What’s the best hotel program? There are two elements to loyalty marketing: recognition and reward. The former is the elite program, how you treat your best customers. The latter is rebate for their spend.
When considering which hotel program is best, you’re going to want to look at your own circumstances and the things that matter most to you. For instance,
- Does the chain have hotels in the places you stay, that match your price point?
- How rewarding are they for the kind of customer that you are, a road warrior doing 60-100 nights a year or someone who gets recognition for their credit card?
However we can make some overall claims about best that will not apply to every member, every time, with their own subjective preferences. We can do this by looking at the overall earn-and-burn program, and by comparing the major elite benefits each program offers.
Which Hotel Program Rewards You Most For Spending At Their Properties?
It can be harder to compare hotel program earning than to compare airline programs because hotels have currencies that are each on their own (often inflated) scale. A Hilton Diamond earns 20 points per dollar spent at most Hilton properties, while a Hyatt Globalist earns just 6.5 points per dollar. That doesn’t make Hilton more rewarding, since the value of each point is different.
Fortunately I’ve already done the work to come up with a value of each program’s points, so we can compare how much value each chain gives back to its members by multiplying the number of points earned per dollar. Here I do this for a general (base) member and for a top elite member.
|General||Top Elite||Value||General||Top Elite|
|Member Earn||Member Earn||Per Point||Member Rebate||Member Rebate|
Looking just at base earn doesn’t tell the full story for IHG or Hilton.
- IHG lets its top elites have choice of 25,000 bonus points or gifting status to a friend on qualification, so some members will want to add 25,000 points to their calculation, adding perhaps 15% (and in edge cases twice that) to the rebate value the member receives (worth ~ $125).
- Hilton is the most consistent offering promotions, which are usually competitive to what other chains are doing, and often more competitive. Hilton also gives threshold bonuses of additional points on hitting night thresholds. What’s more, their premium cards can be lucrative when used at their hotels (but are usually ok at best outside of their hotels).
As Hilton Executive Vice President Jeff Diskin once explained they adopted a strategy of taking value out of the base program and using promotions to keep customers on the hamster wheel.
[B]eing over indexed in terms of the base level doesn’t give you enough payback…We are actually recognizing that it’s much more important to have promotional activity in the marketplace to segment divide and conquer and put different initiatives in place for different groups of travelers. Not just by their tier level but also by the type–if they’re resort stayers or meeting planners–versus just having a core proposition which we over indexed.
Overall Hilton gives you a lot of points. Their points aren’t worth so much. You have to engage with their promotions and card to make up for the difference.
IHG points aren’t super valuable, though they too hand out a lot of them. You can’t use those points for anything other than a base room (no premium awards).
Marriott gives out a lot of points and even dropping award charts the combined mix generates value to members, even if it’s less value than three years ago when I viewed their points as being worth nearly 30% more.
Hyatt has a strong earn-and-burn proposition at the base level, but offering just at most a 30% elite bonus – when other chains offer as much as 100% – is a weak spot.
Which Hotel Program Offers The Best Top Elite Status?
Here too there’s nuance between the programs and it doesn’t much matter to you if you can confirm a suite at booking off the cheapest rate at the Park Hyatt New York if you only ever stay at inexpensive lodging in Des Moines.
Suite Living Room, Park Hyatt New York
However we can compare the core benefits of each loyalty program at the top tier level fairly easily:
|Hilton||No Promises||Yes/F&B Credit||If Available||No|
|Marriott||At Check-in||Yes / Most brands||Guaranteed||Not Really|
|Hyatt||Confirmed||Yes / Full breakfast||Guaranteed||Yes|
|IHG||No Promises||No||If Available||No|
Hilton offers ‘upgrades’ but each hotel, more or less, gets to decide what that means. Some are generous and many are not. If a hotel has an open standard suite, and refuses to upgrade a Diamond member into it, they haven’t violated any rules of the program. Hilton doesn’t guarantee late check-out although hotels are encouraged to offer it. They no longer even guarantee free breakfast at U.S. hotels, their long-standing differentiator (they even offered this to Gold members who got their status from a credit card). Instead they offer U.S. members a food and beverage credit that’s far more flexible, but may not buy more than a cup of coffee after tax and tip.
IHG doesn’t offer much in the way of promised benefits. There’s no promise of suites, club lounges, or breakfast. Late check-out isn’t guaranteed.
Marriott promises a lot but often doesn’t deliver. Even their $20,000 minimum spend, 100-night Ambassador members no longer get a dedicated Ambassador – just a reservations team to email, and members report that it can take days to hear back. They do promise suite upgrades and guarantee late checkout, and increasingly hotels are returning to honoring breakfast benefits where applicable. Considering they compete mostly against the largest chains (Hilton, IHG) their elite program is still.. better. Put another way they can get away with failing to deliver on promises because it’s not like others promise much.
Marriott Boca Raton Breakfast
Far and away the best top elite tier of the four programs is Hyatt, which not only guarantees late check-out and (full) breakfast at full service properties or club lounge access, but actually lets members earn confirmable upgrades – a suite at time of reservation. 60-night elites receive a dedicated concierge, a single point of contact to email or call with all Hyatt-related issues, though I think the program has room for improvement to reach the levels that some Starwood Ambassadors once delivered. And Hyatt’s program (on the redemption side) even offers a path to premium suites, not just standard suites.
These aren’t the only benefits out there, for instance Marriott offers Ambassador members the ability to request and hopefully confirm early check-in or very late checkout (based on a 24 hour clock from arrival). Hyatt lets top elites gift their status for a stay when redeeming points for someone else, and waives resort fees for top elites on paid stays (for everyone on redemption nights, like Hilton) and gives top elites free parking on award nights as well. But the above benefits are the major ones applicable most of the time to most elite members, I think.
So What Does This Mean For Your Stays?
Smaller chains can provide exceptional value, and have to provide that value to be competitive. You can pretty much walk down the street, trip, and turn up in a Marriott or Hilton so they may not need to work as hard. But if a chain has less than 20% of the rooms of one of those players, it takes effort to be loyal and therefore the chain needs to give the customer a reason to go out of their way.
It’s no surprise that Hyatt’s elite program is better, and that Starwood’s used to be. And Hyatt has grown its footprint, I still think of them as a 700 hotel chain – when they’re at around 1000 hotels not counting several hundred partner hotels where you can earn status and use points. That pales in comparison to ‘7000+’ hotels and they aren’t in as many small cities.
What I actually like best is that even as Hyatt has devalued its points somewhat with the introduction of peak and off-peak redemption pricing, they’ve done so in a seemingly balanced and fair way, and they’ve made other moves to improve the program such as introducing premium suite redemptions which can be a surprisingly good value on a points upgrade.
My advice is go with Hyatt if you can earn 60 elite nights (their credit card helps) based on your stay frequency and patterns. Then supplement that status with a credit card elsewhere to avoid the worst treatment when you can’t stay with Hyatt. If your patterns don’t work for that, go with a bigger chain and attenuate expectations accordingly.