RENO, Nev. — Marriott International plans to continue to
engage in dialogue with the travel agent community after its acquisition of
Starwood Hotels & Resorts to ensure the company has a strong relationship
with the trade, CEO Arne Sorenson told Travel Weekly during the ASTA Global
Sorenson — fresh off addressing convention attendees and
accepting ASTA’s Hotel of the Year award — was asked about Marriott’s
relationship with the agency community, as well as Starwood’s, which has
historically been viewed by some as more agent-friendly.
“I guess that’s not my perception coming into this,”
Sorenson said. “I think our relationships with the travel agent community are
excellent — not without bumps every now and then, but excellent.”
As to why Starwood may have been perceived as more
agent-friendly, Sorenson speculated it could have been down to individuals’
relationships with the company, the company employees they have dealt with or a
variety of other factors.
“At the same time, we want to make sure doing this deal that
we’re keeping our relationships with our customers that are important, and the
relationships we have with travel agents are relationships with customers, so
they’ve got to be tended,” he said.
The Marriott-Starwood deal is not closing with definitive
answers as to the way the company will pay commissions or what its loyalty
program will look like in the future, Sorenson pointed out.
“So I think we’ve got to be engaged in dialogue with the
travel agent community and say, ‘OK, tell us what it is, those of you who, if
you preferred Starwood, why did you prefer Starwood? What are you worried about
losing? How do you compare the relationships we have with you?’” the CEO said.
“And go through that in a way which is thorough and participatory and
transparent. Hopefully we come up with a place that is good, strong
relationships for us across the portfolio.”
That will be accomplished by keeping the process
conversational, he said.
Sorensen did caution, though, “that doesn’t necessarily mean
that every decision will be loved, but hopefully we will understand each other
perfectly before those decisions are being made. And we want the travel agent
community to feel good about this.”
As to the future of Marriott-Starwood’s loyalty program,
Sorenson said it’s too soon to tell exactly what it will look like.
While there is “strong functionality between the two programs
today,” there are many factors that could affect the future. For instance,
Sorensen said, the two programs have different rules for guests to follow and
they utilize different technology programs, among other things.
“All of that has got to get addressed in what’s likely to be
a many-months-long process, maybe a few years,” he said. “It’s hard to know,
exactly, and at the moment it would be too much to say we know exactly what
that looks like at the end of the day.”
Earlier in the day, Sorenson had addressed a crowd of
convention attendees during a discussion with travel journalist Peter
Greenberg. Among other topics, he reflected on the close of Marriott’s $13
billion acquisition of Starwood, which had just occurred last Friday after a
nearly year-long period the CEO called “a little bit of a roller coaster.”
From the time that Marriott initially expressed interest in
Starwood, China-based Anbang Insurance Group made rival bids for Starwood,
which Sorenson called “the most notorious piece” of Marriott’s acquisition
process. The first rival bid came in March, and nobody saw it coming.
“We were just starting to get relaxed that we were going to
close, and we were just a few weeks away from our shareholders’ meeting,”
Sorenson recalled. “Nobody had surfaced with a bigger bid.”
That’s exactly what Anbang did, though. After Marriott increased
its offer, Anbang responded with a higher one, and it likely would have eliminated
Marriott had Anbang not withdrawn it.
“If [Anbang] had delivered against that, they would have
ended up owning Starwood, but for reasons we will never really know, they
withdrew,” Sorenson said.
Instead, Marriott ended up being the winning bidder,
bringing its total number of brands to 30.
Last week, Marriott said it would keep all 30 brands.
Sorenson discussed that decision at ASTA, saying the company wants to “make
sure we draw good swim lanes between each of these brands so people understand
something about them, what they stand for.”
He also addressed a topic that has been a touchy one amongst
agents: hotel companies’ direct-booking campaigns.
“The popular perception when you go out and ask a customer
where do you get the best rates on a Marriott hotel, the answer is one of the
OTAs, even though the rates are exactly the same,” he said. “[It’s] because
they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars marketing the notion that their
rates are lower than other rates.”
To fight that perception, hotel companies have chosen to
institute direct-booking campaigns, he said.
Sorenson drew applause from the room when he hit on the
topic of nationalism.
“That, to me, is the bigger threat in terms of the impact to
travel than terrorism by itself,” he said, with some world politicians blaming
enemies and calling on strengthening their country’s borders as a result.
If the United States still had the same share of global
travel today as it had before Sept. 11, 2001, Sorenson said the country would
have an average of 35 million more visitors from abroad annually. Therefore, it
is incumbent upon prominent voices to communicate to the global community that
America wants them to visit.
“I won’t get political in this room,” Sorenson said. “I will
not endorse anybody, but when the rest of the world sees our politicians say
just the opposite — you’re not welcome, don’t come, we’re going to close the
door, nobody gets it — he’s getting attention all around the world. He’s not
paying for it, but it is directly against the interest of everybody in the