Marriott’s View of Loyalty Prevails: Al Maha Won’t Charge Guests for Meals, Activities After All

Hotel loyalty programs face a unique challenge that airlines don’t. Airlines set the rules and provide the product directly. Hotels have to get properties which are often owned and even managed separately to comply, with benefits like upgrades delivered consistently by individual employees at a front desk perhaps thousands of miles away. They rely on individual hotels and even employees to comply.

As a result it can be like playing whack-a-mole with individual properties. And each program has different tools at their disposal to work with individual hotels on compliance. Starwood was uniquely strong in this regard.

Embedded in a loyalty program as well is a philosophy of how to treat guests redeeming their points. There are two contrasting models:

  • Points pay for the base product just like cash. Many airline frequent flyer programs around the world treat points as payment for base fare, all taxes and fuel surcharges are extra. Delta increasingly thinks of points as just another way of paying for a ticket, and even assigns redemption customers to basic economy on some routes unless they spend more points. Often airlines that offer business class passengers car service won’t extend that to award tickets. Qatar won’t extend lounge access or increased baggage allowance to mileage upgrades to business.

  • Points guests are no different than paid guests, or are even treated better. Redemptions are a reward for loyalty, so they don’t represent just a single transaction but many transactions are so customers should be treated even better than one-offs. Awards are changeable and cancellable (perhaps with a fee), and they’re more flexible because members shouldn’t be punished for their loyalty when plans change.

When you redeem points for a hotel room, are you getting just the walls and roof above you, or are you getting all of the benefits afforded to guests on paid bookings?

The question of philosophy and consistency was illustrated clearly with the Marriott program and the Al Maha Desert Resort.

  • Al Maha is a truly special property. All rooms are suites, with private pools looking out over the desert. Wildlife roam free throughout the property. Meals are included (even room service) and so are activities. I have never heard anyone disappointing in their stay.

  • The new Marriott program offers incredible value for top hotels at 60,000 points per night (going up to as much as 100,000 per night in March).

In season the hotel can run $2100 points per night.

In the middle of the desert, in the summer, prices drop down as low as $720 per night.

The hotel started charging for food and activities for redemption stays made on or about December 11. For bookings prior to that date they were treating redemption stays the same as any paid booking, all rooms include meals and two activities daily. But they were letting customers know that if they were using points, their points covered the room only.

Two people staying on property consuming three meals daily and taking two activities would be charged about $800 per day which is more than the hotel charges for paid rooms including these things in the off season. Specifically,

  • 168 AED per person breakfast
  • 273 AED per person lunch
  • 515 AED per person dinner
  • 270 AED per person, per activity

Here’s the problem: Marriott doesn’t allow hotels to treat points bookings differently from paid bookings.

If the hotel charged a $400 room rate and an $800 resort fee, that would seem to comply with Marriott terms and the resort fee would be chargeable on redemption stays — because points bookings would be treated on the same basis as paid nights.

However anyone using points must receive the same experience as guests paying with cash. If all cash stays include meals and activities, points stays need to also. The loyalty program and hotel need to solve and friction here behind the scenes. And Marriott is doing that.

I reached out to Marriott last month when it was first reported that this property was charging meals and activities for award guests but not paid guests. It took a few weeks, with the holidays (key people out), with the distance, and with the complicated nature of whatever discussions may need to have happened.

However Marriott let me know that Al Maha will once again honor their full experience for redemption guests, specifically “[t]he property is reverting back to the old inclusive award pricing.”

Al Maha is a truly special place. I enjoyed my stay there a couple of years ago immensely — a glass of champagne on a dune at the end of the day and riding off into the sunset on a camel, gourmet dining in the middle of the desert, and a wonderful SriLankan lunch by my own pool while gazelles roamed by.

So I’m thrilled that members have the opportunity to book here and receive incredible value for their points. But I’m more heartened that Marriott takes the idea seriously that redemption guests are honored guests who should be treated as well or better than guests paying cash rates, because their redemption stays are rewards for their loyalty and not merely a one-off transaction.

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, 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. I question whether it was Marriott that forced this change. The ranking for this hotel on TripAdvisor had dropped from 9 out of 600 in the Dubai area to 69th and the rates for my dates, coincidentally or not, had dropped from $2100 to $1680. I think the hotel had a PR fiasco on its hands and backed down to preserve its business.

