IHG Rewards Senior VP Loyalty Explains Big Program Changes Coming, Starting With New Elite Level

There have been several stories reporting one piece of change that’s happening at IHG Rewards – the introduction of a new mid-tier level, a change in the name of their top tier, and new qualification requirements for status.

I spoke with Heather Balsley this morning. She’s Senior Vice President of Global Loyalty and Partnerships at IHG Hotels & Resorts. And she shared some other pieces of what’s changing now, and what’s coming in the next few months where the focus will be on elite benefits, the area where she seemed to agree IHG has historically had the biggest opportunities for improvement.

I was excited for this conversation because on the one hand IHG was publicly announcing a few minor changes, while on the other hand touting “a new vision for loyalty” and there seemed to be a disconnect.

The changes that are being announced now are mostly around elite qualifying and these changes go into effect for March. Anyone can still qualify under current criteria (for instance, by making points transfers into the program which count as base points) until then.

It’s worth noting that how status will be earned based on 2022 activity is being announced after 2022 has already started. That seems to be why there’s a bifurcated announcement of qualification changes now, elite benefits later. They aren’t ready to talk about the benefits but the calendar forces them to share changes how status will be earned.

Key changes being announced now:

  • A new Gold elite tier with 40% points bonus
  • Renaming “Spire Elite” as “Diamond” since the original name was a dud from the start. For those qualifying for this status beginning in March there’ll no longer be a 25,000 point threshold bonus.

In fact Gold isn’t really the new level, the program already has Gold status. Rather they’re taking the current Gold and calling it Silver, and calling the new level Gold.

In addition for those who earn status based on ‘base points’ Platinum and Diamond status will require more points than they did in 2019, but Diamond will require 5 fewer nights. And Silvers and Platinums will earn more bonus points. Here’s the new qualification and bonus point levels:

And here’s how qualification and bonuses compare to status quo. First, qualifying for status based on nights:

2019 2022
Nights Nights Change
First-tier 10 10 0
Gold N/A 20 N/A
Platinum 40 40 0
Diamond 75 70 -5

Then qualifying for status based on base points:

2019 2022
Points Points Change
First-tier 10,000 N/A Eliminates
Gold N/A 40,000 N/A
Platinum 40,000 60,000 20,000
Diamond 75,000 120,000 45,000

And here’s the difference in bonus points earned for hotel spend:

2019 2022
Bonus Bonus Change
First-tier 10% 20% 10%
Gold N/A 40% N/A
Platinum 50% 60% 10%
Diamond 100% 100% 0%

So status becomes harder to earn on base points, some more bonus points are going to be given out except to top tier where they see themselves as sufficiently generous (they’re benchmarking against Hilton here).

There are several additional things that I learned speaking with Heather Balsley, though.

  • They see improving the loyalty program as necessary to weave together their 17 brands, which I’d add is how Marriott frames Bonvoy for its 30 brands. She offers that,

    IHG has been on an exciting journey. Loyalty is at the heart of that. …[L]oyalty is driven first and foremost by an exceptional brand portfolio. We have been investing in rapidly expanding our brand portfolio to 17 brands, including really exciting options at the luxury and lifetyle level. ..[And our] brand transformation programs.. CEO Keith Barr has shared publicly the quality investments we’re making in Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza brands.

    She says that the “loyalty program will bring all of those investments together.”

  • Elite benefits are coming, being announced “in the coming months.” While they’re not talking about details yet, they’re still working with hotels ironing things out, we can expect to see some of what elites are “getting with other programs that they’ve told us are important to them.” IHG “won’t do everything our competitors are doing” but we can expect more benefits and benefit choices as well.

    >Hotels are being told it will cost them less to service IHG Rewards members in the future. Heather described a need for “balancing the cost to serve members. [They’ve] eliminated a few costs to them that were lower value to members based on feedback, for example the welcome amenity of points for Gold members. When the new program goes live that benefit goes away and will be replaced by others.” Some of the cost reductions will come from internal accounting rather than direct lower costs for points and benefits.

  • In the next week IHG will be launching an award discount promotion for top tier elites.

  • The new elite program won’t see any changes to co-brand credit cards earning elite status, or what counts as base points.

Heather suggested that come the end of the year, looking back on the changes that they’re going to announce, she wants members to see IHG Rewards as “the most exciting program in the industry and one that makes sense regardless of what type of traveler you are. We’re really focused on offering value for low and mid-frequency traveler as well as top tiers.”

