August 7, 2010— WHITE PLAINS, NY—When Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide made the decision to upgrade its group sales and catering functions, the company opted for a more robust and user-friendly platform that utilizes the Internet and allows it to add functionality in the future as well.
While Starwood adopted Cendyn's eProposal system roughly two years ago, it rolled out the company's new Internet-based eMenu offering over the course of the last year.
"The need was to move to a more electronic platform," said David Dvorak, vice president, Catering & Convention Services, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. He noted the objective was to find something that both improved the customer experience and was more sustainable over time.
The eProposal system, which represented the first step for Starwood, allowed customers to view proposals with detailed property information and details of the meeting proposal, as well as the menu information, but they still had to make a call to their sales representative to place an order. And while they could view the order online, they again had to call someone to make any changes.
With eMenus with Customer Order Center, Dvorak notes that customers have a more direct ability to affect their meeting plans. The catering menus are online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, where planners can view the status of their orders, make changes, place new orders and manage the entire food and beverage portion of their meeting. Starwood also offers a tool that allows planners to calculate the costs of not just the food and beverages, but the labor, taxes, additional fees, etc., allowing its customers to plan budgets and menus.
The systems are platform-based, with all of the software running on Cendyn servers. It is completely Web-based, with each property getting its own access so as to set up fee structures and menus based on location and clientele.
According to Dvorak, the response since Starwood first launched the system has been phenomenal. "Customers absolutely love it," he said. The ease of access and the same interface across all nine of Starwood's brands have made planners lives much easier, according to Dvorak.
"[The Cendyn system] has allowed us to capture business," Dvorak noted. "When the customers have a choice, with everything equal in location, this type of thing makes a difference. Whatever can be done to make their life easier is a good thing." Starwood also hopes to capture the loyalty of Generation X and Y, who are starting to enter the workforce in greater numbers. "They have a way of life that is connected, and this will allow them to transition seamlessly," Dvorak said.
Since the implementation of the eMenu component began, Dvorak said Starwood has seen profit increases in the double digits. He also believes this system came at a good time, since it allowed the company to capture and keep more business in a down economy, and it took less of a hit than it would have otherwise, he noted.
Overall, the meeting business is struggling, but Dvorak sees hope, as the number of planned events is starting to pick up at a steady pace. One fact of life he was hoping to see go back to pre-recession norms was the booking window, which got shorter as planners try to make every dollar count. Unfortunately, he said, that doesn't look like it's going to change any time soon.
This is challenging to planners and hotel operations alike, since the meetings aren't lightweights. Dvorak noted that the average meetings Starwood is seeing are planned four to six weeks out, and include 500-600 people. He reinforced the eStrategy the company has initiated will help with these short-term sales as planners can do more of the work up front, freeing up sales people to focus on other areas of the process.