Starwood’s Digital Initiatives Connect with Guests

If you’re looking to get your guests’ attention, smartphones can be a good place to start. More than ever, guests are turning to mobile devices like these to research travel, book rooms, and interact with brands. From receiving instant directions to the hotel when the plane lands to requesting a bike to tool around town, tech-savvy guests can now cover their needs and desires with a finger tap or even a voice command. To catch the attention of the modern guests, however, hotels need to develop the right backlit content to run on these mobile devices.

No hotel company understands better than Starwood Hotels and Resorts. “People check their mobile devices every six minutes,” says Starwood President and CEO Frits van Paasschen. “We can say ‘welcome’ when a guest gets off the plane in New York, Dubai, or Shanghai. ‘It will take you 45 minutes to get to the hotel. Can we have your favorite drink ready?’ That ongoing dialogue didn’t exist before mobile technology. Ultimately, being able to have direct conversations with their favorite brands is what people are expecting.”

Starwood is investing $100 million in innovation in the digital space to spark that customer communication, and so far, guests have been eager to explore the expanded mobile and social media capabilities that the organization has offered.


That’s because Starwood isn’t just creating apps and new technologies with the sole purpose of generating buzz and adding new amenities. Instead, the goal with these initiatives is to create the kind of persistent connection that only digital technologies can enable between large brands and their customers.

“Mobile increasingly will be at the heart of consumer-branded interaction and offers a plethora of opportunities for customization, communication, promotion, and loyalty.” This, according to the report Hospitality 2015 issued by Deloitte, a professional services firm that provides business management expertise to the travel, hospital, and leisure industry, is why it’s so imperative for hotel companies to develop multichannel approaches that deliver the quick responses that consumers expect. The new reality is that tablets, iPads, smartphones, and wearable tech empower guests to travel and do business the way they want to do business. And if hotels aren’t on these devices, there’s a good chance guests won’t be doing business with them.

“It’s going to be imperative that we understand what that individual customer wants in that location at that time and the staff understands how to deliver that,” says Cindy Estis Green, whose career spans 35 years in the hospitality industry. “Through mobile technologies, hotels can make sure that they’re providing the kinds of services that customers want while still generating revenue.”

Mobile First
“Travel dovetails so well with mobile technology because when you are on the road, a lot of questions might come up about rest stops, attractions, directions, boarding passes, and hotel confirmations, and consumers expect to have answers along the way,” says Estis Green, author of Distribution Channel Analysis: A Guide for Hotels. She launched Kalibri Labs in 2012, offering data analytics, data modeling, and intelligence services to help hotels manage distribution strategy and related customer acquisition costs. “Mobile has some unique native functionality that is well suited to support travel experiences.”

That explains why hotel bookings on smartphones and tablets are up 114 percent and 36 percent, respectively, since January 2013, according to data compiled by Adobe Digital Index for its U.S. summer travel prediction. Smartphones with features like location awareness are giving a boost to this trend, the report suggests, as last-minute travelers can be directed to the nearest hotel with rooms available.

While all those statistics demonstrate a significant demand for mobile services, Mark Vondrasek, senior vice president, distribution, loyalty, and partnership marketing for Starwood, still relies on deep relationships with guests. That’s why Starwood ensures that it’s “mobile first” strategy is grounded in an old-fashioned “people first” principle before the company invests in new technologies. This means not only initiating an ongoing exchange with Starwood guests but also recruiting top tech talent from around the world to create exactly what guests are asking for and react quickly to rapidly shifting tastes.

Case in point is Starwood’s Ambassador Program, which introduces the company’s most sophisticated customers to a single point of contact who coordinates highly personalized services to ensure every hotel stay caters to their preferences. Understanding these influential guests’ needs is what drives Starwood’s high-touch and high-tech initiatives. “You could find yourself in the mobile space focusing on a lot of things or laser-focused on the few things that really matter to guests,” Vondrasek says. “We have a unique strategy. We are very tech-forward, but we take our vision and direction from the personal interaction with our guests, and that sets our priorities for the work we do with social and mobile.”

For example, Starwood is piloting a smart check-in process, which will give guests the ability to skip the usual front desk check-in procedures. Instead, they can go directly to their preferred floor upon arrival and open the door to their room—set to the perfect temperature and lighting—using their personal mobile devices as a key.

“We knew mobile technologies were going to be important, which is why we introduced truly mobile, keyless check-in in January,” says Chris Holdren, SVP of Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) and digital. Hilton made a similar announcement in August. “Digital technology is a way of improving guests’ experiences by being more responsive to what people want,” van Paasschen says. And what guests really want, he adds, is usually pretty simple. They want to know they’re being taken care of responsibly and dependably, so they don’t need to worry, for instance, that there’s a down feather pillow in the room, if they’re allergic.