Skip to main content

Starwood Opens the Door to Next-Gen Engagement

When Martha Poulter was brought on as EVP/CIO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts ( in June of 2014, CEO Frits van Paasschen was quoted as saying, “In addition to her significant experience leading a large global IT organization, Martha impressed us with her ability to connect legacy platforms with new world technologies. Her innovative approach is exactly what we were looking for as we continue to significantly invest in technology and talent.”
Poulter matriculated from GE after spending 19 years at the company, five years at the helm as CIO of GE Capital. While the hospitality industry is definitely a departure from the GE business culture, Poulter has focused on her strengths as a business leader to find ways to leverage the successes Starwood already had and capitalize on them further. In her first year with the company she has spearheaded initiatives including mobile check-in and keyless entry for Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) loyalty members that have already scored high praise from guests and industry peers.

“My mantra, as I’ve gone into various leadership positions, is to think of technology as a key lever in strategies,” Poulter explains. “Any business leader will have at their disposal a series of capabilities and devices. My role as a technology leader is to educate, influence and inspire business leaders to think of technology as a key component in achieving a business objective.”
In this exclusive interview with HT, Poulter shares her thoughts on the role of technology in achieving business goals and service achievements, in particular the recent keyless entry project. She also offers a peek at Starwood’s future plans for furthering its guest-focused culture by allowing visitors to interact with the brand how they want pre-, during and post-stay.

HT: Let’s first talk about the keyless entry rollout. What has made SPG Keyless a technology win for Starwood?
MP: We are excited about this initiative and believe it’s an industry first in terms of eliminating a friction point for our guest. We’re launching across W, Aloft and Element on a global basis and will have full deployment. We see it as a way in which we’ve taken our innovation and feedback from guests and customers to make sure that we’re addressing what we can to enhance the guest experience. We now know, and I used it myself recently, that it works brilliantly. SPG Keyless has allowed us to take the whole process completely mobile.

What makes this such a win for Starwood is the fact that the IT and digital teams were truly cross-functional — digital, IT, marketing — not only to prioritize those ideas but also to develop them. That process happens with all of the functions brought to the table. Then it becomes a process of leveraging the skill sets. This initiative, for example, was owned by Starwood rather than by a department.

HT: What technology is Starwood using for SPG Keyless?
We partnered with Assa  Abloy ( and we’ve developed a Bluetooth technology to communicate with the lock on the door. Prior to arrival, guests request the key. The key comes to the phone with the designation of the room that’s been assigned. Guests then use the phone to not only unlock their room, but it’s also used at the elevator or other places that require access.

HT: What was the most challenging part of that deployment?
There’s a bit of variation at the property-level, with door types and thickness, configuration, etc.  That lends certain complexities to the technology that we’ve had to work through. There’s also the element of user behavior and proof-of-concept changes that were needed in the course of action. For example, we originally had the device pairing come with an amber light on the door lock when access was granted; but people thought that red meant ‘stop’ and they didn’t have access, despite the clicking sound of the door. The light is now green and the phone also vibrates. The light returns to red if a connection isn’t being made.

If a phone battery dies, guests can return to the desk to get a standard key. We have currently deployed one key to one device and are working on the capability to let two different devices access the same lock. That rollout is slotted for later this year.

HT: How is adoption going at the property level and among Starwood guests?
We have had 170,000 registrants across 130 countries. One hotel had 30 guests go keyless in one day. We think that will increase going forward.

HT: Are there plans to extend these mobile access benefits to all guests? Do you see that being an eventual trend in the industry?
We’re focused on guests that book through our channels. Currently they must be an SPG member. We’re on an ongoing journey to figure out how our loyalty program continues to innovate and be relevant to our member base. Do I think the program will continue to evolve? Absolutely. Do I think we’ll see benefits distributed in different ways? That may be the case, but this functionality is so new it’s not something that would change in the immediate future.

HT: Do you see mobile-first design as a necessary component of technology initiatives moving forward?
No question. I almost have an explosive reaction to this and what we see from our guests is their own explosive reaction. We see a population in emerging markets in particular where the device of choice is mobile and it may be the only choice. Having mobile as the fastest growing channel certainly helps rally the thinking. We’re thinking of our mobile channel through the SPG app in particular, as mission control. We get a lot of feedback about how guests want to experience our services and products. Untethered applies to all parts of the experience — pre, during and post — and that’s what we’re working towards.