  2. Great news for the next time I’m in the middle of the desert.

    Too bad Marriott doesn’t give a crap about their web site which crashes repeatedly, their inability to merge accounts correctly, their lack of control on my personal data, the ridiculous hold times on the Platinum line or the non-existent help on social media. etc, etc, etc. Just a little bump, right Arne?

  3. I still want to know the formula of what a point redemption actually means in terms of revenue to a hotel. I know it’s variable but I’ve been given wildly different numbers from folks in the biz. I really wish Marriott et al would squash the whole cash upgrade over points that some, usually higher end, places are doing. Just finished a stay where the base (Marriott flag) room was 60k points but to upgrade to the next category room was more than $250 extra per night while if I had booked the room in cash the spread between room types was less than $30.

  4. “Marriott doesn’t allow hotels to treat points bookings differently from paid bookings.” Not really, I have an award booking at a European Edition property that doesn’t appear to sell a room not including breakfast for cash. Every rate sold on the website includes breakfast. But when I made an award booking they were very clear in letting me know “The charge for breakfast is 25€ / person / day.”

  5. So would the Rate Details now reflect it being inclusive or still the infamous Room Only wordings?

    I think we need to have the website changes the wordings to the previous inclusive in order to give an assurance to those who now would consider to book the hotel with points.

  6. Why does still say “ROOM ONLY REDEMPTION STAY Meals, activities and other incidentals are to be paid directly at property” for the Al Maha on points?

  7. @Nick – if you have an issue where you believe a hotel is non-compliant then it needs to get raised with Marriott, they weren’t initially aware of what was happening at Al Maha and it took raising it several levels to get the attention this needed.

  8. @8bb8b8 – Marriott’s reimbursement to a hotel doesn’t seem to correspond directly to redemption tiers as in Cat 5 = X, Cat 6 = Y.

  9. @Gary I know that there is no free breakfast for Platinum’s and above at Edition & Design Hotel properties, but the fact that they don’t actually sell a cash rate on that doesn’t include breakfast makes me think they **should** include breakfast on award stays? I’m sure Marriott is aware of this, I noticed it booking at 1 property and I’m sure I can repeat it at others. I’m saying it’s a wide spread practice Marriott has to be aware of.

  10. If only Marriott would also force the dozens of properties that intentionally cheat and fail to provide elite status breakfasts in restaurants to actually comply with both the letter and spirit of the applicable elite status benefits.

  11. @Gary – In a sample search at Al Maha for 1 night, Jan 30-31, Marriott returns 60,000-point award redemption options for a Bedouin Suite. But the Rate Details still show “ROOM ONLY REDEMPTION STAY.”

  12. Does that mean i can book the hotel NOW for a future stay and they will honor the all inclusive even if now it shows ROom only redemption stay. Thanks.

  13. I just e-mailed the hotel about this and received the following reply this morning…. 🙁 Fingers crossed this changes!

    Dear Mr. X

    Greetings from Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa!

    Further to your enquiry, Please be informed that The booking on points redemption it will be on Room Only Basis .

    Therefore ,Meals and activity will be charged in addition.

    Should you need any further assistance please don’t hesitate to contact us.
    Kind Regards,

  14. @Gary

    Within the past hour or two, Marriott has changed what you see under rate details to reflect the conversion back to all-inclusive. My existing reservation made after 12/11 has now been updated with the new terms as well:

    Include Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and 02 selected desert
    activities for 02 Adults. Any other incidentals are to be paid
    directly at property
    Rate eligible for 02 adults only. 3rd adult and children 10
    years and above will be charged at AED1600 per night subject to
    applicable taxes

  15. The website now shows award redemptions as all inclusive, however, now they seem to be playing games with availability, as there are base rooms available for cash during US Thanksgiving week, but not available for points. Given the evolving terms and conditions at Marriott, perhaps this is another change in the rules that they haven’t told us about?

  16. Looks like you can’t even book redemption at the hotel now. No rooms available any night and a note on the app saying that Not all hotels participate in rewards nights.

    I booked when the rate details confirmed Full Board, but now my reservation shows different rate details! Really frustrating!!

  17. @Gary I know this is an old article, but wondering if a Hotel’s paid rates all include breakfast, can they exclude breakfast from a points booking? Seems from your article that they wouldn’t. Can you clarify?

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