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US: Marriott taps Starwood vet for top loyalty job

David FlueckSince the final green light illuminated allowing the Marriott International-Starwood Hotels merger to proceed, inquiring minds wondered: would the eventual combined loyalty program - soon to boast 80 million-odd members worldwide - retain the perks and benefits that made Starwood Preferred Guest beloved amongst Starwood loyalists? Or would SPG members be forced to migrate en masse to the stingier Marriott Rewards program? Would the world keep spinning, or would the combined psychic horror of a bad program migration send the Earth careening out of its orbit to plunge into the sun? With the recent promotion of an SPG veteran to run the combined loyalty programs, we may all breathe a little easier.
 
By Rick Ferguson
 
Who has the story? Skift, of course, which reports that Marriott has tapped 13-year Starwood veteran David Flueck to lead the company's loyalty efforts worldwide, including guiding all three of Marriott's loyalty programs - Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards, and SPG - into the frictionless future. The promotion is a good sign for a number of reasons. Tapping a Starwood veteran to lead loyalty strategy at the new Marriott should reassure skittish SPG members that the combined loyalty program will resemble SPG more than Marriott - although that conclusion is far from assured. Flueck was also apparently a key architect in the slick summer integration that saw the three programs match status and benefits with nary a hitch, which means that the company has stationed a firm hand at the helm. 
 
Flueck will also retain the experienced hand of Marriott vet Thom Kozik, who will now report to Flueck. In a comment to Skift, Flueck also hints that the new program, slated to roll out in 2018, will retain DNA from both Marriott Rewards and SPG. Money quote:
 
"'I was one of the architects at SPG when we added a lot of new benefits and the dramatic growth of SPG took place. I was also running a lot of hotel revenue management at Starwood these last three years. It's exciting to bring those analytic capabilities into our loyalty program to think about how to personalize the guest experience.' In his new role, Flueck said his main priorities will be to 'allow members to unlock Marriott's extraordinary portfolio,' 'bring some of the best of SPG into Marriott Rewards and vice versa,' and 'start the hard work of how we bring these two programs together.'"
As Skift points out, the one potential hitch in this happily-ever-after is the technology platform. Marriott's legacy platform dates back to the 1970s, while Starwood's platform is, if not state-of-the-art, at least younger than Fleetwood Mac's Rumours LP. Over at HospitalityNet, former Starwood IT executive Israel del Rio has harsh words for Marriott's apparent decision to migrate 1,200 Starwood properties to Marriott's old MARSHA system rather than migrate 4,000 Marriott properties to Starwood's Valhalla platform. Money quote:
 
"When Marriott announced its interest in acquiring Starwood, one would have believed that they factored in a $500 million Starwood IP technology value within their $13.6 Billion offer, and that they would have been salivating at the prospect of having their hands on the fruits of the multi-year transformation experience this IP represented. After all, while stable as a rock, Marriott's own system today centers around 1970's Mainframe TPF technology (MARSHA) suitably kept current via the judicious use of the scotch-tape and wires represented by a cornucopia of front-end gateways and the labor intense support of inflexible legacy code, eclectic data bases, hard-coded interfaces, and a veritable zoo of different property management systems crying for better integration."
Yeeowch. That description doesn't point to a smooth technology integration - hopefully Marriott's IT team is stocking up on the scotch tape. At least on the strategy level, however, all signs point to a relatively smooth integration, with exciting developments on the horizon. We'll be jazzed to see what comes next.
 
Rick Ferguson is CEO and Editor in Chief of the Wise Marketer Group.