Marriott International Global Chief Commercial Officer Stephanie Linnartz shared insights into the ongoing integration of the Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty platforms, along with her outlook on other consumer trends.
BETHESDA, Maryland—The integration of Starwood Preferred Guest into a combined loyalty platform with Marriott Rewards and Ritz-Carlton Rewards is perhaps Marriott International’s most important ongoing concern following the 2016 acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.
As the executive in charge of the process of creating and unveiling a unified loyalty platform, Global Chief Commercial Officer Stephanie Linnartz said SPG was a key piece of the Starwood acquisition and the most common talking point among consumers following the announcement of the deal.
“SPG was the crown jewel, or at least one of them, from the Starwood organization,” she said. “It’s a powerful platform.”
She said the SPG and Marriott Rewards programs have already benefited from their connective tissue.
SPG picked up mobile check-in and check-out from Marriott Rewards, and elite-tier benefits from SPG like late check-out were ported over to Marriott Rewards.
Linnartz said that was done in part to send members the message that the result of the combination will be the “best of both worlds.”
Now the company is moving into the next stages of loyalty integration.
In August, the company’s three existing loyalty platforms, which also includes Ritz-Carlton Rewards, will share the same back-end system for the first time. Linnartz described this new structure as the three programs as three doorways that lead to the same place.
And while the current level of integration allows members to link Marriott Rewards and SPG accounts and transfer points between the two as they are earned either at legacy Marriott or Starwood properties, the August integration will mean each of the programs contribute to the same pool of points and status recognition and can be accrued across Marriott’s portfolio.
Guests will see several benefits from these changes.
“One account will be so much easier to manage,” she said. “And on average (guests) will earn 20% more points. And from a consumer standpoint, they’ll be able to earn elite status faster.”
Getting to that point was no easy task, as the company spent a considerable amount of time negotiating things like new branded credit card deals to pave the way to a higher level of connectivity.
The next major step is the rollout of an as-yet-unnamed fully integrated loyalty platform. Linnartz said the exact date of the launch has not yet been determined.
“It will be a new face to the world, and we’re excited about that,” she said. “We’re constantly thinking about ways to innovate.”
Linnartz said one of the big changes in consumer behavior and desire for loyalty programs is the ability to redeem points for things that enhance the travel experience beyond hotel roomnight redemptions. She said this will include things like a points-based experience platform and home-sharing options, which Marriott is currently piloting in London.
“It will be a platform for our most loyal guests to engage for things other than hotels,” she said. “That’s the picture that’s coming together.”
She said offering experiences is already key in the hotel industry but will grow ever more important in the loyalty space. Some examples she offered of possible redemptions include boat tours in Boston or tours of Highclere Castle, the filming location of “Downton Abbey.”
“The bread of experiences is growing more and more every single day,” she said. “And part of the reason is it going up and up is people want experiences as much as they want things.”
Data is key
Linnartz said the rise of experience platforms will make the use of data and insights even more vital so companies like Marriott can do a better job targeting offers that are relevant to individual guests to boost conversions.
“You’ll see us increasingly improving our capabilities with machine learning and data analytics,” she said.
She said the kind of personalization a higher level of data analytics provides is one of the top trends in industries outside of hotels. The hotel industry sits on a treasure trove of data provided by guests and—especially—loyalty members, but the proliferation of legacy systems across the industry can make it difficult to get that information to the right people at the right time to make a difference.
“That’s where I think our industry is more complicated than pure digital players,” she said.
Linnartz noted there are efforts underway to offer better tailored results on Marriott.com and a new property-level customer relationship management system currently “rolling out globally” at Marriott hotels to get better information on guests “in the hands of associates.”
She said that will get to the key balance of the opportunities from new technologies and high-touch hospitality.
“It all doesn’t matter if at the hotel there isn’t a warm smile,” she said.
Opportunities in home-sharing
Linnartz said part of the opportunity in the home-sharing space will be providing a sense of consistency and order to a space that is relatively chaotic. From a consumer perspective, it’s hard to sort through the large amount of inventory of varying quality.
“It’s not organized well, and that’s overwhelming for consumers,” she said.
She also noted that the space doesn’t currently have “a ton of qualified third-party managers to help hosts get (their properties) cleaned and organized,” which will be key in order for more established hotel companies like Marriott moving into the space.
Marriott is working with a startup that provides just that service for its London pilot program. She said the company will prioritize quality over quantity in the home-sharing space.
“We’re careful about what’s selected,” Linnartz said. “It has to fit our branding. It has to follow the local laws.”
Marriott’s home-share properties—which are currently branded under the Tribute Portfolio brand—also will offer instant booking, which is not an option on most home-sharing competitors. She said that pilot is “going well so far.”
“It’s an interesting test for us,” she said. “It will keep running through the fall, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Linnartz said one of the appeals of moving into home-sharing is that it offers guests the opportunity to stay within the Marriott ecosystem and enjoy the loyalty perks during occasions that wouldn’t typically fit into a hotel stay, like when they’re traveling with large family groups.
“People want choice,” she said. “They want options.”