Broader horizons for Starwood in China

Updated: 2015-03-20 12:20

By Xu Junqian in Shanghai(China Daily USA)

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After almost 30 years in China, Starwood Hotels and Resorts has yet to put the brakes on its expansion plans for its largest market outside the United States.

But instead of building Chinese outposts for Western travelers, the Stamford-based group is developing new destinations according to the changing demands of domestic business and leisure travelers.

Starwood has nine brands under its roof including the Westin, St.Regis and W brands.

In 2014, the group added 17 new hotels to its portfolio of more than 120 properties in China. It will add another 20 here this year. One-third will be in mountain, ski and sea resorts.

Expansion on this scale is high, the group's global management team told China Daily. They were speaking during a recent visit to Shanghai to promote their point-rewarding program in partnership with cab-hailing service Uber.

Since February, members of Starwood's Preferred Guest (SPG) loyalty program have been able to earn one "starpoint" for every dollar they spend on Uber taxi rides.

The points can be redeemed for room upgrades, flights and special curated experiences like best-of-house show tickets and red-carpet premieres.

"We have hotels in 70 percent of the cities Uber is in globally, so when our members travel around, our services take care of them all around the world," said Chris Holdren, senior vice president of Starwood Preferred Guest and Digital.

San Francisco-based Uber is now present in 291 cities in over 50 countries. While Starwood enjoys a similar relationship with the company in other markets, it is expected to be more fruitful in China because local members engage more with the program, Holdren said.

Starwood, which is listed in New York, said China is the fastest-growing market in terms of its SPG members. One in two Chinese guests who check in to the group's hotels in China is a member.

Tropical Sanya, the capital of Hainan island, which is also a province, is the destination of choice for Chinese members seeking to redeem their loyalty points, Holdren said.

In 1998, Starwood acquired Sheraton, which became the first foreign company to operate a hotel in China in 1985. It now ranks as the group's largest brand.

For years, Sheraton was synonymous with five-star luxury for many Chinese. For some, it even rivaled the Forbidden City as a local sightseeing spot.

The hotel chain is not interested in partnering with local hotel brands but it is also not rejecting localization, said Huang Jie, vice president of Starwood Greater China's sales and marketing.

One-third of the general managers at its 146 hotels in China are Chinese. Chinese porridge, or congee, and an electronic water kettle can now be found in Starwood's properties in 72 cities worldwide. For many Chinese travelers, these are considered a priority.

"The challenge of running a hotel in China now is definitely different from, say, 10 years ago," said Huang. Now "it's more about growing with the growing expectation of Chinese guests."

Chinese people made over 100 million overseas trips in 2014, according to the National Tourism Administration.

Broader horizons for Starwood in China

Le Mridien Shimei Bay Beach Resort & Spa on Hainan island operates under the Starwood umbrella. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily USA 03/20/2015 page7)