Insights from My Breakfast with the Vice President of Hilton HHonors

Yesterday morning I had breakfast with Mark Weinstein, Vice President of Hilton for the HHonors program. (Full disclosure: He offered, but I bought breakfast; we met at my hotel – a Marriott – and so I was the only one in a position to earn points.)

My sense is that they know they took a hit with last year’s devaluation. And they’d like to build some of the passion back amongst the most dedicated flyers.

Of course they’re not going to undo last year’s major changes…

Mark heard from me more than he revealed things to me, but he did promise that there were no big negative changes looming on the horizon. (They’ve already done that.)

My message to him was that:

  • The program is too complex, hopelessly so. Reducing complexity isn’t about taking away member benefits. It’s about the award chart, and the perverse results it leads to (the frequency with which a suite will cost fewer points than a standard room shows that the award chart is out of whack for instance).

  • Killing options like points and fixed miles isn’t the way to get to simplicity, in fact Hilton’s unique selling proposition was its generosity on the earn side and the ability to ‘double dip’ a campaign that’s long gone by the wayside.

  • The program isn’t predictable enough on the redemption side. With so many award categories, and a sliding scale of point requirements within some of those categories, a member can’t know what their points are worth or set a goal for a certain number of points to redeem for an aspirational award.

  • Even though they have to work with their hotel owners, compensate them well for the free room nights, and perhaps even make adjustments to point requirements as properties are full and rates go up — it may be really worthwhile for the program to absorb some of that cost increase at the upper end. They’ve priced their best hotels out of a reasonable range for redemption. It isn’t about how many points versus how much they have to pay a hotel — putting the best hotels out of reach reduces the incentive to stay at the lesser hotels throughout the year because members won’t be motivated by the great trip at the end of the rainbow. They need great hotels in great destinations that may even be loss leaders on the redemption side to drive the rest of the business.

  • They need to improve benefits for Diamond status, there wasn’t much of a reason to earn it beyond getting Gold. And there certainly wasn’t a reason to stay at their hotels for status at this point. The sweet spot is Gold, and that’s a freebie (they believe this works for them, breakfast and internet and some room priority isn’t a benefit that trades off with other members so they can give it away broadly to spread the word amongst key traveler demographics).

  • I fished for whether we might see a tie-up with American AAdvantage. Of course despite Crossover Rewards, Hilton has a strong (and frequently elite qualifying mile-earning) relationship with Delta now. American is the last big airline player and Hilton the last big hotel chain with a meaningful elite level so it could make sense. I got a knowing smile, clearly this is something they’ve thought a lot about, but I wasn’t going to get an answer yesterday morning.

At the end of breakfast Mark mentioned having read my post about losing Hilton HHonors Diamond status, and how I was no longer a Gold member. So he had already bumped my status up to Gold.

Gold is an easy status to get, there are several free or close to free routes I could have taken to get it had I expected to need it (strategic blunder on my part). And it’s a relatively low value item (though the best mid-tier elite status in most folks’ estimation).

I asked readers what they thought, I pushed back on the offer but did not want to be rude over our meal. Most readers thought it was fine to keep but others thought that I shouldn’t, that it would detract from their perception of my objectivity.

I thought it might just save me the effort of getting an HHonors co-brand credit card again, or doing (and failing) a Diamond challenge in order to keep Gold status. But I ultimately agreed with those who said it wasn’t a good idea, and was persuaded by the fact of how easy it is to get the status myself.

I’m far from pure. There are comps that I would take. If Aman Resorts wanted to give me a suite at one of their better properties, I would take it. I think the old apocryphal Winston Churchill story makes sense here (“now we’re just haggling over price”). But I’m not going to give anyone the idea that my reviews and opinions are influenced by a mere Gold status. 🙂

A snippet from the followup email I sent to Mark this morning,

Meanwhile, I greatly appreciate the spirit behind upgrading my HHonors account back to Gold status. I had my readers give me feedback on it, and I’ve thought about it, and if you don’t mind I’d actually prefer it if you would downgrade my account back down to Silver.

I think that’s the right thing.