HT: Are there other technology wins you can share?
I would call out a few in different domains. One that we’ve spent additional energy in is knowing the preferences of our SPG members. We’ve built a capability to then match those preferences to our on property features. That’s a great example of how we’re delivering both high-tech and high-touch.  For example, a guest tells us that he likes high floor rooms far from the elevator. On his next visit we’d match that preference to his booking and let him know we’ve been able to fulfill that request.

In addition, we’ve invested heavily in a revenue management system that focuses on how we optimize our hotels’ revenue and occupancy through data and analytics. We’ve taken our own data and married that with external data, such as competitive and area information that might skew or grow occupancy, and then used those data elements to optimize room rates. We’ve named this Revenue Optimization System (ROS) and now our revenue management associates have a strategic analytic tool that better positions them to make real-time decisions. This is a proprietary system that we integrate into our CRS, our group systems, and indirectly into our PMS.

On the sales side, we’ve developed a capability that we’re calling Most Valuable Promotion (MVP) that ensures we’re sending the most appropriate offers to our guests; through MVP, we can target and personalize the offers that are most relevant and that we think will turn into an action on property. We do this via email and digital marketing. We’re marrying guest preferences with offers that we know are on property. We also have a pilot underway with on-property devices where we’d send those offers to Android tablets in the room.

HT: What’s Starwood’s top technology priority this year in terms of guest engagement?
In terms of guest engagement it’s SPG Keyless and SPG preferences. A new one that we haven’t talked about yet is that we’re investing a lot of energy in making sure we maintain the privacy of our guest information. We want to make sure we’re respecting the use of guest information in the way it was intended. In particular, we’re focusing on protecting personally identifiable information (PII).

A big element of this is driving awareness not only to our associates, but for our guests. It’s not like you had to be given a personal bill of rights that says, “don’t leave your wallet on your car’s dashboard in Times Square,” but somewhere along the way you’ve learned not to do that. You’ve learned to lock your doors at night. We need to help people understand that their digital assets need to be private. Awareness is a big part of what we’re doing for both guests and associates to make sure they’re not left out for the taking.

Look at password issues. Passwords are being stolen for one attack and used in another. Somehow we have to continue to make this a point of awareness. We absolutely prioritize communicating this to our guests at Starwood. Some of it is through messaging in our app. In the analog world you get a key jacket and your room number is written on it. In the app, with SPG keyless, you can activate a feature to hide your room number.  We’re taking the steps that all companies are focused on: to take what’s available in the market to protect guests.

HT: What do you wish you could do to support guest engagement, but just don’t have the resources to deliver?
We have a couple things on our roadmap that we haven’t started yet, but they’re on our to-do list. Specifically, recognizing the guest whether they’re on property or not. We’d like to allow guests to engage in mobile ordering from wherever they are on property. A different iteration is properties in large urban areas where guests frequent the F&B outlets even when they’re not staying on property. We want to be able to reward those guests for their loyalty even though they’re not hotel guests.

HT: Where does Starwood lead the industry in terms of its use of technology? Is there something that gives Starwood competitive advantage?
I would say innovation comes in a lot of forms and this company has shown that, not just from a technology perspective, but from a marketing and brand perspective. If I narrow that to the technology area where we’ve done a lot of innovation, it would be guest experience — how we recognize the guest, SPG Keyless, and the use of data and revenue management. We are a force to be reckoned with in terms of allowing guests to do business with us in the way they want.  

Internet of Things, and BIG DATA

Martha Poulter, EVP & CIO, Starwood Hotels & Resorts offers her perspective on a trio of hot button technology areas. 

Cloud-based Services.
Clearly cloud-based technology is important and part of our strategy. What comes to mind is more about speed-to-market. I see cloud as an important tool to deliver solutions at market speed.

Internet of Things.
When I hear “Internet of Things,” I think smart property. I think there are endless opportunities and hospitality is only at the
beginning of that. It’s clearly happening in industrial applications and the fringes of consumer applications like smart metering to the home and even patient monitoring. 

Big Data.
The term may be overused, but this one is huge. The ability to arm our associates, owners and guests with more information that allows them to: make better informed decisions and actions; that don’t rely on someone being proactive; and that is delivered to them in a way that’s timely and meaningful. This is a tenant going forward.

Those that don’t leverage their data will perish. Before joining Starwood, I thought, “I really don’t have a supply chain problem.” Hotel rooms don’t move – they are either in operation or not. I didn’t think prices moved that much and it turns out that is completely wrong. We actually do a million price changes a day with inventory that doesn’t physically move. It’s become more complicated because we’ve looked at it with the lens of data. I think we’re surrounded by data problems, but only now are we able to solve them. We’ve always priced rooms – we just do it significantly better now.
This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds