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Rolling solo at a hotel? Marriott wants to hook you up (with platonic pals)

If you’ve traveled for business solo, you know the drill: Check into a typical business hotel, lock yourself inside the room, and leave only when it’s time for work. It’s a dreary and isolating affair, and rare that you’ll ever mingle with another guest. It’s a common scenario even at a hotel like the Boston Marriott Cambridge in Massachusetts, where there could be more than 400 guest staying at one time if it’s completely booked. So, how do you break the ice and meet some people?

It’s a question Marriott has been asking: What if it could connect its guests and help make their experience more enjoyable? The company has been exploring new ways to cater to the next-generation of business travelers, who are more tech-savvy and social (online, at least) than previous generations. So Marriott looked to technology to achieve that goal, and it didn’t have to travel far – just across the street from Marriott’s Boston hotel to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Together, the two came up with a social-networking concept called Six Degrees, and it changes the hotel lobby into a social hub.

In essence, MIT has invented a form of Tinder, Skout, or Grindr for hotel guests, but rather than sex, the focus is on professional interests.

“Six Degrees is real-time social networking in our hotels,” says Paul Cahill, Marriott’s SVP for Global Brand Management. “People are living their lives today using social media to be more productive, to stay connected, to be more mobile, to be more social, to be more collaborative. But in that hotel in real-time, my social media really doesn’t provide me with that ability … to be able to connect with people with liked interest, who I’m not connected with in my social sphere.

“So, simply, it’s a real-time networking, social networking tool that we think is power for people who travel to different cities on a regular basis, who are looking to find other like-minded people who have similar interest. It might just be, we like the same sports team or we both graduated from the same college, or it could be we both grew up in the same city,” Cahill adds.

The Six Degrees partnership with MIT’s Mobile Experience Lab started in 2013. Born out of their discussions was a social-networking platform that revolved around an app, a long interactive communal table, and a public display. The prototype system was put into operation at the Boston Marriott Cambridge, and being that the Lab is nearby, the engineering team (which created the hardware and software) was able to keep tabs on it for research and maintenance.

To participate, a guest first downloads the app and syncs it with his or her LinkedIn network. “LinkedIn is the network of choice for us,” Cahill says. “We looked at Facebook, but primarily we’re talking with business people, and they felt they were a better match with LinkedIn.” Six Degrees then aggregates your LinkedIn data along with other info you input (such as likes and interests) to create a profile, which it can then use to match those with other participants; if they choose to, participants can connect via the app. In essence, MIT has invented a form of Tinder, Skout, or Grindr for hotel guests, but rather than sex, the focus is on professional interests (at least, that’s the intention).

“It might just be, we like the same sports team or we both graduated from the same college, or it could be we both grew up in the same city.”

The interactive table and public display takes the social networking out of the virtual space and into the hotel’s lobby. Using RFID and LED lights, the table knows your presence once you put your phone or a special card on top. If another person at the table has similar interest or connections, LED lights will appear around your phones (the ice breaker), and it’s up to you to take it from there. The public display shows active participants in the hotel, as well as a visualization of all the data. “It’ll show you how many lines you’re connected to. [If you have lines connected to 20 people], there’s 20 reasons you have something in common with,” Cahill says. To respect users’ privacy, Six Degrees never shows users’ photos, last name, or any information that users opted to share. Non-participants can also use the display to possibly join in on any planned activities

But the data also helps the hotel in knowing who its guests are, and how it can better meet their needs. For example, Cahill says, if data shows that 15 Six Degrees users are into running, the hotel could schedule a curated 6 a.m. run the next day. The real-time data allows the hotel to better scale its services on a daily basis, and invest in things that guests may actually use.

Six Degrees is one of many experiments Marriott has been carrying out, as part of its Travel Brilliantly initiative. Like the fiber-optic network in its Washington, D.C. hotel or the virtual travel experience using Oculus Rift headsets, Marriott has increasingly looked to technology as a way to redefine its services for the next-generation of travelers. Like many projects, there’s no guarantee Six Degrees will ever make it out of the Boston property (Marriott informed us that at this time, there are no plans to put this into any of its properties), but it shows the company’s willingness to try out-of-the-box concepts.

“We own first or second place in our category around the world, but what would it take if we really wanted to try to start to create a breakaway leadership position in our space, Cahill says. Out of those discussions came were some core tenets: “We were going to absolutely talk to this next-gen traveler and co-create what we call the future of travel, and we were going to look for inspiration in non-prototypical places with non-prototypical partners.”

“Technology can scale, but when there’s people involved, that’s the big challenge.”

Those rules led Marriott to working with high-tech and design institutions like MIT, Stanford, Rhode Island School of Design (which helped Marriott develop a new in-room desk in 2013), and U.C. Berkeley, instead of traditional hospitality partners like Cornell.

“We’ll still use Cornell for some of the heart-of-the-house thinking and operations and so forth, but who’s really the great thinkers out there, outside of our industry who have no bias, who might be able to help us…create the future of travel?” Cahill says.

Despite its increasing use of innovative technology, Cahill is careful to note that Marriott isn’t evolving to become a tech company; it’s using tech as an enabler – to help its hospitality business.

“We run hotels, and we think we do a pretty good job of it,” Cahill says. “Think about technology in our space as enablement. We think we should be working very hard at using technology at making the experience better, but that doesn’t mean we’re making the technology. There’s no scenario, in our mind, where it’s devoid of people. Technology can scale, but when there’s people involved, that’s the big challenge.”