Hotels vie to become offices of the future

Story highlights

  • By some estimates, mobile workers number 1.3 billion globally
  • Marriott is about to expand Workspace on Demand, a project aimed at accommodating the growing number of transient workers
  • Westin launched a similar program, Tangent, which caters to individuals and small groups that need an impromptu meeting space
  • Many companies have culled assigned office space in a bid to increase efficiency

Ever since Starbucks had the business acumen to make free WiFi as defining to its brand as "grande frappucinos," workers have delighted in leaving their offices in favor of brighter, more caffeinated workspaces.

As the traditional office undergoes a global demise, hotels are starting to change their function to accommodate the new wave of mobile workers.

"We're really trying to transform the way people think about hotels," says Peggy Roe, Marriott International's vice president of global operations services. "We want people to think of Marriott as a place not just to come and sleep, but to work."

Earlier this year, Marriott started testing a new concept called Workspace on Demand. In 35 hotels throughout the U.S. (and one in Europe), guests and non-guests alike can book small-scale meeting space for $50 an hour.

"Customers said that they were basically sneaking into the lobby to steal WiFi, or else were sitting in our parking lot and plugging in from their car. We say, 'we give you permission. Come in and sit in our lobby.'"

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The last three months were an operational experiment, says Roe, one that was obviously successful. In the next two months, they will expand Workspace on Demand to six more locations in the U.S., with an eye on their properties abroad.

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Marriott essentially offers little more than a table and a plug, but, says Roe, "mostly people just want a basic space to work. They haven't asked for more than that."

Last month, Westin Hotels & Resorts launched Tangent, which is similarly aimed at a younger, more transient workforce. Their rooms, which are priced at $50 to $60 an hour, accommodate a smaller audience (four max), and are a bit more tricked out.

The focal point is media:scape, a worktable that lets multiple users drag and share documents from their person devices. There is a whiteboard area for brainstorming and even an Xbox. There is also a lounge area to help facilitate job interviews, a function that guests were previously performing in the hotel lobby.

"You'd see a group of consultants hovering over a laptop, trying to prepare for a presentation, or else people had interviews, and the lobby wasn't providing enough privacy for the topic they were discussing," says Brian Povinelli, senior vice president and global brand leader at Westin and Meridien.

Read more: What women want: Hotels look to cater for more female business travelers

Westin saw an opportunity to accommodate not only their guests, but the wider community of rudderless workers, and launched Tangent in Boston and Arlington, Virginia, as well as in Munich, Germany. They plan to open 40 more in the U.S. by 2014, and one in Bali is under construction.

According to Westin's research, 75% of workers in the U.S. are on the move, meaning that for at least one day a week, they have no steady office. Worldwide, that number is 30%, though growing quickly. The International Data Corporation (IDC) puts the number of mobile workers worldwide at 1.3 billion.

"From a corporate perspective, signing a five- to ten-year lease for an office building is a completely broken model," notes Mark Gilbreath, the founder and CEO of LiquidSpace, a kind of matchmaking platform that links displaced workers with rent-by-the-hour offices.

The surge of transient workers, he contends, is not merely a function of increased technology (though that has made it possible), it is also something being driven by companies.

"Real estate is the second largest expense for most companies, and if you look inside the corporate campus, that desk you're assumed to be at all day, you're only at a third of the time."

In response, a growing number of companies have done away with assigned work spaces all together. Global consulting firm Accenture made business headlines last year when they abandoned permanent offices.

LiquidSpace is partnered with Marriott, Westin and a number of real estate companies that want to earn a profit on underutilized office space. They are also partnered with big firms, such as Accenture, who use the LiquidSpace platform to allow employees to search for available desks internally.

Read more: Business or pleasure? Luxury hotels offer day-only rooms

Thus far, Westin and Marriott are pioneers in adapting the hospitality market to meet the demands of the tomorrow's workforce. However, Gilbreath reckons it's only a matter of time before other brands catch up.

"Hotels implicitly are in the business of space; they are extraordinarily efficient at providing space on demand. The next logical step is to broaden the brand as a place to work, not just a place to sleep."

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