A Whole Suite of Starwood Preferred Guest Benefit Improvements Rolling Out March 1

Starwood Elite Status Improvements: This morning Starwood is announcing a bunch of new benefits to go into effect March 1, and they’re pretty much across-the-board positive:

  • Checkin amenity for Gold members
  • Free breakfast option for Platinums
  • Upgrade priority 10 nights a year for Platinums who stay 50 nights or more
  • Additional benefits for staying 75 and 100 nights — check-in any time you wish, more bonus points for in hotel spend, and access to a dedicated Starwood team member to handle your hotel needs.

For a long time I’ve been saying that Starwood was an innovator, that other chains have caught up, and that they needed to up their game. That I had confidence they would. And I kept waiting. And waiting. They’ve now rolled out a suite of new benefits.

  • Starwood pioneered no capacity controls on award nights, if a standard room is available you can have it on points. Most chains have copied or come close on this over the past few years.
  • Starwood pioneered suite upgrades for top level elites. Hyatt trumped in 2009 with confirmed suites and now Hilton even includes suites as part of their upgrade program.

Beyond their unique selling propositions, Starwood innovated in several other areas that have since been matched — cash and points awards, earning points for hotel restaurant spend when not a guest and redeeming points on property for things other than room rate, they were a pioneer of late checkout. But Hilton and Priority Club have cash and points now and I anticipate Hyatt will eventually, Hyatt has introduced a similar earn and burn option when not a registered guest, and late checkout benefits have improved (most recently, and significantly, by Hyatt).

To me Starwood’s fundamental problem at the elite level has been that a guest who doesn’t get a suite upgrade, at a hotel without a club lounge, really just gets a 500 point amenity at check in and then doesn’t have their loyalty or special relationship with the chain reinforced at all for the rest of their stay. (Sure, at hotels where it isn’t already free they get internet, but that doesn’t accomplish the sort of relationship a chain is after with their most loyalty members.)

The changes announced, going into effect March 1, go a long way towards correcting this.

New amenities for Golds and Platinums

  • Continental Breakfast for Platinum members. Hilton and Hyatt guarantee breakfast (and at the Diamond level, a full breakfast, not continental). Marriott generally provides breakfast when lounges are closed. This was a weak spot for Starwood, Platinums had lounge access but with no lounge it was entirely left to the generosity of hotels if they wished to do more. Starting March 1, Platinums will receive breakfast as one of their choices for their amenity, meaning instead of the 500 Starpoints (at full service hotels) or 250 Starpoints (at lower scale hotels) that Platinums get now at check in. Breakfast is continental — Juice and coffee, pastries, breads, yogurts, cereals — though some hotels will be more generous. And many hotels will allow a buy up to full breakfast by paying the difference if they don’t just provide it gratis. The benefit applies to all hotels, all brands, for the entire length of stay and applies to the member and one guest.

  • New amenity choice for Golds. Golds receive a check-in amenity of points that’s half what Platinums receive, so 250 points at full service properties and 125 at Aloft, Element, and Four Points; internet for full length of stay (not specified what connection speed, whereas Platinums must receive highest speed available), or a beverage credit for a single drink (valued at US$15 although in Europe valued at 15 Euros, or the signature cocktail if that’s more expensive). This adds a real benefit to the Gold level, in most cases I’d take the internet especially on a longer stay and where it’s not expansible. Hyatt and Hilton offer internet at a similar elite tier. Now Starwood Gold means more than 4pm checkout and avoiding the room over the hotel’s HVAC…

New benefits for Platinums staying 50 nights or more

  • 50 Nights: 10 suite night awards. These are confirmable 5 days in advance subject to availability. The member will receive a list of upgraded room options and will be able to select online which ones they’re interested in. They can choose suite only, or premium view only, or both. If the member selects both, the system will first try to upgrade them to the higher category room. But of course there are some places where the view might be more desirable, e.g. at the Westin Maui any suites with an ocean view wouldn’t be considered standard suites so not eligible for the benefit. It might be more desirable to have an ocean view than a non-view suite. The system will attempt to upgrade at 5 days out, and then continue checking inventory each day until the day prior to check in.

