Out with the old: An all-new club lounge concept is coming to Sheraton
Just outside D.C., there's a team of Marriott executives hard at work in a basement trying to answer the age-old question: Can Sheraton be fixed?
To see how things were shaping up, I went to visit a new Sheraton Club Lounge. When I entered, I saw a bookshelf filled with elegant texts and anthologies, and a space anchored by a central kitchen of sorts — what Sheraton's calling The Hearth. There were grab-and-go light bites and fresh fruit; an island where hot dishes might be served from dutch ovens; shelves for snacks; and even beverages on tap. Guests could choose from a variety of seating arrangements, including tables and booths designed for dining, a counter against a wide window overlooking the city and, around another dividing wall, more lounge-style seating. There was a flat-screen television hanging on the wall, and a stylish green sectional.
The entire lounge was filled with upscale textiles (leather and jewel-tone velvets), bold geometric patterns, light natural woods and polished metal finishes. The room had a contemporary midcentury aesthetic and distinct zones.
Then, of course, I looked down and couldn’t see my feet — a quick and disorienting reminder that I wasn’t actually in a Sheraton Club, but rather in the most recent permutation crafted by the design team. I was in a virtual-reality Sheraton Club, and it was indeed very stylish.
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During an intimate media preview in September at Marriott’s headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, executives including Scott McCoy, vice president of global operations for Marriott, Sheraton and Delta hotels; Sheraton's vice president of brand management, Indy Adenaw; and Kavitha Iyer, Marriott’s director of design, revealed the most recent renderings of Sheraton’s redesigned Clubs in an immersive virtual space that was not quite the real thing, but didn't feel far off.
Right now, in a basement-level room, sits a Styrofoam model of one of these clubs, complete with that chaise and island. You can walk through the space, reach out for those theoretical snacks and touch the shelf, recline on the sectional — even put your feet up. (It just doesn't feel at all like the plush sofa you're seeing on the VR headset.)
It’s easy to get excited by the design — which, though approximately 18 months in the making, is still subject to change. But Marriott can’t just trade in drab furnishings and uninspired décor and call its new Sheraton lounges a success.
That's why the food and beverage program is also being revamped; various seating formats are being introduced; and — in an attempt to keep travelers from checking out and checking into an airport lounge instead — renderings of the lounges promise cozier, more private and more inviting spaces useful for meetings, coworking, relaxing and socializing.
Reimagining a struggling brand
Sheraton has become known as something of a problem child in the travel industry, and the so-called premium brand began floundering long before it was acquired by Starwood in 1997. In a 2018 article for Skift, Deanna Ting described Sheraton as a brand that has repeatedly struggled to improve its perception among travelers. Under Marriott International, things have started to look up for the wayward brand, largely because the hotel chain has been "aggressive" in removing Sheratons that don't satisfy brand requirements.
Last summer, Marriott unveiled its plans to transform Sheraton from a stumbling block into a reliable premium brand worthy of commingling with Autograph Collection hotels and Le Méridiens.
The brand got a fancy new logo and approximately 30% of its more than 400 properties are preparing to begin, or have already begun, a renovation. Refreshed lobbies with "productivity tables," meeting rooms and noise-isolating phone booths, as well as new guest room designs are part of this reshaping of the Sheraton brand.
As part of the massive overhaul, there will be a big push to have a Club Lounge in every Sheraton hotel possible, though that number is already pretty high. A representative from Marriott told TPG in an email the brand currently has lounges in about 400 properties, or around 91% of all Sheratons globally.
The ultimate goal? Persuade guests to "stay in" a Sheraton — not just "stay at" a Sheraton when it's time to go to bed.
Encouraging guests to stay
Multiple times throughout the media preview, we talked about airport lounges. Sure, travelers are more captive at an airport than they are at a hotel. But some of the high-end lounges (looking at you, Centurion) are actually seen as premium, lusted-after and exclusive. But even though Club Lounges are largely reserved for suite guests, VIPs and Marriott Bonvoy higher-tier elites, you don't see travelers staying until the last possible second at a Sheraton before leaving for the airport. Most travelers pack up their bags, check out and leave.
Members of the TPG Lounge shared different ideas about why this is. For some, it's simply a matter of managing stress. Getting to the airport and through security alleviates some of that preflight angst.
"I prefer the airport lounge," said TPG reader Hing P. "I would just have anxiety by staying at a hotel lounge in general for fear of something happening between the hotel and airport that would delay me beyond my control."
In that respect, Sheraton may be fighting a losing battle.
Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access
To be clear, not all Sheraton Club Lounges are bad. The Sheraton Grand Sydney Hyde Park property has a stunning, light-filled lounge with high ceilings, black marble and impressive park views — not to mention a full tended bar, fresh oysters and an array of sweets. But like many Sheraton lounges, this space can become incredibly crowded.
At the Sheraton Tribeca, TPG's own Summer Hull couldn't even find a seat during breakfast at the "uncomfortably full" lounge on the 21st floor.
The available food wasn't exactly exciting or impressive either.
And this inconsistency is certainly part of the problem. "Sheraton is the most random of Marriott lines. Some are decent, many are awful. In terms of the clubs most are on the low end and undesirable. A few are decent," said TPG reader David O.
Many travelers point to the massive discrepancy between Sheratons in North America and those elsewhere in the world, especially the Asia-Pacific region. TPG readers lauded Sheraton Club Lounges in Singapore, Macao and Hangzhou but largely slammed those in the U.S.
"[In] some places I would stay at the Sheraton [Club] Lounge over airport lounges, but mostly overseas," said Trevor M.
For many travelers, the design of the lounge may be underwhelming and uninviting, but that’s not the game changer. Having a comfortable space to sit and more than "meager" snack and meal offerings — especially when the Club Lounge is the free breakfast option for Bonvoy elites — are necessary to turn the tide.
One thing that won't be changing? Travelers will still probably have to pay for most of their Club Lounge cocktails.
In the new Club Lounges, a designated bar area will be stocked with vintage glassware. "When it is possible," McCoy said, "some lounges will offer complimentary alcoholic beverages," but it won't be a "standardized expectation."
"Most of the bars will have a self-serve option," he said, and guests will be able to use a key card to pay for wine or beer. Other Club Lounge might have an ever-popular honor bar. "During peak periods," however, the "intention is to have a bartender in the space to assist."
Managing the number of people in the lounge and how many arrive at once will be a priority.
Lounges will continue to be "paid and earned" spaces: That means Marriott Bonvoy Platinum, Titanium and Ambassador elites with a plus one; hotel VIPs; and travelers with paid lounge access. "During peak periods, [entry] would be managed by a host at the entrance to the club," McCoy said.
Travelers will also notice that Sheraton Club Lounges will be largely be moving to the lobby level in part so guests can see the space without having to hunt for it on, say, the 21st floor, only to find that it's full to the brim with other travelers. All Sheraton Club Lounges will also be accessible 24/7, with at least water, coffee and a few grab-and-go items available to travelers burning the midnight oil.
When the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown reopens early next year, it will be the first true example of Sheraton's new brand vision — a "benchmark" for what future Sheraton renovations and new builds should strive to embody.
And with 81 Sheraton properties in the pipeline representing some 21,015 rooms across the globe, Sheraton's brand presence is far from shrinking. Whether that translates to measurable impact and improved perceptions remains to be seen.
"We want the Sheraton Club [to have] ... features that enable our guests to feel a sense of belonging as they work and play alongside other likeminded people," said McCoy. "Our hope is to convey a warm, welcoming and memorable space that allows our guests to work, meet and relax at any time."
Images and renderings courtesy of Sheraton except where indicated.