The Willard Won’t Honor Status Benefits on Award Stays, and Why This Means the Priority Club Program Lags the Competition

A friend contacted me on the afternoon of New Years Eve after checking into the Willard in DC. They’re a Royal Ambassador member of Intercontinental Hotels, and that means they’re entitled to an upgrade ‘to an Executive Room or suite’.

I’ve always received great upgrades in the past at the Willard, it’s usually automatic for a Royal Ambassador to be given a corner suite that’s basically two full rooms (with two bathrooms). Only once I was only given a “Willard Room,” an oval shaped room looking out at the monuments that amounts to a junior suite with a spectacular view but not a true suite.

My friend was told that because they had used points for the stay that they wouldn’t receive any upgrade. They wanted to know from me if that was correct, or if they had any recourse?

I told them that technically the hotel was within its rights – because unlike every other major hotel chain at least operating in the U.S. (Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Starwood) the Priority Club program specifically says that upgrade benefits don’t apply on award stays.

The entire program is a bit Rube Goldberg-esque. Intercontinental Hotels are a part of Priority Club.. All Priority Club properties are part of Intercontinental Hotels Group (Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, etc.). All Priority Club properties except Intercontinental honor status in the Priority Club program. Intercontinental properties have their own recognition offering, the Ambassador program (which anyone can pay to belong to, and which has an elite level – Royal Ambassador). Confusing much?

Royal Ambassador is a valuable status level. It generally means a suite upgrade across the board at some properties. Occasionally Intercontinentals give one category room upgrade to their Ambassador members and two room category upgrade to their Royal Ambassadors. Royal Ambassadors are also entitled to 4pm late checkout and 8am early check-in. Plus drinks from the minibar are complimentary.

The rules do say that on an award stay not all of these benefits apply.

When staying on Reward Nights, all Ambassador and Royal Ambassador privileges apply with the exception of upgrades, free Pay TV film per stay, 24 hour guaranteed room availability, 8:00am early check-in and complimentary mini bar beverages.

(I guess “all.. privileges apply” doesn’t leave much.)

Still, I’ve never actually experienced an Intercontinental property which didn’t honor full benefits when members redeem their points. And I’ve personally redeemed points at the Willard and always been afforded these benefits.

Since this is an area of ambiguity for the program, there’s a Flyertalk thread that tracks Royal Ambassador experiences on award stays. Every past stay at the Willard has been reported to offer upgrade benefits, and there are no reports of denied minibar either. As recently as July, also earlier in 2010, and all the way back to 2006 and to 2007.

I cannot readily think of an [Intercontinental] where I paid that treated me better than did the Willard on Rewards Points.

Now, since the hotel wouldn’t give them an upgrade, I texted that they should make sure that the hotel would honor the Royal Ambassador minibar benefit, so they called down.

  • First they were told that they would. The drinks would be complimentary. Nice, it was New Year’s Eve after all!

  • But then their phone rang, and they were told that no, in fact minibar was not a benefit on award stays and they would be charged for anything they consumed.

  • My friends pointed out that the letter they had received at check-in specified their benefits for the stay – but since they already weren’t all being honored they wanted to be sure they wouldn’t have problems at checkout.

  • They received another call back and were told by the hotel that as a “show of good faith” they would honor the minibar benefit.

The hotel had given them a letter saying that they were entitled to the complimentary beverages from the minibar and an upgrade if available. And it was even customized for these guests, printed with their name.

Alright, you might be thinking, it’s New Year’s Eve, perhaps no upgrade was available?

Except that when they pushed the upgrade issue they were told they could have an upgraded room for an upcharge but that they could not have the room – that was available – on points.

Now, in the hotel’s favor, I do want to re-iterate that they can technically point to terms and conditions of the program that say they don’t have to honor all benefits on award stays. Even though they handed the guests a letter saying they’d be given the upgrade if available, and even though in my experience and that of others they have always done so.

While I do think it’s an inadvisable policy, it’s one that members don’t often have to deal with. Hotels simply do honor benefits even though the language of the program says they technically don’t have to.

