Talk to any frequent traveller and you’ll likely notice an interest bordering on obsession: loyalty programs. Although the Air Canada-Aeroplan split is not scheduled to happen for two more years – a hot topic among Canadian trippers – there are some far more imminent changes to the loyalty landscape, and they’re focused within the hotel sector.
On July 2, AccorHotels, the French parent company of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, will unify its various loyalty programs – Fairmont President’s Club, Swissôtel Circle and Raffles Ambassadors – under the name Le Club AccorHotels. Then, in August, Starwood’s SPG, Marriott Rewards and Ritz-Carlton Rewards will take a step closer to merging into one unified program, part of a phased approach that will affect 110 million members worldwide. These changes will see all three programs adopt a single points structure and awards and benefits plan. But each program will retain its name – for now; in 2019, Marriott plans to unveil a new name that will span the full portfolio.
None of these changes should come as a surprise: Accor announced its acquisition of Fairmont, Swissôtel and Raffles in 2015, while Marriott closed its US$13-billion purchase of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide in 2016, becoming the largest hotel chain on the planet. The amalgamation of loyalty plans was inevitable.
But now that the changes are upon us, what do they mean for travellers?
For Fairmont President’s Club members, the switch means a change to how status is earned. Previously, members were tiered based upon their number of stays each year. Under the new plan, members will earn a minimum of 25 points for every 10 euros spent (with greater points earnings based on status tier), which can be cashed out toward future stays to the tune of 40 euros for every 2000 points.
SPG, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Rewards members are already able to transfer points between accounts in order to book rewards under different brands. On Aug. 1, points from all accounts will be converted into a single currency and account. SPG points will be tripled – the same conversion ratio as has been in place since transfers between programs were enabled in 2016 – and combined with any Marriott or Ritz-Carlton rewards points.
Under the new unified Marriott plan, members will have access to the full brand portfolio (currently, members must move points to the appropriate program to redeem), while the points-earning structure will change to 10 points for every US$1 - “on average … 20 per cent more points per dollar spent,” according to Don Cleary, president of Canadian region for Marriott International. By Cleary’s estimate, members can earn a free night based upon a $750-spend (less for elite-tier members). Status tiers and associated perks will also be unified.
In both cases, the merged programs also bring a new emphasis on experiential rewards: Marriott is expanding its Marriott Moments marketplace, where consumers can cash out points on more than 110,000 experiences, such as tickets to the Super Bowl or Coachella, or master classes with personalities such as Chef Daniel Boulud and Mercedes-AMG Petronas driver Lewis Hamilton. Le Club AccorHotels’ Elite Experiences will include a night at the Tony Awards and a boxing lesson in Paris with Olympic medal-winner Sarah Ourahmoune.
Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of ThePointsGuy.com, a website dedicated to decoding the travel loyalty game for consumers, says that the popularity of the SPG plan among frequent and business travellers in particular made the specifics of the Marriott merger “the biggest elephant in the room in the loyalty world.”
Kelly, who previously ranked SPG the best hotel loyalty program in the world, says the new plan “does a really good job of keeping the best of both plans.” In addition to keeping many perks and earning power for rewards fairly intact, he says the amalgamated program opens up more options for both earning and redemption.
“Starwood only had [about] 1,300 properties and now it’s the largest hotel chain in the world, so there are a lot more options for retaining elite status or earning perks,” he says. The flip side will be a greater user base competing for those rewards. “It’s going to be a lot harder [to redeem], especially at popular properties,” he predicts.
Kelly also advises that travellers rethink their strategy for using points. “They’ll try to trim fat whenever there’s a merger. They usually don’t do it right away because they don’t want a revolt, but over time, when consumers have less choice, prices go up,” he says.
So whether it’s that Maui vacation, or tickets to see Katy Perry at the O2 in London, Kelly recommends spending points sooner rather than later. “Points lose value over time, so don’t hoard them for the future. Set a goal, plan a trip. But use your points and get value now.”
Special to The Globe and Mail