A Deep Dive into Starwood's New Design Lab

This week, I visited the Stamford, Conn.-based headquarters of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide for a firsthand look at the company's new creative design lab. Upon entering, the soft lines, warm wood and long brown leather sofas in the main lobby-style meeting/entertainment space clearly indicate this is the epicenter of innovation, leading to several brand-dedicated mock-up rooms where fresh creativity and design are hammered out. After this, I will never look at bedroom lighting the same way again.

Developed as an idea incubator and launched less than five months ago, The Starwood Experience is where the company brings its investors, customers, marketing partners, and associates to educate and immerse them in the exactly what makes each of the chain's brands a unique experience. "When we moved to this space, we asked ourselves, what would Starwood look like if it was its own brand?," said Mike Tiedy, senior vice president, global brand design, who gave a tour of a facility where corporate identity is made palpable. "Here you can touch the carpet, walk around the room, move the furniture around and test out the lighting," noted Tiedy, who hails from Nike and Nordstrom, two well-established retail brands. "We are constantly inventing and tossing ideas around, and sometimes out" -- like the tilt angle of a bed, where to place electrical outlets, and whether to have one beside chair or two. What's more, no mock-up room stays the same for long. Both the Westin and Sheraton brands are on a three-year branding cycle, during which re-design needs are assessed.

For example, Sheraton wrapped up a three-year, multibillion-dollar overhaul in 2011, but it's not resting on that achievement. Designers are already hard at work ensuring the brand stays fresh on the global scene with important elements like the must-have built-in TVs in the bathroom mirror, a staple in high-end Asian hotels. Meanwhile in the suave Le Méridien room, color schemes, carpet piling and patterns, lighting and fixtures are all under scrutiny in advance of a major global rebranding initiative. And the Westin room? Well, let's just say I was ready to move in, set up house and call down to the Starwood in-house cafeteria for room service.

Branding done well, says Brian Povinelli, global brand leader for Westin and Le Méridien, is a dedicated science married to art that goes way beyond fancy logos, clever marketing quips or gimmicky giveaways. "From a design standpoint, thea brand has to be seamless," says Povinelli, a transplant from Reebok (another fierce retail brand). "A lot of styling goes into the Le Méridien brand, because it is centered around art, which in turn should inspire dialogue and discovery at every touch point." Translation? Le Méridien is one serious stylish brand and a major force to be reckoned with as it flexes its muscle over the next few years.

And Povinelli's advice to meeting planners looking to brand their meeting: "Ask what is the purpose of your meeting, and then lead with that one, single-minded thought, so people don't have to wonder why they are in the meeting."