An interview with Chris Austin Vice President, Global Retail Leisure & Luxury Sales Starwood Hotels and Resorts | TravelResearchOnline


An interview with Chris Austin Vice President, Global Retail Leisure & Luxury Sales Starwood Hotels and Resorts


PictureSince 1998, Chris Austin has held a vice president position with Starwood Hotels and Resorts.  Mr. Austin is an active member of the TIA, ASTA, and ATME and holds a leadership position with the USTOA.  He is regarded as a leader in the travel industry, and was awarded the ITT Sheraton President’s Award and Starwood’s Sales Award of the year along with ASTA’s Allied Member of the Year Award.

 TRO: Starwood hotels has become well-known for its travel agent programs and initiatives.  For example, the Starwoodpro program that launched in 2007 has been very successful.  Please explain the reasoning behind the development of the program.

CA: At Starwood Hotels & Resorts, we know where our business comes from. We know how important the travel professional community is to our hotels and resorts around the world. We also know that time constraints and constantly changing product make it difficult to keep pace with the industry. We wanted to provide a resource for our travel professional partners that have all of the answers they need in one place. We developed as that one place. Since that time we have expanded this to be a true travel professional community, a hub where they have greater access to everything Starwood; to our best promotions and offers, to a unique and differentiated professional learning and development tool through Prolearning, (which now includes four modules and more to come), as well as a resource for news, information and commission information.  We even tell our travel professional partners where they can meet us under our news and events section, and provide valuable links to programs such as our Hawaii Aloha Amenity program. 

We continue to be laser focused in our support of the travel professional and maintain contact with as many of them to learn how we can be a better partner and provide services they can use – and we are glad it’s working!

 TRO: Please explain the “five pillars” of Starwoodpro.

CA: We designed Starwoodpro around five pillars. Access, Knowledge, Rewards, Compensation consistency and Communication. Across each of these core pillars we have implemented new programming, launched new tools and have new initiatives underway.

The first is about access.  Basically we want Starwoodpro to be the one place you come for information about Starwood.  The second pillar is learning and education. We believe an educated seller is a better seller. Our ProLearning curriculum can both provide you with unique benefits but also can increase your profit performance. Our third pillar is loyalty. We want to reward your loyalty and 2011 marks the third year of our incredibly successful Book and Win BIG Sweepstakes. This year we hope you are entering all your bookings for a chance at monthly prizes and the big 1 million Starpoints prize at the end of the year. Our fourth pillar is compensation consistency. At Starwood we recognize that commission is your compensation, it is your salary and we are focused to ensure commissions are delivered to you accurately, timely and efficiently via our STARCom central commission payment program. Our fifth pillar is communication.  We don’t want Starwoodpro to be the best kept secret in the hotel industry, we want you all to know about it, so we have developed a robust communication plan using both print and electronic messaging. 

TRO: What are some of your favorite ways travel agents can benefit from Starwood’s award-winning agent programs?

CA: In just 2010, a dozen agents earned 50,000 Starpoints in our monthly Book and Win BIG drawings. Six agents a month won travel to some of our finest resorts through this program. And one lucky agent will be named shortly who will have access to 1 million Starpoints.  In addition, through our Westin and Sheraton learning bursts, thousands of travel professionals experienced a free night at a newly renovated Sheraton property and hundreds more experienced incredible fam trip opportunities at a Westin resort.

More than 16,000 travel professionals have completed our first module of ProLearning and have access to the lowest rates we offer, StarPro rates, for their own personal travel. We also know that through the special offers and hotel deals available on StarwoodPro, we have made so many travel professional customers happy.

 TRO: Are there any new developments in these programs that you would like to share with travel agents?

CA: We are constantly evolving our programs. In ProLearning, new this month are two destination modules, focusing on Hawaii and the Caribbean. These modules mark our expansion from business development and sales training into destination focus. Obviously through all of our nine world class brands we have an incredible selection of properties and a wealth of knowledge on these destinations. Through our new destination training, we are hoping to help our travel professional partners tell the story of the destination and bring it more to life for their customers.

Last year we launched learning bursts for our Sheraton and Westin brands and anticipate more brand focus in 2011. We have relaunched Book and Win BIG and anticipate that program to continue to grow and evolve throughout the coming year. I recommend your readers bookmark to keep up to date on our developments and enhancements.

 TRO: Starwood is also involved with the Travel Agent Success Series.  What inspired you to participate in the TASS?

CA: As I explained, we are committed to the professional development of our travel professional partners. But we know that we cannot provide all the necessary tools. This collection of industry knowledge, quite honestly some of the best trainers in the business, is an incredible resource for travel sellers and marketers. We believe that our commitment to this program is a smart investment in the future of the travel professional community. We all need to grow and learn and this collection of learning opportunities speaks to what is important in the travel industry. We are proud to be a partner with the TASS team and proud to provide a valuable discount on this training to all of our StarwoodPro graduates.

TRO: As a person with extensive experience and credentials, how do you believe travel agents can utilize the TASS in their every-day operations?

Consumers are looking for help. More than ever, a travel professional’s expertise and experience is being called upon to help the consumer understand the offerings out there and decide what will truly provide the best travel experience. We believe travel professionals who commit time and energy to these essential programs should promote them and make sure their customers know what they have done. We offer email signatures to our StarwoodPro graduates so they can let their customers know they have earned our seal of approval. Those who complete the TASS learning opportunities should promote that in their agencies, on the hold lines, on their email signatures, in their press releases. A big part of your job, as sales people, is to sell your brand and the value of you.

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