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In the Know

MIT students reinvent the hotel lobby

Students preparing for their  presentations to MIT professors and Marriott Hotel executives.

FEDERICO CASALEGNO/MIT

Students preparing for their presentations to MIT professors and Marriott Hotel executives.

CAMBRIDGE — Picture the typical hotel lobby. There’s a concierge, a reception desk, and probably random pods of people doing their own thing. Now picture that lobby with a giant kinetic touch-screen map that reveals the best places to eat and sightsee in the city, tables that morph from work stations to coffee tables to presentation stations with embedded video screens, and a communal area with a charging mat that reveals who else is there and where they’ve traveled recently — turning the entire lobby into a giant opportunity for social networking.

If you think this sounds like something dreamed up by Gen Y-ers, you’re right. Twenty students from Boston-area colleges were tasked with designing a prototype of the hotel lobby of the future for a “Designing Interactions: Reinventing the Hotel Experience” class at the MIT Mobile Experience Lab, in collaboration with Marriott Hotels & Resorts. Their goal: transform that ho-hum hotel space into “an epicenter of social energy that integrates the hotel with the surrounding community,” according to the course description.

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Led by Federico Casalegno, lab director, the students formed a research group that looked at ways to make lobbies more exciting, more user-friendly, and more relevant. Offered this year for the first time, the class brought together a multidisciplinary group of students — including artists, designers, engineers, and social media majors. “We pushed students to break the boundaries of disciplines, to rethink and reinvent objects, ideas, and experiences,” Casalegno said. “We took students into some uncomfortable places, making social media students think of mechanical engineering concepts,” and vice-versa, he continued. Their final project: to present their ideas to their instructors and executives from Marriott International.

The students’ prototypes applied advanced technologies to the social elements of the Marriott guest experience, “welcome, chill, relax, recharge.” Their presentations revealed that Gen Y travelers — assuming they are representative of their peer group — are serendipitous types who want social interaction, and seek to make connections, but also like to feel independent and in charge. They described themselves as “urban explorers” who reject brochures and touristy attractions but appreciate “informed wandering” from in-the-know peers. From the hotelier’s perspective, this is good to know. Gen Y-ers (born between 1980-89) are a coveted demographic.

Their designs might become reality sooner rather than later. “The results were some really creative ideas that were original, imaginative, and detailed, but also grounded in functionality,” said Paul Cahill, senior vice president of brand management, Marriott Hotels. “We expect to build out one or two of the students’ ideas at hotels, hopefully in Boston.”

Some of the students’ insights were “surprisingly novel,” Cahill said, and might be applied to other projects underway at Marriott.

A magically morphing table could be coming to a hotel near you. For details visit http://mobile.mit.edu.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail .com.
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