Will All 30 Hotel Brands Survive Marriott's Post-Merger Positioning?
Corporations may be in a bigger-is-better era of mergers and acquisitions, but for the world’s largest hotel company, that also means figuring out how to create distinct personalities for each brand in its ballooned post-merger portfolio.
Marriott International now owns 30 different hotel flags following its $13.6B merger with Starwood Hotels & Resorts. While experts like Mario Natarelli, a managing partner at brand intimacy agency MBLM, argue the hotel company is at risk of brand overlap, other hospitality experts told Bisnow the expanded portfolio could help the hotelier win over younger travelers.
“Looking at some of Marriott's brands side by side, you see some that go away,” said Natarelli, who has previously worked as a branding strategy outside consultant on several of the flags in the Marriott portfolio. “I can imagine Aloft surviving, but I look at Moxy and others on the other side of the portfolio, and it’s a coin toss. It’s like if Chevy and Ford merged. Do you keep the F-150 or the Silverado?”
Kathy LaTour, an associate professor at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business School of Hotel Administration who previously did work for MGM Resorts International, said MGM is doing something similar with its multiple properties throughout Las Vegas.
Each resort gets a brand manager, and the idea is each casino fights for its own space and territory. Properties develop their own image to grab market share and appeal to the local clientele. For example, travelers visiting the New York-New York Hotel and Casino likely have different preferences than those staying at the nearby upscale Aria Resort & Casino, LaTour said.
“The larger company would respect what the general manager of each property wanted to do with their business and let them fight against one another for market share in hopes that, in the long term, each property would find its own niche,” she said.
LaTour admitted that it is likely easier for MGM to operate its 10 properties on the Las Vegas Strip than Marriott's 30 global brands. With some Marriott and Starwood brands acting as direct competitors pre-merger — like the respectively millennial-geared Aloft from Starwood and Marriott International’s Moxy, or the flagship Marriott and Sheraton flags — some say it could be safe to assume a handful of brands will merge in the future to avoid market overlap.
Others think the combined portfolio presents an opportunity to appeal even more to the generation with increased buying power.
“I don’t think it matters in the short term whether you stay at a legacy Sheraton versus a Marriott, it’s all going to the same purse strings,” Natarelli said. “What we think is a bigger challenge is, as millennials become more of a dominant buying force and Generation Z moves in, how does this portfolio reflect the needs of those future travelers?”
Sheraton, the third-largest brand in the Marriott portfolio, is getting a brand overhaul with 25% of the brand’s owners already committing $500M toward U.S. hotel renovations, the company announced in June. The brand, which accounted for 42% of the hotels Marriott acquired in the Starwood merger, ranked low in customer satisfaction surveys, and the company has decided to give it an upgrade.
Hotels receiving a face-lift are poised to feature common workspaces, upgraded guest rooms and a coffee bar that serves either coffee or alcoholic drinks, depending on the time of day. Operators who opt out of the renovations are reportedly being told to reflag under a different Marriott brand or leave the company entirely.
Marriott representatives did not return requests for comment.
Analysts interviewed for this story are heralding Sheraton's transformation as a much-needed revamp for the 81-year-old brand, and some say it could be the beginning of a portfolio overhaul should Marriott want to keep all 30 brands alive and relevant.
Keeping The Classics While Courting Millennials
While the bigger brands like Sheraton, Marriott and Westin are a good way to gain exposure to potential customers, one-off hotels with more of a boutique feel that comprise the company's Autograph Collection align better with millennials' demand for unique local experiences.
“They’ll have to play on both ends of the spectrum and have a few of their flagship brands like Marriott, Sheraton and Ritz-Carlton be both the best in class and [size],” Metaforce co-founder Allen Adamson said. “Then they’ll have to play at the boutique or grass-roots level with smaller choices.”
Adamson, who writes extensively about Marriott in his book “Shift Ahead: How The Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World,” said there is a way to forge a path forward without shuttering any of the expanded company’s numerous hotel flags. While the bigger brands can serve as the backbone for the company’s loyalty program, smaller brands like those in Marriott’s Autograph Collection can appeal to younger travelers looking for a more boutique experience when they travel.
“Soft brands like these are letting designers and owners create a more unique identity within the greater hotel company,” said Mark Eacott, an associate at hospitality design and brand development firm HBA.
Merging brands can be a difficult process given how long-term contracts are structured with operators of each flag. Eacott said the company can decide to position some brands in the portfolio for U.S. customers, while others are reserved for more global markets and international travelers to prevent brand cannibalization.
“What we advise is to really define a clear target market as well as a real clear voice, and to choose from each of the brands to stay relevant and connect to that experience,” he said. “You could take on this one-size-doesn’t-fit-all attitude. It is possible to keep 30 brands.”