In response to customer research, the business chain has begun offering a free happy hour tailored to millennials. (Hint: No harsh lighting. Plenty of good beer.)

By Laura J. Vogel / Fortune
August 04, 2015
The Washington Post/Getty Images

Walk into the lobby of an Albany, NY-area hotel on a Monday night, and the vaulted common room—a modern-looking space with big communal tables, cozy leather armchairs in bold colors, and a fireplace in the corner—is buzzing. Dozens of young professionals are sipping free craft beers and wine and munching on brie and crackers.

The shocker? This isn’t a hip boutique chain like Kimpton known for its epic amenities, but a Residence Inn by Marriott, the extended-stay hotel catering to business clientele. As of April, roughly 700 Residence Inns across the country have been holding weeknight happy hours—called “the Mix”—offering premium-quality beer, wine, and appetizers in a space that looks more like a friend’s well-decorated living room than a chain hotel’s common space.

It’s all part of a larger corporate push by Marriott to appeal to Millennials, that most coveted demographic. Recently, Marriott has added three Millennial-focused brands, Moxy Hotels, for young budget-conscious travelers; AC Hotels by Marriott, a sophisticated city-based chain launched with Spain’s AC Hotels; and the Edition brand in partnership with Ian Schrager.

As for The Mix, Diane Mayer, Marriott Residence Inn’s vice-president and global brand manager, says that the get-togethers are a direct response to the company’s customer research. (An internal focus group called nextM, which serves as a kind of in-house lab, has been charged with coming up with ideas to make Marriott brands more appealing to Millennials.) “Our younger customers were telling us that wanted a better ambience, so that was our focus,” Mayer said. Whereas past attempts in social hours at the Residence Inn were held in brightly lit, breakfast rooms, with a TV blaring in the background, the Mixers held in a “warm communal space,” called the Hearth Room (each comes with a fireplace).

Earlier in July, a half dozen employees of IT company Autotask were gathered at a recent Mix at the Albany East Greenbush Tech Valley Residence Inn in upstate New York. Staying at the hotel for eight weeks, while taking courses, the sales managers — who appeared to be in their 20s and 30s — told Fortune they appreciated the free, happy hours. “It’s so great to have a place to come kick back after work when you’re away from home for so long,” said Carisa Carbonaro, of Chicago, noting that she was happy the hotel served “great beers like Shock Top.” (A crafty brew, Shock Top is a popular Belgian-style wheat ale that is actually produced by Anheuser-Busch.) A focus on food and beverage quality was a key goal of Diane Mayer’s when she conceptualized the Mix.

Each night’s event has its own theme—from “It’s On,” a Monday-night general happy hour, to “Off the Grill,” a BBQ held in the courtyard, to “Mix It Up,” wherein local food trucks fill the hotel’s parking lot or local restauranteurs bring tastings to the Residence Inn.

On this July evening, Albany operations manager Joseph Procida mingled easily with twenty-five or so guests, many of which he knew by name. “The cool thing about working at an extended-stay hotel is that it allows us to get close to our guests,” he says. “I come from a big Italian family, and making people feel the love is a social responsibility to me.”

But replicating this atmosphere in all of the Residence Inns across the country has got to be a major challenge. Much of the success of a program like this rests on the individual employees and training. Hotel employees and guests at this Albany-area Residence Inn cited the general manager, Jonathan Andreadakis, for creating the right vibe — authentic and fun. One night, for instance, a few guests who happened to have their instruments with them put on an impromptu performance. “Not something you’d expect to happen at a chain,” Andreadakis notes.

That was exactly the sentiment of Diana Hamar, 27, who was staying at the Residence Inn to take the bar exam, when she stumbled upon the Mix. “It’s totally impressive,” she said, sipping on house-made strawberry sangria, “so many hotels feel chintzy, they charge you for everything, but this was so nice and felt generous.” She adds, “It makes me want to come back.”

This story originally appeared on Fortune

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