But clearly a problem is inconsistency. Even hotels that always honor benefits might not on a given stay, and you can’t be sure until you show up, as happened here.

At a meaningful level, though, the beef can’t be just with the property. Instead, it points to a real flaw in the program itself.

  • An inconsistent benefit you can’t count on is really not much of a benefit at all. And second because failing to provide full elite benefits on award stays puts the program at a disadvantage compared to all other major chains’ programs.

  • With Priority Club you do not have any option to use points for upgraded stays (better rooms for more points). Hyatt, Starwood, and Marriott all offer the ability to redeem extra points for better than a basic room.

  • If they don’t honor status on awards, what good are the awards when you care about them most? Award stays are the ones you often do care most about, your reward for hard fought stays on the road, perhaps a vacation with family or a special occasion (like New Year’s!). Then why would you want to stay on an award and be treated worse than on those stays you made to work for the award in the first place?

  • Of course Starwood, Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott — everyone! – honors status benefits on award stays as a function of the program. Just not, per the terms of the program, Priority Club or the Ambassador program.

By writing the benefits of status out of the program, and by not even offering an option to redeem extra points for upgraded rooms, they present the worst redemption program there is amongst any of their competitors.

Sure, most Intercontinental hotel properties honor status on award stays. They have in my experience. But in the past they even honored those benefits at the Willard. So I’d certainly have advised these guests in advance that they’d have no problem at the Willard.

Since the terms and conditions allow hotels to opt out of the benefits, you cannot count on them. It’s up to the individual hotel, and the program offers nothing. Or as my friend said,

[W]hen it matters, awards make you 2nd class citizens.

Why would anyone want to redeem points to be treated worse than on the rest of their stays? And as a result, why would anyone strive to collect the points in the first place?

Of course, I quickly back off that extreme proposition! Because after all the Priority Club program does let you redeem your points for gift cards towards the purchase of hotel nights even at their competitor hotels. It’s a low dollar value per point, but you can use the cards to stay at say a Hilton where you also have status and get that status honored.

Put a different way, Priority Club points can get you better treatment when staying at other hotels outside the chain than with their own hotels, even when you hold their coveted top status level.

Question for y’all: how important is it for hotels to honor elite status benefits when members redeem their points instead of paying with cash?

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. It’s always offensive when a company treats an award stay as “free”, forgetting that it was actually *earned*.

  2. The inability to book bigger, better rooms via PC has an even bigger flaw – it is impossible to take 2 kids to the majority of properties on a reward, since a basic room won’t take 2 rollaways. (Some non-IC’s DO offer more room categories for awards, to be fair, but rarely at IC’s).

  3. I couldn’t have said it better. For my Platinum status I am offered bonus points on my stays but usually nothing more. Priority Club will never become a priority for me until they decide to offer the same benefits their competition offers i.e. real room upgrades, breakfasts and uniform property quality across the spectrum. The last time I checked into a Holiday Inn, my pillow had a blood blotch the size of a silver dollar. Needless to say I checked out pronto. The same property has recently been reflagged.I guess thats progress.

  4. “Award” is basically a recognition for all you have done. So if it is an “award” why the hell will they withhold benefits that they would give you otherwise an a paid stay?

  5. Personally I think it’s incredibly important that the property/chain honors the status level benefits on an award stay. I’d rather they do that consistently than do it on revenue nights.

    For me at least most revenue nights are nights on the road for work. I generally don’t care at all what kind of room I get. Sure it’s night to get an upgrade, occasionally I get a really nice view somewhere and I remember that stuff next time I have to choose a property, but, the non-revenue stays are the ones where I’m on vacation and want to have something nice that I can enjoy.

  6. Their multi-tiered program is a confusing mess (Priority Club versus Ambassador). When you add to it this additional layer of uncertainty as well as what often appear to be erratic generous promotions (that often seem to irritate their most loyal customers) you wonder who is running the show in one of the largest hotel companies in the world.

