WASHINGTON - At Hilton, many of yesterday's innovations are today's givens. Since opening its first property in 1919 in Cisco, Texas, the company has introduced TV sets in guest rooms, a central reservation system and digital keys -- not to mention the piña colada. (It's true, look it up.) And while no one knows what tomorrow will bring, the new Innovation Gallery has a few futuristic ideas.
A few weeks ago, the company unveiled the Willy Wonka-esque incubator at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner in suburban Virginia. The showroom, accessible by invitation only, is a safe space for unfettered imaginations and inventions both practical and fanciful. Here, the company will experiment with the next rage of products and services and, depending on the outcome, will release them into the wider hospitality world -- or consign them to the reject pile.
"We have been an innovation factory for almost 100 years," said Chris Nassetta, Hilton's president and chief executive.
The lab is divided into several experiences. On the Virtual Reality Stage, visitors can take a spin around a room at Tru by Hilton and Canopy by Hilton, two of the company's newer brands. During my foray, I watched the furniture, color palettes and dimensions change before my goggled eyes. In the span of several seconds, the room rotated through the day, from morning to sunset to evening. Check-out was easy: I simply removed the headgear.
The Darkroom, another enterprising space, contained a model of a Connected Room, a digital concept powered by the smartphone. Joshua Sloser, senior vice president of digital, explained how guests can use the Hilton Honors app to adjust the thermostat's heat and air conditioning, control the lighting and change the TV channels without rising from bed. To make every guest feel like a regular, he said, the app will remember individual preferences. Your profile will accompany you from hotel to hotel like a comfort advance team.
The Hilton Garden Inn in Memphis was the first hotel to offer the Connected Room. The company will add seven more properties over the next few weeks and is planning a major expansion for 2018.
After Sloser's demo, I was free to pet the Darkroom walls and floors, which were covered in unconventional materials. I hand-brushed squares of Scandinavian reindeer moss, which purifies air, absorbs sound and offers nature without the bugs, and stroked a goat hair carpet that is allergy-friendly. I inspected a ceramic foam sample that soaks up sound and resembles industrial-grade coral. Before moving on, I pressed a toe into a woven paper rug that resists water and dirt. No muddy footprint was left behind.
In the Product Showcase, inventions filled the shelves like an eccentric's library. The items are in various stages of development.
"They range from infancy to done," said Kerel Fryar, director of creative product innovation.
For example, the Nightingale, which Hilton expects to place in its Connected Room, masks 20 of the most nerve-rattling noises, such as construction and the babel of a busy lobby. Meural, a digital art display also destined for the Connected Room, allows guests to choose the images for their hotel room -- family photos, a print of Munch's "The Scream" or Instagrams of bowtie-wearing hedgehogs, for instance. Pilot, a mini translator tucked inside an earpiece and supported by an app, could appear in foreign properties where guests and staff speak different languages. And NuCalm, which Hilton is testing at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, sends its wearers on a cat nap with deep-sleep results: 20 minutes of dozing will feel like three hours of slumber. Fryar said the dozy device could appear in spas and meeting rooms, but not guest rooms.
"You have a bed," he said.