And he replied,

As part of that candid feedback, I did not want to lose your perspective as a Gold Elite HHonors member. …Per your request, we will revert your status back to Silver and look forward to hearing your experiences through that lens and — hopefully — about your successful journey back to Gold Elite.


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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Comments

  1. Nice post. I think it’s fine to keep the Gold bump but it might not of been to keep a Diamond bump. It’s like someone taking you to dinner and offering to pay versus taking you out to strip club and offering to “pay”.

    Interesting that he met you at the Marriott. You should have told him you are staying at a HIX and breakfast was on you 🙂

  2. I’d be fine even if you kept a comp diamond status from them. As you’ve mentioned before, there really isn’t too much of a difference between gold and diamond status. I’ve been diamond before and I’ve never gotten an upgrade, let alone a 4 pm late checkout. That said, I am very pleased that they are aware, or have been made aware of the damage they’ve done to their program. On my end, it’s: their loss and SPG’s gain.

  3. Gary, I think it would be weird if you had accepted his offer for Gold status after you turned down AA’s offer of a free flight last year. I don’t think it is a biggie to accept any of those, but out of coherence you couldn’t accept this one. Kudos to you on this one!

  4. You raised good points, shame it was such a one-way exchange of information though.

    Also remember Gold is much harder to obtain (and especially maintain) for non-Americans, so it’s not to be sniffed at!

  5. “hopefully — about your successful journey back to Gold Elite.”
    I thought that you were Diamond (hence soft-landing), shouldn’t he wish you journey back to Diamond Elite?

  6. Dude. You posted a picture of your Amex Platinum card. Pretty sure you can call Amex and just ask for HH Gold. That’s what I did.

  7. Oddly enough, reading your post kind of depressed me. I earned Hhonors Diamond status last year the hard way by spending many nights with my carcass in one of their hotels. It is definitely a one-sided relationship, as Diamond status is indiscernible from Gold, as a hotel guest – I can’t even get a robe in my Hilton room without calling down to the desk. Not certain of the point of this, except to express my frustration at the self-gutting that occurred last year, and to agree that I don’t even consider Hilton properties as I plan my award trips. What a terrible waste it has been. SPG or Hyatt are both far better options for anyone looking to be rewarded for their loyalty…isn’t that the point of these programs?

  8. Yeah you would think that they would want the diamond experience to be as if you are a valued guest even if on an award stay. That’s not my experience – they couldn’t have given me a worse room if I was dirt.

  9. I think any program that has 7-8 levels of redemption and a sliding scale as well is too complicated. I also think that having pts be worth .003-.005 a piece is a joke.

  10. @ Gary:

    “they’d like to build some of the passion back amongst the most dedicated flyers.”

    Did you mean ‘travelers’?

    Also, appreciate the ‘I am far from pure.’ comment.

    Any of us, in your position and with the credibility (reputation?, following?) you have built up would be tempted by the available freebies.

    I know I have been critical of you in the past, but if you 1) decline, or 2) accept and disclose, then I believe you are providing the transparency your blog readers deserve.

  11. I think it was fine to keep the Gold status. It’s so easy to get that it almost means nothing. Heck, I don’t even think Diamond status would have been that big of a deal. Their reward program in general is a joke now.

  12. Proper choice Gary.

    As for “gutting” HH, it’s true from a relative viewpoint, but not when you compare to the competition – they are actually less expensive on top tier since Hyatt devalued. On low/mid tier, they are very competitive. Only Carlson beats them on low/mid tier due to Carlson’s (unsustainable) 2nd night free promos. Carlson doesnt have true top tier properties, so is only a program of last resort for me (after Hilton/Hyatt/SPG).

    As for Diamond, I had excellent upgrades at my recent Conrad stays overseas – better than Diamond perks at Park Hyatts. I go out of my way to choose Hilton – for leisure travelers like me who would never get top status because of insufficient stays, HH is a winner because I can use my Surpass card to get Diamond. Add in big property list and HH is my preferred program.

    That said, agree with Gary about program being too complex (but so are most programs). And I’d like to see 5th night free be expanded to more than basic rooms.