While they’ll be adding benefits, she sees the new Gold tier as important and a “distinctive offering in the market so you don’t necessarily have to be 60 night, 100 night traveler to get value.”

IHG was already a program that’s all about earning points, since it is very light on elite benefits (no guaranteed late checkout or promise of suite upgrades or even breakfast). We can expect that to change, though it’s not clear yet by how much.

And while they believe their “points are 25% more valuable” because of their move to dynamic award pricing, by which they mean that changing reward night pricing on a daily basis lets them give “25% more currency value” capitalizing on off-peak opportunities I see it as having been a significant devaluation (reward nights cost more points than they used to for the best redemptions customers want most).

Ultimately IHG as a chain has really seemed to understand loyalty for years and vexingly never has quite been able to put it into practice. So hopefully we’ll see positive steps finally in the next few months.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Will be interesting to see if the IHG Premier CC will still provide “Platinum Elite” status or will get “bumped” down to the new “Gold Elite”, at some point in the future

  2. Launching new elite status tiers without any new benefits is just stupid. This is the kind of epic fail that is taught in case studies. IHG was my first hotel program back in 2002 when it was called Priority Club. I was an Intercontinental ambassador for years until I switched to Marriott around 2012-2013. The $250 for ambassador is probably worth it, but the program is a joke. I can’t justify staying at a hotel that won’t give me free breakfast, especially when a Holiday Inn paid breakfast is generally worse and of cheaper quality than the free breakfast for all guests at the Holiday Inn Express. IHG needs to at the minimum offer breakfast and lounge access at its Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Kimpton and Intercontinental properties. It can probably get away without these two benefits at resorts.

  3. I wonder if renewing Ambassador status will still renew your Gold/Spire/Whatever status as well.

    I’m assuming the Ambassador program will still exist?

  4. Jim, it will be devalued just like all IHG programs over the years. More points/stay, no welcome bonus, no 10% back, no Chase free night over 40k points (motel 6 equivalent in many markets).
    Does anyone actually want to earn status with IHG? Who cares?
    My plan has been get the maximum CC signup bonus, don’t spent $1 over the minimum to earn it, cancel the card when the annual fee posts (and keep the free night just awarded) rinse and repeat and quickly BURN every point you get for the best value stay you can find. Rebook and rebook until day of arrival.
    I treat them this way because their member CS stinks worse than a lobby toilet. A terrible company but apparently not as bad as Marriott so maybe they will survive.

  5. @FNT Delta Diamond

    Although agreed that the announced changes are superficial and semi-irrelevant to members/guests, the Ambassador program is currently (and for the past 6 years or so) is $200 or 40K IHG points.

  6. First of all nobody cares about this “elite” program. And if they are touting to the Hotels how great it will be then we already know how crap it will be for those actually staying there and paying for the “experience”.

    Hyatt continues to be the only company that has and gets how to design a program where people go out of their way to stay.

    It’s pretty clear based on the quotes above that they recognize they have the problem but don’t recognize the solution to getting more people to care about IHG is to compete with Hyatt and go out of their way to recognize their visitors. It’s too bad because Kimpton used to have a really good program in terms of elite recognition after IHG bought them I stayed away as I didn’t trust them not to ruin a great program and elite recognition.

  7. I had the sound too low as I viewed the IHG promo and I thought I heard: “A rewards program as weak as you are.”

    Turns out it’s “unique,” but I’d be surprised if the misheard line isn’t more accurate.

  8. I used to go out of my way to put stays in IHG when they regularly had generous point earning promotions. Now my activity page is a ghost town. Now I literally only stay when it’s the only option and even then…

  9. I used Chase certificates at InterContinental Times Square, Barclays, and Willard. 40k is still able to use at InterContinental even in NYC so don’t say 40k is useless.

  10. “It’s worth noting that how status will be earned based on 2022 activity is being announced after 2022 has already started. That seems to be why there’s a bifurcated announcement of qualification changes now, elite benefits later. They aren’t ready to talk about the benefits but the calendar forces them to share changes how status will be earned.”

    The calendar isn’t forcing them to use this schedule. They could announce that all the changes will take effect in 2023, which would be fairer to those of us who have already planned (and made) stays at IHG properties in the hopes of earning status in 2022 under the current requirements.

