Hilton Scores a Huge Coup Over Marriott: Hires Starwood Lurker

Starwood Lurker no longer works for Starwood — or Marriott. The online face of hotel loyalty received the ultimate status match, a new job at Hilton.

I first got to know ‘of’ William Sanders on the FlyerTalk online community in 2001. Then I became a FlyerTalk moderator in 2003 and in November of that year became part of its member-elected board. That year I had the second most votes in the at-large election, trailing William Sanders by a wide margin.

He only served one term on FlyerTalk’s member-elected board, but here’s the remarkable thing: his username was Starwood Lurker. He was a company representative and so beloved by the community that he wasn’t just elected to the forum’s board but garnered more votes than anyone else.

Literally the Case Study Representing a Brand Authentically Online

Starwood Lurker didn’t just ‘lurk’ in the forums, he engaged daily. He answered questions, solved problems, engaged in banter with the community. My early interest in Starwood, and much of the fervent loyalty the SPG program engendered amongst online frequent travelers, stems from turning Starwood Preferred Guest into an accessible program that you could get real answers from, from a real person, and not just a corporate face.

William didn’t write in corporate-speak. He used plain, authentic language. Not only that he got real answers, expressed real empathy and even his own frustration at times (honestly explaining when something was difficult to do even when it shouldn’t be), and even called out customers who might have unreasonable expectations.

William has been featured in the New York Times, at Campaign Live and in Ad Age. He’s a case study in not just one but two books and a journal article as a best practice in brands engaging customers online.

starwood lurker

Starwood Lurker Leaves Marriott for Hilton

In a move reminiscent of Sprint producing ads with Verizon’s “Can You Hear Me Now” guy William Sanders has left Marriott and joined Hilton.

  • Last Tuesday Marriott announced the retirement of William Sanders, the original Starwood Lurker.

  • Then today Hilton announced that they’ve hired him.
    sprint can you hear me now

Between Marriott and Starwood, William has 22 years in. Marriott’s policy is that an employee retiring after 25 years receives 2 free nights at each and every hotel every year. I won’t speculate on the cause of William’s departure.

Marriott posted to FlyerTalk about William’s departure – after 22 years at the company and 19 years active on that site – in an unsigned message (“Best regards, Social Media Specialist”) instead of his posting his own goodbye. He chimed in from a personal account the next day, classy guy that he is thanking Marriott for the send off.

Hilton Up, Marriott Down?

Whether Marriott was uninterested, unwilling, or unable to retain William says volumes about the state of that chain — and Hilton’s move to bring him on says a lot about how they’d like to be interacting with members. Officially William retired, but since his next gig was been publicly announced the following week he clearly wasn’t leaving Marriott to take some time off of work.

Hilton gets an ace at putting a human face on a large company, learning its nuances and representing those – positives as well as the warts – to customers. And he’s great at learning the pain points of customers and bringing those back to the company as well.

For all its flaws I still think Marriott Rewards is the better choice over Hilton Honors for the 50+ night a year customer. However if Hilton wants to get serious about its loyalty program, this would be a great way to start doing it.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Agreed, this is a significant move by Hilton. Of course, how useful William will be will hinge on how much leeway and input Hilton gives him. But it’s a very good sign.

  2. Wow. I thought something was up when William didn’t post his own announcement.

    Marriott is really, really dumb.

  3. William really is the best Customer Liaison I have ever encountered. What a loss for Marriott and win for Hilton.

  4. i love how all these fragile glass hearts online who pick hotels based on a human chat bot response instead of by factors that actually matter, like sufficient network footprint at a wide variety of price points.

  5. @henry Lax: I keep applying at tech companies for a position as a human bot, but they don’t seem to understand. Can you help? I was thinking it was age-discrimination.

  6. @henry LAX – Why are you implying they haven’t taken that into account? We all weigh the pros and cons of different programs, and sometimes – even when not a tie otherwise – customer service is the deciding factor.

  7. Marriott operates under the misguided assumption that business would be so much easier without annoying guests and the PR headaches they produce.

  8. Crazy…
    He was a great asset to the company and a help to me many times over the last 2 years! Best Wishes!

  9. That’s a big loss for Marriott. I’m a retired road warrior who always stayed with SPG when possible. Now I stay in hotels only for vacation travel. I’m lifetime Titanium with Marriott but now wish I had some kind of lifetime status with Hilton or IHG. I used to follow the SPG FlyerTalk board religiously…William was simply incredible. He made it feel like we were in an exclusive club.

