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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris REMAKING COURTYARD

BY CHRIS BARNETT

November 18, 2004 -- The cat is out of the bag. Courtyard by Marriott, with 646 hotels around the world, is actually designed for businesspeople who hate traveling and would rather be home mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage or stretching out on their own couch watching TV.

Created 21 years ago for the hard-core road warrior who wanted something more than an off-the-Interstate motel but couldn't afford a pricier full-service hotel, Courtyard filled a gaping hole in the hospitality industry by inventing a mini-hotel that had some basic frills without the unwanted extras.

For about $79 a night then, the foot soldiers of American commerce got a clean, comfortable bed; a color TV with 25 channels; and a hot meal, which beat a fast-food cheeseburger or a cellophane-wrapped sandwich tumbling out of a vending machine. Guests went elsewhere for a fancy expense-account dinner with a client.

Back then, in some marketing war room in Marriott headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, someone had tunneled into the brain of a potential Courtyard customer and pinpointed the psychographic-demographic hot buttons of these business nomads.

"The average business traveler in 1983 was a white man in his 40s who worked hard during the day, might go to a nice dinner with the client, then go back to his room and watch TV," explains Chad Waetzig, an exceptionally candid Marriott senior vice president. "They placed a huge emphasis on being productive and successful, but genuinely disliked traveling for business and only did it because it was part of their job."

Two decades later, the 9-to-5 business traveler has changed and Courtyard has been "re-invented." Waetzig says his bullseye customer today is a "workhorse in a 24/7 on-demand society who works over meals, works in his room until midnight, has to be more productive than ever before, but still doesn't like being on the road."

He's still a white man in his 40s, but those "numbers are declining because more women and ethnic groups are traveling for business," Waetzig says. As boomers age, quit or are laid off, more twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings are replacing them as trainers, field engineers, regional sales reps, systems installers, techies and store-opening specialists. They're all demanding jobs with zero glamour and tight per diems.

The truth is that Courtyard's ideal traveler nowadays is usually either too bushed or too busy by day's end to tackle a five-course business dinner. Even if they could muster up the strength or the time, their dinner guest--their customer or prospect--wants to go home, too. (Of course, says Waetzig, there are plenty of business travelers a few rungs up the corporate ladder who do enjoy getting away après work. For them, Marriott has its flagship Marriott Hotels, the Renaissance Hotels or the deluxe Ritz-Carlton brand.)

Okay, psychographics aside, how does a reinvented Courtyard differ from the original? And does it still deliver real value for money? To find out, I recently bunked in for a night at the Courtyard Tampa Westshore/Airport, an 18-year-old Courtyard that's been made over.

I was surprised that the first person I encountered gave me a big smile and a "Welcome to Courtyard by Marriott." And impressed that she was the general manager. Beverly Mogelnicki, a Penn State hotel restaurant school grad, logged 10 years with Crowne Plaza before joining Marriott. She's as friendly as a soccer mom, not a by-the-book robo manager. Her staffers are not professional hotel schoolers but, to the person, I found them genuinely sincere and helpful.

The hotel itself isn't posh, but it is homier than the first-generation Courtyards and it has some stylish and thoughtful touches. More importantly, it has nearly all the high-tech conveniences that modern business travelers need and they're mostly free and easily accessible.

In fact, the Courtyard Tampa Westshore/Airport had everything I needed and wanted except for an ice-cold Beefeater martini, a Caesar salad and a seared steak. (I found those five minutes away over at Durango's Steak House, which had an amazing, daylong, two-for-one happy hour.)

Most new Courtyards have no bar, no evening happy hour and no rip-off mini-bars. They do, however, have small refrigerators and beer and wines are now sold in a self-serve pantry called The Market just off the front desk. Remember, most Courtyarders aren't party animals. My suggestion: Bring your own libations and bring enough for any new pals you might meet in the new, living room-like lobbies with their big-screen TVs.

Marriott's marketing wizards have put some serious thought into this brand's remake. New-build Courtyards and the gussied-up, existing properties have a "business library" equipped with a new HP computer with blazing fast Internet access, two laser printers and docking stations for six laptops. It's also out in the open, overlooking the lobby, not stuck in some windowless converted closet.

This is a smart idea, made all the more brilliant because everything is gratis. I didn't have to sign in with a clerk before I logged on. I didn't have to put it on a credit card. I didn't have to pay 85 cents a minute, the going rate in many big-city hotel business centers, just to read and send E-mails. Plus, all guestrooms have free, high-speed Internet access, both wired and wireless. Most, but not all, Courtyards have gratis Wi-Fi in the lobby, too.

Still, free Wi-Fi is not "brand standard" and some Courtyard owners are charging guests for the convenience. Here at Courtyard Tampa/Westshore, the price is $2.95 for the first 15 minutes and 25 cents for every additional minute or a flat $10 for every 24 hours. If you're a heavy Wi-Fi user, ask before you book. Surprisingly, all Courtyards charge around 50 cents apiece for local calls, so cell-phone users should resist the temptation to dial out on the two-line room phone.

The new Courtyard bed is a big improvement. It looks like a bedroom bed, not a hotel bed, with a rich, wooden headboard, a thick mattress, a nice comforter, a bed skirt and three oversized pillows. Guestrooms have a spacious work area, including a separate roll-around desk, an office chair and lots of electrical sockets. I was able to spread out, plug in and be productive. My room also had a small sofa with a hideaway bed. There's a coffeemaker, too, but bring your own blend if you're not a Maxwell House devotee.

Marriott Courtyards aren't skimpy. Breakfast costs $9, but that buys an all-you-can-eat, American-style trencherman breakfast, including corned beef hash, premium-roast coffee and even fresh-squeezed orange juice. Fresh OJ alone costs $5 a glass at a luxe hotel. A compact but well-equipped fitness center overlooks a pool and a nicely landscaped courtyard.

Rates at the Tampa hotel start at $79 on weekends and $139 on weekdays. For $20 a night extra, you get a suite. (I called direct and checked the Web site to haggle for a lower price, but got nowhere.)

Victoria Wengert, who's on the road "all week, every week," stays only at Courtyard and not just for the Marriott Reward points or the $127-a-night corporate rate. "They don't charge extra for the little things, and the people always smile when they speak to you," says the director of strategic accounts for a global medical products firm.

Can a quintessential hard-core business traveler be won over by a "hello," a smile and free high-speed Internet access?

Not really, says Wengert. "I stay at Courtyards because I know they will be clean and safe."

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright © 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.