How Marriott Rewards Could Be the Best Hotel Loyalty Program in the World

With Marriott acquiring Starwood — a deal that hasn’t yet closed thanks to delays by Chinese regulators — a lot of members are going to be seeing changes.

Today Marriott Rewards’ strongest argument is ubiquity. What members tell me most often what they like about Marriott Rewards is ‘no matter where I go, I can earn my points’. In the US at least there are Marriott family properties pretty much anywhere.


Marriott Seattle Airport Atrium

However Marriott Rewards has real drawbacks.

  • There aren’t very many ‘special places’, really aspirational hotels where you can have experiences using your points. There are plenty of perfectly nice properties, but not many to dream about.

  • It has the toughest criteria for earning top tier elite status of any of the major chains. Sure, there are a few tricks to earn status but 75 nights for Platinum, when you can’t qualify just on stays or spend, is high.

  • Despite the high hurdle for top tier, benefits aren’t competitive with Starwood or Hyatt. There’s no promise that top tier members get suites even when every suite in a hotel is empty. Breakfast isn’t a benefit at Courtyard properties, at Ritz-Carlton properties, or at resorts. So if your company is paying for a stay and probably picking up breakfast, breakfast is free. But if you’re on vacation at a resort and you’re out of pocket, you don’t get breakfast.


Marriott Boca Raton

Hyatt’s top tier benefits are going to stay the strongest — confirmed at booking suites 4 times per year and full breakfast (not continental) for up to 4 registered guests in a room, and the ability to gift Diamond benefits when booking award stays for friends and family.

But Marriott doesn’t need to compete with Hyatt most of the time given their size, which only gets bigger with the Starwood merger, while growing its international footprint.

Marriott gets the aspirational properties through the merger as well, so Marriott points will become more valuable with more and nicer placers to redeem them.


St. Regis Bali

Marriott is also already more rewarding for in-hotel spend than Starwood, and certainly clustered in the middle of the pack with competitors.

And Marriott has started to improve since announcing its deal with Starwood.


Renaissance Boca Raton

I’m hearing several (unconfirmed, and I haven’t asked Marriott to confirm) reports that Marriott Rewards will ultimately add real suite upgrades for Platinum. They have to, this is non-negotiable if loyalty is a priority for the program as they say it is.

If they do this, and if they fix breakfast, they’ll be a stronger program than Hilton HHonors with better hotels. And that’s the major competitor.

And the key outstanding issue would be how they treat Starwood members coming into the Marriott Rewards program.

  • How will lifetime elite benefits transfer? Marriott’s lifetime requirements are higher than Starwood’s (not surprising since Marriott offers so many more opportunities to stay given its size). Will lifetime Starwood Platinums get lifetime Platinum from Marriott, or just gold? Will lifetime Starwood Golds get lifetime Gold, or just silver (which really isn’t a benefit)?

  • At what ratio will Starwood points transfer to Marriott? Anything less than 1 Starpoint to 3 Marriott points will lead to a lot of Starwood members wishing they had lit their points balances on fire before the programs merged, blowing them on one last megastay or transferring them to airline miles.

The good news is that Marriott seems to value improvements to its loyalty program more than I’d have expected, given that they’ve already introduced some changes and inferring from Starwood Preferred Guest continuing to do new and innovative things even as the merger is pending and even as the rest of Starwood seems to be preparing to defer to Marriott entirely on its future.

With a merger that hasn’t even closed yet and the large technological, policy, and training challenges that go along with combining major loyalty programs it’s possible that Starwood Preferred Guest could have a standalone future longer than the ‘through 2017’ that we’ve been told.

And it’s an oversimplification to say that when the programs do merge, these issues are all that will determine its future value for members. Starwood is fantastic at problem-solving and service recovery, while my own experience with Marriott doesn’t live up to that standard. (A reader shared with me last week about the modest compensation she was offered for a bat flying into her in her room never posted thanks to lack of followup by the hotel.)

Nonetheless what we’ve seen so far is, at least, offering reasons to be hopeful (even if the initial handling of 4pm checkout provides reason to be cautious).

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. I never understood why Marriott cannot at least offer Platinum members a cup of coffee, fruit and a danish at the Courtyard properties.

    I have noticed better treatment of elites at Marriott properties in the last year. My chances of a late checkout have improved. Before it was like pulling teeth.

  2. Don’t forget the 1:1 transfer for several airline partners that Starwood has. I used most of my business class upgrades from Starwood points.

  3. I note that the Autograph Collection has some redemption-worthy properties.

    And, yes, breakky at resorts would be a fantastic improvement

  4. finally one blogging article that isn’t entirely trash talking Marriott. people keep forgetting that Marriott wasn’t some evil vulture out there to tear apart SPG …. it was Starwood putting themselves onto the auction block.

