A friend contacted me on the afternoon of New Years Eve after checking into the Willard in DC. They’re a Royal Ambassador member of Intercontinental Hotels, and that means they’re entitled to an upgrade ‘to an Executive Room or suite’.
I’ve always received great upgrades in the past at the Willard, it’s usually automatic for a Royal Ambassador to be given a corner suite that’s basically two full rooms (with two bathrooms). Only once I was only given a “Willard Room,” an oval shaped room looking out at the monuments that amounts to a junior suite with a spectacular view but not a true suite.
My friend was told that because they had used points for the stay that they wouldn’t receive any upgrade. They wanted to know from me if that was correct, or if they had any recourse?
I told them that technically the hotel was within its rights – because unlike every other major hotel chain at least operating in the U.S. (Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Starwood) the Priority Club program specifically says that upgrade benefits don’t apply on award stays.
The entire program is a bit Rube Goldberg-esque. Intercontinental Hotels are a part of Priority Club.. All Priority Club properties are part of Intercontinental Hotels Group (Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, etc.). All Priority Club properties except Intercontinental honor status in the Priority Club program. Intercontinental properties have their own recognition offering, the Ambassador program (which anyone can pay to belong to, and which has an elite level – Royal Ambassador). Confusing much?
Royal Ambassador is a valuable status level. It generally means a suite upgrade across the board at some properties. Occasionally Intercontinentals give one category room upgrade to their Ambassador members and two room category upgrade to their Royal Ambassadors. Royal Ambassadors are also entitled to 4pm late checkout and 8am early check-in. Plus drinks from the minibar are complimentary.
The rules do say that on an award stay not all of these benefits apply.
When staying on Reward Nights, all Ambassador and Royal Ambassador privileges apply with the exception of upgrades, free Pay TV film per stay, 24 hour guaranteed room availability, 8:00am early check-in and complimentary mini bar beverages.
(I guess “all.. privileges apply” doesn’t leave much.)
Still, I’ve never actually experienced an Intercontinental property which didn’t honor full benefits when members redeem their points. And I’ve personally redeemed points at the Willard and always been afforded these benefits.
Since this is an area of ambiguity for the program, there’s a Flyertalk thread that tracks Royal Ambassador experiences on award stays. Every past stay at the Willard has been reported to offer upgrade benefits, and there are no reports of denied minibar either. As recently as July, also earlier in 2010, and all the way back to 2006 and to 2007.
I cannot readily think of an [Intercontinental] where I paid that treated me better than did the Willard on Rewards Points.
Now, since the hotel wouldn’t give them an upgrade, I texted that they should make sure that the hotel would honor the Royal Ambassador minibar benefit, so they called down.
- First they were told that they would. The drinks would be complimentary. Nice, it was New Year’s Eve after all!
- But then their phone rang, and they were told that no, in fact minibar was not a benefit on award stays and they would be charged for anything they consumed.
- My friends pointed out that the letter they had received at check-in specified their benefits for the stay – but since they already weren’t all being honored they wanted to be sure they wouldn’t have problems at checkout.
- They received another call back and were told by the hotel that as a “show of good faith” they would honor the minibar benefit.
The hotel had given them a letter saying that they were entitled to the complimentary beverages from the minibar and an upgrade if available. And it was even customized for these guests, printed with their name.
Alright, you might be thinking, it’s New Year’s Eve, perhaps no upgrade was available?
Except that when they pushed the upgrade issue they were told they could have an upgraded room for an upcharge but that they could not have the room – that was available – on points.
Now, in the hotel’s favor, I do want to re-iterate that they can technically point to terms and conditions of the program that say they don’t have to honor all benefits on award stays. Even though they handed the guests a letter saying they’d be given the upgrade if available, and even though in my experience and that of others they have always done so.
While I do think it’s an inadvisable policy, it’s one that members don’t often have to deal with. Hotels simply do honor benefits even though the language of the program says they technically don’t have to.
But clearly a problem is inconsistency. Even hotels that always honor benefits might not on a given stay, and you can’t be sure until you show up, as happened here.
At a meaningful level, though, the beef can’t be just with the property. Instead, it points to a real flaw in the program itself.
- An inconsistent benefit you can’t count on is really not much of a benefit at all. And second because failing to provide full elite benefits on award stays puts the program at a disadvantage compared to all other major chains’ programs.
- With Priority Club you do not have any option to use points for upgraded stays (better rooms for more points). Hyatt, Starwood, and Marriott all offer the ability to redeem extra points for better than a basic room.
- If they don’t honor status on awards, what good are the awards when you care about them most? Award stays are the ones you often do care most about, your reward for hard fought stays on the road, perhaps a vacation with family or a special occasion (like New Year’s!). Then why would you want to stay on an award and be treated worse than on those stays you made to work for the award in the first place?
- Of course Starwood, Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott — everyone! – honors status benefits on award stays as a function of the program. Just not, per the terms of the program, Priority Club or the Ambassador program.
By writing the benefits of status out of the program, and by not even offering an option to redeem extra points for upgraded rooms, they present the worst redemption program there is amongst any of their competitors.
Sure, most Intercontinental hotel properties honor status on award stays. They have in my experience. But in the past they even honored those benefits at the Willard. So I’d certainly have advised these guests in advance that they’d have no problem at the Willard.
Since the terms and conditions allow hotels to opt out of the benefits, you cannot count on them. It’s up to the individual hotel, and the program offers nothing. Or as my friend said,
[W]hen it matters, awards make you 2nd class citizens.
Why would anyone want to redeem points to be treated worse than on the rest of their stays? And as a result, why would anyone strive to collect the points in the first place?
Of course, I quickly back off that extreme proposition! Because after all the Priority Club program does let you redeem your points for gift cards towards the purchase of hotel nights even at their competitor hotels. It’s a low dollar value per point, but you can use the cards to stay at say a Hilton where you also have status and get that status honored.
Put a different way, Priority Club points can get you better treatment when staying at other hotels outside the chain than with their own hotels, even when you hold their coveted top status level.
Question for y’all: how important is it for hotels to honor elite status benefits when members redeem their points instead of paying with cash?