Complete Customization: It's in the Cards
Print Solutions Magazine, March 2004

Starwood Hotels and Resorts didn't make it easy for Jerome Group. The hotel and leisure company, based in White Plains, N.Y., was impressed with Jerome Group's digital printing capabilities, but spent months researching case studies, testing sample products and grilling Jerome Group's service staff with questions about digital printing. Starwood wondered if the technology-savvy print provider's products were too good to be true.

Today, Starwood executives are thrilled. St. Louis-based Jerome Group's digital capabilities have enabled the end user to print highly customized, cost-efficient ID cards (called DigeCards) at a much faster rate. Starwood's first production, which ran in January, was nearly flawless. Jerome Group and Starwood expect future runs to be just as smooth.

Customization is Key To Member Programs

Starwood, which owns, operates and franchises more than 740 properties worldwide, provides a preferred-guest program for more than 3 million travelers. Upon joining, each member receives a card that includes information such as member name, member number, program affiliation and expiration date.

Prior to its relationship with Jerome Group, Starwood embossed plastic that was the size and thickness of a typical credit card on traditional printing presses, says Tony Hayes, director of Starwood's print production and procurement. From a marketing standpoint, the cards were largely uniform. Customization seemed cost-prohibitive, Hayes says. He worked with several print manufacturers to print the cards, and predicting inventory was an issue.

Enter Jerome Group's DigeCard. Like the cards they replaced, Starwood's DigeCards can include images of partners' logos. Content, format, co-branding and size are variables that can be managed on a one-to-one basis. Thousands of cards can be printed in one run—each with its own colors, graphics and photos—without stopping Jerome Group's HP Indigo 3000 printers. In short, DigeCards are a marketing department's dream.

A traditional data card machine can print approximately 1,000 cards an hour, says Steve Stone, Jerome Group's executive vice president. Most cards are monotone due to the cost of ribbons. To meet the demand of large companies, a manufacturer would need to run multiple presses simultaneously to complete a large order in one day. Digital printers, on the other hand, can print up to 400,000 credit card-sized cards daily, Stone says. And digital printing eliminates obsolescence: If a customer needs more, Jerome Group simply has to print them, no matter the quantity required. Stone predicts most customers save 20 percent to 30 percent when switching to digital printing. Hayes predicts Jerome Group's digital solution will save Starwood about $400,000 this year.

Because Jerome Group owns all the front-end and back-end software necessary to set up a DigeCard program with any company, getting Starwood's system running was relatively simple. Creating a database of variable information, including members' names, ID numbers, program affiliations and expiration dates, was the most time-consuming part of the project. (It took about a month.) Jerome Group developed and loaded the necessary software on Starwood's machines, allowing the end user to send Jerome Group the variable data. Jerome Group provided Starwood with software training, and the end user has 24/7 access to the print provider's customer service department.

Starwood DigeCards are digitally imaged on the front and back in full color with the member's name, ID number, program affiliation and expiration date. While the backs of the old cards were blank, Starwood's DigeCards have images of partners' logos, such as AAA's logo. Membership levels of Starwood's Preferred Guest program (which business travelers voted hotel frequent-guest "Program of the Year" in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002) are distinguished by different background colors on the card's front. Members can upgrade their levels by earning two "Starpoints" for every U.S. dollar spent at participating hotels and resorts. Each member begins as Preferred Guest and can upgrade to Gold Preferred Guest (10 visits or 25 nights a year) and Platinum Preferred Guest (25 visits or 50 nights a year).

Starwood hasn't executed it yet, but Jerome Group is capable of printing a different, personalized image on the back of each DigeCard, says Alex Crohn, Jerome Group's senior vice president of national sales and marketing. For example, if one Starwood member enjoys a specific resort in the mountains, his or her DigeCard could feature a picture of that resort or a picture of mountains. This is the kind of one-to-one marketing that Jerome Group executives believe will provide clients with unparalleled results.

