Starwood, Steve Heyer Want to Hear Your Branded Entertainment Ideas

Trying to Differentiate Sheraton, Westin, W and St. Regis Brands

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If you're in the branded entertainment space, add Steven J. Heyer to your pitch list.

"We'll talk to whoever wants to talk to us," said the CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. "But nobody's calling on us. We're calling on others."

In a one-on-one with Advertising Age Editor Scott Donaton at last week's Madison & Vine conference, Mr. Heyer, who has a $50 million budget at his disposal, said Starwood is open to branded-entertainment ideas from anyone, as long as it helps differentiate the hotel's brands from its rivals. The third-largest hotel chain is in the midst of trying to differentiate its Sheraton, Westin, W, St. Regis, The Luxury Collection and Four Points by Sheraton brands, and is using branded entertainment as one way to do that.

Similar to the philosophy he espoused at former employer Coca-Cola Co., Mr. Heyer doesn't view his company as a product marketer. Instead, Starwood, he said, is a "distribution company" that is "building programming" as a way to treat its guests like an audience and deliver an experience. Each of the company's brands, he said, caters to a different type of customer and can serve as networks.

Recent entertainment deals include integrating Westin into NBC's "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart," through its relationship with Creative Artists Agency. It has partnered with Time Warner to develop distribution opportunities for magazines and home videos and with Starbucks for music. Starwood has built Yahoo suites in the lobbies of Sheraton properties, and for St. Regis, it partnered with Christie's auction house to offer guests exclusive art or wine auctions or experiences.

But Mr. Heyer wants to take things even further, hosting virtual premieres of movies in its hotels, testing new TV shows on its in-room TV channels, adding rich media to its Web sites like SPG.com and expanding its efforts in music, which he considers an "emotional" tool that has been "underleveraged everywhere."

As such, there is a big opportunity for partnerships. "We've got the richest people in our hotels," Mr. Heyer said, adding that they're people who can drive sales for potential partners. "Yet there needs to be a bridge for both brands. When there's a bridge, everybody wins."

But not enough people are yet crossing that bridge. "We really believe in alternative media, whatever that is," said Mr. Heyer. "But it requires new ideas and an openness to experiment. I'm afraid of old ideas. I'm not afraid of new ideas."

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