows, and polished concrete floors will create an urban-loft sensibility regardless of location. (Starwood plans to franchise 500 aloft hotels, in urban and suburban locations around the world, by 2012.)
And then there are the guest rooms. Rockwell, with the future price point always in mind, again began by eliminating needless or annoying features (such as “bifolding closets that always come off the hinge when you open them”). What's left does double or triple duty: The recycled teak headboard becomes a storage unit, with nightstands built in, and it's also the back wall of the bathroom. A simple but dramatic twist on the usual hotel-room layout—the bed is rotated to face the window, not a wall—mimics a residential bedroom.
McGuinness demurs when asked about aloft's target demographic, but admits that the “sweet spot” is the under-36 crowd. To reach those young, tech-savvy travelers—who are also being courted by rivals Marriott (with its new, architect-designed SpringHill Suites) and Hyatt (Hyatt Place)—Starwood opened an aloft hotel last October in the online world of Second Life, inviting users to weigh in on the color palette and other design features. The company promises that design changes it made to the virtual aloft based on user feedback will be reflected in the real hotels, too.