Starwood Hotels VP for Global Brands Stephen Gates Talks Loyalty & Innovation

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By Loren Moss

Balancing customization with consistency across a single brand in this rapidly evolving technological age is a feat for any business. Stephen Gates oversees digital for nine distinct brands, spread across 1,200 properties in 100 different countries. All under an umbrella company with a reputation for a four hour maximum response time to customers.

Customer Experience Report spoke to Gates, Vice President and Senior Creative Director for Global Brand Design at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, during the 2014 NICE Interactions User Group Conference about brand loyalty, managing customized experiences and innovative technologies Starwood is exploring to further enhance and individualize customer contact.

Stephen Gates: [I lead] an internal group overseeing everything that is digital – all the branding, all the film and video. Every way that our brands look and sound comes through me and my group.

CER: How does setting the mood and expectations before a transaction fit into the customer experience?

Stephen Gates: Several years ago, we realized we have more luxury hotels and destinations than any other company in the world, meaning we weren’t going to be winning a whole lot of price wars. We needed to figure out how to truly differentiate the company and said at that point, “We can’t be a hotel company anymore.”

We describe ourselves as a design-led lifestyle brand company. For us, it was understanding that what consumers wanted and where we were going to find loyalty was to

Stephen Gates, Vice President and Senior Creative Director for Global Brand Design at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide

Stephen Gates, Vice President and Senior Creative Director for Global Brand Design at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide

treat the brands like they were lifestyles. We started to draw very bright lines between each of our brands. You can walk into any of our design studios and show somebody a photo or a piece of copy and they can tell you that it’s a W photo or Sheraton line of copy or anything like that. While working on developing the brands, we try to create that center and then start to work out from there.

What does it mean for the website? What does it mean for mobile and the call centers? Whenever you call a W and you call that CCC, they’re going to talk in a certain way. There’s certain verbiage that we use and things like that. We want to make sure that at every point in that consumer’s journey, we are reinforcing what the brand is about and what the essence of that is.

We’ve gone as far in the contact centers as to have people who specialize just in particular brands, really bringing that to life and not push everything through a generic lens that has a different logo on it. It’s really important for us and that’s why there is such an emphasis on creating these distinct brands. Our brands are our greatest strength, but I think for us and communities like us with contact centers and things like that, it does also provide one of our biggest challenges because we aren’t like our competitors. Because we are W and Sheraton so we have to create the connective tissue between that. That is why we try to house all of that in the same approach and tone of voice.

CER: Are you strengthening the W brand or the Sheraton brand at the expense of the Starwood brand? How does that balance?

Stephen Gates: We have Starwood which is our corporate brand and we have Starwood Preferred Guest, which is our rewards program. We said, “We’re going to split these apart. If it’s anything that is investor relations, anything that’s corporate, it’s going to be Starwood. Anything that’s consumer-facing is going to be Starwood Preferred Guest and SPG.” That allows the space for each of the brands to be themselves underneath that.

Again, we work on there being very different distinctions. We work across a wide market segment. On the very, very high end you have the St. Regis or a Luxury Collection or a W. You have more mid-market luxury with a Sheraton or Westin and more select services like in Aloft, Element or Four Points. We try to make sure there are very clear lines between those. But then, I think you could also look at two of our brands like W and Aloft, where Aloft was built on the DNA of W. Aloft was built as a brand that could go into markets that couldn’t support a full-sized W. The want for design and for the style and curation is still the same. It’s just in a slightly different context for them. Brands can even feed off each other but we are always sure that there are clear lines between all those things.

If you look at the websites for all the brands, all the home pages are different but whenever you get into Search or Booking or things like that, it all sits on a shared platform. The call centers have to be different so that obviously the way a guest is greeted if they are calling a W versus a Sheraton is going to be different. Ultimately, we want what’s going to be underneath that to be the same. Even though the brands are different we need to leverage the collective strengths so that if somebody wants to stay in New York and really wants to stay at a W but they are all booked, we need to then be able to get them into a Westin or Sheraton or a kind of similar property for us. There is always a little bit of, where do the brands stand apart? But then functionally, how do we have to bring them together just so that we can be nimble and be a lot more agile?

If you look at the websites for all the brands, all the home pages are different but whenever you get into Search or Booking or things like that, it all sits on a shared platform. The call centers have to be different so that obviously the way a guest is greeted if they are calling a W versus a Sheraton is going to be different. Ultimately, we want what’s going to be underneath that to be the same.

