By Chris Barnett
July 31, 2014 -- Several decades of experience have convinced me that airport hotels are bland, boring, soulless bus stations with beds. So when an invitation arrived for an opening at the 685-room San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront, I almost declined. When I was last at the hotel in Burlingame, maybe 10 years ago, it was, in fact, bland and boring.

Boy, was I surprised. The Marriott SFO has been transformed into a Tomorrowland for business travelers.

Bill Marriott once told me that lobbies in full-service Marriott properties are being converted into "great rooms." That way, he said, business travelers, particularly businesswomen traveling solo, wouldn't necessarily have to sequester themselves in their rooms at night to work, watch television and order room service.

Marriott's made the great-room concept work here. The lobby of Marriott SFO, located about a mile from the terminals, faces San Francisco Bay and a runway where you can watch the steel birds land. A three-story glass atrium overlooks an outdoor living room with sofas and chairs around fire pits. Inside, the lobby has 19 tables with seating for two or four people. There are three conversation areas with sofas and club chairs that can seat as many as 12 people. On the mezzanine, there's an oblong bar with 14 stools and highboy tables and chairs.

On a recent Thursday at 5:30 p.m., every table, chair and sofa in the lobby was occupied. About 75 percent of the occupants were tapping away on mobile devices. (No surprise since WiFi is free in the lobby area.) Others were reading, chatting on the phone or conversing intensely with someone. In some cases, guests were sharing tables. All the barstools were filled while other elbow-benders were standing up, waiting for a seat. And they weren't there for the cheap drinks since the bar doesn't have a happy hour.

This may be old news to regulars, but it's an important update for road warriors because the Marriott SFO is a laboratory for the chain. All sorts of lodging and hospitality concepts are being tested here.

"Our two biggest customers are Oracle and Genentech and our focus is on the frequent business traveler working in or visiting Silicon Valley," says the general manager, Clifton Clark. "We're targeting Gen X, Gen Y and the Millennials."

Translated, this place cannot afford to be your daddy's Marriott or just another airport head-on-a-bed waystation. Fickle, financially flush techie types aren't necessarily seduced by Marriott Reward points. They want speed and new conveniences and are willing to pay for them. So on the San Francisco Peninsula, where hotels and motels pile on the in-room perks, Internet access costs $7.95 a day for 3Mb download speed and $14.95 daily for 6Mb access. (Marriott Rewards Gold and Platinum elites are comped, of course.)

"I want to change the perception of an airport hotel," says the uber-confident Clark, who looks, acts and sounds more like an owner than a GM.

Example: Show up at the Marriott SFO with scuffed shoes? Meet Eva Stratton, the hotel's resident "shineologist." She's smart and sexy and has a popular shoeshine stand right off the lobby. Eva charges $7 a pair for her services.

Need a read? The hotel has an iPad library and a digital newsstand activated by the PressReader app. Guests can download and read thousands of newspapers and magazines and there's a two-week newspaper archive, too.

The hotel's owner, Inland American Lodging, is willing to write checks to keep the Marriott SFO hip and happening. Inland is currently underwriting a $17 million hotelwide renovaton that includes three new concept rooms to woo and win the loyalty of the techie traveler and the rest of us.

One concept room has wooden floors throughout as an attraction to businesswomen who often see carpeting, like bedspreads, as having the "ick factor," says Clark. Other ideas being tested include speakers in the showers so travelers can listen to music from their smartphones and a bathroom mirror outfitted with Bluetooth. The most radical concept-room design has no desk and no desk chair.

"Marriott research shows that Millennials prefer to stretch out on the bed with their tablets or laptops and work," says Clark. However, the desk-less room does have a curved Victorian chaise lounge with a moveable surface to support electronic gear for guests who want to sit.

Other bright ideas: a TV screen saver that looks like a burning fireplace; nightlights all around the bed so you don't trip in the dark; and a plethora of conveniently located AC and USB power ports around the room.

The invitation that drew me to the hotel in the first place wasn't a tech-only display, however. It was to view the Marriott M Club Lounge, 2,100 square feet of very hip, yet inviting, L-shaped space. It's located off the lobby and replaces Marriott's traditional Concierge club-floor lounge. Moving the lounge to the lobby frees up enough space on the hotel's 11th floor to build out five more revenue-generating guestrooms.

The lounge is designed with glass walls so curious outsiders can peer inside and decide whether to ante up for entry, which runs $60 on weekdays and $40 on weekends. M Club privileges can also be booked as part of your nightly rate. Rooms with M Club access run about $329 a night on weekdays and $229 on weekends. Gold and Platinum Elite Marriott Rewards members get complimentary access. (Meeting planners hosting events at the hotel are also admitted without charge.) M Club patrons are welcome to bring one guest along. Additional passes cost $20 a pop.

The M Club is open 24 hours and offers free snacks, non-alcoholic drinks and coffees from a brew-it-yourself Starbucks machine. The WiFi is free. There's a complimentary breakfast buffet with dishes such as Eggs Benedict that carry a $25 tab in the hotel's dining room. Evening bar service during the week offers free appetizers; alcoholic beverages start at $5.

On a recent visit to the M Club, I shared a table with Lake Tahoe-based Hugh Clark (no relation to the general manager), who'd just flown in from Lagos, Nigeria. The Platinum-level Marriott Rewards member checks into the Marriott SFO before and after every flight and he claimed to be "very impressed" with the M Club, which he called "a no-comparison improvement over the hotel's former Concierge lounge."

Marriott has also opened M Club Lounges at the Marriott New York East Side and the Marriott Marquis in Washington. More than a dozen others are in the pipeline. "The M Club is a new experience in its testing phase," says John Wolf, a Marriott spokesman. "We're collecting feedback from guests and staff."

Meanwhile, the Marriott SFO still provides some old-fashioned airport hotel perks such as a shuttle to and from the terminals that operates every 10-15 minutes round the clock. Plus, what may be the sweetest deal of all: A room bundled with free parking for a week that costs as little $249 plus tax. That's a few dollars less than the cost of parking seven days in SFO airport's own parking garage.

ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

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