Starwood’s Digital Initiatives Connect with Guests

An important advantage of mobile technology, Estis Green says, is that it allows hotel operations to be nimble in their responses to guests’ requests. A quick mobile message to housekeeping about the down pillow can avoid the guests’ inconvenience of waiting in the lobby until a guest relations rep can assist them.

And now with a little extra time on their hands, maybe the guests would be interested in an unexpected opening for a massage at the spa? By optimizing mobile devices’ location awareness capabilities, hotels can upsell guests on services they may have expressed interest in by sending an invitation via mobile at the ideal moment, Estis Green says. Another example is offering a “can’t pass up” deal on a suite upgrade to a family of five who just hopped on the hotel’s airport shuttle. Such service-oriented upsell opportunities could turn into the highlights of the guests’ stay and result in added revenue for the hotel.

Mobile applications on smartphones present a unique opportunity as a marketing channel to encourage incremental and repeat business. In the retail arena, for instance, 35 percent of what consumers purchase on Amazon and 75 percent of what they watch on Netflix come from product recommendations based on previous transaction data.

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“We are starting to use big data as a way to start conversations with guests even before they book,” van Paasschen says. “We want to create a connection that when guests think about going somewhere, they reach out to us first. If I’m going to Mumbai and I have never been there before, I will want to choose a hotel brand that knows me well because it makes the trip much less daunting.”

Or perhaps a hotel anticipates that its prime meeting space will be available soon. By sending personalized promotions prompted by geotargeting, the hotel can connect with an appreciative business traveler who needs workspace for an impromptu video conference and fill the hotel’s vacant meeting room at the same time. The same concept could work for hotels that want to encourage foodies in the area to make dinner reservations at the property’s gourmet restaurant.

Emerging Technology
As Starwood looks for future technological opportunities, the organization will depend on its creative partnerships with technology giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft to take it where technology is going next. It’s no accident that Starwood is piloting its mobile check-in capabilities down the road from Apple’s headquarters.

“They bring us in on their emerging technologies,” Vondrasek says. “They want us to build great experiences for our guests through mobile devices. The ability to cocreate with our partners on our mobile applications is a unique point of differentiation for us and something that we’re very proud of.”

Starwood’s SPG smartphone app is the first of its kind in the hotel industry to leverage Apple’s state-aware functionality, which allows the hotel staff to understand where guests are at any point in their stay and anticipate their needs. While the app was under development, the Starwood team paid particular attention to ease-of-use issues for travelers navigating busy airports with luggage in tow and smartphone in hand. The team ensured that the design was clear and focused so that mobile users could access content with “one thumb and one eyeball.”

“Our iPad application, on the other hand, is designed for more leisurely interaction,” Vondrasek says. “We encourage guests to explore their different choices.”

Starwood’s newest digital technology, announced early this summer, is a wearable technology platform developed by an internal team of tech experts, making Starwood the first hospitality brand with a Google Glass app. Like the SPG smartphone and iPad apps, the SPG app for Google Glass uses state-aware technology to display upcoming stays, recognize arrival at a Starwood property, and customize the user experience accordingly. Using the voice search commands “hotel name,” “airport code,” “destination,” or “near me,” SPG members can find any Starwood property, call and book a hotel, and then get turn-by-turn directions.

“It’s important for our guests to experience our brands through whatever channel is important to them,” Vondrasek says. “Mobile is about being relevant, being first, and creating capabilities that others cannot. It is about stickiness; we want our best guests to become even more loyal and tell others about us.”

One of the organizational challenges that Starwood has encountered is figuring out how to roll out the cutting-edge features of its SPG mobile collection in a globally consistent way, van Paasschen says. With 180,000 Starwood associates worldwide, the leadership team members realized they needed to create a Global Initiatives group to implement and coordinate key strategic projects.

They also discovered that it was difficult to attract top tech-forward talent to Starwood’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn., so this summer they opened a new digital design and innovation lab in Lower Manhattan that’s modeled after tech start-ups.

“We’ve grown our digital team by 50 percent,” Vondrasek says. “In order to put mobile first and develop new apps, we needed to scale up and bring in associates who can help us ideate.”

While independent hotels and smaller chains may not have the financial resources and a corps of technology whizzes to build custom apps internally, Estis Green says, they can consider taking advantage of third-party mobile platforms and pay a small monthly fee to give them a try and at least see if they catch on.

“Hotels are so focused on mobile because consumers are so focused on mobile,” she says. “The emphasis is being driven by consumer behavior. Hotels want to be where consumers are. And when it comes to travel, consumers are all about going mobile.”