    Some were also very naive to fantasize that the Anbang Consortium would’ve spent billions to outbid Marriott then completely leave SPG alone.

  5. Ya breakfast is is where Marriott fails for me, I stay in Hilton’s over 120 nights a year – which I would gladly change to Marriott except I would on a daily per diem, so I don’t want to spend say 14.00 on breakfast 5 days a week because it is my money.

  6. Whenever I stayed at a resort property, the mandatory resort fee covered breakfast so I don’t see that as a problem. No breakfast at Courtyard? Meh, there are so many property brands that I rarely end up staying at Courtyard. Been a Plat for 14 years and just waiting for the SPG program to combine so it will push me over the point threshold for Lifetime Plat.

  7. Just updating their logo to get with the times would immediately make Marriott Rewards a better program. Yeesh. #designfail

  8. The Starwood lifetime transfer will be interesting. I don’t know if Starwood even keeps track of lifetime points. So even if you don’t have lifetime status at Starwood, how will your Starwood stays/points transfer to Marriott lifetime?

  9. Have lifetime plat status with Marriott and have never been upgraded to a full suite. Recently was in London and realized that you don’t even get free local calls with Plat status. That being said, I loved the hotel and the value of the club lounge was exceptional. Just needed to use my Google Fi for local calls. 🙁

  10. Marriott has a level above Platinum that is a “secret.” No Marriott employee I have talked to can tell me how to reach that level. It’s their “Premier” level and is “reserved for their top percentile of Marriott Elites.” Have you heard of this Gary? How does one achieve this status??

  11. @Tina it’s generally top 3%, but there hasn’t been any clear benefit to the status, most members that have it say they’ve gotten nothing beyond what platinum provides

  12. @Tina, @Gary,
    As a Platinum Premier for the last 3 years, the two differences are complimentary Gold status with United and an annual gift (usually some electronic gadget worth in the $20-40 range).

    With the exception of Marriott in Ghent, Belgium, where the GM personally came out of his office to escort me to penthouse suite & had champagne, fresh fruit & chocolate waiting for me, there isn’t much difference

  13. “How Marriott Rewards Could Be the Best Hotel Loyalty Program in the World”

    Of course, that would happen only if one subscribes to @Gary’s concept of “best”, like a “road warrior” who currently enjoys unlimited complimentary suite upgrades a year would be better off with just 4 so-called “confirmed” suite upgrades that won’t last but a week or two before s/he is faced with receiving “the best available room (excluding suites)” for the rest of the year. Or that it makes business sense for a large program with some 50 million members to “guarantee” 4 suite upgrades to its top elites, who may represent a sizeable proportion of the total membership.

    BTW, the notion that Marriott Rewards (MR) Platinum elites are currently denied suite upgrades even when there is availability is simply ridiculous, when a lowly MR Gold like me can score 4 suite upgrades on 5 stays at Marriott properties!!!

  14. I’ve been platinum with Marriott for three years and gold for a year before that. I’ve done as much as 150 nights in a hotel every year. I was platinum premier for my second year as platinum. I decided to switch to Starwood about 16 months ago, but switched back to Marriott when the merger was announced.

    I’m now cheating on Marriott with Hyatt, as I found the club lounges/executive lounges/concierge lounges at Hyatt properties to have a much better selection. Regardless, my biggest issue with Marriott is the inconsistency. Foreign properties in the portfolio of Marriott brands are so much better — always a good star above U.S. properties, better service and way better club lounges/executive lounges/concierge lounges.

    I also don’t think all of the Starwood and Marriott brands can survive post-merger. There are way too many duplicates, if you ask me.

    And, yes, I agree about the stupid policy not to give breakfast to platinum elites at ‘resort’ properties, let alone a Courtyard property. Some Courtyards give free coffee or a free pantry item, but it’s hardly brand-wide. Breakfast is the cheapest food service of the day. A yogurt parfait and a coffee would be much appreciated.

  15. @DCS I think in another life you were a pick up artist telling other men “I picked up five chicks at that bar! It’s easy!!”

    @Gary I would say breakfast is non negotiable. We are loyal to HHonors basically because of breakfast. It’s totally irrational but it’s delicious.

  16. Post merger, adding in SPG benefits, MR will be heads and shoulders above HH, where the smart money is on just getting the credit card for mid tier Gold.

    And Stvr, yes he is the ultimate con artist

  17. “Anything less than 1 Starpoint to 3 Marriott points will lead to a lot of Starwood members wishing they had lit their points balances on fire before the programs merged, blowing them on one last megastay or transferring them to airline miles.” Wait, are you suggesting it’s possible we won’t be able to keep our SPG cards with 25% bonus transfer to airline miles?

