Newsmaker: K.C. Kavanagh, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide

With more than 1,100 hotels worldwide, Starwood's SVP of global communications checks in daily to ensure brand messaging is consistent across all channels.

With more than 1,100 hotels worldwide, Starwood's SVP of global communications checks in daily to ensure brand messaging is consistent across all channels.


When K.C. Kavanagh was growing up, she never thought she would work in the hotel business, but after landing a job in the PR unit at Hyatt Hotels right out of college, it became her lifelong career and passion.

Now, the hospitality-industry veteran is leading communications for one of the largest hotel companies in the world, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.

As SVP of global communications at Starwood, a role she has been in since 2010, Kavanagh handles PR for the Fortune 500 company and its portfolio. The company separates its nine brands into three segments: luxury, which includes W Hotels, St. Regis, and The Luxury Collection; upper and upscale, made up of Westin, Sheraton, and Le Méridien; and specialty select, which comprises Aloft, Element, and Four Points by Sheraton. She also oversees internal communications and crisis management.

Starwood has more than 1,100 hotels in 100-plus countries, and Kavanagh says 80% of its future growth will be outside of the US, much of it in emerging markets.

In March, the company relocated its global headquarters to Dubai for one month, a unique endeavor that followed a similar excursion for the organization in 2011 when the executive team lived in China from June to July.

Kavanagh says when Starwood's president and CEO Frits van Paasschen developed the relocation plan more than two years ago, he thought of it as a management experiment and did not realize how much attention it would garner from the media when it was implemented.

1998-present
Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, various posts. Began as VP of PR (1998-2010); was promoted to SVP of global communications in 2010

1994-1998
Hyatt Hotels, various posts. Began as manager of PR (1994-1996), and later became director of PR (1996-1998)

“The PR team understood this was going to be a really interesting story,” adds Kavanagh, “because it was an innovative approach to management.”

Dubai, which is a crucial market for Starwood with the company planning on tripling its luxury portfolio in the region in the next few years, is quickly becoming the world's most important travel hub, she says.

Kavanagh notes the United Arab Emirates city is an eight-hour flight from two-thirds of the world's population, it connects the emerging markets with the developed world, and it's a hotbed for luxury. “We're able to use the Dubai relocation as a great way to tell our global story,” she says. “Growth, luxury, and design stories internally to associates around the world and externally to all sorts of stakeholders via the media.”

In addition to its expansion in Dubai, Starwood is looking to grow in other markets, such as China, India, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Brazil, and Africa. The company is planning on opening about 80 hotels around the world in 2013, after having signed more deals for new hotels in the last 12 months than in any year leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. 

With such a massive network of properties, Kavanagh explains that consistency in brand messaging is vital, which is why Starwood's communications staff, based in its global corporate headquarters in Stamford, CT, is supported by internal PR teams in other markets.

Rewarding loyalty

The Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program is a "key weapon" in the company's arsenal to drive growth within its hotels and market share, says Kavanagh, which is why she is going to continue to enhance the plan for guests.

Starwood wants to create “loyalty beyond reason” with SPG, so making the initiative more compelling and giving members more reasons to stay at the company's hotels is key.

In March, Starwood teamed with Delta Air Lines to offer exclusive benefits for Delta SkyMiles Medallion members and SPG elite members.

SPG is also integrated with Apple's Passbook app, which allows users to store boarding passes, event tickets, and coupons and gives loyal SPG members one place to check on their account information and upcoming reservations.

The ‘message triangle'
To help clarify and simplify its storytelling efforts around the world, Kavanagh led the creation of a tool called the “message triangle,” explains Phil McAveety, EVP and chief brand officer at Starwood.

Each quarter, the triangle compiles the company's strategies, current business performances, and points of view on macro trends in the industry, and sends it out globally to the senior leadership and communications teams. McAveety, who Kavanagh reports to, says that the tool better aligns communications for Starwood and also helps executives understand the most important elements for the company, both from a brand and corporate perspective.

Much of the focus for the organization falls on communicating the nine hotels' distinct personas because its guests mostly connect with the brands, says Kavanagh.

She explains that each hotel has a different personality and vibe. For an anniversary getaway with her husband, Kavanagh says she would stay at a St. Regis. If she was attending or hosting a business conference, she would look into a Sheraton or Westin, and for a children's soccer tournament, she would choose a Four Points.

“In terms of promoting Starwood's brand,” Kavanagh says, “our stakeholders, such as owners, investors, and large corporate customers, are the ones that need to understand [the corporate identity] and we communicate with them via our current relationships, but also through presentations and meetings.”

The Chicago native, who lives in New York City and works out of the firm's global corporate headquarters also works with Starwood executives to make sure they are correctly articulating the vision of the company. “She can be the appropriate editor and director of not just me, but our CEO and anyone else who happens to be taking our message out there,” adds McAveety.

