In an effort to modernize its extended-stay guest experience for Millennial business travelers, Residence Inn by Marriott launched a new evening social program in June called The Residence Inn Mix.

“The Mix” is being rolled out on Monday through Wednesday nights at nearly 700 Residence Inns across the country, developed around the findings of a $225,000 consumer research survey in 2014 (see below). One of the primary survey takeaways was: “The need to not feel isolated on business travel spans guests’ social desires and motivations.”

Therefore, the new social program is designed to help guests feel more comfortable to connect naturally with each other through interactive food and beverage (F&B) programming and energized spaces. Traditionally, extended-stay properties have offered occasional free dinners as a way to interrupt the sense of isolation that business travelers encounter after a week on the road. The quality of food offerings, however, has never been much to write home about, and there’s never been much effort to elevate the beverage or the social experience.

So Residence Inn is emphasizing F&B quality over quantity, while at the same time leveraging its signature fire pits and recently remodeled public spaces to create more engagement.

The Mix program consists of three themed 90-minute social evening events. Monday night is branded as “It’s On” when guests gather for popular TV shows in the lobby or around the fire pits, while dining on a variety of light appetizers. Tuesday is “Off the Grill,” highlighting local cuisine prepared by hotel chefs.

Wednesdays are the most varied, alternating between three different experiences. “Food Truck” nights revolve around a local food truck parked on-property; “Local Flavors” night includes sample specialties from trendy local restaurants; and the “Just Desserts” evenings involve a selection of specialty pastries.

Complementing all of that, Residence Inn partnered with Anheuser-Busch to offer a more upscale variety of beers, such as Stella Artois and Goose Island. All F&B is complimentary for guests except for the food truck events.

The most interesting thing about this initiative relates to the specific challenges for the extended-stay traveler away from friends and family for a week or more at a time. When you’re alone in a hotel next to an airport or strip mall on a Tuesday night, there’s a certain level of loneliness that any business traveler accepts. Even the most disciplined executive experiences a sense of isolation when the best distraction is a local baseball game on the bar television or Netflix movie on your iPad. By improving the evening social hour experience, Residence Inn is attempting to assist introverted and less experienced young business travelers stave off the road warrior blues and feel more comfortable about opening up.

Helping facilitate the The Mix’s social connectivity, Residence Inn teamed up with the Blippar augmented reality app at four Mix launch events in Boston, Austin, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Guests scanned “blippable” beverage coasters with their smartphones that opened interactive experiences such as multiplayer trivia games, customizable selfie frames, and Anheuser-Busch suggestions for food and beer pairings.

We spoke with Diane Mayer, VP and global brand manager of Residence Inn, for more insight into the research and development behind The Mix.

Skift: For anyone who travels regularly for business, there’s often that sense of isolation at times, which your research highlights. Is that even more common in the extended stay space?

Diane Mayer: I think that it is, especially if you are not traveling as part of a group. That’s one of the things that we’ve heard and we’ve heard forever about what makes extended stay different. It can be very lonely. Part of that loneliness is also an element of, not just social isolation, but being out of your routine. That’s one of the reasons why our physical product is really different from a traditional hotel room.

We place our furniture so that we sort of strategically use the television to block the view of the bed from the living space. That’s all done very purposely because customers have told us it’s really depressing when you come back to a hotel and all you see is the bed. It’s so not normal to live your life in your bedroom only, so it just reinforces the fact that you’re not at home and you’re not living a normal lifestyle.

Skift: How is The Mix creating a more organic social environment to alleviate some of that sense of isolation?

Mayer: We really want to facilitate our guests’ ability to socialize, like putting an event outside around a fire pit. Fire is an amazing social catalyst. When you think of a campfire, everyone wants to put their feet up. It’s very easy to just turn to somebody next to you, and say, “Hey, where are you from, what are you doing here?” And many of our food offerings are actually meant to be things that you build yourself, so think about a soft taco bar, or think about making s’mores. One of the reasons we have those offerings is s’mores kind of take people back to their childhood. Many people haven’t made them in a long time. Some people might not know how to make them at all. It’s something you do with your hands, so it’s really interesting to watch people making s’mores and how that becomes a catalyst for conversation.

Skift: How much are Millennial travel behaviors part of the internal conversation at Residence Inn?

Mayer: We actually have an internal Millennial channel of about 25-30 people across disciplines. So they’re people who work here at the corporate offices across many departments, and they come together and tap into special projects so that we get a Millennial point of view. I think it’s actually pretty cool, they’ve come up with some really interesting insights for us.

One of the insights we got from that group when we were working on this was sitting isn’t social, but standing is. The problem with sitting, such as with the old program, you go to the buffet, pile up your plate and sit down at the breakfast buffet table. The problem is nobody wants to sit with somebody they don’t know at a breakfast table, because you’re committed. If you’re not really keen on having more than a two-minute conversation, it feels weird to get up and leave.

Versus if you think of a cocktail party, you’re standing, you mingle, you find somebody who is interesting, and you talk for 30 minutes. Or you find somebody who’s maybe not so interesting, but they’re a perfectly nice person, so you just sort of find a way to move on. Having things that you make and construct yourself is a social catalyst, and doing it more in a stand up environment also gives people the opportunity to meet more people in the process.