That’s probably been for us the biggest journey over the past two years from a technology standpoint across the board, especially for mobile, social and the CCCs. Everything is rallying around this idea for us that agile is the new smart, because it used to be that we could put everybody in a room. We could say technology is going to be here in two years, customers will be here in two years. The only thing that we know now is that whatever we guess at in two years, we will be wrong. We’ve had to completely rebuild the company in a lot of the ways that we deal with consumers. Social media plays a huge part in that for us, to be able to quickly respond to what people need because so many consumers have the expectation these days of brands that they do of their friends or anybody else. They have a problem and they tweet about it or write us on Facebook or call us. We don’t have the luxury of getting back four days later.

CER: How do you take consumer expectations into account when you are designing the brand for the hotel?

Stephen Gates: It’s never a simple answer. Obviously, when we are dealing with luxury brands and things like that, we make sure that we are designing much higher touch experiences that we tend to redesign much more often. With the specificity of the brands, W had a challenge for a long time because we said, “We’re going to try to own cool.” Cool as a concept is too big; it’s not sustainable. It’s not something I can deliver onto a guest because it means too many things to too many people.

We have to be very smart about how we do that. A lot of it is through specificity in the way that we build the brands. W is about design, music and fashion, and those are the three lenses that we really try to deliver on. Something like St. Regis, it’s about the butler service, really being a bespoke need for the way that people are. There is no model room for something like a W because each hotel was built differently. A Sheraton or a Westin, these are our biggest brands so there it is different. At a W, people want to celebrate in a lot of cases; we’re trying to target the trendsetters. A lot of times, we get trend seekers but still these are people who want to walk in to have the living room experience.

A Sheraton and a Westin is very different. Whenever you look at building those brands, with Westin, there it’s much more about wellness. There we see much more business travelers, so instead of it being about a larger concept of what society thinks is cool that people want to aspire to, there is a much more one-on-one relationship about how can you be better for staying with us. With something like Four Points, it’s a bit more of the economy of the price point that we’re working with. It’s understanding that it’s business travelers but they want something different, so it tends to be a little bit more nuts and bolts. It’s a little bit heavier on the amenities side for the types of things that they’re going to get whenever they come there. It’s looking at who the consumer is for each one of these. That’s why in so many ways being so brand led is really advantageous to us because we have an incredibly clear picture of who is the guest that stays at each one of those. That’s why there isn’t one approach that we apply universally to all our different brands.

The reason they asked me to come here is because of the way we look at integrating social media into our customer contact center. For us, it really is the thought that the technology is an idea. What people want is to use technology as a tool to interact with guests at every single point along the whole continuum and that our guests are very multidimensional.

Different people need different things at different times so a lot of it for us was how do we take our contact centers and broaden them beyond being on the phone to include these other things? Our apps have FaceTime integration. Whenever you go to one of the call centers, we have the backdrop, we have the outfit. It’s something that we do for our highest, Platinum, guests; where they can FaceTime with their Ambassadors – people who are assigned just to them to help with whatever it was that they needed.

For us it’s, how do we create “loyalty beyond reason?” As we look at that idea, agile is the new smart, trying use of different things, is to be able to figure it out. We looked at, are kiosks a great idea? Kiosks are not a great idea for a lobby. We looked at, is video a great way to be able to interact with people? For us, it really is embracing the idea of failure and being okay with that from a company perspective. For so many companies, everything has to be a homerun, everything has to be perfect. I think if you look to get more agile, as you look to try to be more innovative, we are going to try to beta test a lot of things and put it out there and see if it works.

We are probably days away from being the first travel company and definitely one of the bigger brands to release an app on Google Glass. We don’t think that Glass is necessarily the be-all end-all technology but for us, it’s the first tangible example of wearable technology. We see so much technology moving towards what that could do to an on-property experience.

We were the first hotel coming in that is going to let your phone be your room key. You can bypass the front desk, and there’s still a traditional key if you want it, but you now have the ability to go in and use this to unlock your door. A lot of it is just looking at what experiences we want to create and then how we can use technology to get there. Not, “We should be on Twitter,” and then try to back into an idea.

There has been such a fundamental shift because of technology. People want content that lets them stand out from the crowd. The more that you can understand that and try to create customer experiences for them, the more engagement you get. So many other companies tried to run up just these huge communities of “likes,” tens of millions in advertising. And so you have a community of ten million people who like you, but there is no engagement. Whenever they have a customer service problem, nobody was there to answer. Whenever they needed them to do something, nobody was there.

There has been such a fundamental shift because of technology. People want content that lets them stand out from the crowd. The more that you can understand that and try to create customer experiences for them, the more engagement you get.

