How Marriott plans to modernize Sheraton

Marriott International knows it has its hands full with Sheraton, the 80-year-old brand the company landed in 2016 when it acquired Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. In previous years, even Starwood had admitted the brand was in need of a major refresh.

“We’re trying to balance two things: First, we want to honor Sheraton. It is loved by a lot of people, not only domestically but around the world,” says Indy Adenaw, Sheraton’s vice president and global brand leader. “We’ve actually gone back and done a lot of research to understand the traits and elements that people have come to trust, which is that it’s open, it feels welcoming and it’s comforting. But the actual execution of these pieces we have really tried to modernize.”

Lobby at the 215-room Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel prior to a US$7.5 million renovation
Lobby at the 215-room Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel prior to a US$7.5 million renovation

One indicator of exactly how Marriott plans to reposition Sheraton may come from looking at how the hotel giant initially has handled the brand’s marketing.

Just over two years ago, Starwood rolled out “Where Actions Speak Louder,” a US$100 million ad campaign with largely television-based ads: a move which, if it was trying to target a younger, less traditionally TV-inclined audience, felt conspicuously stodgy.

But in November 2017, just a year after Bethesda, Maryland-based Marriott got its mitts on Starwood, Sheraton has launched a documentary-style content series, a partnership between Sheraton and Showtime that takes viewers behind the scenes of popular series like “Shameless,” “Billions” and “Homeland.”

Though developed by Starwood, the content series (and Marriott’s willingness to move forward with it) suggests a vision to shift the classic brand into a new era, one in tune with a younger generation that is both business- and leisure-oriented.

Debuting in 1937 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Sheraton – which now has over 450 properties in 75 countries – was in many ways a pioneer. It offered the industry’s first automatic electronic reservations system in 1958. In 1970, it was the first hotel chain to invest in a toll-free number for direct guest access.

In 1997, Starwood Lodging Trust purchased the company for US$14.3 billion after a bidding war with Hilton – a move that at the time made Starwood the world’s biggest hotelier.

Though Starwood launched its own rebranding plan, Sheraton 2020, back in 2015, Adenaw says Marriott has plans of its own.

“It is a brand people trust and accept. It has permission already from customers versus trying to prove it,” Adenaw says. “When you think of hospitality brands, there are actually very, very few that have that globally.”

In the quest for the new and improved Sheraton, no facet of the brand is going unscrutinized. In speaking with owners, Adenaw’s team received feedback that the current guest room was difficult to execute, which has led to plans for a more open room concept that’s operationally sound and financially easier to deploy. The lobby will be shifted to some version of a public-oriented, monetizable space. There’s no word at this point as to whether Sheraton Club will stay or go; ditto Sheraton Grand, a marker of premier-tier hotels.

“They’ve got to get on with it. Because that’s the only way they’re going to get developers to buy into the product,” says Peter Bates, president of Tarrytown, New York-based Strategic Vision, a global marketing communications consultancy with a specialty in luxury hospitality.

“Over the years, Starwood did an amazing job of building that brand on a global basis, but life has moved on and the brand has not kept up with the changing pace of life,” Bates says. “In terms of the product, it’s been allowed to get tired in many places.” According to Bates, Sheraton should widen its target from corporate customers and find its place in the leisure market as well.

One property that went through a recent refresh is Oregon’s 215-room Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel, which just spent US$7.5 million on its first revamp since 2005.

Lobby at the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel following a US$7.5 million revamp, the hotel's first since 2005
Lobby at the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel following a US$7.5 million revamp, the hotel’s first since 2005

And it’s a refresh that Marriott is happy with, according to the property’s sales and marketing director, Angie Darby. 

Out went the lobby’s big potted plant and in came more seating. Guest rooms saw the addition of more outlets and the transformation of the desk into a moveable table. An old spa area was repurposed into “Meetings in a Minute,” three small rooms that the property rents for US$50 per hour. Projected ROI is 7% to 8% each year.

Adenaw, who declined to talk ROI, says says it’s too early to tell whether the company will meet its projected 2021 deadline to roll out the new Sheraton. With 77 properties in its pipeline, with the large majority of those planned for Asia where the brand performs strongly, Sheraton is on its way toward significant expansion: Now it needs a new story to back that move. 

“The appeal of Sheraton is that it’s broad, it’s open, it feels good,” Adenaw says. “In everything we’re trying to do we’re asking: can we bring simplicity and a sense of purposefulness in what we deliver to guests and what we ask our operators to do?”