  11. How is Gold even relevant when anybody with a pulse and a Chase card gets Plat status? Makes no sense.

    Interesting no mention of the fairly useless Ambassador buy-up status (decades ago many hotels gave lounge access which was worth the price, but no longer).

    Unlike most chains IHG declined to do a global extension for the older 40k certs beyond 2021. That really makes me unhappy but not much I can do as the $49 card is still a deal, even with some spoilage.

    Decades ago intercon hotels set the high bar overseas but the brand has been decimated ever since the combo with low rent Holiday Inns. Sad though still has potential if they would step up to St Regis/Four Seasons or even Ritz Carlton level.

  12. IHG is like the spirit airlines of hotels. Their loyalty program is hamstrung by the sh*t quality of service on the ground. IHG is peer to Choice Hotels and Wyndham moreso than Hilton and Marriott.

    Here’s how IHG can improve its position.

    1. Every hotel in the US needs to have mobile key. This will avoid the need to interact with front desk employees who are sometimes nice but sometimes rude b*tches.

    2. Properties with bad reviews need to be deflagged quickly.

    3. Contract killers should be hired to take out the worst of the worst owners of ihg properties. Scum bags.

  13. “Hotels are being told it will cost them less to service IHG Rewards members in the future.” Exactly how are they going to have a great new program that customers love but that will cost less than the terrible current system? If IHG was actually serious about having a great loyalty program, all they’d have to do is switch back to what they had 5 years ago and add in guaranteed breakfast and suite upgrades for the top couple of tiers.

  14. I’m looking forward to learning how changes for which “Hotels are being told it will cost them less to service IHG Rewards members in the future” will somehow make IHG “the most exciting program in the industry”.

  15. One of the big problems with IHG are the brands.

    Sure, there are great Intercontinental and even Crowne Plaza properties abroad but domestically in North America the company is primarily identified with dumpy old Crowne Plazas (most worse than Sheraton), Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express. Kimpton and Intercontinental have a tiny footprint in North America. And of those, Intercontinental is, at best, a competitor to Westin and JW Marriott.

    Are there any domestic road warriors who actually make Holiday Inn their first brand of choice? Whenever I stay at a Holiday Inn or Holiday Inn Express, I mostly see truckers, contractors and sports teams. Most business travelers seem to opt for a Courtyard or Hampton Inn because Marriott and Hilton.

    Even if IHG massively improved their benefits, the most I could get is maybe a free breakfast at Holiday Inn with a glass of barely drinkable Kendall-Jackson chardonnay. Any improvements to Crowne Plaza, Kimpton and Intercontinental would be of little value since those properties are missing from most U.S. markets.

  16. Given the upcoming significant raise in the points required to achieve Diamond , IHG needs to focus on putting together a meaningful set of benefits for its top tier . I understand that they won’t be doing everything the competition does , but they need to competitive . Diamond should include –
    1. Enhanced email and telephone support . Diamond calls and e-mails need to be routed to experienced agents with the ability to make things right when service recovery is needed. This should be a top priority.
    2. 4 pm late checkout and perhaps early check in
    3. Access to Club Lounges
    4. Enhanced upgrades – maybe some sort of portfolio of suite upgrade certificates or the ability to upgrade for a reduced number of points or just include standard suites in the upgrade pool
    5. Some sort of F and B credit or breakfast option . Perhaps some breakfast coupons given upon qualification to be used by the member and guests .
    6. Milestones for Diamonds – earn upgrade certs or F and B credits or something at designated milestones.

  17. @Maxie Dean:

    I would take:

    1) Dedicated customer service. Getting a hold of anyone from IHG and getting them to do anything is impossible, not least because IHG manages almost none of its hotels. Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott manage more of their portfolio, making accountability easier.

    2) Restaurant breakfast at all properties in full-service properties.

    3) Club lounge access if a lounge is available.

    4) 3 or 4 p.m. late check-out.

  18. Hyatt continues to be the only company that has and gets how to design a program where people go out of their way to stay.

    Got a link to a credible survey that probed that question or are you simply regurgitating to gallons of self-anointed “travel gurus”‘s kool-aid that you seem to have imbibed too much of…?

  19. Wrong headline – should say IHG Exec promises major devaluation coming

    -Loyalty program must be updated to reduce the costs to hotels
    -Those awful words “Dynamic Pricing”, concealing the pricelist to allow unlimited devaluations

    IHG “status” is meaningless, it was always about the points and those may soon be worthless too.

