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Hotels Test Offering Meeting Rooms That Can Serve as Offices

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Hotels have found a new business opportunity in today's mobile, technology-driven world: selling small, tech-equipped meeting rooms for private business gatherings.

Westin today will announce a pilot program to replace at least some of its old-fashioned hotel business centers with contemporary meeting rooms that offer some privacy.

After about a year of research into the mobile traveler of today, Westin is convinced that more people want to collaborate on the fly and that they're willing to pay for a quiet space that's away from the bustling hotel lobby.

Westin's announcement comes as hotels such as the Westin Arlington in Virginia, Marriott Redmond in Washington state and Ace Hotel in New York City have seen their couch-filled lobbies turn into popular gathering spots.

The trend in small meeting rooms reflects how hotels seek to meet the varied needs of guests who don't want to meet in lobbies or in their rooms to conduct business. It's a way that hotels can attract professionals living nearby who don't have an office but don't want to go to Starbucks to plug in and meet a client or conduct business.

And the meeting rooms don't cost as much as a regular hotel room or a traditionally large meeting room.

"Hotels are learning that they can have multiple uses per day," says Bjorn Hanson, the divisional dean of New York University's hospitality school.

"Although the (the small meeting rooms) may not generate the food and beverage revenue like traditional, all-day meetings, there still can be more total revenue" if enough people rent them each day, he says.

Two Westin hotels have Project Hive work spaces. One is the Westin in Arlington, Va., where the 260-square-foot space rents for $50 an hour.

The experience

In the lobby of the Westin Arlington on Thursday, business people were working on laptops in a group, solo travelers checked their smartphones and friends mingled with drinks. In contrast, the hotel's Hive workspace offered quiet, privacy and a high-end sound system in a bright, white room with white furniture.

There's enough glass around the meeting room to entice the interest of passersby, General Manager Roger Aberth says.

To advertise the Hive's availability, the hotel has prominent signs, and it's being promoted on LiquidSpace.com, a website that shows available office space.

Inside the Hive is a bar-high, square table with four white stools in front of two large computer screens. Several people can connect their mobile devices and talk via Skype, collaborate on a PowerPoint presentation or watch a video together. For the hourly fee, users can also take advantage of white boards, soft drinks in a small refrigerator, snacks, a couch and a separate TV to play Xbox.

Marriott also has been experimenting with how to present meeting space for smaller groups of people intent on collaborating, although its new rooms, called Workspring by Marriott, aren't yet seen as a replacement for a hotel's business center.

Marriott plans to create meeting rooms that are decked out with technology, flexible furniture, power outlets and snacks.

Laurie Goldstein, a Marriott spokeswoman, says the new, smaller rooms will take the place of some of its larger meeting rooms that aren't being used as much as they were in the past.

"It's for small meetings for people who aren't necessarily staying at the hotels," Goldstein says. "We've really been focused on selling rooms. This isn't necessarily about selling rooms."

This month, construction will begin on the first Workspring room in the grand ballroom at the Marriott in Redmond, Wash., home to Microsoft and Nintendo.

The ballroom will be cut into smaller, tech-equipped meeting rooms that will be more suitable to the type of collaborative meetings popular with tech companies. The rooms are expected to open by the end of August. Pricing hasn't been determined, Goldstein says.

New York University's Hanson says hotels are just learning how to price the smaller rooms. But, he says, prices such as $50 an hour "probably are to test the market and will increase over time."

The furniture in the Westin and Marriott meeting rooms will be made by high-end, design-conscious furniture maker Steelcase.

In New York City last year, the futuristic Yotel pioneered the small meeting room concept when it opened.

The independently operated hotel lined its bare-bones, concrete-floored lobby with glass-enclosed meeting rooms with all-white furniture, TV screens and plenty of electrical outlets.

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