Last year IHG rebranded its loyalty program IHG One Rewards, meant to unify all of the chains brands and give customers a reason to stay loyal. They introduced whole new suites of benefits including top tier Diamond status with free daily breakfast, and benefit choices like confirmed suite upgrades, club lounge access, and food and beverage spending credit to use on property.
I spoke with IHG’s Senior Vice President Heather Balsley to learn more about how the new program is going, and what benefits are coming next.
Driving Consistent Delivery Of On-Property Benefits
I asked Heather what area she felt wasn’t yet where she wanted it to be and had the greatest opportunity for continued improvement. It wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone working with hotels to learn that it’s consistent on-prpperty delivery of benefits. A central program sets up the benefits, but those are delivered by individual employees, who work for a franchise. So “job one was training and focus on property” noting that how hotels handled the “breakfast benefit, upgrades, and even simple recognition” is something that has had six to eight months of focus and something they “remain very focused on continuing to build.”
Heather knew about the Intercontinental hotel in China, for instance, that renamed its club lounge so that members who had opted for club lounge access as a benefit wouldn’t be able to use it. They’d instead opened up a room with modest snacks and beverages, calling that the club lounge, while reserving the ‘real lounge’ for paying guests. She noted that they responded and corrected the issue quickly.
Overall they’re happy with the positive feedback the program has gotten, and appreciate the examples they’ve seen of inconsistent benefit delivery so they’re able to follow up.
Confirmed Upgrades Available On More Rates
IHG One Rewards offers two types of upgrades. Platinum and Diamond members are supposed to receive space available upgrades at check-in, including to standard suites, if available. This wasn’t actually a new benefit last year, but hotels are now expected to follow program upgrade guidance and have been trained on doing so.
In addition confirmed suite upgrades are now a benefit of the program. Members can select one as a choice benefit at 20 and 40 nights (the 40 night benefit can be selected twice), and select two at 70 elite nights (the 70 night benefit can be selected twice) each year, and these are valid on non-prepaid revenue stays within 14 days of arrival based on published room inventory. That’s a benefit that Marriott and Hilton do not come close to matching.
It’s not always smooth, and it’s a complicated internal process. Despite training, call center agents sometimes give out inconsistent information about what rates are upgradeable.
Heather explained the process on the back end. The agent is basically taking an existing reservation the customer has, cancelling it, and then booking a new reservation at the original rate into the upgraded room category. But it “doesn’t always work as designed with pre-paid rates” or “rates have moved materially since time of booking.”
Prepaid rates were initially excluded from these upgrades, but it’s actually possible to do upgrades on some prepaid rates where deposits haven’t been taken.
IHG’s goal is to make “more rates eligible for upgrades” and they’re “working on making these eligible on reward nights.” The “main exclusions [that will remain] are corporate negotiated rates.”
In addition they’re working on offering members the ability to electronically confirm their suite upgrades.
Premium Room Awards In The Pipeline
One thing that Heather mentioned they’re working on, in addition to using confirmed upgrade certificates on free nights, is the ability to spend more points on a better room when redeeming a free night award.
Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott all offer free night awards in standard rooms, and also ways to spend more points for a better room. IHG doesn’t have this option. If you want a suite, or an ocean view, you either need to spend cash or hope for an upgrade. They’re working to change this.
I participated in an IHG focus group held in Old Town Alexandria, in Northern Virginia, about 18 years ago. There was a cash payment for spending the hour or two, and they gave us more money for bringing in our elite cards to prove our status. That might have helped the research firm offer credible findings. At the time the one thing that all of us in the room wanted was a better room when spending points.
Back then, and even up until this new program, award stays were generally exempt from delivering benefits with IHG. That’s no longer the case, and a big improvement. This would take it a step further, making it possible for reward stays to be even more rewarding.
Addressing Value Of The Currency
We only had half an hour on the books to talk, so I didn’t have the chance to dig in, but she offered that “we’re not finished introducing compelling benefits and the refining redemption program (in terms of the value of the currency or redeeming for more than the standard room).”
She mentioned this in the context of positive things they’re doing, though ‘refining the value of the currency’ is something I’d usually worry about. In recent years IHG has made their points worth quite a bit less, adding redemption categories and then eliminating award charts, pricing hotels higher and higher.
I can only hope the refinements involve bringing down points costs, or more specifically delivering a greater value per point for redemptions relative to the cash cost of a room. It’s not clear from our conversation – I ran out of time – but wanted to mention anyway that the value of the currency is a topic of discussion.
Considering How To Fully Integrate Kimpton, Intercontinental And Regent Programs
The IHG One Rewards program isn’t (yet) the ‘one’ rewards program fully covering all of IHG’s brands. An IHG One Rewards Diamond member gets breakfast now at Intercontinental hotels, and if they’ve elected for a club lounge membership they’ll receive club access on their stays. That’s a huge improvement from when IHG’s elite status didn’t apply at Intercontinentals!
However Intercontinental still has its own paid Ambassador program, and top elites in that program earn invite-only Royal Ambassador status. The Kimptom loyalty program has mostly been folded into the main program, but Kimpton’s top guests still receive separate privileges. And Regent has its own program as well.
Heather tells me they’re working on “what to do on the smaller loyalty programs connected to individual brands.” They’re “working on it now, researching, pilot testing” – for instance they extended Ambassador benefit to Kimpton and Regent during the pandemic but pulled back this year as they realized the same benefits don’t necessarily work for each pool of guests (Ambassador members paying for a membership may still want something different, if a paid program still matters).
Furthermore the Royal Ambassador and and Kimpton Inner Circle groups “have gotten very big, even apart from Covid” and that’s made it challenging to deliver benefits. So they’re evaluating the size and benefits of their invite-only tier. As a former Intercontinental Royal Ambassador myself of many years ago, I warned not to take away free minibar!
New Program Is An Improvement Across The Board
IHG has always had a competitive earning and redemption program. Their big gap was in benefits. They’ve addressed that. The Diamond breakfast benefit is explicitly for a buffet or hot item (not continental). Suites aren’t just based on availability at check-in, and can be confirmed up to two weeks in advance (though not yet on free nights). Members have benefits they did not have before.
This has made the IHG program competitive. Some members come out really well, for instance those who spend a number of nights at Holiday Inn Express properties in the Midwest and then pay for a week upgraded in a suite with breakfast (or club lounge) at an Intercontinental. Whereas once the lack of benefits was a reason not to be loyal, they now have a competitive offering that helps keep customers inside their ecosystem. And it’s good to know that there’s more improvements to the initial offering coming.