Imagine a hotel experience as personalized as your movie recommendations on Netflix or product picks on Amazon.com. That is where hotel loyalty programs are headed, according to Thom Kozik, vice president of global loyalty at Marriott International. "We are looking for the right opportunity that brings value to you," he says. "It's all about a personalized stay. The more personalized we can make it for you, the better it is," he adds.
Experts say this is the year of customization for hotel loyalty programs. Loyalty program members can expect to have more flexibility, earning opportunities, options for redeeming points and personalization – from trip-planning to checkout.
"When it comes to loyalty, transaction-based relationships are no longer enough. Consumers want meaningful, personal relationships," says Liz Crisafi, head of loyalty, partnerships and portfolio marketing at InterContinental Hotels Group.
Here's what to anticipate in the hotel loyalty space in 2017.
Hilton conducted a survey of its loyalty members in its rewards program (formerly Hilton HHonors and now Hilton Honors), and found that their guests wanted points to be more flexible, more valuable and more useful. To provide more flexibility, this year Hilton Honors members will be able to pool points with up to 10 friends or family members at no cost in any increment to provide more buying power. Additionally, the company will add an option to easily book a room night using a combination of points and cash, allowing those with fewer points to still enjoy savings and redemption options. Hilton is also allowing members with Diamond status a one-year extension to requalify for their status.
Marriott Rewards members have the flexibility to use smaller numbers of points for upgrades or rooms with better views, as well as to book a stay in advance even if they don't yet have enough points. They simply need to earn the points at least 14 days ahead of check-in.
Expanded Buying Power
Allowing members to book more stays with fewer points has been a key change. Hyatt will launch its revamped global loyalty program March 1, 2017, rebranding the program from Hyatt Gold Passport to World of Hyatt. The new program aims to provide guests with a broader range of benefits and more attainable rewards based on feedback from members. With the new program, members receive more rewards as they advance through the program's three membership tiers.
Meanwhile, Choice Hotels announced changes to its Choice Privileges program in 2016 that lets members use fewer points to book rooms using FlexRewards. Select hotels seasonally offer lower point redemption levels, making it easier to book an award stay.
Aside from using hotel points to book rooms, many customers enjoy using their points for products and experiences. Hilton's survey also found members wanted more ways to use their points. As a result, the company will be the first in the travel industry to partner with Amazon, allowing members to use points to buy any product on Amazon.
If IHG Rewards Club members can't find what they want to purchase from the program's online catalog of goods, the Rewards Club Concierge can step in to assist. "One example from last year is a frequent Holiday Inn Express guest who was looking for a unicycle, which the Rewards Concierge found for him," Crisafi says.
Since the completed 2016 Starwood-Marriott merger, points held by loyalty members of the two hotel chains now have even greater power. Members can transfer points across programs, earn points on spending using hotel-branded credit cards across both hotel portfolios and more. "The acquisition of Starwood by Marriott has really reset the bar for any loyalty program," says David Flueck, senior vice president of Starwood Preferred Guest and revenue management at Marriott International. "It has provided a breadth of offering that is unmatchable in the industry," he adds.
Most hotel loyalty programs now include free Wi-Fi access as a standard privilege of membership, but the perks are growing. In 2016, many rewards programs also added the benefit of a guaranteed lowest possible room rates for members who book directly.
Loyalty programs such as Marriott, Hilton and IHG offer guests the opportunity to purchase or bid on experiences using their points. Due to their popularity, many programs are adding new offerings, from throwing the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field through SPG Moments to scoring tickets to "Hamilton" in Chicago through the Marriott Experiences marketplace.
Meanwhile, Kimpton's Kimpton Karma program offers its members some fun perks like a $10 credit they can apply to their in-room minibar or at the hotel bar at most properties. Members can also get a $30 spa credit for an in-room service or a discount at the hotel spa. And Choice Privileges program members can earn a special reward of their choosing, such as savings on gas or a credit for Amazon.
Tech-savvy apps are a primary focus for hospitality companies to better serve guests with options from remote check-in and digital keys to room selection at Hilton and the ability to request items and services during their stay. Loyalty members have access to such cutting-edge features.
Marriott revamped its app entirely this year to provide different experiences to guests based on whether they are in transit, in the hotel or between stays. Other new features include the ability to request a room upgrade and be notified when it's fulfilled, ask for a late checkout time, chat with hotel staff before, during and after a stay and access curated information from Marriott's digital magazine. Coming later this year will be mPlaces, a real-time messaging app service that sends information to guests.
Meanwhile, IHG updated its app late last year to provide IHG Rewards members with complimentary access to a curated list of Kindle books from Amazon Publishing and Kindle Singles.
Some programs, including Kimpton Karma and Marriott Rewards, are even tying points to social media activity. Marriott's #MRPoints program rewards loyalty members with additional points for connecting their social media accounts and sharing specific posts.
"We're making travel more fun, more personable and giving travelers more of what matters most," says Mark Weinstein, Hilton's senior vice president and global head of loyalty and partnerships. And that's good news for guests.
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