  7. Totally agree with the importance of honoring status benefits on award stays. As with other posters, most of my revenue stays are for work. Sure, sometimes I”m at a location a few nights. But often it’s a night or two here, a night there – not necessarily that critical to have some of the benefits available (though they sure don’t hurt). But my award stays are all family trips and that’s where it matters more. Especially lately as we’ve done more international trips. If we were just spending a night by the airport before our vacation flight, who cares…. but sevral nights in Tokyo on vacation? That’s another story.

    The biggest benefit for PC is easily accruing lots of points for free nights. BUt they really fall short in the other areas as this post shows.

  8. I agree completely, until they get their act together and start giving consistent upgrades they will never be my #1 choice.

  9. Agree with the others that it’s important to honor the status of the guest on award stays, as that award was earned.

    In addition, in the particular example given here, why in heck would the hotel be so stingy about an upgrade? It had the suite available and the chances of selling it at that point were about nil, so why not be generous and make the guest happy? You’re dealing with a guest who brings a lot of revenue to IHG and you want him to keep coming back!

    Very short-sighted policy.

  10. Status with Priority Rewards usually means jack. At Platinum status, that usually means extra points and that’s it – no room upgrade, no special recognition (other than the special key folder), no club access. NOTHING.

    Then again, I occasionally encounter issues with room types when I’m using SPG points. Certain properties would put you on the bottom end of upgrade queue for using points instead of paid stays.

  11. I’ve stayed at the Willard, though not in a while. A classy place with a classy pricetag. It also has a long heritage-I think the term lobbyist originated here when folks looking for government favors hung out in the lobbh when Abraham Lincoln stayed here as President.

    So why does a high-class hotel nickel and dime a status customer on an award stay?

  12. This is why I like Starwood Platinum. Whether award, paid stay, or cash/points, am treated the same, including free internet, free lounge, and suites at check-in. For me, these are huge benefits that i know i can COUNT ON. While Priority Club is a good program and certainly has its advantages, the program inconsistencies that you identify, plus the RA mystery qualification, are why I do not seek elite status with them.

  13. 1. Hotel groups (IC, Hilton and other) need to ADMIT that points do carry monetary value and customers who use those points have rights and value. Come on, it’s a multi billion dollar industry.
    2. It is simple, customer service. Hotels don’t value guests, unless pressured or the green is in their hand.

    It’s sad when my family and I stay in 4 hotels (3 brands) across the globe and have 3 vary different “reward” experiences.

    Only Hilton honored my status, IC hotels and Marriott did not. Makes picking hotels for next year easier.

  14. With in the last month I had two radically different stay experiences at the Willard:

    On the first recent stay, which was my first visit to the property, upon a request in my reservation I was upgraded on the day of arrival to an Executive suite room 744. I knew I had been upgraded via the iPhone app. This was very important as I was staying with a friend so he was able to sleep (roll away bed) in the living room, and the suite had 2 bathrooms and very ample space. The first night was on a sweet dilemma award, and then I extended the stay for an additional night with 40,000 points, and confirmed with the hotel that we could keep this room 744. We thoroughly enjoyed the stay, suite, experience, and atmosphere at the hotel.

    The second stay, earlier in 2011, was different. It was a weekend stay and I noticed via the Priority Club iPhone app that we had not been upgraded from the entry level “2 queen bed deluxe room.” I was not sure what happened, thinking maybe that the staff that deals with elite guests did not process pre-blocking on stays booked over the weekend.

    I called the hotel when I was in a taxi from BWI to inquire about an upgrade. This stay was also very important as I was with my sister and another friend from Prague.

    The desk agent first told me that I was not eligible for an upgrade because I was using points for the stay. When I told her that I had just gotten an upgrade about 10 days ago, she said that the policy changed on 1/1/2011.

    I continued to press for the upgrade while on the phone in the taxi with the 2 people from Prague. Eventually I was transferred to some sort of “guest relations manager.” This person was a bit more helpful, but it seemed they had to check with an “assistant manager,” whenever some decision point came up.

    They said that we would have to pay an “upsell” charge of $300 to get the available executive suite. Then they lowered the charge to $200. I told them I would pay $100, but they would not budge from the $200.

    They told me that the type of upgrade you get depends on the rate you book and a number of other factors.

