by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | May 6, 2015

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International all recently held first-quarter earnings calls within days of each other. While Hilton and Marriott both reported gains in revenue fueled by strong growth in group and transient business, Starwood's leadership was candid about its need to stimulate growth in order to catch up to its competitors.

"Being more communicative, more flexible, and more responsive with current and prospective hotel owners and speeding up Starwood decision-making, all are actions that are now directly in our gun sights to enable us to continue to look for growth at an accelerated pace," said interim chief executive officer Adam Aron, who replaced Frits van Paasschen after the latter was let go by the company earlier this year. Starwood has commissioned a third party to survey 2,700 hotel owners, including those with competitor properties, to ascertain what it is doing right and where it needs to improve in order to stimulate growth.

Starwood's Adam AronStarwood also stunned much of the hotel community when it announced it had retained an investment bank to explore strategic and financial alternatives in order to increase shareholder value, including a possible sale or merger. Speculation immediately abounded, with industry experts weighing in on who would be the better company to absorb the Stamford, Conn.-based company — Wyndham? Marriott? Hilton?

While Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta said he would "remain open-minded" about his company's potential role in the possible sale of Starwood, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson refused to speculate. He told investors Marriott would continue to focus on its management and franchise "at very light capital costs, if any."

Hilton had a solid first quarter. Group room revenue rose by 6.8 percent over the same period in 2014 as a result of strong demand from small group and corporate meetings. Interestingly, it singled out strong group demand in Chicago and San Francisco for its 6.5 percent increase in U.S. group revenue. In Europe, group demand was particularly strong in Copenhagen, Denmark; Germany; Ireland; and Prague, Czech Republic.

Marriott International, which reported a 5 percent year-over-year increase in North American revenue per available room, said that was driven primarily by small group business, which was "particularly strong," compounded by increased room rates. In addition, the company reported that group bookings at its full-service properties was up by 10 percent over the same period in 2014. And there is no sign of a slowdown on the horizon. Marriott is projecting group business will keep building throughout 2015. For meeting planners, that will make getting in the door that much harder, as competition for dates and space from groups heats up.

While Starwood's quarter-one results were less than rosy — revenue fell by 2.9 percent over 2014 — Aron was blunt with investors, noting its Sheraton brand was tired and service was not up to par in some locations. "We have some terrific Sheraton properties around the world, and we have some hotels that need more focus on the fundamentals of delivering service quality to our guests," he said, adding that the company would announce its plans for the Sheraton brand by the end of this June, for implementation during the second half of 2015.