How Starwood is looking to lure top tech talent

Employees assist guests at the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Westin New York Grand Central in New York.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Employees assist guests at the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Westin New York Grand Central in New York.

In the hunt for top mobile and Web developers, it's no longer just hot technology start-ups competing with Facebook and Google. Retailers, auto manufacturers and media companies are trying to lure coders and designers as phrases like "user experience" and "reducing friction" enter mainstream business vocabulary.

Now, the hospitality industry is joining the fray. Starwood Hotels & Resorts, whose brands include St. Regis, W Hotels, Westin and Sheraton, is using a new lab in midtown Manhattan—40 miles south of the corporate headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut—as a digital hub. Clay Cowan, Starwood's vice president of digital, is rapidly packing the space with talented techies and expects to have 200 before long, even though the office just had its official opening in April.

Projects his team is pursuing include mobile check-in, so visitors can pass by the front desk and head straight to their room upon arrival; a Google glass app to help travelers get directions and explore their surroundings; and social-networking analytics that enable the company to use the many photos of luxury properties that visitors are posting to Instagram as real-time promotional material.

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Critical to Cowan is getting his developers to keep up with the speedy innovation at fast-growing consumer tech companies like Netflix, Uber and Airbnb rather than focusing on the often glacial pace of change at big hotel companies.

"That's the bar we've set," Cowan said in an interview while attending a mobile conference in San Francisco. "We want to be the first digitally fluent hospitality company."

In addition to New York, Starwood has a digital team in Austin, Texas, and smaller offices in Europe and Asia. Cowan, who joined the company in 2011, recognizes that attracting coveted developers requires more than just a hip place to work. The high salaries and free gourmet meals at Google and Facebook are often difficult to match, while start-ups offer all sorts of wacky perks and stock options that have the potential to turn into riches.

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Cowan sees Starwood as appealing to people looking for a little more work-life balance, away from the constant hustle of Silicon Valley. And it offers a perk that tech companies can't match no matter how hard they try: 1,200 properties across the globe at nine different hotel chains.

"People love to travel," Cowan said. And it's tough to leave the company "when your wife is telling you that you can no longer work anywhere else," he said.

By CNBC's Ari Levy.