Hayes says 35,000 to 40,000 membership cards are printed for Starwood monthly. (This number varies depending on the number of new members who sign up.) Jerome Group's first production run in January 2004 was "almost flawless, considering it was such a huge transition," Hayes says. (Starwood had been with its previous print provider for more than seven years.)

A Digital Printing Leader

Jerome Group has more than 50 years of experience in the printing industry. Because of its data management and digital print-on-demand capabilities, the company is a leader in digital printing technology. The firm also produces commercial printing materials such as brochures, post cards and marketing pieces, as well as fulfillment services, inventory management, graphic design, prepress and bindery services in both business-to-consumer and business-to-business markets.

Jerome Group has four proprietary digital products: DocuCentrix, Brand-on-Demand, DigeCard and Custom Market Mail. Each is designed to enhance clients' brands by completely customizing their campaigns. DocuCentrix allows member-based companies to creatively communicate with millions of members cost-effectively. End users can create customized materials such as directories and booklets based on numerous variables. DocuCentrix can be combined with Jerome Group's DigeCard solution so that membership ID cards can be affixed to the materials produced by DocuCentrix. Brand-on-Demand allows end users such as franchisers and retailers to create their own promotional materials with branded, customized content via the internet. Once a template is established, individual retailers can fill in their own content based on their needs. Custom Market Mail is a result of new technology and new postal regulations. Now, oversized direct mail pieces don't need envelopes. Flashy, custom-shaped, die cut direct mail pieces targeted to specific customers ensures a higher response rate than the typical postcard approach.

"I think that there's a new method of reaching customers," Stone says, adding that direct mail marketing campaigns typically involve scattering a half-million mailings to a list of names in hopes of achieving a 1 percent response rate. But by working with databases and demographics, firms can send out 1,000 customized mailings and reasonably expect a 20 percent to 30 percent response rate, Stone says.

Stone loves to talk about one-to-one marketing—and for good reason. The marketing approach, along with the firm's commitment to continual technological advances, has led the company to consistent growth. Today, Jerome Group serves 957 clients. One hundred of them (some are million-dollar companies) utilize digital printing technology.

Digital's New Generation

That's not to say the road to digital glory is easy. Any technology involves a learning curve, and Jerome Group experienced one. The company had to understand how to effectively offer the technology: In what ways could it manipulate data? How could the company create a product that also worked on paper? How could it ensure that a senior citizen wouldn't receive the same piece a 30-year-old would? These were some of the questions Jerome Group had to answer.

The company did so by hiring employees who could be trained easily and who understood the importance of digital technology. A new generation of people understands the database side of digital printing, Stone says, adding that printing knowledge is valuable, too. Once Jerome Group had the right equipment and personnel, it concentrated on developing digital programs that fit customers' needs. The programs had to be flexible enough for use in many different applications, Stone says. Evolving into a digital printing provider is a major investment, Stone says, but worthwhile in the long run.

Part of the digital printing learning curve is understanding and explaining to customers that digitally printed products don't have the same quality as conventional printing. For example, Starwood's new membership cards' edges aren't as crisp as its previous cards. Also, they're constructed from material that isn't as heavy.

"In the early years, we marketed [digital printing] as the next greatest thing for printing," Stone says. "But in digital printing, there are a lot of limits in terms of quality and sheet size." Jerome Group first started marketing digital printing by focusing on equipment, but Stone says the firm's strategy has changed. "I think the marketplace is starting to adopt the limitations of digital printing to gain the power of personalization and variability," he says.

Hayes agrees. "The aesthetic value [of Starwood's DigeCards] was good enough that I felt they were worth exploring," he says. In the end, the increased flexibility, faster delivery and significant cost savings were more important to Starwood than the minor change in aesthetics that few customers would notice. More importantly, Starwood now has the power of personalization. A customized product that grabs a customer's attention is more valuable than a beautifully embossed, super-crisp piece that's thrown away instantly. PS

—Story by Kara Gebhart
—Photos by Tim Trunnell