Striking a Balance Between Brand Standards & Artistic Vision

A decade ago, the space that houses the Marriott Residence Inn Boston Downtown/Seaport was abandoned in what was then a barren and often forgotten south waterfront neighborhood. Originally built in 1901, the property had previously been a sugar and molasses warehouse, a cotton storage facility, and an office building, and despite its exquisite wooden beams and exposed brick walls, it had been left to languish among parking lots and worn-down industrial structures.

Boston-based design firm Group One Partners Inc. and its client Norwich Partners took note of the property’s potential. They believed it was an ideal location for a hotel and could be a key player in the revival of the city’s Fort Point Channel Landmark district and waterfront area, a stretch that has since been dubbed by city officials “the Innovation District.”

“We saw the personality and essence of the building,” says Harry Wheeler, principal at Group One. “It was a great canvas to start from. This was the right location for a hotel. It’s historic, artistic, diverse, and family friendly.”

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But not everyone was initially convinced. It took the firm quite some time to persuade Marriott to get involved with the project, Wheeler says. “There was concern that the room layouts were so unique that it might be off-brand once it was complete,” he explains. “The very unique nature of the historic adaptive reuse and the exposed structure, mechanicals, and masonry gave them concern as well.”

While adaptive reuse projects like this have become widely accepted throughout the lodging industry, many hotel companies remain reluctant to break away from their “brand DNA” and design standards. For many development and design firms, this means assuring brand managers that proposed changes to a hotel’s prototype will both appeal to guests and boost the property’s profits, Wheeler says.

While plenty of hotel franchises are open to this kind of collaboration, it isn’t easy for all parties to find common ground when it comes to a unique property that doesn’t immediately adhere to an established brand identity. For hotel franchisers, the issues revolve around staying true to what makes a brand work across hundreds of other locations.

Marriott conducts extensive research to explore target guest needs and expectations, evaluating custom designs against these metrics. “Our guidelines are developed based on the research,” explains Brenda Roff, senior manager of interior design, new build projects, and A. J. Young Sr., design manager, new build projects. “By keeping our target guest in mind through design development, the stakeholders are best able to maintain the brand DNA.”

In the case of the Residence Inn Boston Downtown/Seaport, winning over the Marriott brand folks meant seeing the project in person, Wheeler says. Group One flew executives to Boston for a private tour, and team members were able to discuss their design implementation plans and how they would meld modern-day amenities with the property’s historical and architectural charm. His development team also explained its intention to fully restore the building and incorporate local materials, recovered objects, and whimsical accessories into the redeveloped property.

“Once they saw our vision, they bought into it,” Wheeler says, adding that Group One handled every aspect of the project, including architecture, interior, procurement, and installation. “They were very much on board and were fully engaged with us and our client.”

The six-story Residence Inn by Marriott, which opened in June 2013, features 12-foot-high ceilings, oversized windows, glass elevators, and 1900s post and beam construction, as well as an original 1900s-era subway tiled atrium, which is covered in crackle-grazed firebrick. Atop the atrium is a massive monitor glass skylight that provides natural light to every floor. Group One enhanced the industrial vibe of the property by outfitting the atrium with aluminum windows and steel-framed bridges running east to west across each floor.

Below, the lobby is stocked with custom-designed furniture, as well as the original boiler doors, which are used as art pieces. The guest and meeting rooms are decorated with picturescape photos that were converted into full-size vinyl and placed along accent walls. Artwork by local artists is also displayed throughout the hotel.

“We had a commitment to the [surrounding] neighborhood, and an attention to preservation,” Wheeler says. He adds that the property was built at a LEED silver certification level; however, the company did not apply for the certification.

Despite the unorthodox starting point, many of the Marriott’s common design standards were used in converting the
Residence Inn into a hotel boasting 120 urban industrial loft-style studios and one-bedroom suites. For example, all guest-rooms include the standard “shed the day” shelf and a fully equipped kitchen.

“We kept the intent with a different design and different furniture,” Wheeler says. “[You have to] look at what pieces are moving away and what key pieces of the brand need to be maintained. If the brand hallmarks are delivered, the project will still have the same feeling no matter how the design is delivered.”

Roff and Young agree, saying that when a hotel design is presented to the Marriott design team, the team evaluates the custom design against brand standards to maintain guest satisfaction. “Residence Inn has incorporated key elements into the design that need to be met regardless of the decor or architectural customization,” they say. “We look to ensure that custom designs do not compromise room functionality and the guest’s expectation. The same applies for public space and guest amenities.” Marriott’s only non-negotiables are fire and life safety standards, they add.

In the end, Marriott executives “became very open to our ideas and were blown away” when, after 18 months of construction, the project was completed, Wheeler says. In addition to receiving rave customer reviews, the hotel was named as Best Custom Design Project at the Marriott Owners Conference last year. “The project couldn’t be more of a success for us,” Wheeler says.