PITTSBURGH — Consider the conundrum of the modern hotel-room shopper.
Oh, O.K., consider my conundrum.
There are trips where I’d like to feel younger than I am, which means staying in a hotel that is cooler than I am. There are trips when I just want to be close to the airport because of a 6 a.m. departure. And then there are trips that require accommodation for a toddler, a tween and two parents who would appreciate an interior door or three to separate everyone.
Now, consider Marriott. I sure am, and so are untold numbers of loyal Starwood Hotels customers who feel uneasy about big, beige Marriott acquiring their beloved Starwood.
Last year, Marriott completed its acquisition of Starwood and its Westin, Sheraton and W brands and became the biggest hotel company on the planet. As with industries from media to health insurance, Marriott made a bet on scale — a collection of 6,400 properties and more than 1.2 million rooms in 126 countries and territories.
In theory, this gives the company the power to drive hard bargains with commission-hungry travel agents and booking websites. The companies’ 30 brands ought to provide enough variety to satisfy everyone from picky millennials to finicky retirees, right?
For one thing, many of those brands are indistinguishable from one another. Do we really need both Sheraton and Marriott? Can you even tell their rooms apart if you walk into one without seeing the sign outside? And what do the names Element, Four Points, Homewood, TownePlace and Delta mean to you? They’re among the 30, so they seem to mean a lot to Marriott.
And even with all those properties, the newly combined giant is not necessarily everywhere we need it to be. Sure, they are downtown and at the airport and on ring roads that circle big cities, but the company has usually taken too many years to identify and open a property in the up-and-coming neighborhoods where Airbnb listings are legion.
Add in the spaghetti-swirl task of having to combine two loyalty programs with dozens of airline and other partners into one that will keep more than 100 million members in the fold. At that point, it starts to seem downright daunting for the new Marriott to answer the following question: Can it give us what we need — on every kind of trip — to keep us from straying?
To understand all the challenges that Marriott faces, consider Pittsburgh. It is a fantastic place to visit (and eat), but it’s still far enough down the list of most-desired American convention and tourist cities that its hotel lineup feels incomplete. That makes it an excellent place to examine the company’s challenges.
Marriott still has not found a spot here for one of its cool-kid brands like Edition or Moxy. For a cutting-edge overnight experience, you might turn to the Ace Hotel and its 63-room property in an old Y.M.C.A. in the funky East Liberty neighborhood. As for family-size accommodations — and most of the sleeping spots outside the downtown core — those are now the domain of Airbnb. It can put you up in a 3-bedroom dome or a house festooned with mirrors.
Marriott’s aim to get much bigger is a risky one. But the answer to just three questions will probably determine how investors, developers and people like me will react over time.
■ First, will the new Marriott be convenient? The old Starwood often was not, especially for people seeking lower-price properties.
■ Starwood regularly lapped Marriott on matters of coolness, though. Its W, Westin and Aloft brands offered the possibility that your hotel room could look and feel like your bedroom at home. Will Marriott impede Starwood’s culture of innovation, just as the company is facing the enormous new threat from Airbnb and its appeal to fans of quirk, local culture and value?
■ And then, there’s the loyalty programs. Frequent travelers want their hotel stays to count for something. The Starwood Preferred Guest program has drawn particularly passionate, opinionated members. But it’s a rare merger that results in better benefits for all elite-level travelers. Marriott is still several months away from announcing crucial details about the future of the program, but how much will it take away from wary S.P.G. fans like me?
For the acquisition to succeed, creative employees need to stick around. Because the company owns only a tiny fraction of its hotels, the real estate developers it partners with must want to raise the various Marriott flags and hire the company to manage the properties.
And travelers who could easily stay at a Hilton, the Ace or at an Airbnb must become or remain loyal. “Each of them needs to see material, quick benefits from this transaction in order to be proponents of the deal,” said Arne Sorenson, Marriott’s chief executive.
Starwood’s primary origins are in two acquisitions in the late 1990s, first of Westin and then of Sheraton’s parent company. The first W Hotel, which grew into a boutique chain (something that previously was an oxymoronic notion), arrived in New York in 1998. The Starwood loyalty program, notable back then for its lack of blackout dates or capacity controls on free rooms, emerged the next year.
All of that gave Starwood a running start, but it eventually became clear that its founder, Barry Sternlicht, whom Bill Marriott once dismissed as a “kid with a backpack,” was better at buffing and building higher-end brands than he was at the more boring task of getting hotel developers to build $100-a-night limited-service properties in college towns and suburban office parks.
The result for people looking for a place to stay was often a metropolitan area map that looks like the one in Pittsburgh, with a Sheraton and a Westin downtown, or near it, plus a solitary offering out at the airport. Marriott, however, has properties in a near ring around the city, plus several hotels downtown and several more in the Oakland, Shadyside and Bakery Square neighborhoods.
