*Starwood Picks Lacek as Preferred Agency

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TORONTO--Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., White Plains, NY, consolidated all direct marketing for its nine-month old loyalty club, Starwood Preferred Guest, with The Lacek Group, Minneapolis, MN, the loyalty direct marketing division of $17 billion data technology giant EDS, Plano, TX.

The windfall of direct marketing work for its more than 7 million member club had previously been divvied up among at least a handful of agencies, including CGN Marketing and Creative Services, Boston, a division of Epsilon; DDB Needham, New York; and Ogilvy & Mather, also New York. Lacek won the worldwide Starwood Preferred Guest business in a three-way creative shoot-out involving agency finalists Wunderman Cato Johnson and Kirshenbaum & Bond, both New York.

The Lacek Group, which co-developed the original loyalty program with Starwood, will be responsible for overall strategy, as well as all customer communications, including enrollment materials, welcome kits, customer service and operations, and database analysis and segmentation.

Starwood has high expectations for the newly expanded relationship. "They have to help us convey the key attributes of the program and help us develop the mechanisms to talk to our customers on a more one-to-one basis," said Hoyt Harper, senior vice president of marketing programs and business development at Starwood. "They serve a strategic role. Our communications strategy overall is their key mission."

Starwood's chain of 700 luxury hotels includes Sheraton, Westin, The Luxury Collection, St. Regis, W, and Four Points and membership in the loyalty club cuts across all brands. The hotel chain differentiates its program from other loyalty-based hotel clubs in the area of award redemption, although that message has not been clearly communicated to date in any of its advertising and promotional efforts.

"Our philosophical difference is built on a focus of letting members redeem, while others are focused on the thrill of accrual," said Harper. The program does not have any blackout dates or capacity limitations, so a traveler can use points easily and spontaneously with no restrictions. "If you can buy a room with cash, you can redeem that same room with points," he said.

Lacek's first order of business, in addition to continually communicating that message, will be to coordinate a consistent look and style for all elements of communication with new and current members, like statements, newsletters, and new member informational kits. "We're effectively re-branding and re-communicating with members," said Bill Baker, group vice president of the Lacek Group.

New program materials will launch in January 2000 to all club member levels: Preferred Guest, Gold, Platinum, and VIP. "Between now and launch time, we're consumed with developing the myriad of communication elements and implementing final refinements to program structure and operations," said Mark Weninger, chief creative officer for the Lacek Group. Weninger held the top creative post at Wunderman Cato Johnson, New York, just prior to joining Lacek and found himself pitted against his former employer just one month later in the pitch for the Starwood business.

The agency has plenty of history and experience with Starwood's brands. It began to manage both the Sheraton Club International and Westin Premiere loyalty clubs in 1997. That work led to Lacek's involvement with the Preferred Guest program, which enveloped the Sheraton and Westin brands, that launched early this year.

Weninger theorizes that Lacek Group was able to stand apart in the final agency competition because of its experience with loyalty marketing and its understanding of what Starwood was trying to achieve. "I think what Lacek was able to do was say that not only can these ideas get attention in the marketplace, but they can really mean something tangible to the audiences we go after," he said. "Being merely creative was not enough here. You needed to be relevant and meaningful."

Starwood maintains its database with an inhouse team based in Braintree, MA, who will continue to work closely with Lacek. "We have access [to the marketing database] so that we can assist in custom analysis and segmentation analysis," said Baker.

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