    All Platinums that stayed 50 nights in 2011 will receive 10 suite night awards on March 1, and they will be valid until the end of the next calendar year (in this case, December 31, 2013). Suite nights must be consumed by their expiration date, not just put down on a reservation by the expiration date. In future years, when members hit 50 nights they’ll get their suite night awards right away and those will expire at the end of the following calendar year.

  • 75 Nights: 4 points per dollar and 24 hour check in. Members staying 75 nights receive a 100% bonus on points earned from in-hotel spend, rather than the 50% bonus earned by Golds and Platinums. And they’ll receive a benefit Starwood calls “Your24” — the ability to check in any time, 24 hours a day, though this benefit is subject to availability. The request must be made at least 48 hours in advance in order to find out whether it can be confirmed. The request will be possible online or by phone. Checking time will dictate checkout time on a 24 hour clock, so if you check in at 5am then you must technically check out at 5am as well though hotels will often be more lenient than that, and as long as you check in after 9pm you’ll still be eligible for late (4pm) checkout except at resorts where that’s subject to availability anyway. But this isn’t just early check in, if you confirm a late check in like 8pm you should be able to have 8pm checkout.

    The only other chain that currently comes close to this is Intercontinental, their Royal Ambassadors are guaranteed 8am check in. Starwood’s time is more flexible, but it isn’t a guarantee (Intercontinental will just put you in a temporary room to shower and rest if your assigned room isn’t available at 8am, with Starwood your room type may affect the availability of early check in, eg if no suites are available earlier you may not be able to, and it’s unclear whether you’ll be able to downgrade a room that’s had a confirmed upgrade applied and get your suite night certificates back in order to confirm the early check in at a lower room category).

  • 100 Nights – Receive a Designated Starwood Ambassador. The Ambassador program is a dedicated concierge who takes care of all of your Starwood travel needs as well as additional concierge services during your stay (and will assist with non-Starwood travel in cities without a Starwood property). They’ll know your preferences, contact hotels in advance to try to arrange them, and it does tend to lead to better on-property service as well at least as reported by many (though not all) folks with Ambassadors assigned.

    There has been a pilot program running, now it’s being expanded. I’d been surprised that I hadn’t seen a rollout of this program but it’s finally come. I actually predicted this benefit back in Septemer, saying I was surprised it hadn’t yet been rolled out to members staying more than just the minimum amount for Platinum. There are other criteria on which to get Ambassadors assigned, but anyone hitting 100 nights will get one. And those folks who don’t hit 100 nights in a future year may have it taken away, too… It seems somewhat like Hyatt’s Private Line program, or at least what that program wants to be, a dedicated contact for all things regarding the chain. Hyatt’s program has been somewhat variable based on the agent you’re assigned to, and I imagine that Starwood’s is no different, though it remains to be seen how well the growth in the program is managed.

Lifetime Status

  • Lifetime Gold after 250 nights and 5 years of elite status (does not have to be consecutive)
  • Platinum after 500 nights and 10 years of elite status (does not have to be consecutive)

It’s fascinating that even with the new benefits for additional nights, Starwood has not launched a new elite level. Higher night benefits are confirmed through SPG, whether suite award nights or 24 hour check in, so the hotel isn’t privileging one set of Platinums over another (though presumably this fits into the algorithm which prioritizes upgrades). But at the hotel level, Platinum is Platinum and that’s top tier. Which is a clever approach, Starwood does need to incentivize and reward nights beyond 50, but the risk in doing that is alienating customers who stay 50 nights but not more and who would no longer feel as valued. By maintaining a single top tier, and offering specific benefits beyond that level but not differentiating at the hotel level, they can continue to communicate the same value to folks that barely make platinum while rewarding those who stay more.

