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It will be interesting to see if Marriott can really turn around Sheraton as it has before with other brands. We'll wait, and see what develops.

Marriott International executives fleshed out additional details at the chain’s 2017 investor day about its ongoing — and challenging — process of integrating Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

Chief among the top priorities, as expressed Tuesday by officials at Marriott’s 2017 Security Analyst Meeting, is ensuring the company successfully combines its three loyalty programs, and properly markets and defines all 30 of its hotel brands, including Starwood’s Sheraton, Aloft, and Element brands.

Speaking to an audience of investors, Marriott global chief commercial officer Stephanie Linnartz was determined to specify the many ways in which Marriott is positioning itself for success, especially in the face of increasing competition from online travel giants such as Expedia, Priceline, Airbnb, and Google.

Here’s a look at that strategy:

Loyalty Is Everything

It’s widely known that the primary motivating factor for Marriott’s $13.3 billion acquisition of Starwood was its loyalty program. Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) and loyalty remain the cornerstone of the company’s overall strategy. That’s why officials thought it was crucial for the company to enable program linking for members from the very start of the marriage.

Linnartz said the company is working to develop a single, behind-the-scenes loyalty technology platform by the end of this year. That’s a complex task and would set the company on a path toward integration of all three of its loyalty programs — SPG, Marriott Rewards, and Ritz-Carlton Rewards.

The opportunities for Marriott to increase its loyalty membership, she said, are tremendous and the value of the loyalty programs is “already quite evident.” Marriott now has more than 100 million unique members across all three of its programs, and since the acquisition closed in September, one million new members have joined on average each month.

Only 11 percent of Marriott Rewards and SPG members belonged to both programs before the deal closed, and than 3 percent of those members were elite in both programs. Of all the programs, there are a combined 2 million members with elite status, giving Marriott “considerable upside,” said Linnartz.

To date, 2 million members across all programs have linked their accounts, and beginning next month, Marriott is planning to launch a targeted Facebook media campaign to encourage even more members to do so.

David Flueck, the newly appointed senior vice president of loyalty for Marriott and an SPG veteran, said that while the company works on the back-end technology needed for ultimately combining all three loyalty programs, it will make non-tech-dependent aspects of the loyalty programs a major focus this year. That, he said, will translate to a heavy focus on experiences, both through Marriott Rewards Experiences Marketplace and SPG Moments, as well as Marriott’s new partnership and investment in tours and activities metasearch platform PlacePass.

Online Travel Agencies Are Being Put on Notice

Linnartz also noted that in the future, given the size and scale of the combined company, online travel agencies (OTAs) can expect Marriott to start throwing its weight around when it comes to new contract negotiations.

She noted that Marriott “uses OTAs less often than a typical hotel industry company,” and that only 10 percent of Marriott and Starwood combined room nights in 2016 were sold through a booking site. Linnartz said 30 percent of Marriott and 18 percent of Starwood’s rooms last year were booked through its proprietary digital channels, and those platforms generated $17.5 billion in gross bookings.

Because Marriott’s commission levels in online travel agency contracts were historically more advantageous (240 basis points lower on average), than Starwood’s, that bodes well for the company, especially as legacy Starwood hotels in North America transition to Marriott’s existing contract terms with Expedia and Priceline later this month.

Sheraton Is in Serious Need of a Makeover

Sheraton’s struggles as a hotel brand in North America have been widely documented, and Linnartz said that, given Marriott’s track record of turning around such brands like Fairfield Inn & Suites, Courtyard by Marriott, and the flagship Marriott brand, she’s confident it can do the same for Sheraton, the company’s third largest brand in both rooms and fees and its most geographically diverse.

Linnartz said that while Sheraton “performs well in most international markets thanks to newer product … in North America, the brand suffers from poor consumer perceptions as evidenced in market performance.” There’s a “wide gap between the best and worst hotels,” she added, and, “In our view, Sheraton’s primary problem has been a poor quality assurance program and inadequate accountability.”

Marriott officials are in the process of visiting the chain’s 25 worst-performing Sheraton hotels in North America this month, 17 of which are or will be under renovation this year and two of which are considering changing brands to either Courtyard by Marriott or Four Points by Sheraton. The company says it’s also working closely with Sheraton property owners and franchisees to get their feedback on how to develop better brand standards and quality assurance programs.

Linnartz told investors, “We ask for your patience. We’ve turned brands around before, and we’ve been successful, but turnaround take time … Sheraton is a turnaround story and one that we are absolutely determined to achieve.”

Marriott Is a Luxury Leader Now

Another point of emphasis made both by Linnartz and Marriott global chief development officer Tony Capuano is that because of the Starwood acquisition, Marriott is not only a leader in terms of scale but also in its share of the luxury market, with approximately 10 percent of its current portfolio and pipeline including luxury brands. Along with upper upscale (44 percent) and upscale (34 percent) brands, that gives Marriott 88 percent of its portfolio occupying the upscale to luxury space.

By comparison, InterContinental Hotels Group’s combined upscale to luxury portfolio is 32 percent (predominately upscale); Hilton’s is 78 percent (dominated by upper upscale and upscale), and AccorHotels’ is 39 percent (predominately upscale).

Aloft and Element Are Getting Special Attention

Starwood’s Aloft and Element brands are also receiving some updates from Marriott in the form of newly designed spaces, and improved food and beverage options, Linnartz said.

“Aloft and Element are brands that just need a little help,” she said. “We like Aloft and Element. Both brands were built with cutting-edge, smart design and significant programming. There’s opportunity to enhance their appeal to consumers and make them more profitable for owners.”

Some of Marriott’s plans for both brands were showcased at the recent Americas Lodging Investment Summit conference in January and they included a new communal room style for Element, new room designs for Aloft, and healthier grab-and-go food options at Aloft.

Soft Brand Collections Need More Personality

Brian Povinelli, global brand leader for Westin, Le Méridien, Renaissance, Autograph, Tribute, and Design Hotels, said in the future Marriott wants to take its soft-brand collections (Autograph, Tribute, and Luxury Collection) in a direction that’s “different from what the rest of the industry is doing.”

“How do we give these collection brands more personality?” he said. “The rest of the industry is simply marketing them as collection.” Instead, he said, Marriott is going to give these collections a bit of a more defined soft brand identity, while still allowing each individual property to emphasize its independence and uniqueness.

“With Autograph Collection, the portfolio holds together with sophisticated, very immersive design experiences at each hotel,” Povinelli explained. “We’ll do the same with Tribute Portfolio to give them a distinct personality, too.”

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Tags: marriott

Photo credit: The St. Regis Dubai. Thanks to its acquisition of Starwood, Marriott is now the largest hotel chain luxury player in hospitality. Marriott International / Marriott International

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