  20. @ harry hv — Bingo! In my 17 years as a Royal Ambassador, I can recall only one improvement ever made by IHG, and that was to reverse their moronic policy of not giving RA benefits on award stays. Not to fear, they have figured out a new way to not give you a suite on an award stay — allow only 2-category upgrades and make a bunch of fake room categories. Now, they are willing to give you a better view/higher floor (read: no upgrade) instead of an actual suite upgrade. Thank goodness no one uses fax machines anymore…If I can’t confirm that an IC is going to give us a good suite upgrade, we just booked away from IC to Hyatt or Hilton.

  21. @ DCS You’re right, Hyatt’s not the only company that understands loyalty programs. Marriott does too.

  22. I may be the odd on out, but I only stay at intercontinental since most place I travel have them. With that said, I.also realize that IHG has the weakest program in my opinions. Whoever is the brainless child of these changes should be let go. Again, their program is about as weak as you find and now they have devalued it even more.
    Let’s not even factor in this brainless person did this in a middle of a pandemic where a lot of people aren’t traveling like they use to. IGH – if you see this, for gods sake, use some bloody common sense!!!’

    I think it’s time to consider a new partner that competes with Intercontinental

  23. @Christian – You cannot ask me to speak to or justify a claim I never made, which would be that “Hilton continues to be the only company that has and gets how to design a program where people go out of their way to stay?”

    There is what the comparatively few that read travel blogs believe because they’ve imbibed too much of self-anointed “travel gurus'” claims of programmatic excellence or superiority kool-aid (like tiny-footprint Hyatt “has the best loyalty program, by several orders of magnitude”), and then there is what many many more people, millions more, in the real who know nothing about loyalty programs or TPG or VFTW or OMAAT, do, which is to book hotels that give them best “value” as they define it, and…ready?…it is not in cents/point!

  24. I gave up on trying to utilize IHG rewards after being loyal to then fir 10 years, you can never find rewards in desirable locations anymore at reasonable rates their customer call center is horrible. The last 2 years I held spire elite and diamond at hilton. This year I went and switch to the Hilton AMEX and all my travel to them. Already earning more and desirable locations are reasonable for rewards or at least shoe up for weekend dates.

  25. While it obviously has it’s limitations, I’ve liked the IHG program the last couple of years. IHG basically functions as backup to my Hyatt globalist status, largely because their footprint is so much larger. Several times a year, IHG has sold points at half a penny each which, combined with the rebate redemptions from their credit cards, has provided excellent value to stay at many of their properties. And, unlike Hilton, they haven’t jacked up the award prices very much this year. With their variable pricing, I can game the redemptions. I’ve stayed at many Expresses, Staybridges, and Candlewoods for the equivalent cost of $45 to $65 a night, and as a comped Spire member generally get a decent room upgrade. None of this is aspirational, but the stays are almost always comfortable, and good value. So I can’t complain about their program.

  26. While we may be surprised, the two quotes from Heather tell people all they need to know:

    “Hotels are being told it will cost them less to service IHG Rewards members in the future.”

    and

    “IHG “won’t do everything our competitors are doing” but we can expect more benefits and benefit choices as well.”

    IHG’s loyalty program is already last in class and proposing any reductions to this practically worthless program seems ludicrous.

    Unless the new Loyalty Program includes a Free Breakfast and Club Access for the new Diamond Tier, Heather should be fired, plain and simple.

  27. @Chopsticks, you have the right way to look at IHG’s program IMO.

    Between the generous, *stackable* redemption benefits from their credit cards, and their often reasonable point redemption prices, getting good value out of bread-and- butter stays is not hard.

  28. So the IHG Ponzi Scheme lives on in all it’s creepy predatory glory
    The clueless inept overseas robotic call center keeps me from doing business with them
    Argue and fight with them to get stays and missing points posted when they argue revenue stays aren’t qualifying (can’t make this stuff up)
    Takes days weeks to escalate anything
    Great new elite levels with no meaningful benefits
    Offer more points then raise redemptions near 100%
    Can anyone suck worse than iHG?
    Then add a massive amount of old outdated properties past their usable life that should be bulldozed that would make better parking lots than hotels
    Perhaps one day they will look at Marriott Hyatt & Hilton and get a clue
    But they will likely never get it right in my lifetime so will continue to avoid them
    A shame as I like Kimpton and InterCons the rest is mostly bloody awful with some rare exceptions overseas
    Maybe they would like to hire me as their brands ambassador lol

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