When Marriott completed its acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts in September, it became the world’s largest hospitality company, with more than 6,000 hotels across 120-plus countries. Just as important: It created the industry’s most formidable loyalty program. Overnight, Marriott began allowing the 87 million combined members of the Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest programs to transfer points and book rooms across 29 brands of the megacompany, including the luxury properties of St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton.
This rapid integration is part of a broader effort by Marriott to prioritize customer relationships, which has included offering members a slew of new benefits such as free Wi-Fi, exclusive room rates, and the ability to use points to pay for experiences like private wine tastings, museum tours, and even Super Bowl packages. The company also launched a redesigned Marriott app in January, which allows guests to communicate directly with hotels about their preferences before and during their stays, and use their smartphones as room keys at more than 500 properties.
“We want travelers to connect the dots: If you book with us, you get more access to more experiences,” says Marriott global marketing officer Karin Timpone. “Loyalty is an essential element.” After all, loyalty drives not only repeat bookings but also direct ones, allowing hotels to avoid paying hefty commissions to online travel agencies. (In 2015, those agencies netted an estimated $16 billion in fees.) “By expanding with physical buildings and digital touch points,” says Timpone, “we’re building an audience and enriching our relationship with them.”