To a loyalty program member, it could seem that Starwood was not trying hard enough, or fast enough, to fill the holes in its map. Here in Pittsburgh, East Liberty has no W or Aloft (the junior, lower-price version of W that first appeared in 2008). Instead, the Ace Hotel moved in and converted the former gymnasium in its building into a ballroom that’s now a go-to spot for weddings. On my last trip there, tired of the humdrum Sheraton, I used Airbnb to stay in one of just a few dozen Yaca Domes known to exist.
It would be tempting for Marriott executives to laugh off the threat. But Airbnb has been making a concerted effort to be more business-traveler friendly.
Mr. Sorenson, Marriott’s chief executive, said he had never used Airbnb to book lodging, but his daughter has. She told him he had nothing to worry about.
But does he really think she’s right? “They were the toughest competition when they were offering a true sharing-economy product,” he said, describing the company’s origins in renting out an air mattress or a room. “The more they get to offering dedicated units, which they’ve done as they’ve grown, the more they look like the competition we’ve faced for decades.”
Any comparison stretches only so far, said Tina Edmundson, Marriott’s global brand officer. She has sampled Airbnb, twice. How did she like it? “It was O.K.,” she said, scrunching up her face a little. “It was fine.”
She acknowledged that her standards might be particularly high. “I like the notion that someone professional has been in and cleaned it,” she said, befitting someone who was once a hotel general manager. “I totally get that I am not the target for Airbnb. Tons of people love that, and I think that’s great.”
So yes, she concluded, it’s an important threat worth keeping an eye on. “But I don’t think there is panic in the city,” she said.
Three years ago, in describing to my colleague Brooks Barnes why Marriott felt it needed to partner with an outsider, Ian Schrager, on its first foray into design-forward hotels, Mr. Sorenson admitted the following: “We probably didn’t have consumer permission to enter this boutique space on our own,” he said.
Mr. Sternlicht, Starwood’s founder, never asked anybody’s permission. Instead, he bet that people would like their hotel interiors to look more like their home (or the one of their modernist dreams) and less like a gallery of plaid and polyester.
The resulting parade of innovation began with the W chain, with sleek in-room furniture and lobbies that felt like nightclubs. Westin introduced the Heavenly Bed (complete with a trademark), and the newly comfortable guests purchased more than $150 million in bedding to use at home.
Marriott, meanwhile, suffered not necessarily from bad taste but a sort of baseline blandness. “There are very few properties in the Marriott spectrum that I might find desirable,” said Kenneth Ballenegger, a longtime Starwood customer who lives in San Francisco.
But Marriott had its fans. Road-weary sports reporters and the people they cover are almost cultish about the company. Rhapsodic online odes include testimonials about how waking up in a Marriott with another night’s worth of loyalty points makes you feel as if you are doing something good for yourself and your family. Scouts for professional teams have joked about living in one of the company’s Fairfield Inns if they ever got divorced.
In recent years, Marriott has introduced a number of new brands, including the Autograph collection of luxury properties and Moxy, which is in the same general category as Starwood’s Aloft. “But Starwood has owned that space for a longer period of time than anyone else,” Mr. Sorenson said. “We want to make sure to graft that onto new shoots that already exist at Marriott.”
Those shoots may bear fruit in Pittsburgh one of these days. A Moxy that was supposed to occupy converted space downtown fell by the wayside, but the Oakland neighborhood will get an Autograph soon.
Even before Marriott began trying to define or redefine the brands it had acquired, it listed its incumbent ones in a security filing with all sorts of head-scratching definitions that were supposed to differentiate them. Marriott “typically” includes “destination-driven restaurants” (really?), while Courtyard is for an “upscale tier” (wait, isn’t that Ritz and Renaissance and Autograph?) and Fairfield Inn & Suites helps “maintain balance and momentum.”
I scrambled these descriptions and challenged one executive to match them with their correct brand names. She could not.
Hotel developers shop among brands — and they, too, are confused. “I’m a hotel nerd, and it’s blurry for me,” said Deno Yiankes, president and chief executive of investments and development at White Lodging, which owns 16 Marriott-branded properties and is building eight more.
The world does not need both Four Points and Fairfield. Affluent travelers would suffer no grievous harm if Marriott forced a death match between Starwood’s St. Regis brand and Ritz-Carlton.
But combining brands turns out to be challenging. Franchisees often sign 20-year contracts, and pulling them out of a particular brand mid-deal may be difficult. Plus, there’s the sheer expense of changing every last pen, sign and interior marker.
Sheraton is probably the biggest Marriott brand that is in sorry shape. Even some Starwood loyalists have never been sure what it is supposed to stand for. It’s popular (and more upscale) in some parts of the world, but its United States properties often feature various shades of brown, smudged fake brass in the elevators and nicked wooden furniture.
