For most of us, booking a hotel room is an equation of convenience, affordability, and comfort. But for hotel points obsessives, each night away from home is a strategic stop on the way to the promised land of elite status.
Points- and status-chasers can be a mystifying bunch. The basic premise is this: By staying only in hotels that fall under a chosen loyalty program—and generally using co-branded credit cards to book them—status chasers rack up a slew of benefits at different tiers. This can range from late checkout and free breakfast all the way to free stays in ultra luxury properties. For the most part, people who have to travel for business use the points and status they amass while working to use in their leisure travel.
In this niche of the travel world, this week marks a big shift with the merger of two marquee programs: Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest. The latter, known to the cognoscenti as SPG, includes brands such as St Regis, W Hotels, Aloft, Westin, and Sheraton, and has hitherto been considered one of the most rewarding programs to hitch your travel wagon to.
In 2016, somewhat to the dismay of SPG-ers, Marriott acquired Starwood for $13.6 billion, forming the largest hotel company in the world: 29 brands, 6,500 properties, and 127 countries. This Saturday, August 18, the two reward programs will merge. The resulting program—which won’t be given a new name until 2019, and will also fold in the Ritz Carlton Rewards program—will be a loyalty program with 110 million customers.
For the 21 million SPG-ers who are essentially being folded into the Marriott universe—which was previously less known for its hip brands and more its stingy breakfast policy—the particulars of this merger have been nervously anticipated and hotly debated for months now. When the news was first announced, Gary Leff, a prominent and easily-peeved travel and points blogger, wrote a post entitled “Time to start gnashing teeth: Marriott is buying Starwood.” Above all, there has been a perpetual fear that the former SPG-ers will be treated as second class status-chasers in a Marriott-owned program—and that the continued consolidation of rewards programs will leave travelers with devalued points and fewer places to defect to.
Some background: Travel loyalty programs first began in the 1980s, when major US airlines released versions of their own. Over the decades, they have morphed from a casual way to incentivize brand loyalty to an entire cottage industry—one that’s perfectly suited for the kind of fanatical quibbling that internet forums were made for. Marriott’s pre-merger program has an annual meet-up, which is attended by Marriott executives, entitled TIPPLE: “The Insider Points, Pints and Liquor Extravaganza.” The ultimate goal of points chasers is to attain the thrill of getting something for nothing—or, at least, something luxurious for what you’d already be paying for anyway.
Marriott has appeared aware of how high stakes this merger is; they hired a former SPG executive, David Flueck, to iron out the wrinkles. And indeed, by most accounts Flueck has managed a Herculean task: to marry the two programs, each with its own methods of valuation and levels of perks, without terribly pissing off some of the most pedantic people on the planet. As the online authority The Points Guy put it, “if you hold status with either SPG or Marriott you’re either retaining that status level or, in the specific case of current Marriott Golds, earning an upgrade.” Even teeth-gnashing Leff called it “the best possible outcome we could have expected.”
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some objections. One of the hacks that SPGers used to maximize their points will no longer be permitted because Marriott Rewards has done away with an SPG quirk that counted “stays,” rather than actual nights, as a way to earn status. This means that hotel hopping—where you check into three different hotels over a three-night trip, to maximize distinct “stays” on one business trip—will no longer work.
Marriott did not opt, however, to link status to the amount of money spent on a room, rather than number of nights in a room—a big relief for points obsessives. This means that frequent business travelers who stay at mid-market properties in middle America, say, will still amass as many points from their business trips as those who often stay at more expensive hotels in Rome, Tokyo, and London.
Another, perhaps more existential, sticking point is how this new mega-family of travelers will get along. How will they see each other as they glide through various gleaming lobbies on their way to business meetings? As Bloomberg noted, due to the different brand identities of each former program’s hotel portfolios, there is a general sense that SPG-ers are “culturally savvy” while “Marriott enthusiasts were captives of convenience.” (Translation: SPGers seek out hip properties like W, while Marriott folk will stay anywhere convenient.)
One thing they do have in common, of course, is their shared love of status.