Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest were the two big winners at the Freddie Awards last week.

Starwood actually did the best of any airline or hotel with 8 trophies on the night. Marriott earned 5.

They were evenly matched, however, outside of the promotions arena where Starwood picked up 3 awards. Starwood certainly (and in my mind indisputably) had the richest earning promotion in the market for 2011, Free Resort Nights.

Marriott took home the biggest hotel trophy haul in in the Americas, Starwood did especially well elsewhere in the world

These two programs represent two very different competing philosophies for rewards and loyalty recognition.

Marriott is everywhere, the most common word used to describe them and also their loyalty program is “consistency.” They don’t promise a lot but they deliver well across the board.

Starwood’s philosophy seems to have crystalized over the past year into customizing the experience, every guest is different and the program wants to tailor their interactions with members to best understand and meet individual needs.

Starwood’s changes announced in February and which began in March were huge, a major revamp of the program.

  • Platinums choose if they want breakfast, if it’s something they’re expensing they can take the points. (Of course offering continental breakfast and offering it in lieu of the points checkin amenity also saves costs, but Starwood would probably say why invest in something a member doesn’t value on a given stay?)
  • ‘Confirmed’ upgrades are available to Platinums staying 50 nights or more, in reality they get to express a preference for when they get upgraded rather than having their upgrades on stays they don’t value suites. Of course it’s not confirmed at booking, so it’s about jumping to the front of the queue, but philosophically it’s about members raising their hands about when they most value a benefit. (Although this is also about standardization, the program rather than the hotel runs the advance upgrade procedure based on a hotel’s available inventory, removing the vagaries of properties which don’t like complying with upgrades and also the vagaries of the check-in clerk.)
  • Starwood 75 night Platinums get to choose checkin and checkout times with much greater flexibility than any other program. in contrast Marriott doesn’t even guarantee late checkout.
  • Starwood 100 night Platinums get a dedicated person to help customize their stays

I wonder if the recency of the improvements, announced just before the Freddies voting began and rolled out right in the middle of voting, gave the program a major boost. Certainly recent feelings and experiences loom large, even when ostensibly honoring a program’s achievements during the previous calendar year.

In my mind SPG was already second best (behind Hyatt Gold Passport) and even after these substantial improvements they remain second best (largely because Hyatt’s confirmed at booking suite upgrades up to 28 nights a year trump Starwood’s upgrade priority requests close-in to stays for top tier elites, and because the Hyatt Diamond breakfast benefit is much more robust than Starwood’s new Platinum breakfast offering).

The 1.3 million frequent travelers who participated in the Freddies voting process spoke clearly… both philosophies are valued and valuable. Sadly I’m only one vote, because I far prefer the tailored and also variable experience that Starwood offers.

Several years ago SPG seemed taken with six sigma, trying to iron out variance in their customer experiences. Contra the program’s terms and conditions, there were some European properties that stopped offering upgrades to the ‘best available room at check-in’ and instead were offering consistent one or two category upgrades to top elites, period. The idea was never to give too much that customers might expect it in the future, but to offer just a little bit that could be relied upon all the time. I think the last U.S. President called that “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” And I’m truly thrilled to see Starwood moving full throttle in the other direction.

Now, I love customization, which is why I think their new promotion is brilliant in allowing members to select their earning period and also what they earn for their stays. But it’s complicated and the performance of Marriott Rewards shows that members often like uncomplicated. The promotion isn’t especially lucrative, either, compared to what they’ve offered in the past, my sense is that Starwood had to rein back the value of what they were offering in order to fund the promotion themselves and prevent hotels from opting out of participation. I’d rather have hotels opt out and have richer promotions than have standardization. So hopefully Starwood takes its customization approach even more seriously in the future.

But that’s my wish for a program, members often feel differently, no program is as decorated over time at the Freddies as Marriott Rewards.

  1. Dave said,

    Marriott Rewards has been a fantastic program over the years and participation really keeps me coming back year after year.

