business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The New York Times had an interesting story over the weekend about the implications of last year’s acquisition by Marriott of Starwood and its various hotel brands, which include Westin, Sheraton and W. In fact, the new company - the largest hotel company in the world - has 30 brand names, 6,400 properties, and more than 1.2 million rooms in 126 countries and territories.

It may be big, but it also is confusing.

“For one thing,” the Times writes, “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.” (And, as we know, systems like Airbnb present a major competitive threat to the traditional hotel business model.)

“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?”

What’s interesting about this story is how it describes a system that in recent years has gotten more diverse and less beige, and yet still features properties that often can be largely indistinguishable from each other - it can be challenging to differentiate among buildings and names like Edition, Moxy, Aloft, and Element. (I can, but I’ve stayed in all of them at one time or another … but for less experienced traveler, it can be confusing at best.)

I think it is an Eye-Opening story worth reading, largely because it speaks to the danger of not being differentiated. Size only goes so far as an advantage, especially when the competition is a smaller disruption-minded entity playing by different rules.

And that can happen to anyone.
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