That said, the changes do represent a negative for folks who currently make Platinum on 25 stays but who don’t hit 50 nights. The ‘confirmed upgrade’ benefit, since it’s only confirmed 5 days out, is really an upgrade priority benefit. Hyatt offers guaranteed confirmed upgrades at booking, four a year to Diamonds. You lock it in, and unless you’re disservice or a mistake is made you lock in the suite whenever you plan your travels. Here Starwood is saying that folks staying 50 nights or more can designate 10 specific nights where they jump to the front of the queue to be upgraded if available. On those nights, and at properties where upgrade demand is high, that suggests that folks not putting in for priority will be lower on the totem pole for upgrades. And folks staying 25 times but not hitting 50 nights will not get any of those suite upgrade awards. The folks making Platinum on stays will have a harder time getting upgrades when they want them most, at top leisure properties where others will be throwing down their trump cards.

Personally I like the Hyatt confirmed suite upgrade model better, although Hyatt only lets you use those on paid nights and Starwood doesn’t differentiate between paid and award nights. And I do like that Starwood will let their Platinums speak up to identify the stays where the upgrades matter most to them, instead of lucking out with a suite on a business stay where it may not matter and losing the draw the few times a year when it does. And they’ll let members divvy out those suite nights one by one or on a longer stay, so several weekends for some versus a long stay for someone else. The flexibility is really good. But though it’s pitched as suites confirmable several days in advance, this program really is best understood as an upgrade priority program rather than a confirmed upgrade benefit like what Hyatt offers. And understood that way I quite like it, just not quite as much as I like Hyatt’s benefit.

The real game changer in the suite upgrade, though, may be a side effect of the new upgrade benefit rather than one of the benefits actually announced — Starwood lets members request their suite upgrade awards online, and Starwood’s system will automate upgrade processing. No more discretion of the check-in agent. No more sweet talking the agent. Advance upgrades are managed by computer, not by people. Someone like me who often works to schmooze the upgrade won’t benefit. And they’re not taking the best available room at check in processing away from the hotel. But it’s possibly a real step forward for removing discretion and inconsistency from the upgrade program.

I think my only wish list with these benefits is:

  • That all Platinums, not just those with 50 nights, receive the upgrade award nights. So folks with 25 stays and 40 nights would get them, and meeting planners who earn platinum based on spend would get them.

  • That 100 night folks would get confirmed suite upgrades as well, at booking, a la Hyatt’s Diamond benefit.

  • That more nights in a year would earn more suite award nights, currently someone staying 50 nights earns 10 (20% of their nights) while someone staying 100 nights earns those same 10 (and thus can only express upgrade priority for 10% of their nights).

Overall I think these are great changes for Starwood. They give something new to all elite members. The only ones who potentially lose out a bit are Platinums who don’t stay 50 nights. But they found a way to add benefits without making existing Platinums who just squeak into that level feel less valued by no longer being top tier. And there really are some nice new benefits. I still wish they did confirmed suite upgrades, I want guarantees on leisure stays not just priority, but I suspect they’ll do a pretty good job implementing the benefit that and much of the time the requests will clear.

My remaining tick list for what I’d like to see the program do:

  • More earning options. They don’t really have a ton of partners, I’d love to earn SPG points more ways.
  • Better website. They’re bringing much of the functionality for these new benefits online, I’d like to see existing benefits online like redeeming for premium room awards. They’re certainly emphasizing technology and they’re about to launch a new iPhone app. But there’s still some things we ought to be able to do online rather than calling. (And while we’re on the subject of premium room awards, I’d love to see those paired with cash and points.)
  • And end to double charging for award rooms at category 6 and 7 ‘all suite’ hotels. Those hotels earn the room rates they do because of their room types, and those rates are what justify their price in points. TO then say that the program charges double points because of the room type penalizes the member twice. And it isn’t a practice any other program has. Starwood has the most aspirational properties, so many that I’d actually want to stay at. But they price many of them at a sufficiently high level so as to leave them beyond reach.
  • Elite recognition when not a registered guest. This isn’t specific to Starwood. Eventually some chain will pick up on this idea. Before the rollout of Club Carlson, Radisson in Europe, Africa, and Middle East had a benefit they called “Our World, Your Lounge” where all elites were welcome in their hotels any time, to use wireless internet and have a coffee. An honored guest with a relationship to the chain is just that — an honored guest — regardless of whether they happen to be registered on a given night.