We took a very different approach to that. Going much more infrastructure led, of getting social media to monitor in our call centers so that it allowed us to take a very different approach. Our numbers aren’t as huge as everybody else but our engagement is through the roof because we have legitimate connections with people. There’s a reason that we can get them to engage with us. I think that a lot of it for us is looking past what so many others brands do. I think that they look at what social media is or how people use it, but they can’t answer why people use it. I think that’s why you see so many of them having these massive communities that they can’t figure out what to do anything with.

CER: A lot of companies get it wrong when they launch on something like Facebook because they want you to like their page and they think that’s just a permission for them to push advertising. Then you either unlike them or turn off “following” and it’s of no use to them.

Stephen Gates: If you look at the W or St. Regis orany of these brands on Twitter or on Facebook, we aren’t pushing offers. We are legitimately talking about the lifestyles of those brands because that’s where people want to be able to get that engagement. If they want offers, if they want those other types of things, there are places where they can find that. You’ve also seen it evolve to the place where, if they have a problem, if they want to tweet about it, then that gives us a channel to go back and communicate directly with them to be able to do that. But that really is the thing. How do you leverage it and understand the consumer while so other many people are just understanding how to talk with themselves?

CER: We talked earlier about how you have these differently positioned brands under the same umbrella. What’s the strategy behind positioning the SPG program to be an umbrella over all those different things?

Stephen Gates: SPG really is the glue that holds everything together. What it allows a lot of our guests to do is – the business man that has to travel to Cincinnati twice a month to stay at a Four Points because that’s where his company will allow him to. It allows him to then engage in a much broader version of our portfolio, so that then if he wants to save up those points and take his family to a St. Regis, he can do that. It allows people to just be able to engage with a much broader experience of things.

It’s also we were really the first program that started to look at loyalty beyond reason and we were the first one that actually created the idea of lifetime tiers where you don’t have to re-earn every year. So you can be lifetime Gold, you can be lifetime Platinum. It’s not one of those things where it’s like, “We are really great friends but you didn’t buy me enough dinners so let’s start over and I don’t like you anymore.” It really is that concept of loyalty beyond reason and that’s why we also try to expand the program beyond just points for stays.

We have other programs like SPG Moments that will let you be able go behind the scenes at concerts. We partner with Live Nation, Cirque Du Soleil, Madison Square Garden, US Open. It gives you an unprecedented access to be able to see a lot of things that you normally wouldn’t be able to do. So often you see parents who do have to travel a lot, but then you also have the chance to take your daughter to meet Justin Timberlake, or be able to – last year, Imagine Dragons played a concert in Cupertino and I met multiple dads who say, “I travel all the time.” But now they are this huge hero because they can take them to meet the band while they play for 100 people after playing for 400,000 in Europe. I think that’s really for us where we are trying to move the program to, of local relevancy of more than just stays. But it also does allow us to be able to connect all these different brands together. Know that if you stay at a Four Points or a Sheraton or a W or a St. Regis, that that all is adding up to something bigger.

I think the best thing the SPG program allows us to do from the customer experience standpoint is it really lets us get to know the guests. One of our biggest successes in our mobile platform comes out of the fact that whenever we know that you are going to be staying with us, that our apps are smart enough that they can customize the information. Before you get there, it’s going to prioritize maps and directions. Once you are there, it’ll reorganize itself and show you more about restaurants. After you leave, it’s more about rebooking and reviews. We think so much of the modern consumer needs that help with curation because there is so much information out there. On average, one of our websites is 200 pages of content. To think that somebody is going to dig through that to find what it is, is kind of insane.

CER: Thus increasing customer effort. Programs are another way to use analytics tools and the kinds of things that NICE offers. To be able to say, mine the data across and understand a customer’s usage patterns.

Stephen Gates: I think that for us there is always a cautionary flag with that because I think you know big data is only as good as the quality of the data. If there is something that we get wrong, all of a sudden, we are doing the same thing wrong over and over again. And so for us, it’s looking at multiple reference points of the information that we get from the call centers. We have with a lot of our apps, the ability to leverage our social graphs so that we can see where you’ve checked in, where your friends have checked in. We can do a lot of smarter predictive things with that. You are seeing a lot more technologies come on the market where we can even start to see what you are doing on property and start to do a more predictive logic around things like that.

With that all of that, we never want technology to become a replacement for hospitality. I think that’s one of the big things that as we try Glass, as we try some of these other things – it’s something we want to help enhance our associates’ interactions with guests but never become a replacement for it. That’s where that magic is going to come to life but the better we can be about it, the more specific we can be about it, the more we can know about it – again, it creates that loyalty beyond reason.

