Marriott’s New Loyalty Program: Not as Bad as Starwood Fans Feared

The W Hotel in Barcelona, Spain, one of the properties that Marriott gained when it acquired Starwood Hotels and Resorts. On Monday, Marriott released new rules for the combined rewards program.

In the nearly two and a half years since Marriott announced its intention to acquire Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the parent of Westin, Sheraton and W, skeptical customers of both companies have waited impatiently for answers to the following question: Just how many rewards and perks would Marriott take away from the 110 million members when it combined the loyalty programs?

On Monday, we all found out: Not as many as we had feared.

The new rules will make it harder for some customers to qualify for the highest levels of elite status, and the program’s new co-branded American Express cards will not be as lucrative for many people who like transferring hotel points into airline frequent flier programs. But Marriott’s new Chase Visa will prove more generous for many cardholders than the current one. Meanwhile, everyone in the program gets access to 6,500 hotels, greatly increasing the number of places to both earn points and redeem them.

“The product they are announcing is not anybody’s worst case or fears coming true,” said Gary Leff, a travel industry blogger with a specialty in spanking companies that devalue their loyalty programs. “In many ways, this is the best possible outcome we could have expected.”

Marriott’s prudence here makes sense given the stakes. It is now the largest hotel company on earth, and while scale will help its negotiations with online travel agencies, getting bigger is counterproductive if it scares customers away. Its loyalty program moves are also notable for what did not happen, namely tying the program much more closely to revenue. Many airlines have done that, and many passengers have hated it.

Which is not to say Marriott’s new program won’t annoy some people. Experienced players of the rewards program game often do best by combining travel at a single hotel or airline with everyday use of its co-branded credit card. And because the new cards will give out differing numbers of points depending on where you use them, everyone will have to do some math to see how he or she will make out in the new system.

Any evaluation of a loyalty program begins with the earn-and-burn analysis: What do you get in exchange for your loyalty, and what can you trade it for when you want to redeem? According to David Flueck, senior vice president of global loyalty for Marriott, hotel guests will earn about 20 percent more points than they did previously.

That number is meaningless, however, if the points are worth less when they’re redeemed. Marriott, which completed its acquisition of Starwood in September 2016, is moving to three-tier pricing in points for free rooms — a standard price and then peak and off-peak rates coming next year. Within that kind of plan, there is a lot of room for Marriott to improve its own economics at the expense of frequent customers.

Mr. Flueck made the following points when I pressed him on this: There are more properties where standard award pricing will fall than there are where they will rise. There will be roughly the same number of peak and off-peak nights. And he answered with a straight-up “no” when I asked him, on behalf of loyalists of the Starwood Preferred Guest program like myself, whether the changes were designed to devalue the program for Starwood members, who were often able to get up to (a quite generous) 3 cents per point in value when booking free rooms.

Loyalty brings perks in addition to points, but companies don’t want to make it too easy to earn them. Starwood members used to be able to qualify for platinum status after just 25 stays. Now, you’ll need to rack up 50 nights. The company will allow people to qualify under either the old rules or the new ones this year.

Many perks remain intact for people who reach the platinum level and higher, however, including club lounge access, upgrades to certain suites and a 4 p.m. checkout at every hotel (except resort and convention properties under some circumstances).

Also, Marriott travelers who regularly stay in lower-priced properties in parts of the country with no luxury hotels get some welcome news: The company did not follow the lead of airlines that have tied status more closely to revenue. At Marriott, a night is still a night, whether it’s at a Courtyard or a Ritz.

“For a road warrior always staying in secondary markets, we didn’t want to make it harder,” Mr. Flueck said.

Assessing the changes will be complicated enough for many travelers. But the analysis gets more confounding when you consider the various credit cards on offer. Instead of consolidating its portfolio with one card issuer, Marriott chose to maintain its relationship with both American Express and Chase. Both companies introduced new cards Monday.

The annual fee for the new Premier Plus Chase card is $10 more, though it will also offer more points than the current Premier plastic. Cardholders will need to alert the company if they want to switch.

The more interesting developments here, however, are on the American Express side. It is adding a “Luxury” American Express card that will be available in August and require a $450 annual fee. It will earn six loyalty points for every dollar spent at Marriott hotels, three at restaurants and airlines, and two points everywhere else.

While comparisons with the old program get tricky, for some time now Marriott has been allowing Starwood members to transfer their points into Marriott’s existing program at a one-Starwood-for-three-Marriott ratio. I ran my own numbers on card spending from 2017 (and made some wild guesses about future travel spending) and found that the points I earn will fall by about one-third.

At first glance, this would seem to matter a great deal, especially to people who like trading points for airline miles. While Marriott is preserving that feature and the bonus points that it sometimes gives out during the transfer, earning fewer points through card spending means fewer miles on the other side of the trade.

So who would add this card (or stick with the program at all, for that matter)? Well, consider the other perks. A $300 annual credit for any money you spend at a Marriott property brings the annual fee down to $150. Then, you get a certificate for a free night stay at all but the most expensive hotels. That could be worth that remaining $150, easy. Cardholders will also get the speediest Wi-Fi in hotels without having to pay for it.

Finally, anyone who manages to spend $75,000 per year on the card will get platinum status without even having to lay a head on a bed. That has the potential to annoy people who have to hit elite tiers the hard way, but Marriott believes that it can handle any influx of newbie platinums given the small number of cardholders who spend that much.

Current Starwood American Express cardholders will be able to count any spending from Jan. 1, 2018, onward toward the $75,000 tally if they switch to the new card this year. No change to card numbers will be required. (Also, cardholders of the old-school American Express Platinum card will continue to get automatic Marriott gold status.)

Given all that, plus a promise from American Express to give sign-up bonuses to people who upgrade to the new Starwood card, it seems that it’s worth giving the newly combined program a year or two to see how things shake out. I’m looking forward to not having to stay at inconvenient Starwoods anymore, since Marriott is bringing many more properties into the program.

Still, I’m not sure these benefits are so good that they merit switching for people who are already happy with their current earn-and-burn strategy. If you like a simple cash-back card, those products still exist (and my colleagues at Wirecutter have a guide to help you pick one of those). Cards from Chase and Capital One that offer generic points that can be used in other ways remain valuable, too.

Even after nearly two and a half years, Marriott still isn’t saying what it will call this new loyalty program, or even if it has ruled out Starriott. “We knew people were eagerly anticipating being able to earn and redeem across one program,” Mr. Flueck said. “We’ve done that as quickly as we could.”

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