While consumer brand recognition is essential, the company also works to bridge the gap between its brands and corporate name through the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) loyalty program. In early 1999, shortly after Kavanagh joined Starwood, she led the launch of SPG, which became a core component of the company's business. On any given night, more than half of its guests are SPG members, driving an affinity for the corporate name, as well as brands.

“[Kavanagh] is never afraid to take a risk and try something new,” explains Meg Connolly, principal at Meg Connolly Communications, who worked with Kavanagh at Starwood from 2004 to 2007. “In fact, I think that's one of her requirements.”

Connolly served as senior director of PR for St. Regis Hotels & Resorts during her three-year tenure at Starwood, and witnessed Kavanagh's “remarkable” communication tech-niques throughout her time with the hotel.

PR professionals, she says, need to have many skill sets in order to get messages out, break through the clutter, and manage staffers. “We need to be creative, strategic, and great communicators,” adds Connolly. “[Kavanagh] does it on a scale that ranges from dealing with crises all over the world to thinking about how St. Regis can leverage its glamorous legacy through PR.”

Different skill sets
In 1998, Kavanagh led the highly anticipated launch of W Hotels, a brand that revolutionized the industry with its contemporary, edgy style and luxury boutique feel. The hotel chain is now in cities all over the world, such as Istanbul, Paris, Barcelona, the Maldives, Singapore, and Bangkok.

From a crisis standpoint, Kavanagh was selected by the Starwood executive committee to revamp the company's global crisis plan following the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. She worked to enhance crisis preparedness and response for the group and launched a terrorist threat assessment of more than 750 hotels.

Her plan also consisted of large-scale crisis drills and security countermeasures for various threats, such as car bombs, human explosives, and chemical attacks.

When Kavanagh started working at Starwood, most of her travel was domestic. Now, almost all is international. While there is significant growth in emerging and new markets, the company's US business is doing great as well, Kavanagh adds.

In February 2013, Starwood reported that global revenue per available room increased 4.1% for Q4 2012, compared to the same period in 2011. North America's revenue per available room went up 5.2% for the quarter, year over year.

The industry overall, she says, has not added many new hotels in the last decade in Europe or the US. However, since the economy has slightly improved and demand has started to come back, Starwood occupancies in the US are higher than they were before the financial crisis. More hotel guests mean higher rates, which is also very good for the company, explains Kavanagh.

One of the ways Starwood is able to grow its footprint in the US is by converting existing luxury hotels. Last November, the company rebranded the New York Helmsley Hotel into a Westin. Kavanagh says the conversions offer Starwood a great opportunity. About 80% of the world's luxury hotels lack an umbrella corporate brand.

Even though branding existing hotels under the Starwood flag is a core expansion element for the company, it has constructed several new hotels in the US recently, including the Aloft Miami Doral in Florida and the Aloft Cupertino in California.

Starwood launched Aloft five years ago as a way to take a “new approach to hospitality that focuses on lifestyle, fashion, and music, and appeals to a younger generation” says Kavanagh. The brand is more affordable than other mid-market hotels.

Aloft, which aims to be modern and trendy, showcases new technologies, such as Apple TV in all of the rooms allowing guests to watch movies and shows from iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, sports channels, and more.

In March, the brand selected Atomic PR as its AOR after an unorthodox RFTweet process, as Starwood invited firms to pitch for Aloft's business via Twitter. 

Social media helps Starwood communicate and connect with consumers and media every day. “If you think about the way people research, plan, and make bookings now, digital is our first stop for the broadest in-formation,” says McAveety, “but often you have to filter that.”

To sift through all of the data online, consumers go to two sources – trusted publications that tell brand and product stories and social media platforms, he adds.

Social monitoring
Kavanagh says Starwood's brands have social media integrated into everything they do. The hotels are on many channels, including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, and Chinese site Weibo. Starwood has a global team monitoring social media 24 hours a day and in the last year, the team reviewed more than 3 million pieces of content. She adds the company is proud that Starwood's Twitter response time is less than 22 minutes.

As its digital and social media work has evolved, so has its take on communications.

“When I started, PR was a bit of an afterthought,” says Kavanagh. “Now it's central to the way we position and market our brands.”  

Before McAveety joined Starwood five years ago as the company's first chief brand officer, the position did not exist and in its place was the role of CMO.

“The brand experience is more than just marketing communications,” McAveety says, which is why the title chief brand offi-cer makes more sense for the company.

The global communications and marketing teams work hand in hand and their close relationship is an integral part of Starwood's success with its corporate and brand images. “Today, I do not know where marketing leaves off and communications begins anymore,” explains Kavanagh.

For a global brand such as Starwood, she says one of the most important elements of communications is sharing it, which Kavanagh touts as the golden rule of PR. Everyone is familiar with corporate and brand messaging, but one of her main objectives is to make sure staffers worldwide are conversant and confident to tell the stories to others.

“A PR department can't reach all the constituencies across 1,100 hotels in 100 countries,” she says. “The more our team can put together great messages, stories, and sound bites that we can share, the more
we amplify our voice around the world.” 

Org Chart: Starwood's global team leverages social media to drive comms strategies

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