I’m need to buy Lucky who writes the One Mile at a Time blog, this t-shirt.
He shared his experience checking into the St. Regis Abu Dhabi, a Starwood hotel.
- First he was (incorrectly) told that his American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts booking wasn’t entitled to a Platinum upgrade.
- Then he was told that even though the hotel was selling more than 9 St. Regis suites, that none were available.
- He tweeted the hotel and Starwood Preferred Guest, and he was given one of those suites.
What interests me in Lucky’s situation is this: the difference between what is promised by a loyalty program, and what hotels deliver.
The absolute toughest and most frustrating thing for a hotel loyalty program executive is that no matter what planning they do, training they put into place, and investments they make, the absolute final delivery point for benefits falls upon individual hotels, and even individual front desk employees at those hotels.
Most hotel programs are part of hotel management companies that may own some but usually not most of the properties under their brand. Some hotel owners like the business driven by loyalty programs (some do not even value that), but don’t like to deliver the benefits of those programs. Sometimes the attitude belongs to a given general manager. And sometimes the individual employee just doesn’t follow through.
Of the five major hotel chain loyalty programs, here’s the promise and the reality.
Hyatt Gold Passport
They offer their top tier Diamond members (4) confirmed at booking suite upgrades per year. These are valid from any paid rate that can be booked through a Hyatt channel, and in some cases I’ve even had luck using them on non-Hyatt rates. Each can be used for up to 7 nights.
These suite upgrades cannot be used on award (free) nights but can be used on cash and points award nights.
These are the gold standard of hotel upgrades, since they are truly confirmed at booking not subject to availability later.
Availability cannot be searched online, you must call, and Gold Passport then must interface with the hotel to alter the booking.
However there is no elite suite upgrade benefit if not using one of these confirmed upgrades. (Even general members can use points to upgrade eligible room rates, but that’s a different issue.)
Hyatt Diamonds are eligible for upgrades on check-in subject to availability, but suites are excluded from those upgrades. Some hotels will do it anyway out of their own generosity, but they are not required to. I consider it a gap in the program that Diamonds can check into an empty hotel and their upgrade benefit won’t include empty suites.
Starwood Preferred Guest
Starwood initially was the most generous major program for suite upgrades. They actually promised suites to their top tier Platinum members if a standard suite was available, at check-in.
When a hotel has unbooked suites, the only reason not to give the room away to a top tier elite is if that elite might otherwise buy it (the chance to get it for free could undermine the likelihood of buying it in advance). But only offering the upgrade at check-in undermines that likelihood.
Hyatt trumped Starwood with their confirmed at booking suite upgrades. But Starwood remained a solid number two.
50 night Platinum members get 10 nights a year where they can request upgrade priority — ‘confirmed in advance’ upgrades that can be secured up to 5 days in advance of check-in, subject to availability, this benefit does two things:
- It lets members say when the upgrade matters most to them, and go towards the front of the line on those nights.
- It centralizes upgrade processing, based on published room inventory, rather than leaving it to the vagaries of individual hotels.
These aren’t confirmed suites the way that Hyatt offers them (at booking, you know if you can have a suite when booking the room). But it enhances choice. The problem seems to be that some hotels have learned to game their inventory, and some members find these suite night awards difficult to use.
Elite members are not entitled to suites.
Sometime around 2005 Marriott Rewards actually wrote into their terms and conditions that suites were specifically excluded from the upgrade benefit.
Two years ago Marriott removed the exclusion, but that doesn’t ever entitle an elite member to a suite even if a suite is available.
The program doesn’t say hotels aren’t supposed to upgrade a member to a suite any longer, but that isn’t a benefit with teeth. If a Platinum walks into a hotel where every single suite is empty, and the hotel doesn’t offer a suite to the member that’s spent 75 nights in a year with Marriott, the hotel isn’t doing anything wrong.
At least they’ve started offering breakfast on the weekend, though still not at Marriott Courtyard properties or at resorts…
While Hilton has loosened up a bit on upgrades, as with Marriott there is absolutely no top tier elite member entitlement to a suite at any time.
A hotel may choose to offer one, through their own beneficence, but their failure to do so doesn’t in any way violate the terms and conditions of the program.
IHG Rewards Club
The program’s terms and conditions are as weak on upgrades as you could possibly get.
Platinum level members will be offered a complimentary upgrade, as determined by the hotel, which might include rooms on higher floors, corner rooms, newly renovated rooms, or rooms with preferred views.
There are no specific guarantees, suites are not mentioned, and upgrades are determined entirely by the hotel and not the loyalty program.
Of course there are plenty of hotels at the low and mid-tier end in this chain (Holiday Inn and below) without meaningful upgrades to offer, but where they do exist they are not offered.
Additionally, the Platinum top tier of the IHG Rewards Club program does not confer upgrade benefits at Intercontinental hotels, the top line of the chain.
Instead, Intercontinental properties have their own recognition program — Ambassador — which entails paid members, and a top tier with unpublished qualification criteria (sadly, top tier referral certificates seem to be a thing of the past).
Intercontinental Royal Ambassador upgrades have been some of the best I’ve ever received — a Terrace Suite at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, a Jimbaran Bay Suite in Bali, the Presidential Suite more than once in Manila.
But they’re also quite variable. Some hotels interpret the upgrade benefit to a suite or an executive room quite minimally — years ago the previous General Manager of the Mark Hopkins put a fax machine in a base level room, called it a ‘business room’ and claimed it met the requirements for an Executive room.
Nonetheless, the Royal Ambassador upgrade benefit is supposed to be ‘guaranteed’. And, contra the terms and conditions, the way several hotels intepreted it was a 2 category upgrade… and some hotels didn’t cap how high they would upgrade you… meaning that booking the right room level could give you a suite much better than a ‘standard’ suite that other chains promise.
But how each hotel interpreted upgrades varied, and the terms and conditions of the Royal Ambassador program do not require upgrades on award nights which was one of my great frustrations. An award guest was not an honored guest at all, and to me made to feel like an unwelcome mooch.
Entirely apart from the hotel chain, several factors influence the room you get…
- Regions matter. Upgrades in Asia tend to be more generous than in Europe. Programs that don’t require upgrades, like Marriott, will tend to offer them frequently in Asia. Meanwhile, and there are hotels that are exceptions, I’ve found that European properties tend to be more difficult with upgrades. I’ve attributed it to cultural biases against giving things away for free.
- Types of suites vary. Some hotels have better upgrades to offer. You might find a suite is just two rooms opened up, or it may be substantially larger and with upgraded furnishings and design elements. In general I’ve found more impressive suites given as upgrades in Asia, and more ornate suites in Europe. Most programs only upgrade to ‘standard’ suites but you can luck into higher-level suites, which some (but not all) of the photos above represent.
- Does a suite even mean two rooms with a wall? I’ve always believed that a suite has walls. There is more than one room, and they’re separated. If there are just separate ‘areas’ without a wall, that’s a junior suite. Not every hotel agrees, and what a hotel ‘considers’ a suite will influence what kind of suite upgrade you get. The Intercontinental Times Square and Andaz Wall Street keep using the word ‘suite’ but I do not think it means what they think it means.