Perhaps the most common assurance of hotel loyalty programs today is that they aren’t what they used to be.
When major hospitality chains first implemented loyalty programs on the heels of the airline industry in the 1980s, the programs were generous and simple—often little more than a running count of the number of stays in exchange for additional recognition and perks.
Like the airline programs, the hotel loyalty programs have grown, and benefits expanded and contracted as the programs took on additional partners and members.
In the early days, the number of stays required for perks wasn’t high. Westin Premier, one of the predecessors to Starwood Preferred Guest, required only three stays or ten nights for the first elite tier. The top tier required ten stays or 30 nights. Today, ten one-night stays is enough for Silver Elite in Bonvoy, Starwood Preferred Guest’s successor. The top tier in Bonvoy now requires 100 nights per year plus $20,000 in annual qualifying spend.
In two decades, hotel loyalty has grown with the industry. Where a handful of stays to a single brand used to bring significant benefits, today’s massive programs require top-tier guests to virtually take up residence in the brand’s hotels.
Even when guests do earn oodles of points and the best of the best elite statuses, redemptions and elite benefits aren’t always satisfying. Redemption charts are revised every year, with some popular properties continually climbing the ladder, requiring more point redemptions.
That suite upgrade a traveler might have gotten in the 1990s when they were one of a handful of elite members on any given night is also less common, as elite membership has become common and hotels have found clever ways to exclude certain room categories from upgrade eligibility.
So, what’s a traveler to do? Here are a few suggestions.
Review Your Loyalty Annually
Many a frustrated traveler has gotten burned out on their loyalty program because they stuck with it far past the time when it stopped providing value. To avoid this, take yearly inventory. Is the current program still working out? Is it worth sticking with the program over others?
It may be worth periodically trying other hospitality brands. In some cases they may be more attractive; in others, they may be a reminder of what makes one’s chosen program attractive. In either case, it’s typically helpful to venture outside the deliberate brand bubble that loyalty programs create to see how other brands are innovating differently.
Don’t Depend on Perks
Loyalty programs have, in many ways, become victims of their own success. Hotels could afford to lavish perks and benefits on top tier members in the early days because there were so few of them. Now, with tier status available in many programs simply by merit of carrying the right credit card, and nightly occupancies high, there are too many members competing for the same benefits.
I know of at least one major chain hotel in New York City that frequently gets reviewed poorly by top tier loyalty guests because they perceive they haven’t received the room upgrade they’re entitled to, but the property has very few suites available to hand out as upgrades, and a high incidence of elite members in-house each evening. The result is that a good number of the (quite frequent) guests will be disappointed to receive the room categories they originally booked.
There’s typically a similar issue at resorts, often in locations where late-night flight departures are common. Resorts that are booked full for the evening can’t always offer late check-outs when they need all of their rooms vacated in time to clean them for the day’s arrivals.
While in many cases upgrades and late check-outs are “nice to have,” it’s easy to be set up for disappointment at properties where their ability to deliver those perks for free is limited. Because some loyalty benefits are offered on what is essentially a “space available” basis, it may sometimes be necessary to book an extra night (for late checkout) or book a suite in cases where they’re absolute must-haves.
Consider Universal Loyalty Programs
Many banks issue credit cards that earn loyalty points that have much more flexibility than individual brand programs. They also have the added benefit of being redeemable at hotel properties that otherwise don’t participate in loyalty programs, so travelers who have been eyeing that independent luxury hotel they’d never shell out the full retail rate for might find greater benefit.
The detractor to these programs is that they don’t offer a lot of the fringe benefits that come with elite status in hospitality brand programs, but if they’re being used to top-tier properties where the general level of service is elevated, the point becomes moot.
Rethink Aspirational Redemptions
Many travelers choose to accumulate points in hotel loyalty programs for what are termed “aspirational” properties, meaning properties well outside of a traveler’s normal budget. The allure is strong; guests can earn points at middling domestic hotels and ultimately redeem them for a luxury resort in Bora Bora or the Maldives crawling with celebrities and dripping with bespoke service.
But such fantastic stays can also contribute to program burnout as guests realize that stays at aspirational properties often come at a price, whether it’s expensive plane tickets to remote locales or expensive food and beverage once on property. When redeeming points for aspirational properties, travelers should do extra research to ensure they’re ultimately going to have the experience they’re looking for—they might just realize they’d be far happier booking their normal tier of property at the destination of their choice.
Buy Your Way In
Loyalty programs are designed to keep consumers booking the same brand over and over—even when it’s not in their immediate best interest. Because of the powerful allure of points and status, consumers will sometimes do things that are counterintuitive in their pursuit. Sometimes that means choosing hotels that are out of the way or more expensive than competing hotels in the same area when there are better alternatives that don’t earn points or status available.
Many hospitality programs include elite status with several of their credit card products, and carrying one of those cards can actually be a freeing experience. Instead of unfailing loyalty in pursuit of status, travelers can simply pay an annual fee, get guaranteed status, and not worry about meeting the number of nights required. By doing that, they can take advantage of the perks when staying at their preferred brand makes sense, and other times, when a competing hotel is a better value, they won’t lower their standards to keep their status.
Ultimately, loyalty programs have to continue providing value to members to be worth the trouble. If your favorite program isn’t what it once was, it might be time to consider switching to avoid fatigue, or whether it’s time to give up loyalty programs altogether. If the obstacles that come along with many of the programs start to become insurmountable, it might just be time to cut the cord.
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