Hotel loyalty programs face a unique challenge that airlines don’t. Airlines set the rules and provide the product directly. Hotels have to get properties which are often owned and even managed separately to comply, with benefits like upgrades delivered consistently by individual employees at a front desk perhaps thousands of miles away. They rely on individual hotels and even employees to comply.
As a result it can be like playing whack-a-mole with individual properties. And each program has different tools at their disposal to work with individual hotels on compliance. Starwood was uniquely strong in this regard.
Embedded in a loyalty program as well is a philosophy of how to treat guests redeeming their points. There are two contrasting models:
- Points pay for the base product just like cash. Many airline frequent flyer programs around the world treat points as payment for base fare, all taxes and fuel surcharges are extra. Delta increasingly thinks of points as just another way of paying for a ticket, and even assigns redemption customers to basic economy on some routes unless they spend more points. Often airlines that offer business class passengers car service won’t extend that to award tickets. Qatar won’t extend lounge access or increased baggage allowance to mileage upgrades to business.
- Points guests are no different than paid guests, or are even treated better. Redemptions are a reward for loyalty, so they don’t represent just a single transaction but many transactions are so customers should be treated even better than one-offs. Awards are changeable and cancellable (perhaps with a fee), and they’re more flexible because members shouldn’t be punished for their loyalty when plans change.
When you redeem points for a hotel room, are you getting just the walls and roof above you, or are you getting all of the benefits afforded to guests on paid bookings?
The question of philosophy and consistency was illustrated clearly with the Marriott program and the Al Maha Desert Resort.
- Al Maha is a truly special property. All rooms are suites, with private pools looking out over the desert. Wildlife roam free throughout the property. Meals are included (even room service) and so are activities. I have never heard anyone disappointing in their stay.
- The new Marriott program offers incredible value for top hotels at 60,000 points per night (going up to as much as 100,000 per night in March).
In season the hotel can run $2100 points per night.
In the middle of the desert, in the summer, prices drop down as low as $720 per night.
The hotel started charging for food and activities for redemption stays made on or about December 11. For bookings prior to that date they were treating redemption stays the same as any paid booking, all rooms include meals and two activities daily. But they were letting customers know that if they were using points, their points covered the room only.
Two people staying on property consuming three meals daily and taking two activities would be charged about $800 per day which is more than the hotel charges for paid rooms including these things in the off season. Specifically,
- 168 AED per person breakfast
- 273 AED per person lunch
- 515 AED per person dinner
- 270 AED per person, per activity
Here’s the problem: Marriott doesn’t allow hotels to treat points bookings differently from paid bookings.
If the hotel charged a $400 room rate and an $800 resort fee, that would seem to comply with Marriott terms and the resort fee would be chargeable on redemption stays — because points bookings would be treated on the same basis as paid nights.
However anyone using points must receive the same experience as guests paying with cash. If all cash stays include meals and activities, points stays need to also. The loyalty program and hotel need to solve and friction here behind the scenes. And Marriott is doing that.
I reached out to Marriott last month when it was first reported that this property was charging meals and activities for award guests but not paid guests. It took a few weeks, with the holidays (key people out), with the distance, and with the complicated nature of whatever discussions may need to have happened.
However Marriott let me know that Al Maha will once again honor their full experience for redemption guests, specifically “[t]he property is reverting back to the old inclusive award pricing.”
Al Maha is a truly special place. I enjoyed my stay there a couple of years ago immensely — a glass of champagne on a dune at the end of the day and riding off into the sunset on a camel, gourmet dining in the middle of the desert, and a wonderful SriLankan lunch by my own pool while gazelles roamed by.
So I’m thrilled that members have the opportunity to book here and receive incredible value for their points. But I’m more heartened that Marriott takes the idea seriously that redemption guests are honored guests who should be treated as well or better than guests paying cash rates, because their redemption stays are rewards for their loyalty and not merely a one-off transaction.