    I told them I traveled to Washington 2-3 times a month, and insinuated that my experience on this stay would determine if I would become a regular customer at the Willard.

    Finally they said they would upgrade us to a Willard Room (just a larger room,) but that it appeared a junior suite might open up later on in the day, and they could give us this junior suite as a complimentary upgrade.

    We first went to the Willard room, and then to the junior suite which actually had a separate living room. It was ok, but not as special as the executive suite.

    I could understand if they were going to sell the executive suite that they would not give it to us as a free upgrade. However, its extremely unlikely anyone would walk in and buy all the executive suites at about 3:00 P.M. on a weekend night. How many executive suites do they have, anyway?

    I was disappointed that I had to negotiate with them on the phone for about 20 minutes to get the upgrade. I don’t care what the terms and conditions say, I believe in good faith IC should be providing upgrades on reward stays. I agree with earlier commenters that upgrades on reward stays are critically important. I would say on a scale of 1 to 10 importance is a 9.

    The experience soured this 2nd stay somewhat.

    Other negative aspects of the Willard are and were:
    1. They charge about $1.11 even for a local and/or toll free call. This is one reason I don’t focus on SPG;

    2. Apparently they don’t honor free internet for AMB and RA members. They provide a free movie which I did not need and could not use. Also they apparently charge you an internet fee for each device you connect. So if you had a couple with 3 kids and each person had a mobile phone and a laptop you could be hit with 10 separate internet daily charges if each person had 2 devices. I’m assuming the system charges you for each MAC address that connects, so one would have to bring a travel router to avoid numerous charges;

    3. I spoke with some other travelers and they advise that the Willard recently got a new GM, and that this GM is trying to put forth a policy of only honoring the specific published benefits. In other words, a strict by the book GM. There is nothing that frustrates me more than having such an atitude and set of policies! It sounds as if in the past the Willard was mor accommodating. I have no personal experience other than these 2 stays. I don’t like overall that they are trying to wrip me off or nickel and dime me with phone, internet, and “upsell” charges. Those points were NOT free! I earned the points through revenue stays, and resent being treated as a second class citizen on reward stays as happened with the 2nd stay prior to the 20 minute phone call from the taxi.

    If in fact this new GM is somehow trying to honor only the letter of the rules, I will not frequent the Willard.

    The Hotel Monaco I think is a similar sort of boutique like hotel in some respects. Whenever I have stayed at the Monaco as a Kimpton Inner Circle elite member they gladly gave me an upgrade to a real suite which was similar in size to the Willard Executive suites. They didn’t hem and haw about what rate I paid, or make me have 20-30 minute negotiation sessions with them from the taxi.

    I’ve also gotten some of the nicer suites at Grand Hyatt Washington, though I don’t like the design and layout of the building as much.

    I’ve got to review the FT thread to see what other past and more recent experiences of other travelers are.

  15. I believe that one of the problems is InterContientals management/GMs. Their business culture and experience is international based rather than regional so they come to North America and want to do the nickel and dime thing which wont fly as it does in other countries where guests are frequently get more gouged but more importantly accept it better……..
    In North America its all about pleasing the guest and staying competitive even if its means breaking the rules more often.This marks the first time in recent years that I know of that a US based property is enforcing the actual mistakes that are called terms and conditions
    Its reason enough for me to rarely stay in any InterContiental property ever again.
    That said a number of the US proeprties have been great to me.New Orleans,Boston,Atlanta,Los Angeles,San Francisco (the newer one)Until they shoot themselves in the foot like the Willard I will continue to stay with them.Right now I will be sure to stay at the St Regis and avoid the Willard until if ever they clean up their act.Thanks for the great post and heads up

  16. Although there are those whom do not favor its program, I think Hilton HHonors is a great program for reward stays as they honor the benefits as if the rate were paid, and they even award credit for status to one’s qualifying nights and stays unlike any of the other major high end hotel chains.

  17. I am just back from a reward stay at the Willard. As a Royal Ambassador I got an upgrade to Executive Suite, however no other benefits were granted… Bad Bad Bad

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