    I got a Marriott card and planned to use Marriott more, but every single hotel I have ever checked, even when I’ve needed an airport hotel, are a category 6 or higher. The yearly coupon they give is only up to a 5, so what I thought would “pay” for the card turns out to be a waste.

  18. Rather than the usual puerile name-calling and schoolyard taunts how about manning up and directly challenging what it is that I wrote that makes me a “con artist”, and I will show the world a self-proclaimed FT “moderator” who has the intellect of a dog that explains why FT has steadily devolved into a “war zone” unfit for civilized people? Got the guts?

  19. 1. Realize that “guarantees” actually mean something to most sane people, and programs that lack guarantees are inherently weaker. Apparently you’re the only one floating around out there who decries such things.
    2. Suite upgrades are a dime a dozen in Asia across any hotel chain. Don’t be so proud of yourself for getting one.
    3. There’s a reason most airlines & hotel programs give a taste of status w/their credit card, and not something more mid-level. As the delta between HH Gold (reduced to a $95 credit card) and Diamond is minimal as program T&Cs are written, your vaunted HH program is creating a disincentive to actually pay to stay at the highest level (especially given the, you know, lack of *guarantees*). Behavioral economics, you’re probably not familiar with it.
    4. As neither MR nor HH has suite upgrades written into your program, and there are legion of Marriott Plats who can count on one hand the number of suite upgrades they’ve received over the years…everyone is just in calling into question your so-called success. Of course, waving a laminated copy of the Hilton T&Cs in the FDC’s face when you check in may help your cause.

    Game on!

  20. 1. Guarantees are guaranteed until or unless they are not guaranteed based on all programs’ T&C clauses that state that all programmatic features are subject to change without notice and that any benefit depends on its availability.

    2. My record of more than 90% suite upgrade success rate is worldwide. I have provided links.

    3. I have demonstrated ad nauseam that anyone who claims that HH Diamond is no different than HH Gold is ignorant (I recently demonstrated the truly powerful HH Diamonds-ONLY perk know as “Diamond Force” and you denigrated me for it.) You are happy with HH Gold? It is the best second-tier status out there and that’s your privilege, but it is demonstrably less rewarding than HH Diamond.

    4. I have demonstrated that there is no need for HH or MR to promise their suite upgrades with certificate. Those who play the game with a full deck benefit from the loose rules of such upgrades and can get upgraded an unlimited number of times, rather than just 4 times a year, which would not be nearly enough for true road warriors.

    I have provided links to all the claims I have made. That you keep harassing me is a reflection of your being unhinged and not of my being a “con artist.”

    G’day!

  21. It’s just too easy.

    1. You talk in circles about guarantees, and clearly just don’t understand the difference of something like “confirmed 4pm check-out”, “confirmable advance upgrade”, etc. The argument that “all this could change at any time” is pointless.
    2. Your admittance to having a laminated copy of the HH T&Cs and forcing it upon FDCs when you don’t get your (non-guaranteed, non-written-as-a-clear-Diamond-benefit) suite casts doubt on your character, and helps explain your far outlier “successes” relative to just about any other traveler out there for HH/MR.
    3. You miss the point about HH Diamond…what’s the over/under on a “Diamond Force” being used annually by a Diamond, 0.5 times? I’ll take benefits that apply every stay over that. I never said that Diamond was worthless – but what just about anyone can understand is that when you give something decent away practically for free, and then require an insanely high bar to the next level for a substandard benefit package (relative to top-tier SPG/HPG levels)…well, that’s not a recipe for behavior change.
    4. I’m a true road warrior (which you pretty clearly aren’t), and with 100+ nights/year on the road, I’ll happily take both complimentary and advance confirmable suite upgrades written into the program. Looks like MR will be adopting the suite language as well, which is great – that will be an edge up over HH.

  22. Do you know what I just did this morning? I just gave a talk at the 2016 World Molecular Imaging Conference at NYC’s Javits Center. Now, ask me if I give a damn about what happens if MR becomes a SPG clone and the “best” program (most expensive) ever. HH will still be my #1 program, and as a *G for life I will be a MR gold through RewardsPlus and be able to take advantage of whatever the ‘new’ MR will have to offer that would be out of this world.

    See? It’s win-win for me, so get lost!

    G’day.

  23. As a lifetime plat at Marriott Rewards, I have watched the reward benefits deteriorate so much in the last 5 years that I now stay at a Marriott only out of necessity (i.e. no Hyatt available) The “mega bonus” has become a complete joke, the BOGO (buy one get one for weekend stays has disappeared), and Marriott reward points have been devalued (by my estimate) by about 30%. Fortunately I spent 700,000 points as the trend became apparent so I don’t have many left.

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