“Every time there’s been a new C.E.O., they’ve tried to fix it,” said Ms. Edmundson, the Marriott executive who once worked at Starwood. “It requires an unbelievable amount of discipline to do it. I promise you Marriott has that, and Starwood does not.”
Indeed, not long after she told me that, the company announced that it had identified the 50 worst Sheratons in the United States. Many are undergoing renovations, but 5,000 Sheraton rooms will soon earn points under some other flag because their owners could not bring them up to standard.
If the fixes for Sheraton work, it preserves an additional choice for the travelers (as well as convention planners and corporate travel managers) who will ultimately decide the merger’s fate.
Marriott also has to appeal to the large number of people who have no brand loyalty and book their hotel rooms on whatever third-party websites seem to offer the best deal. The company dislikes paying commissions to the Expedias of the world, but it often needs those websites to help fill its properties on any given night. On those sites, Marriott’s 30 brands may offer an advantage.
The decisions likely to draw the most attention at Marriott in the next year involve the combination of its Marriott Rewards loyalty program with Starwood Preferred Guest.
The man in charge of the integration process is David Flueck, and when he spoke at a conference last spring of frequent travelers and peers of his who manage similar programs, the moderator, Ravindra Bhagwanani, had some choice words to describe Mr. Flueck’s challenge. “You can only imagine the nightmare.”
Frequent travelers are picky, and some of them (O.K., some of us) have occasional entitlement issues. Marriott and Starwood have different rules about what amount of spending earns what amount of points and what those points are worth if you want to trade them in for a night at the Ritz or a week at an Aloft. Frequent travelers want to qualify for elite status quickly so they can earn upgrades and other perks, but the two programs have different rules about this, too. Then, there are the programs’ partnerships, dozens of them, with airlines and others, all of which have to be negotiated or renegotiated.
The travelers who spend the most money take all of this minutiae seriously, and Marriott knows it. Moreover, its executives are quick to acknowledge that Starwood’s loyalty program is a big part of what made the chain a worthwhile acquisition.
So they professed to be a bit surprised at the negative reaction from many top-level members of Starwood’s loyalty program. “It was very intense, very possessive,” Mr. Sorenson said.
He added that he understood that at least part of it was disappointment, given that most of the program’s elite members like me could have chosen Marriott, but did not. “And you convinced yourself,” he said, “that that was the right choice and that all things Starwood are more appropriate for me, even though I might have stayed at a lousy Sheraton last night.”
But people who travel frequently and have cast their lot with a particular chain come to value — and then expect — special or exclusive creature comforts. Travel is often anonymous, inconvenient and uncertain. A good loyalty program offers payback, recognition and at least some predictability.
Starwood understood that from the beginning, offering late checkout in most properties, no blackout days for people trying to redeem their points for free hotel rooms and free upgrades (often to enormous suites) for elite members. One popular perk allows members to trade their Starwood points for American Airlines frequent flier miles and get a 25 percent bonus when they do. Redeem those miles for expensive business class seats on ocean-crossing flights, as I’ve done for years, and you’re a big winner.
Starwood’s limited footprint also meant that it had to make it easier for members to qualify for elite status. After all, people often had to go out of their way to stay in its properties. Starwood allows people to qualify based on the number of stays in a property in a single year. People like me who take lots of short trips can qualify for Platinum with 25 stays, which I accomplished with just 39 nights away from home this year. Marriott members need 75 nights to achieve the same status.
So far, the company has said little about the fate of its airline partnerships. It will probably be another year before it can formally combine the Marriott and Starwood loyalty programs.
That silence has not kept travelers from jumping to some logical conclusions though. “They’ve handled things surprising well, and I believe they have good intentions,” said Mr. Ballenegger, the longtime Starwood fan. “But the more they touch it, they worse it will probably get, unfortunately.”
But that depends on your perspective. Bruce Schobel is a retired actuary with over 2,400 lifetime nights at Marriott. “One of the things I like best about getting to Marriott’s highest elite levels is that it’s pretty damn hard,” he said. “The benefits they are able to provide are fairly generous because the number of people are fairly small.” Given that exclusivity and the likelihood that Marriott will want to maintain it, it seems near certain that Starwood fans like me are going to need to bed down many more nights each year to keep our status.
Mr. Sorenson is aware, however, that he would be foolish to take away too much. A hotel company’s most loyal customers generally book directly on its website or phone lines, instead of going to a human travel agent or Expedia and its competitors, where the hotel company has to pay a commission. As long as the Marriott perks do not cost more than what the third parties get in commission, the company is still winning.
As Mr. Sorenson presides over it all, he says he senses wariness, cynicism even. But he also draws hope from those strong feelings about the Starwood Preferred Guest program.
“We want you to care intensely about the program, because that shows the value of the program to us,” he said. “The worst thing would be if people said that they never really cared about S.P.G. anyway.”