Inside the Marriott test kitchen: trying Courtyard’s new Bistro concept

Several weeks ago, we were invited to Marriott‘s Bethesda, Maryland headquarters to meet with hotel executives and experience the “belly of the beast,” so to speak – the Marriott Test Kitchen, where dishes for the chains’ more than 1,000 restaurants are created, tested and perfected.

For this experience, we, along with several other food and travel bloggers, offered our opinions on dishes for the chain’s new “Eat. Drink. Connect.” Bistro concept, which was first unveiled 2007 and is expected to be implemented across all U.S. Courtyard hotels by 2012. At present, more than 338 hotels have the Bistro concept in place.

Current travelers are embracing the “grab n’ go,” quick casual model made popular like chains like Panera, Atlanta Bread Company and even Starbucks rather than taking time out of their everyday routine to enjoy a full meal. In addition, executives noted, hotel guests wanted customizable options, healthy choices, media integration and the ability to take their orders on the go if necessary. To meet 24/7 connectivity needs, the Bistro features recharging stations, free Wi-Fi, casual table settings and media “pods,” geared towards on-the-go business travelers who need a quick yet quiet space for an impromptu meeting.

The concept evolved from the brand’s original lobby design, which featured a large breakfast buffet setup that remained in place at any hour of the day. The new design will feature a central counter-style ordering system and a order and pickup setup, including hot and cold choices for breakfast and dinner daily, plus separate “shared plates” and cocktails in the evening hours. Five pricing tiers, maxing out generally at no more than $12-$15 per entree, ensure affordablity. Seasonal promotions keep things fresh and allow frequent travelers variety, while brand ties with names like Starbucks, Sam Adams and Stella Artois keep travelers feeling as if their money is spent on name-brand goods.

The goal? To keep travelers in the hotel at mealtimes, incorporating fast and fresh dishes that suit both their lifestyle and budget.

While visiting the test kitchen, we had a chance to sample a variety of dishes across the menu, including breakfast, appetizer, dinner and dessert options. Our biggest delight? Most dishes, even those that tasted custom-made, like a turkey burger and French Dip sandwich, can be prepared in under five minutes. Salads were made-to-order, meaning that sides like nuts, cheeses or dressings could easily be eliminated if necessary, and each segment of menu items included healthy items that still felt hearty – including an egg white breakfast sandwich, hearty salad with chicken, and falafel wrap for the evening.

While we weren’t wowed by every dish on the menu – the Turkey burger had nearly as many calories as its beef counterpart and lacked flavor; one potential salad addition had a cloyingly sweet dressing – the overall presentation, quality and flavors of the food were surprisingly good. In fact, the menus had more variety and generally much better dishes than their quick casual counterparts, adapting to a variety of palate preferences and health preferences.

Design briefs (including the video below) show an infinitely friendlier space, one where we’d feel comfortable spreading out and working during the day. Overall, however, we’re intrigued by the concept. While our actual dining experience took place in the completely controlled conditions of the test kitchen, the preparation and serving methods, which include quick-cooking ovens and mostly pre-prepped meals, seem to leave little to chance. Were we traveling in this quality of hotels, a bistro option such as this, with the addition of amenities like free Wi-Fi, may sway us to book a reservation here versus a hotel that didn’t have easily accessible on-site meal options.

Marriott provided transportation reimbursement for this experience, but this writer’s opinions are solely her own.

Courtyard by Marriott opens 2 new properties in Europe

The Courtyard by Marriott chain of hotels is in the middle of a major revamp – but at the same time, the chain is working hard to expand across Europe.

The chain already has 40 properties and over 7,000 rooms in Europe, and today, they announced the two newest additions to their lineup – Budapest and St. Petersburg.

The 235-room Courtyard Budapest City Center is located on Blaha Luiza Square in the Pest section of Budapest. The hotel is located in close proximity to both the airport and public transportation lines.

The new 273-room Courtyard St. Petersburg Center West/Pushkin Hotel is located in central St. Petersburg within a 10-minute walk of the Marinsky Theater and St. Nicholas Cathedral and the State Hermitage. It is Marriott’s second Courtyard-branded hotel in St. Petersburg.

Both properties feature everything that makes a Courtyard such a great pick – high speed Internet, the Grab & Go snack market, flat screen TV’s and a well designed work area.

The two new properties are open and ready for guests – to learn more about them, and the 848 other locations in the chain, check out the Courtyard by Marriott site.