Skift: What was that older social program like?

Mayer: According to our guest satisfaction scores, the old evening social program was probably the weakest performing element of our stay experience. Specifically when we talked to our younger guests, it really wasn’t meeting their needs. We called it an “evening social” but in fact it was neither of those things. It was kind of a later afternoon grab for free food, and there was nothing really social about it. The roots of the old program, it started as a weekly barbecue where the GM would buy a grill, put it in the back, get a keg, flip burgers and dogs, and then he and a sales person would kind of work the crowd to develop sales leads and uncover any guest satisfaction issues.

What it morphed into was just a free dinner. People would come down, they would pile up their plate, and they would either go back to their room or sit by themselves and kind of scarf down their meal. So we decided a complete overhaul was necessary.

Skift: How did your research inform that overhaul?

Mayer: We did a lot of consumer research. We did qualitative research with Gen Y extended stay travelers, we talked to our own in-house guests, and we created a very robust survey in our research. What our customers told us was, “You’re throwing a lot of food on the table but it’s not really great food. I don’t really want that food.”

What we notice from these Gen Y travelers versus Boomer customers is they’re kind of new to frequent business travel, and their perspective on it is pretty positive, pretty optimistic. And in some cases, particularly for the younger end of them, when they travel on the road they’re often living a lifestyle that’s at least as good and frankly better than what they live at home. They get to go to Ruth Chris on an expense account. They can go out for dinner if they want to and get reimbursed for it. So the value around, “Give me free dinner and I’ll pocket $10” is not who they are or what they’re about.

They said, “I don’t want the food, but I really want to socialize with the people that I might be traveling with. If I’m not traveling with other people, I’m kind of intrigued to meet the other guests in the hotel. I know they’re professionals, I know they’re successful because that’s the profile of someone who is traveling for business, and I would like to have a reason to talk to them. And if you’re going to give me something in the way of food or beverage, let’s put the emphasis on the beverage versus the food, because I’m going to go out anyway. And give me better beer.” We have provided complimentary beer and wine before but for the most part it was a pretty mainstream offering.

Skift: What types of experiential and design changes were made to deliver a more social atmosphere?

Mayer: First and foremost we stopped putting the offering in the breakfast buffet. In fact, the lights go dark and the doors close on the breakfast buffet. We put what food we are offering out in the lobby and the inside and outdoor communal spaces of our hotel. Most of our hotels have a nice outdoor living room with a fire pit, so we’ve kind of spread the food around a little bit more like a cocktail party. We scaled back the food offering to a certain degree and scaled up the quality of the beverage. We’ve also entered into a partnership with Anheuser-Busch to provide a curated list of their premium beer brands. Rather than Bud Light, think Stella Artois. Hotels are also encouraged if they have local craft beers to serve local craft beer as well.

The third element of it is local, so wherever possible, we try to bring in local touch points. For example, we have the hotels bring food trucks in one night because they tend to offer either ethnic or very regional kinds of food. It helps our guests tap into what is one of the hottest food and restaurant trends going right now. Another one of our offerings is called Local Flavors where we encourage our hotels to partner with a local restaurant, not a chain restaurant, but particularly an ethnic restaurant, a local favorite, a mom-and-pop. If it’s Maryland, it might be crab. If it’s Cincinnati, it might be chili. If it’s Texas, it might be barbecue. That helps our guests get a sense of what is that local flavor, and it helps the restaurant that partners with us have an organic marketing program to people who could be pretty good customers for them.

Skift: How does Residence Inn view The Mix as a business driver for the brand?

Mayer: The Mix is about increasing loyalty and engagement. This is really about meeting our customers’ needs and understanding, in particular, the needs of an extended stay guest. The average length of our target customer stay is two weeks. We want to make sure that after the first few nights when they’re just settling down, there’s something fun happening at the hotel in the evening.

The Residence Inn Mix: Summary Bullets of Research Data Points

  • Driving Desire: A need to not feel isolated on business travel spans guests’ social desires/motivations.
  • So goals are to: Help guests feel they belong. Connect them to local experiences & others that give them comfort in connections and prevent room isolation.
  • Sought from Activities: A shared experience or common ground that facilitates conversations (e.g. fire pit as well as sharable experiences)
  • Sought from Environments: Common areas in and outside of the hotel that stimulate easy, comfortable conversations
  • 51% of frequent business travelers indicate that they are looking for something to do without needing to leave the hotel on long stays.
  • These travelers have “found” time to spend on doing something for themselves on long stays. They want to meet others and experience the local area without the hassles of always leaving the hotel to do it.
  • 50% of Millennials are seeking to have alcoholic beverages as part of the evening social, the highest among the age segments. They also had the highest ratings relative to other age groups of wanting the experience be something fun and memorable.
  • Better beer consistently came up as part of the qualitative research as the top component for a better offering.
  • Local Flavors and Off the Grill are favored by nearly half the consumers in our study. They have strong potential to shift XS trip share away from non-purpose built hotels and generate appeal close to 90%.
  • 33% of guests indicate that the evening social experience is very important to their choice of hotel.
Photo Credit: S'more-making events around Residence Inn's trademark fire pits is part of the new F&B programming. Residence Inn by Marriott