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Starwood Hotels’ Marketing Director on taking risks in digital marketing

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Thorsten Technoman

Andrew Watson, Marketing Director at Starwood Hotels, sits with Hot Topics to discuss the importance of confidence in his marketing strategy and implementing new technology.

In a world of so much noise and novelty, Andrew Watson, Director of Marketing for Western Europe at Starwood Hotels, has a simple prescription.

Do less.

He believes there’s great value in taking a step back, looking honestly at what’s working (and what isn’t) and taking brave decisions.

He’s also aware that this can be a little scary.

“I (believe in) having confidence to say stop,” he explains. “To say let’s look at all the things we do every day, and let’s be bold and find the 50 per cent… that you know deep down aren’t really doing it anymore – and stop doing them.

“People will be aghast. But we should always find time to focus either on what we have confidence is right, or on new things. If they go wrong, fail fast and move on. And be proud of this, because if things aren’t going wrong, you’re not trying hard enough.”

And he admits that there were times in the past when the group could have experimented more.

He says: “We didn’t jump fast enough on the opportunity in the social space. We hung back. We didn’t think it would grow as fast as it has. I think the people who grew communities well, are now in the fortunate position to not have to spend huge amounts of money to buy communities.”

This is understandable perhaps, given the deluge of new digital channels available to marketers, and the scale of the business Watson is responsible for.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts has more than 1,300 properties across 100 countries and approximately 188,000 employees. And its portfolio is diverse. It rages from top end (The Luxury Collection, W) to business (Sheraton, Marriott) to mass market (Westin) to boutique (Aloft).

Naturally, each brand demands a different approach. Especially when it comes to digital.

Take Snapchat, for example. Last year, Starwood debuted branded Snapchat Geofilters across all of its brands, at 650 properties located in the US, UK, and Canada. So when Snapchat users visit one of those properties, they can add an overlay to their photos before they share them.

Clearly, Starwood will examine the results to determine which brands work best with the channel.

The Starwood Preferred Guest Program

The above trial was conducted through the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) loyalty program, which Watson says is central to the group’s marketing activity.

Starwood Preferred Guest applies across all 10 brands, and guests can trade Starpoints for experiences in music, sports and the arts as well as redeeming hotel and flight offers. The SPG app enables a more personalized hotel stay and – of course – Starwood Preferred Guest is integrated into various social media platforms.

“SPG is the red thread that ties it all together,” he says. “It drives a lot of our loyalty activity, but at the same time we also use on-going communications through the lens of our brands. And tech allows us to do that more than ever. I’m still a believer in email. But obviously the social space is a major tool that we can use to really engage.”

SPG is critical because ultimately the only true barometer of Starwood’s value is customer experience.

And it’s this that all innovation must be measured against.

Watson says: “You have to go back the guests. Yes, the market evolves, but ultimately they’re still looking for comfort. We have all sorts of tech now and different touch-points for the customer journey. But in the end they must all tie back to a fantastic customer experience.”

“People still go through discovery, consideration, selection, experience and recommendation. I don’t think that moves. The way they are doing it does. Now, they typically start in the digital space and rely more than ever on recommendation. It outstrips advertising as a tool of influence hugely.”

“So the boxes remain, but what’s in them changes.”

Of course, one of the big issues around recommendation is how to measure it. This is why Starwood was the first hospitality group to enable unfiltered guest reviews on its website.

A brave move, but a necessary corrective to the overwhelming influence of third parties like TripAdvisor.

Watson says: “We have to apply metrics the operators can relate to and to make them as understandable as possible. So we let guests rate us as a barometer against TripAdvisor or Booking.com where reviews can be from people who haven’t stayed but still have an opinion.

“You need both crowd-sourced data points and your own so you can see a correlation.”