  10. @Henry LAX – piss off you little troll. I think you are actually a 13 year old the way you comment on these blogs. “Major loser” indeed.

  11. William was great, met him at SMD2 ages ago. Seems to be following all the legacy Starwood Ambassadors out the door. He’s amazing at CS and customer interaction and that isn’t a core competency of Marriott.

  12. Starwood was blessed to have such a great ambassador. Part of the reason I’d been such a fan. Too bad Marriott. Good luck, Hilton.

  13. William is the best. Over the years he proved to be professional and personable and he got things done! You could trust his ability to make things right.

    Bravo Hilton! Marriott, you are fools for letting him get away!

  14. Is he the same idiot who passed on very wrong info about travel packages last year and screwed up many?
    If so, he is a crapshoot anyway.

  15. Glad he is moving over. I liked SPG but can’t deal with Marriot much. They really could care less. I’ve been slowly switching to Hilton for most of my outings

  16. Marriott is a dumpster fire. Plat75 w/ SPG for 6-7 years, and they’ve gotten 0 paid nights from me since the merger.

  17. Since I’m both a Marriott Titanium and a Hilton Diamond, I’m going to throw out a different perspective.

    Considering how complex both loyalty programs have gotten, if y’all think William is going to do the same thing at Hilton that he did at Starwood, good for Hilton but I predict that it will take longer than you think for William, or anyone else, to learn the ludicrous intricacies of a new program.

  18. Superb customer service reps can get crippled by the policies and restrictions thrust upon them by their employers and the customer-unfriendly ways of their employers.

    In an environment of increasingly concentrated market power in the industry, it’s the more marginal and marginalized programs where the loyalty programs tend to strive to be superior to the norm. But Hilton and its loyalty program are big enough, like Marriott, to take increasingly customer-unfriendly positions, and this mean that customers won’t be all that better off even if all the remote customer contact points were staffed by replicas of the well-regarded, original Starwood Lurker.

  19. Big loss for Marriott but they seem to have screwed up everything related to the Starwood takeover, this being the latest of too many to list. William was the human face of SPG and the company always willing and able to help us when things didn’t quite go as promised. Also met him at the 2nd STARMegaDo in Seattle after years of following (and contacting him) on FlyerTalk. It will be interesting to see what happens over at Hilton. It would appear by this move, the chain knows it has some issues to resolve with HHonors but must also see there’s an opportunity to win over the increasing number of disaffected SPG elites who fell screwed over by Marriott (I know of several who jump at the chance to leave to greener pastures, now that the 2nd favourite program Fairmont President has been demolished by Accor). Wishing William all the best in this move. I’m sure Hilton made pledges of improvement and leeway to bring him over or he’d still be at Marriott waiting out his final three years to true retirement.

  20. I’ve been a Marriott Rewards member for several years and have never heard of this person. He certainly did not have anything to do with me deciding to use Marriott as my main hotel chain. Their rewards programme is one of the best.

  21. @Alan – because he came from legacy Starwood, where one had the best program + service

  22. @Gary_Leff – Just wondering, but could you speculate on why William didn’t go out on his own and become a Hotel-Industry “consultant” with his experience, reputation and influence?

    What are your thoughts about him not going out solo and instead (almost deliberately) going to an equivalent industry rival?

    Also, what could have he contributed to Hyatt as they attempt to expand in a controlled manner?


  23. Was seriously considering the Amex Aspire upgrade offer. Said “yes” today. Best wishes, William.

  24. I think a huge part of why William was successful was the culture of Starwood. I think a huge reason he left is the culture of Marriott. I hope Hilton realizes that while William can be great as can others, only to the extent they back him and let him have latitude. This is all about Marriott not wanting to provide customer service IMO.

  25. I wish you would’ve gotten an answer, JoeSchmo.

    I’m suffering under Hilton’s various recent stumblings and I was looking for someone like William who could help me make sense of it.

  26. Well, JoeSchmo…nevermind. I got the answer.

    He’s no longer with Hilton; he’s moved on to non-travel-related company in the Austin, Texas area.

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