As you may recall from the recent TravelSkills post/poll about the pending Marriott-Starwood merger, we attended a meeting in Los Angeles with Marriott’s top loyalty executives last week.
We were hoping to get an earful of what members of the Starwood Preferred Guest and Marriott Rewards programs have in store this year. But we learned from the outset that execs are legally bound from talking specifics with us (or each other) until shareholders at both Marriott and Starwood vote on the merger in late March.
But I did my best to read the tea leaves and make some guesses about what’s coming.
First off, the title of this meeting was “The Future Of Loyalty Forum” and there were about 15 travel writers/bloggers/influencers attending along with 5-6 Marriott executives, most notably Thom Kozik, Marriott’s new VP, Loyalty. There was no one from Starwood in attendance.
The meeting was held at the JW Marriott at LA Live in downtown Los Angeles. Upon arrival, the group attended a nice networking dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s glitzy WP24 restaurant on the top floor of the neighboring Ritz-Carlton. The following morning, the forum ran for about 3-4 hours and included lunch on the hotel’s pool deck, in unusual 85-degree winter heat. Then we all went home.
The most important thing I picked up at this meeting was that Marriott is making an effort to listen. They know that they have a beast on their hands when it comes to marrying the two popular loyalty programs. They know that SPG members are anxious (and angry) about any messing around with their cherished program. Given the heated political environment, I could not help but think that Marriott was taking a page from the Hillary Clinton campaign, and embarking on a “listening tour.” First step: listen to what influencers in the business travel and loyalty space have to say. Then, I imagine, there will be well-orchestrated efforts to listen to what program members have to say– in similar meetings, or in a wave of surveys.
Another point I picked up is that Marriott is not going to try and ram its program down the throats of SPG members. Based on the tenor of the meeting, I think Marriott plans to re-engineer its Rewards program as it absorbs Starwood, and is open to new ideas, whether they be from Starwood or elsewhere.
Kozik, who has only been on the job for just over a year, clearly knows he has a big task ahead. He was quick to point out to the group that he’s an outsider– he has had a multidimensional career in promoting internet and gaming brands including Microsoft and Yahoo. He’s not ever worked in the hotel, or even the loyalty business, which should make him even more open to new ideas.
He used the following experience to illustrate his openness to change– and the possibility of Marriott expanding the reach of its loyalty program beyond the focus on registered guests: In his previous jobs, Kozik said he patronized the Ritz-Carlton Marina Del Rey all the time– it was where he frequently had his morning coffee, and almost always entertained clients. Staff there knew him by name, took good care of him when he arrived, and over the course of a year or two he estimated that he spent over $10,000. But since he lived nearby and was not a guest at the hotel, his loyalty was never recognized. Bingo! So that’s one change we might see in a new Marriott Rewards program: The opportunity to earn loyalty points whenever we interact with a Marriott brand, and not just when we’re registered guests.
He spoke about the tests Marriott recently carried out by installing “beacons” at various places hotels to beam messages to members’ mobile phones. For example, a beacon at the hotel bar could alert you to a happy hour special when you walk by. It could let you know that there’s availability at the spa. But Kozik said that based on feedback from its trials, the most highly rated feature of the beacon experiment was that guests received a greeting from the hotel each time they entered the front door. It was the recognition more than anything else that guests liked. Bingo again: you can expect more use of technology as a means to recognize you as a member of the new loyalty program.
Kozik has also been looking at how members interact with its brands on the Marriott Rewards Insiders site, an online forum where members can learn about new promotions and exchange information– and earn points for it. He said that about 70 percent of posts on the site were about “exploits” or ways in which members maximize the value of their points. But he said that the remaining 30 percent are related to members asking other members for local area information– you know, posts like “Hey I’m staying at the JW Marriott at LA Live next week. What’s the best place to get real Mexican food nearby?” Kozik liked that– So I bet we’ll see more focus ways to exchange local information (and maybe get rewarded for it) in a future program.
Another thing Kozik thinks hotels could do better: Asking for flight information during the hotel reservation process. He noted that car rental companies always ask for flight arrival info, but most hotels do not. He thought this would be a good way to impress guests, and prevent hotels from giving away rooms of guests experiencing flight delays.
Forum organizers also set up an interactive session where bloggers and other experts could brainstorm ways in which hotels could better reward their best guests. One of the ideas from our group that Marriott seemed to like was a program to recognize families at home when members are gone for extended periods of time. They also liked the idea of inviting members who frequent specific cities to test and evaluate new Marriott brands– for example, someone who stays several nights a year a the Marriott Marquis in New York might be asked to stay over in a brand new Marriott hotel elsewhere in the city and provide feedback before it opens to the general public.
At the close of the meeting, organizers promised more forums like this one, and of course we were all most interested in the one that will occur after the merger closes and we can get down to brass tacks to find out what the new megabrand has in store for members. Kozik told me, “Maybe at the next meeting I’ll be standing here with Chris Holdren [Starwood’s head of the SPG program].
But until then, it’s good to know that Marriott is listening. Stay tuned…
Here’s a look at the poll results from last week’s post:
Overall, how do you feel about the Marriott/Starwood merger? Is it a good thing or not? Let’s ask a basic question:
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