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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | April 13, 2012

marriottsteelcase If Marriott Hotels & Resorts has any say in the matter, those dreaded, dead prefunction spaces will soon go the way of fax machines and armoires in guest rooms. Ditto, too, those nap-inducing, cell-block meeting rooms that can kill any creative idea before it becomes audible. The hotel chain plans to rush such relics into retirement with some exciting new offerings.

I recently met with Paul Cahill, senior vice president, brand management, Marriott Hotels & Resorts, and Mark Greiner, chief experience officer at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Steelcase, one of the design arms behind the hotel chain's new meeting space concepts and services, and got a firsthand look at some of the concepts being considered for roll out at Marriott's full-service properties. According to Cahill, the explosion of mobile technology, and the importance of meeting and group business (which represents 40 percent of Marriott International's gross revenue) was the impetus for the redesign. "By 2013, 35 percent of the global workforce will be mobile," notes Cahill. "They are blending work, networking and entertaining, so we have to transform our spaces so they can work the way they want to. We also are changing the way we sell the meeting space. We are looking at charging by the hour, by the person. Every business model is under consideration."

The new spaces offer a mix of comfortable niches that range from huddle space for four, complete with round meeting tables, interactive video screens and whiteboards, to larger, more relaxed networking lounge-type areas with contemporary sofas, beanbags, warm-wood coffee tables and soft lighting. Not only are these model concepts visually appealing, they are functional, comfortable and flexible. My personal favorite? The high-end, ultra-comfortable and supportive beanbag chairs. I recommend every meeting space have at least two. "We narrowed 50 concepts down to 10, and those are what we are sharing with our general managers, customers, event managers and meeting planners, all of whom are giving us their feedback," says Cahill.

Not only do the new spaces come fully loaded with cutting-edge technology, Marriott is adding roving "tech gurus" to support them. Don't know where to plug in that charger? Not sure how to upload those files to your iPad? International attendees having trouble getting online? Just look for the men in black. I did, and as I sat in one of the newly designed spaces, clearly exasperated at my squirrelly Blackberry, a guru quickly figured out why I wasn't able to open e-mail attachments and even checked for other operating glitches. "We are creating a brand-relevant solution by hiring a new type of person to meet the technology needs attendees have," says Cahill. Meeting planners, that alone is worth a test drive.