  13. @Paul actually the reverse is true, Hilton is cheapest for redemption at bottom tier and still far more expensive on a $ spent per redemption basis at the top tier.

  14. HEY, did I steal your joke or did you steal mine!?: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/22761289-post115.html

    Appreciate the intellectual honesty, either way.

    As my wife said: “How is taking gold from hilton any different than taking cash from chase? Hotels and credit cards are both products he reviews and recommends. He should either take both or neither.”

    Now I have an answer: taking HH Gold makes one a cheap whore. Taking Chase cash makes one a classy call girl. 😀 😉

  15. @kokonutz for what it’s worth i wrote this post before the time stamp on yours. I use the Churchill stories all the time. I love the one where he’s in the men’s room and Clement Atlee walks in . . .

  16. “They need great hotels in great destinations that may even be loss leaders on the redemption side to drive the rest of the business.”

    That’s perfectly stated and it makes perfect sense. Aspirational awards need to be attainable or they lose their power to motivate customers. However I have yet to meet any loyalty program manager who would agree with the concept of loss leader redemption. They are too accustomed to ensuring that every single decision must show a measurable profit.

    Your statement reminds me of the thinking of Tom Plaskett when he authorized the very first AAdvantage program. Its focus was an attainable, aspirational award: a free first class ticket to Hawaii. Randy Petersen has a good exposition of the birth of frequent flyer programs at http://www.frequentflyerservices.com/press_room/facts_and_stats/history.php

  17. I never thought I would choose Holiday Inn over Hilton but I am giving back my Diamond status in protest of the insult to our community

  18. Why did he have breakfast with you?
    They clearly know what they did to the program and the consequences.

  19. If people keep complaining about the difference between gold and diamond status, they probably are going to just take away benefits from golds.

  20. Wait a second. Aren’t you a tenured member of University faculty? You’ve already pimped yourself out . If some billionaire owner or manager of a billionaire franchise is going to comp you something because he or she feels it’s good for business, you take it.

    And then you simply disclose that you’ve been compensated, yes I understand that you have readers that will tell you this or that, nonsense, if they give it to you. Take it. You’re not violating any ethical or moral code.

    Just my two cents.

  21. Oh and just for “Equal time”. I don’t stay up to date with the corporate speak making the rounds every year if it doesn’t directly affect me. ( Yes it indirectly affects me) But to be honest I don’t always get to it in real time.

    Ok the theme this year seems to be the following, let’s express to all that are listening that these are businesses and we will run them accordingly. Yes they are not changing their stance. They are simply making it more vocal. To say things like well we will provide what people will pay for, and we are simply passing on our costs blah blah blah. Yes we get it. Travel providers are businesses and this involves money. But guess what else is a business nowadays? Life. And you don’t hear people raising kids or slaving their way through school or making an extra buck at the convenience store or the car wash constantly whining about having to “PASS on their costs to SOMEBODY” .

    If you’re not being paid to be a corporate executive of a major travel provider feel free to speak your mind all you like, if you’re receiving a large salary and think you’re slick? Do us all a favor and shut your trap not because you have to do so but because you simply look silly when you continue to do so.

    Smisek takes the cake with the “Well we’re going to pursue every LEGAL strategy to ensure their is no foreign ownership of domestic airlines” jumping to the NEXT issue which says, well we’re just here to meet demand. And we’re just passing on the cost of jet fuel to our customers.

    Which one is it? Flipper. Are you representing the interests of your shareholders first and giving your paying customers a raw deal or are you representing yourself first? Yes in every business there is BS. But the stuff that’s been flying around lately is actually funnier than most stand up comedy coming out of the big apple.

    Yes , you’re BUSINESSES. We hear you but guess what. We own businesses too. And you don’t hear the people paying the fares whining incessantly. Least not until now.

    Have a great week.

  22. Is it really this easy ?
    “”You posted a picture of your Amex Platinum card. Pretty sure you can call Amex and just ask for HH Gold. That’s what I did.””

    We lost our Gold status –
    Gary can U post how to get free Gold status ?.
    It used to be so easy
    Thanks

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