  2. narayana said,

    I feel Marriott has high levels of requirements to qualify for top elite and still does not guarantee benefits. Between the 2, SPG would be my choice. Currently Hilton is my choice because of the places that I travel to mostly have hampton inns or holiday inn expresses rather than a marriott or SPG hotel.

  3. Jim L said,

    These are my top two programs. I am plat and plat respectively. I have enough stays/nights that I can spread my loyalty and make top tier with each program. With SPG changes I may have to reevaluate my distribution. That said, my best experiences are with SPG for the reasons you named. Occasionally I have gotten amazing experiences, such as the best suite at the Mystique in Santorini, which I will never forget. If I was just marginally upgraded with SPG, like I am with Marriott, I would never have had the many memorable experiences that I have at SPG hotels. What I like about Marriott is 1.they are everywhere 2. The service at the Ritz. No one replicates the Ritz service. Very consistent. HMMM that (consistent)seems to be a common word re: Marriott. At the end of the day, two different programs with two different types of experiences. For me, both necessary to meet my traveling needs.

  4. thesilb said,

    Its a joke that Marriott won anything. For anyone who knows squat about program benefits, Starwood is miles ahead (and Hyatt would be up there with Starwood, in a camp way above Marriott). I’m not really sure how Marriott could score so high, it suggests some data impropriety to me. Do they scale the votes for program size, to reflect that larger programs may generate more raw votes?

  5. Lark said,

    Marriott Rewards, although unbelievable to you and Lucky :), is a great program.

    Here is a brief synopsis of why I stick with Marriott: Ritz Half Moon Bay, Ritz Hong Kong, Ritz South Beach, Cosmopolitan, Timber Lodge at Heavenly, JW Marriot, Renaissance, Autograph Collection, Edition.

    Coverage everywhere with CY’s, Residence Inn’s, and Fairfields…

    Great ability to earn points, very strong redemption options…

    I would say consistent at the low end, and with their coverage, and often spectalular at the high end!

  6. Gary said,

    @thesilb voting is comparative, voters rank programs 1st/2nd/3rd, best average ranking of those ranked by at least 2% of the voters in a category wins

  7. FTfan said,

    I would have put Hyatt 1st place, SPG 2nd. Marriott is great, but Marriott rewards program is not!

  8. MS said,

    Strongly agree with Gary on above points. I really hope Starwood notes this part:

    “I’d rather have hotels opt out and have richer promotions than have standardization. ”

    I’ll be using AirBnb and Hyatt for 60 nights this summer, as the new promotion simply doesn’t provide enough value to earn my business.

  9. Matt said,

    I’m not sold on the comparative voting algorithm. “Rank 3 programs” says to me put your top 3 programs, but in that case you’re driving down your third choice, but not affecting your 4th choice which you actively believe to be worse. I’m not convinced that this is a good method. People who think as you (or I) do about Marriott would never rank them in the top 3 so will not drive down their score. If 98% detest Marriott (I do not believe this to be true) but 2% love them they can still get top mark. If everyone thinks they’re 3rd best, they end up ranked much more poorly than the “98% hate” example.

    The benefit analyzers and optimizers may tend to not rank Marriott at all, while the people who just like the hotels and the simplicity probably rank it highly.

    Switching gears entirely, some people seem to think Mariott is too complicated, and Priority Club is simpler and thus more attractive. This just confuses the heck out of me, much like Priority Club.

  10. beachfan said,

    I think it’s locations that drove Marriott, not consistency at low end. I wish there was a Starwood closer to my companies Home Office, but the treatment at the nearest Westin is so much better that I’m often willing to fight traffic for an additional 30 minutes plus, just for the better treatment.

    PS I am Platinum in both.

  11. u600213 said,

    I like SPG but there are not enough Starwood brands in Podunk USA so I do Marriott and Hilton.

  12. Saturday Musings from MJ on Travel - Marshall Jackson on Travel said,

    [...] Gary Leff offers excellent commentary on why the very different SPG and Marriott Rewards programs both scored well at The Freddies. For what it’s worth, I like both programs and stay at both hotels, but SPG will always be my favorite. [...]

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