Revamping these holes, of course, will be for another day. For now big kudos to Starwood for adding some serious benefits to the program!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Sheraton Lima is already offering free club lounge usage including breakfast and snack. I have been booked using cash and points. Does this mean as a SPG gold member I won’t receive this as I am not Platinum?

  2. I assume there will be tracking of the lifetime nights somewhere on the website? And I hope it is retroactive! Interesting to see these numbers! For lifetime status, the 5 or 10 yrs of elite status…does it have to be ANY status? i.e. if I have 500 nights (I wish) but always had only Gold status…does it qualify me for Lifetime Plat?

  3. The Your24 has got to be coolest/most innovative benefit yet.

    It remains to be seen how the “upgrade priority” plays out in practice. As you mentioned, it seems likely that most members will want to upgrade at the same properties, so we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out. The Sheraton Krabi, for instance, has what, six suites?

    One thing I would like to see *Wood do is allow unused upgrade priority certificates to be redeemed for points. If a road warrior takes one vacation a year (and stays at the Sheraton Krabi) he’ll likely miss his upgrade, and shouldn’t have useless certificates.

  4. I’ve been SPG gold for a couple of years, usually from some sort of affiliation, or by product of mattress running for FWN or something like that.

    I think SPG is missing the mark with gold status. Because it is a “give away” and has the benefits of such, it doesn’t *incentivize* me to stay in SPG properties. Mind you, I’m a leisure traveler who has *complete* control over where he stays. When I’m expecting to shell out cold hard cash, SPG properties rarely provide the best value proposition. (It’s rarely a “tie”. Most often, SPG properties are significantly more expensive than a competitor. Expensive to the point where free internet and 125/250 points don’t do much to change my mind.)

    I do wish that SPG would up the earnings ratio on points. Although SPG points are worth a lot, 2-3 SPG points isn’t going to change my mind when the SPG property is $50-$100/night more expensive than a competitor. SPG needs a “killer ap” for Gold — 4pm late check-out is a start… perhaps a 9am early check-in?

    In comparison, airlines have done it right. Priority checkin, security, and boarding are meaningful things that one always gets, and is an incentive to not use a competitor.

  5. @gpapadop
    ” For lifetime status, the 5 or 10 yrs of elite status…does it have to be ANY status? i.e. if I have 500 nights (I wish) but always had only Gold status…does it qualify me for Lifetime Plat?”

    From the FAQ’s at http://www.spgpromos.com/morepowertoyou/?action=main.faq&language=en_US&IM=SPGT_Annc_SPG_ENG_1&EM=SPGMorePower#lifetime (sorry for the long url) the short answer is no; you need 10 years of Plat elite status to get lifetime Plat with 500 nights.

    For LT Gold it can be any status. See Q/A from site below:

    What are the requirements to become SPG Lifetime™ Gold?
    To earn SPG Lifetime Gold status, an SPG member must have a minimum of five years of elite status during his/her SPG tenure AND 250 eligible nights since joining the program.
    What are the requirements to become SPG Lifetime™ Platinum?
    To earn SPG Lifetime Platinum status, an SPG member must have a minimum of 10 years of Platinum status during his/her SPG tenure AND 500 eligible nights since joining the program.

  6. Gary do you know if the 5 nights per year from Starwood Amex will count towards lifetime?

    Also now that award stays count towards elite status will they also count towards the lifetime thresholds?

  7. @HoKo award stays should count, I assume that Amex nights will but you can call the Customer Contact Center and get your total to be sure

  8. @sil there’s no guidance to properties to offer less than they do currently, only a new set of benefits, though properties can and do change what they do all the time when those things are above and beyond the conditions of the program

  9. already got a call from spg this morning. i am now lifetime plat. i have >500 lifetime stays and been plat for many years (i wasnt sure that it was 10 and it doesnt say online, but im assuming i must have been…)

  10. Good analysis Gary, except for the part where you think Platinums with less than 50 nights don’t feel like there is another tier above them. Of course there is.

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