Starwood brand leader for W leaving company

* Ziegler will stay through 1st quarter 2012

* Wants to rejoin family in Europe

By Helen Chernikoff

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc said Thursday the leader for its luxury “W” and Le Meridien brands will be leaving the company.

Eva Ziegler, who has been with Starwood for six years, will stay in her job through the first quarter of 2012 to help identify her successor, spokeswoman Jen Leemann said.

Starwood is known for its emphasis on branding and established that reputation in part through its success with W, which launched the trend of boutique-style hotel brands among the big chains such as competitors Marriott International Inc and Hyatt Hotels Corp.

At the end of 2010, there were 38 Ws worldwide, 3.7 percent of Starwood’s portfolio. There were 100 Le Meridiens, a brand the company acquired in 2005.

The company said in November 2009 when it appointed Ziegler to lead W that it would triple the number of Ws — there were 26 at the time — by 2011.

Starwood declined to comment on the 2009 projection.

Post-recession, the development climate has not warmed up as hoteliers hoped. While the business-led economic recovery has pushed hotel occupancy rates up, very few new hotels are being built in the United States.

“It has been a very difficult environment,” said Baird analyst David Loeb. “Financing is still largely unavailable.”

 

GLOBAL CITIZENS

W is the high-design brand the company works to identify most closely with fashion and music.

Enough years have gone by since the first W opened in New York in 1998 that it has outgrown any dependence on a single visionary, said Marty Collins, CEO of Dallas-based real estate investment firm Gatehouse Capital, which owns Ws.

“The brand’s bigger than a person,” he added.

Vienna-born Ziegler is leaving the company to rejoin family in Europe, the company said.

Like Starwood’s Chief Executive Officer, Frits van Paasschen, Ziegler’s expertise is in branding, not hotel operations. She worked for Toyota Motor Corp and Coca-Cola Co before joining Starwood.

The company might again hire someone from outside the industry to lead W, Collins said, naming fashion houses or music labels as possible sources of talent.

“She did a good job of taking the brand global,” he said. ”She had the aptitude for fashion and entertainment and music. She’s multilingual. She’s a global citizen.”

Starwood’s shares closed roughly flat at $58.56 on the New York Stock Exchange.