Inside the new and improved Courtyards by Marriott

Yes – you read the title correctly. This review is going to take a look at a Marriott Courtyard. By now, I’m guessing some of your are wondering what makes a review of a Marriott Courtyard special, any why we even bothered. Well, Marriott asked Gadling to come take a look at one of their recently renovated properties. I don’t have the numbers – but I’m guessing that Courtyards are probably one of the most popular hotel chains in the nation, so I took Marriott up on their invitation, and checked into the Chicago O’Hare Courtyard to see just how the chain has evolved.The lobby, bar and marketplace

Checking in was a breeze – as it should be. I was handed my room key and parking tag within minutes. The hotel clearly caters for all kinds of travelers, as the desk clerk handed my daughter two rubber duckies. We had not traveled too far to visit this property, but after a long flight, small touches like this can be a huge help when traveling with young kids.

The lobby is the best place to see just how the chain has improved their properties. Everything is spacious, bright and well designed. Of course, there is the obligatory collection of random crap art strategically placed throughout the area. Combined with a well laid out collection of sitting areas, the lobby is more welcoming than it used to be. Things have obviously been designed to welcome you, instead of just forcing you to check in and get you to your room.

The lobby area is also home to a cafe/bistro with full bar service and various snacks. Prices were quite reasonable (around $6 for a sandwich). This area certainly beats the old stuffy breakfast buffet desks found at other properties.

One really nice touch in the bar area is the addition or private seating areas with a personal TV. I’ve traveled a lot for business on my own, and I never really felt comfortable drinking on my own in the lobby. This way, travelers can sit on their own, yet still enjoy the lobby atmosphere. Very cool.

At the end of long day – you can purchase items from the marketplace. The selection was surprisingly decent, and a decent selection of alcoholic beverages and snacks were on offer, as well as several non-food items (medication, toiletries).

Towards the corner of the lobby is the boarding pass zone – two PC’s and laser printers are exactly what you need to check in for your flight. Thankfully, more and more hotels are putting these facilities in place.

Next to the boarding pass zone is a large flat panel TV with all flight departure information for O’Hare. Of course, as more and more of us use a smartphone with applications like Tripdeck, these screens are not always necessary, but still a very nice touch.

The local area smart panel is the toy I enjoyed playing with the most – it shows the news, weather, financial markets and local information, all on a massive touch screen. It can point you to the nearest restaurant or other attraction.

The business center is equipped with two (Windows XP powered) terminals. The speed was pretty decent, and the machines wipe themselves clean after use, (hopefully) removing any personal information collected.

Next to the terminals is an Ethernet jack for plugging in your own computer, which is obviously a good idea if you have confidential stuff to do, and no access to a VPN service you can use over the Wi-Fi network.

In this H1N1 world, I was pleasantly surprised to see hand sanitizer in the elevator. A quick squirt of this stuff may not protect you from all the nasty stuff out there, but after a long flight and cab ride, you never know.

The rooms

My room was quite spacious (rooms provided for reviews usually are). It consisted of a living room and a separate bedroom. Oddly enough, the configuration was setup for two queen beds. A fold-out sofa is present in the living room. Despite all the major upgrades in the lobby area, the rooms had not been upgraded as much. TV’s were still the old tube models. Carpets, beds and furniture did look recently renewed and were all in very good condition.

The desk offered everything you need to work – an Ethernet jack (speeds around 2100kb/s), 2 outlets in the lamp base and a decent bright light. As for the technology in the room – I could not locate any input jacks on the TV’s, which means you’ll need to watch stuff on your laptop, or pick something from the hotel channel lineup.

The bathroom was about as bland as they get – same bathroom style found in 1000’s of hotel rooms around the nation. I was quite impressed by the artwork on the towels and toilet paper:

Last time I saw art like that was on a cruise ship – someone put a lot of effort into those.

One final thing I’d like to point out was how well the water glasses were wrapped – as we read more and more about bad hygiene in hotels, I was happy to see someone put real effort into sealing the glasses. Of course, I have no way of knowing how clean they were when they were wrapped. Water bottles are $4 each, so the same kind of high prices found everywhere else.

Final thoughts

Rooms at this hotel are in line with most other Marriott Courtyard properties – around $90/night. This is a very good rate, especially for a hotel so close to the airport (with shuttle service).

I really liked the upgrades Marriott put in place. The lobby layout makes the hotel perfect for business travelers and leisure travelers alike. In-room Ethernet and speedy Wi-Fi (both free) are of course essential in any business hotel, and the Courtyard did not disappoint. The boarding area zone and interactive screen in the lobby are great tools for the frequent traveler.

The room was not as “upgraded” as I had hoped for, and could do with switching to better TV’s, but the room was clean, comfortable and the climate control and high speed Internet worked – things I really count on at any hotel.

Disclaimer: Marriott invited me to review this property, and paid for a one night stay. All opinions in this review are my own.