Businessweek Offers a Revealing Look into Starwood’s Ambassadors Program
Joshua Green in this week’s special travel issue of Bloomberg Businessweek explores the lives of the lucky few chosen for membership in Starwood’s Ambassadors Program, an elite program reserved for about 2,000 or so of the company’s best and most profitable customers. The article vividly describes the scene as one such member, an olive oil executive named David Neuman, arrives in Bangkok after a stay in a remote hut in northern Thailand.
It was murderously hot, even at midnight,” he recalls. “But I walked out of the airport, and an air-conditioned limousine was waiting for me. Inside was a beautiful hostess in native dress who had prepared face towels soaked in Evian and offered me chilled sparkling water. She asked if I had any questions or if she could arrange any tours for me. I said that it was late, and what I really wanted was to get to my room.” When he arrived at the Royal Orchid Sheraton in Bangkok, the general manager was waiting curbside. “He said, ‘Please follow me, Mr. Neuman.’ They’d already checked me in and whisked away my bags. An elevator was being held for me by a doorman, and we went straight to the top, to the Presidential Suite. Everything was perfectly tailored to my needs: The lights were dimmed, there were extra pillows and toiletries, plates of chilled seafood and fruit. After the hostess had finished the tour of my suite, she offered to draw me a bath. I slept like a baby that night. When they brought me breakfast the next morning, the chef knew I liked my egg whites cooked hard. In the end, I didn’t want to leave the hotel and see Bangkok. I didn’t want anything to ruin the experience.
The logic behind Starwood’s decision to create the Ambassadors Program in 2009 was largely a mathematical one. According to Starwood CEO, Frits van Paaschen, “Our top 2 percent of travelers are responsible for 30 percent of our profit.” Despite the recession, this elite 2 percent actually traveled more. To gain an edge on its competitors, Starwood assigned each of these elite travelers a personal concierge, an Ambassador, reachable by phone 24/7 to cater to their specific needs. The goal was to learn the preferences of these elite guests to provide them with the utmost in personalization and flexibility, as well as exclusive experiences that money can’t easily buy. There’s been gossip on the internet for years on the program, which until recently was in “beta.” Most of the speculation centered on how to join. There does appear to be at least a partial answer to that question: 100 nights/year. See Starwood “Lurker” posting on Flyertalk here. However, based on the CEO’s comments in the Businessweek article, it would appear that’s likely not a hard and fast rule. Starwood has begun reaching out to “blue-chip” recruits through a “rising star” program to target the customers who the company expects might be tomorrow’s elites. My reaction: must be nice.