There’s an interesting feature on the cover of the latest edition Bloomberg Businesweek.
It concerns Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood Hotels Group. It happened in 2016. However, it has taken nearly two years for Marriott to combine its frequent guest programme with that of Starwood. The new combined programme will launch later this month.
It seems that the thorniest issue behind the transaction was not both sides and their armies of lawyers agreeing the terms of the deal or combining reservation systems, but their respective frequent guest programmes. Every single development in this regard has been carefully scrutinised by members on tenterhooks that their beloved benefits may be lost.
Put simply, who should be entitled to a free breakfast under the new programme!?
The article gives a good understanding of the workings of hotel loyalty programmes and the sometimes absurd lengths, known as “mattress runs” (it’s nowhere near as interesting as it sounds..), some members will go to climb the ranks of the programmes.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have been a member of some frequent guest programmes and enjoyed their benefits, principally late check-outs. But none have compelled me to be slavishly devoted to one hotel programme and I have been happy to let membership lapse.
Airline and hotel loyalty programmes are not the same
When it comes to flying, there is a logic of choosing to align yourself with one of three airline alliances to accrue frequent flyer benefits.
There is an assurance of flying with an airline in an alliance that there isn’t with booking large hotel groups.
In air travel, there is much scope for things go wrong. As customers of Primera Air and Norwegian have learned, for small airlines there are little means to recover from aircraft availability issues. When flying on a large airline, there is the assurance of the back-up it has through the size of its fleet, its network and its joint-venture and alliance partners. This isn’t so much the case with hotels. The only time I could genuinely see a need to stick with a large chain is when staying in a destination where you need to be confident of hotel security and its support should you have problems.
Hotel status benefits are relatively marginal
If you have “status” in a frequent flyer programme, you have access to priority check-in, security, boarding and lounges.
These are valuable benefits that save you time and considerably reduce the stress of travelling through airports. You also have the possibility of upgrades on oversold flights, which can radically improve your comfort.
In hotels, “status” benefits can be relatively marginal. A free breakfast can be a nice to have but the principal benefit of breakfast in any hotel is convenience for the time pressed traveller. American breakfasts in hotels are generally dismal (why is it only bacon or sausage?) and even in some of the best hotels, the service can be struggle. Going out for breakfast in the week gives you a flavour of a city at work. Going out for brunch gives you a sight of the locals enjoying their weekend. And the food tastes better.
As for room upgrades, status inflation is everywhere, and none more so than in hotels. In some hotels, I have received upgrades to “suites” that sometimes seems to a convenient label for a marginally bigger room with an awkward layout. In other cases, I have received upgrades to suites frankly too big to be of any practical use on a hotel stay.
Late check-outs are undoubtedly useful, but their application is widely inconsistent. Starwood is a case in point. It is supposed to offer Gold members a 4pm late check-out. Many hotels get out of this by being categorised as resorts. This means an automatic 11am checkout is ruthlessly applied.
Most major hotel groups don’t own the vast majority of hotels that operate under their brands. They are typically either franchises or operated under management contracts, with the hotel group taking a management fee. For the hotel groups, this is sound practice. It means they can expand their brands quickly without committing large amount of capital. It also makes them “asset light” cash generative businesses which pleases investors. Airlines could not be more different. This also means that some hotel owners are very reluctant to apply benefits and often do so through gritted teeth. Providing any service is all about expectations management and promises of room upgrades subject to availability will lead to disappointment if not fulfilled.
Not only that many smaller chains offer these benefits to everyone. Take Le Germain Hotels in Canada. It offers all guests a free breakfast and you can specify any check-out time you wish.
Choosing a hotel based solely on a guest programme is absurd.
There are lots new and interesting small hotels around the world.
Whether its Ian Schrager’s Pubic Hotels or Sixty Hotels. They have better designed rooms and public spaces and as they don’t have the distribution network of large groups, they know they have to work harder for your custom.
More to the point, when you stay in a truly exceptional hotel, you will never forget it. Whether its watching the sunrise on the roof of Hotel Grand Central Barcelona or taking in Sao Paulo’s Bladerunner-esque skyline on the roof of Hotel Unique, these memories stay with you forever. It is an essential part of travel.
As far as the Marriott/Starwood merger is concerned, there is a palpable sense of relief in being able to ignore the whole thing and knowing you’re not affected by it.
Comprising on a choice of stay just to accrue points and scoff on a free breakfast simply isn’t worth it.