Technology continues to be an aide for our associates and never a replacement for it. How do we know if it’s you for business? Is it you with your wife? Is it you for a boys’ weekend? Is it just you by yourself? These are the things where data can always help inform. We know that no matter what of those experiences you are doing, the type of pillow you like is probably the same; the amenities that you like when you check into your room are probably the same. There are certain things like that that we’ll know. But again, there is always trying to get them to interact with a real person to be able to make those evaluations. Like I said, if we just became blind to it and go, “you are one thing” – nobody is ever just one thing.

We are also increasingly entering a time where any customer interaction has to be careful with big data as you start to look at technologies that are much better around location awareness. You start to look at technologies like Google Glass, where everybody is convinced you are filming them constantly. There are also places just in the way that you demonstrate the value proposition and how clearly you merchandise what it is that you are doing, so that it doesn’t become creepy.

We are also increasingly entering a time where any customer interaction has to be careful with big data as you start to look at technologies that are much better around location awareness.

I think especially for us is that as you work at a hotel company you truly are nothing less than a home surrogate and so the rules in which technology comes into an experience like that and the places you know where we would use it have to have boundaries. A housekeeper of ours would never wear Google Glass. It’s one of those things that, even if it’s just nothing more than just simply telling her that a room is available, the social stigma in where people are with it right now, it is just not an acceptable way to be able to use it.

Even huge companies like Facebook struggle with this all the time. They had an ad model for a long time, where they would create custom ads that would have little photos of your friends people thought were the creepiest things and they quickly had to kill it. Also, for all the big data in the world, privacy concerns continue to remain an issue and also just that creepy, “How did you know?” That kind of thing.

CER: I think that’s why a lot of these locations pushing ads that people have been talking about for the past five or ten years haven’t taken off.

Stephen Gates: For us, that is another huge challenge. I think that as we look at global behavioral patterns – again for social media, Twitter and Facebook don’t exist. Instagram still does for now but you have to look at Weibo and Kaixin and a lot of other networks like that. Whenever we are building our mobile apps – the average Chinese traveler will arrive at their destination with no hotel booked. They don’t like information broken up in the same way that people in North America do; they like much bigger pages. As we design one app for North America and another one for China, again just the cultural differences between that are vastly different.

That’s a huge part of it for us as well, globalization in customer experience because so often, it’s kind of like, “We are going to take all this and translate it.” If we have a big promotional image that’s on the home page of Westin and it’s a picture of a lobster salad, that’s great; that’s an incredibly North American concept of cuisine. Whenever we do something in Europe, whenever we do something in Asia, there are culture differences where we can say we are global.

One of the most humbling experiences I ever had in my entire career is I led the advertising for American Airlines for four and a half years and out of that Cathay Pacific had asked us to come and help with their brands. I flew to Hong Kong; my team had worked for weeks coming up with new designs with things like that. I stood in front of their board and I presented. At the end, very nicely, they all kind of chuckled and said, “This is great; this is what an American would think Chinese culture would like.” It was a hard swallow. Globalization is so much more than just language.

CER: Say an American SPG member travels to Hong Kong. Is the solution giving the American looking at a Hong Kong hotel the American customized experience? Is he going to get the Hong Kong version?

Stephen Gates: If we know who he is, he gets the American experience. There are even recognition cues that we’ve done. In the American version of the app, knowing that most Americans on average speak one, two languages at most, the interface pops up and it’s going to show you where your hotel is. If you touch on the address, it will actually flip over and show it in languages so that you can show it to a cab driver, so you know how to get to the hotel. If you ever jumped in the back of a cab in anywhere in China or Japan and you are trying to point on a map, it’s like three days later good luck getting there. A lot of it for us is understanding how people travel, to be able to do things like that. That are tiny, small little things like that but I’ve had people all over the world come up to me and go, “That address thing save my life because I got to my hotel.”

CER: What’s next?

Stephen Gates: The release of Google Glass and obviously, continuing to experiment with wearables is a big thing for us. The idea of a keyless mobile check-in so your phone will actually become your key is something that we continue to do a lot of work with. A lot of the work that we are doing with our apps is understanding where you are in your stay as a technology. It’s a thing that we pioneered called state-aware technology. The app actually understands where you are and what you need. I think mobile is a massive push for us right now. Two years ago, we saw that 13 percent of all of our traffic came from mobile. Today, it’s over 50 percent in less than two years. It’s a channel that is growing five times faster than the web was at that same point. As you look at ways that technology can really transform, I think it’s more about smart interaction. If it’s the morning, you are going to check out and we can see that you are starting to move to the elevator, prompting us to be able to say, “Would you like to check out and have your car brought around?”

Two years ago, we saw that 13 percent of all of our traffic came from mobile. Today, it’s over 50 percent in less than two years. It’s a channel that is growing five times faster than the web was at that same point.