From the moment you step into a Marriott hotel lobby, they're on to you — observing how you act, tracking how you spend and predicting where you'll spend next. They are the researchers at Marriott International, the world's largest publicly traded hotel company that runs 3,700 hotels in 74 countries.
"You can really watch for some of the clues, in terms of how people actually behave, without ever even asking them," said Drew Shepard, a Marriott researcher, who can often be found staking out customers from an inconspicuous corner of a hotel lobby. "I try to find a place where I can have a good line of sight and see the whole lobby. We get paid to people-watch a little bit and watch how people are behaving and what they're doing."
Shepard told CNBC he pays particular attention to whether people are alone or in groups, and how long they remain in the public areas, because the longer they linger, the more they spend. He noted that chair placement is critical, because if they're too close together, people will feel uncomfortable and sit in every other seat, and the hotel won't maximize its space. Real estate is expensive, so maximizing space is crucial for a large hotel company, which is why Marriott plans to spend $20 million analyzing its hotel experience in 2013.
"The old model of the lobby of a hotel was more like a train station," Shepard said. "It was just some place that people came and sort of stopped on their way to pass through."
Thanks to data gathered by Shepard's team, the Marriott in Crystal City, Va. increased its food and beverage revenue more than 50 percent after redesigning its lobby. It's all part of an effort to revitalize the Marriott signature brand that has, as one company executive said, "lost its mojo."
Simply put, the hotel game is about putting heads in beds, so Marriott's curiosity extends to almost every little thing you do in your room. Shepard noted that 60 percent of women use their laptops at the desk while 40 percent of women prefer to use the computer on their bed, for example. Only 20 percent of men, on the other hand, prefer to work in their bed, he said.
Shepard also found that half of women guests use the hair dryer, but it's used by only 24 percent of men. Surprisingly, 5 percent of male guests still bring their own hair dryer with them, he said.
For Marriott, the investment in this information is worth it. The research that Shepard and his colleagues have conducted has added millions to Marriott's bottom line — knowing what your customers do and what they want seems to pay off.
Tune In: Hotel: Behind Closed Doors at Marriott Premieres Wednesday, Dec. 12, 9 p.m. | 12 a.m. ET on CNBC