The possibility of Marriott International acquiring Starwood Hotels and Resorts elicits mixed reactions from travel agents. While some feel the merger would little affect them, others are concerned about a company that is perceived as less agent-friendly taking over one that has a more agent-friendly reputation.

Marriott on Monday reached an agreement to acquire Starwood, increasing its initial bid made in November to $13.6 billion. That is about 2% more than Anbang Insurance Group’s competing bid made last week. Stockholders will vote on the move on April 8, and Marriott said the deal could close in mid-2016.

Another competing bid could be made, but after the latest Marriott agreement, agents talked about that potential outcome this week. It would create the largest hotel company in the world, with 30 brands and around 5,700 hotels with 1.1 million rooms.

“Both Marriott and Starwood are great hotel operators. They run great hotel programs,” said Mike Cameron, president of Andavo Travel. “They both cover the whole spectrum of hotel properties, from high-end luxury to economy brands and everything in the middle, and our clients love staying at Marriott and Starwood properties. As to whether or not they’re going to be better by being bigger, I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case, but they’re both great hotel brands and great hotel operators.”

The idea of a strategic acquisition instead of a financial acquisition, as some have said an Anbang acquisition would be, is appealing.

“I’m always happy when a hospitality company is owned by a hospitality company, as opposed to a hospitality company being owned by just random investors,” said Eric Hrubant, president of New York-based Cire Travel, a division of Tzell.

But there remain the perceptions that Marriott has been less agent-friendly, and Starwood more so, at least on the corporate level, Cameron said. Specifically, he pointed to Marriott’s book-direct efforts.

“They seem to want to bypass the agency distribution system and develop more of a direct relationship with clients,” he said. “Starwood, on the other hand, has been a bit more agent-friendly.”

Jason Olson, owner of True Vacation Travel in Redding, Calif., said he has heard rumors that Starwood would operate basically autonomously.

Cameron said this merger could be perceived as part of the ongoing consolidation in the industry, evidenced by recent airline mergers leaving the big three, and similar mergers in the rental car space.

“The hoteliers, it’s going to be a bit more difficult for them to consolidate because there are so many private brands and independent properties that really do need to be in the distribution system, in the GDSs,” he said. “They rely upon travel agents to fill their rooms, and my hope is they will stay agent-friendly because of that.”

Jason Olson, owner of True Vacation Travel in Redding, Calif., said Marriott is not his agency’s go-to hotel supplier, but they do book clients there if it’s the best fit. He did acknowledge Marriott’s reputation as less agent-friendly than Starwood.

He said there “is a concern on how, exactly, the merger’s going to impact our relationship with the Starwood brand,” a relationship that has been a good one for him, Olsen said.

Olson said he has heard rumors that Starwood would operate basically autonomously, which would allay that concern, but they are just rumors.

A Marriott spokesman said this week it is “too early for definitive details about how the company will operate,” but CEO Arne Sorenson will remain in his post, Marriott International will keep its name and the company will remain headquartered in Bethesda, Md.

A “silver lining” of the merger would be an increase in properties where he could book clients using their Marriott Rewards loyalty points, Olson said.

While Marriott said it will initially run the Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest programs parallel to each other, down the road it will create one single loyalty program.

“After the merger, it’s going to make them really hard to ignore, because post-merger, they’ll be the biggest hotel chain, period,” Olson said.

He also pointed out that if a merger occurs, it would reduce competition in the marketplace.

“All of a sudden, the list of hotel chains that are agent-friendly gets really, really short,” he said, something he called “concerning.”

Ron Archer, of Archer Travel Group in Montrose, Calif., was unconcerned, and said the acquisition would mean very little to his company.

“Are they going to not pay travel agent commissions? No, they’ll continue to pay, because there’s so many different distribution channels, it doesn’t really matter,” he said.

At the end of the day, Archer said as long as his agents are still making the same commission, that’s what matters.

Valerie Ann Wilson, chairman and CEO of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York, urged the companies to consult with travel agents about the merger and the companies’ brands.

“I really, really hope that they do talk to the agency community, whether it’s focus groups of panel discussions or something, to get real opinions from agency leaders, particularly when they’re talking about luxury brands,” she said.

Wilson sits on several similar advisory boards — for instance, one for  Ritz-Carlton and another for Starwood’s luxury brands — and would welcome the chance at contributing on a larger level if the Marriott-Starwood merger happens.

“I’m not afraid to be vocal about what’s good, bad or indifferent,” she said, noting hoteliers would benefit from agents’ ideas in a merger that “could really be a game-changer in the hotel industry.”

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI