Travel Weekly's 2017 Business Travel Report

Marriott and Starwood loyalists stay true post-merger

More than nine months after acquiring Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Marriott International is adding about 1 million loyalty members a month, but travel agents report that corporate travelers, who make up much of the loyalty base of both the Marriott Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest programs, are showing few signs of cross-booking the newly affiliated brands.

Marriott gave Marriott Rewards and Preferred Guest members the ability to link accounts and shift points to the opposite program as soon as the $13 billion acquisition was completed last September. But corporate buyers who have traditionally booked with either Marriott or Starwood don't appear to be in a rush to step outside their respective comfort zones.

"People have their preferences," said Michelle Weller, COO for Travel Leaders in Houston. Weller, a self-described "Starwood girl," estimated that 70% of her office's bookings are corporate, and, "I rarely find people who cross over."

Likewise, Gabby Salazar, a corporate travel adviser with Christopherson Business Travel, said, "Since the merger, I've not had any loyal Starwood members book at Marriott or vice versa."

The exception appears to be corporate-retreat areas that represent a type of property missing from one of the two legacy hoteliers. For example, the mountain resort town of Aspen, Colo., boasts a St. Regis and a Westin from Starwood's former stable of brands, and a W is slated for the site of the former Kimpton Aspen Sky Hotel, but there's no property in Aspen within the Marriott legacy brands.

"The biggest change is, [the merger] just made [Aspen's lack of a Marriott-legacy hotel] less of an issue," said Brian Harris of Brian Harris Travel in Aspen, Colo. "There's going to be somebody [within a corporate group] interested in accruing points."

For its part, Marriott appears to be very early in its effort to push travel professionals to get their corporate clients to explore the new brand affiliates. In April, the company began the process of combining the merged companies' sales teams to more effectively address its largest 750 global corporate accounts.

Marriott also said that as of March, more than 2 million Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest members had linked their loyalty programs to an affiliate program (Preferred Guest members can link to either the loyalty program under Marriott or under Ritz-Carlton).

Still, that's a small fraction of the more than 100 million total memberships, which itself is more than the Hilton and Hyatt loyalty program membership combined. For those loyalty members who cross-book, Preferred Guest points are worth triple Marriott Rewards points.

Moreover, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson said on the company's first-quarter earnings call in May that the company would have Marriott Rewards and Preferred Guest on "a common technology platform" by the end of next year.

Still, the company last week declined to provide any detail on which loyalty group is crossing over to the opposite group of brands faster, and the company did not disclose any metrics on which brands' demand levels are being most affected by the new influx of loyalty members.

Part of the issue may be the divergence in user bases. While Marriott Rewards is more associated with traditional road warriors, Preferred Guest members tend to be younger, according to Marriott chief commercial officer Stephanie Linnartz.

"Gen Y frequent business travelers, in particular, love earning SPG points and redeeming them at very hip and high-end brands, like W Hotels, Westin and Le Meridien," Linnartz said at Marriott's analyst meeting in March.
Moreover, when it comes to working with travel agents who book substantial corporate travel, Marriott faces the additional challenge of overcoming a reputation with some advisers for being less agent-friendly than Starwood was.

"Marriott is not working with us at all to facilitate anything with points," said Jack Ezon, president of New York-based Ovation Vacations, a Virtuoso agency. "Travel advisers are basically on their own and need to call the same 800 number or use the same website as everyone else."

Such a reputation may not be lost on Marriott, though. The company in February named David Flueck, a 12-year veteran of Starwood, to head Marriott's loyalty program efforts.

"Starwood people are always friendly," said Weller, who added that when she attended the International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) conference in France last December, Marriott representatives appeared to take a step to get on even footing.

"At ILTM, there were Marriott people who said they were going to be really friendly. It's nice to be appreciated."

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