Though you've probably never noticed it, chances are you drive past the Hilton Garden Inn LAX in El Segundo whenever you fly into Los Angeles. Tucked away on a side street between Sepulveda Boulevard and a Green Line rail station, the generic-looking building is almost a parody of a midprice, midmarket, middle-of-nowhere airport hotel.

You're not likely to find anything out of the ordinary inside the Hilton Garden Inn LAX, either. But if you know where you're going-or you're one of the guests handpicked by the hotel's managers-you'll eventually find a corridor guarded by double doors. Down the long passage, past a series of other doorways, is the future of the 3,000 hotels and 500,000 guest rooms in the worldwide Hilton Family of lodgings.

The secret wing, code-named University, is Hilton's "hotel laboratory," the place were the company tests and refines its next generation of rooms. A year or two from now, the ideas, concepts, and furnishings that have been tried out in El Segundo will make their way into Hilton-brand hotels around the world, including Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Homewood, Hampton Inn, and, of course, Hilton and Hilton Garden Inn.

All of the big chains operate labs to develop fresh ideas, which are important in an ever-more-competitive lodging landscape. Starwood, best known for its cutting-edge Westin and W Hotels, maintains test rooms in a warehouse near its headquarters in a New York suburb. London-based InterContinental has model rooms in San Diego for its new Hotel Indigo chain. The new look of Hyatt's Summerfield Suites brand is being hammered out in a basement of the chain's Chicago headquarters. And market-leading Marriott, legendary for its research- and focus-group-driven brands, maintains its hotel laboratory deep in a sprawling subbasement of its worldwide headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland.

What sets Hilton's hotel lab apart is the fact that it's part of a working hotel, and if you're booked for a stay in El Segundo-and hold the right status in Hilton's frequent-guest program-you might get a summons to test-drive a "room of the future." (Hoteliers, by the way, hate the phrase "room of the future" because it evokes cheesy, 1960s Star Trek costumes and gimmickry.)

Opened eight years ago at the edge of Los Angeles International Airport, the hotel was designed with the 15-room University Wing as part of the property's total room inventory of 162. It's the only one of the 360 Hilton Garden Inns that Hilton Hotel Corp. owns and manages. And since Hilton headquarters is just a few miles away in Beverly Hills, designers and executives are never far from the test facilities. It also means potential hotel owners and top honchos of hotel-management companies can be shuttled over for a peek at Hilton's future.
How do business travelers get beyond the double doors? For starters, you have to be a Hilton HHonors Diamond V.I.P. member, which requires 28 paid stays or 60 nights a year. Then you have to be chosen. The hotel's former general manager, Barbara Bejan, used to make the selections herself. The current general manager, Maurice Casaus, delegates the task to an evening manager.

"Once they know [the lab] is here, Diamond members always ask to be placed in the University Wing," he says. "But we don't want to confirm anything. Everything is assigned the day you arrive."

Besides next-generation design schemes and amenities-the wing houses everything from a new look for Doubletree rooms to a new version of Homewood Suites, Hilton's apartmentlike extended-stay brand-there's also Room 267, Hilton's "technology room." As you might expect, it's stocked with the newest bells and whistles. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine called from Room 267 complaining that he couldn't operate the then-newfangled pod-style espresso machine. "It's complicated and challenging," Casaus says, "mostly because every possible new technology is in there and guests are sometimes overwhelmed."

Often, however, the insights Hilton gleans are more prosaic. Casaus says he recently "got an e-mail from a guest in a University Wing room that featured a new platform bed we're testing. The guest said, 'I nearly broke my shin on the platform.' So the designers figured out that they should round the edges of the platform. That's valuable intelligence for a hotel."

One of the newest rooms in the University Wing is the so-called "urban scheme" for the Hilton Garden Inn. It's all about practical trade-offs. With scaled-down furnishings, no bathtub, and a walk-in shower stall, the compact layout is destined for new properties in Europe, where Hilton Garden Inn's typical guest rooms measure 260 square feet, about a third smaller than rooms in its U.S. hotels.

Those supersecret subbasement lab rooms at Marriott's Maryland headquarters serve a similar purpose, explains spokesman John Wolf. Business travelers and other guests can visit by invitation, and there are no overnight stays allowed. But the rooms give visitors a snapshot of the future of Renaissance, Courtyard, Residence Inn, and other Marriott brands.

"You're able to reach out to your core guests and get their input on things," Wolf explains. "It helps speed new products to market."

The Fine Print.
Besides its subbasement complex, Marriott often tests new products and concepts at its nearby hotels. For example, the new lobby for the Marriott's Courtyard brand, which I mentioned in an April column, first appeared in the Courtyard in Fair Oaks, Virginia.

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