A preferred guest? Or just a member? Which would you prefer?

The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station.  It has been fabulously restored.
The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station. It has been fabulously restored.

There is an old adage of the seasoned – and discerning traveler – and that is this: never set foot on an airplane or in a hotel room without being a member of their frequent guest/flyer program.   Even if you don’t travel often, or are taking that airline only because there isn’t an alternative just this once – you should still be collecting points of one sort or another.  We gave this piece of advice to our then 20-year-old son when he began jetting around the world as a dancer with Les Ballet de Monte Carlo.  So, even on airlines that they booked only once, he collected miles.  Then, two years ago when he began preparations for relocating to London, he had enough frequent-flyer miles in several different accounts to redeem for many a weekend trip between Nice and London.  But not all programs are created equal.

Our own hotel loyalty program memberships go back many, many years.  Let’s go back about 20 years when we first found ourselves as frequent visitors to Toronto.  Loyal to the Sheraton brand, we had only recently learned the lesson of joining various hotel loyalty programs when one weekend our travel agent (that was before the days of online bookings) couldn’t get us a room at the Sheraton downtown Toronto.  He told us he’d put us as an equivalent downtown hotel , and we found ourselves checking into the Marriott at the Eaton Centre – there is no finer location when visiting Toronto.   But it was Marriott’s staff that made us sit up and take note – and in fact, made us eschew the Sheraton for many years of travel there and far beyond, finding as we did the high quality of the staff training extended far outside of their Eaton Centre location.  So over the years we found ourselves rising ever higher in the Marriott Rewards program which has frequently been voted one of the best in the world.  And it’s not hard to see why.

With some 3700+ properties around the world under their various brands, it’s not hard to figure out that there would be a lot to choose from when trying to redeem points for nights.  And we’ve had great luck doing so.  What we also noticed is that as we rose through gold to platinum status, we were treated rather well at the properties.  We worry, though, about how we’ll be treated when we have a year in which we don’t have as many nights at Marriott’s.  Like this year when we’re prepping to sell our house and move, and have to stay around the bay here in Nova Scotia for many more months than we usually do.  When we no longer hold platinum status will being a member be enough?  We’re not so sure, and it’s all because of Starwood.

Last summer we planned a trip to the Blue Mountains area of Ontario to see our daughter in summer theatre in Collingwood.  The nicest hotel on offer around those parts was the Westin Trillium, a Starwood property (who also owns Sheraton hotels among many other brands). So we dusted off our Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card which had not been used in some time, and made our reservations for a summer road trip.When we arrived to check in to the Westin Trillium we found ourselves really believing that we were, in fact, preferred guests.  We did not have any ‘status’ in the program, and yet found ourselves feeling like we do when we’re greeted at a Marriott property as Platinum members!  (Bear in mind that you have to stay 75 nights in one year to be platinum so well you should be treated like royalty: you are, after all, paying the salaries so to speak!).  We were delighted, but wondered if this was just a pleasant surprise of this particular Westin.  It wasn’t.

The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.
The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.

Just this past February we spent six days on the Island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean and our hotel of choice there was the Westin Dawn Beach.  Although we now had a paltry number points actually showing up on our membership screen at check-in, we were again treated preferentially.  Then again in April, we stayed at the Westin in Dublin and felt the same wonderful treatment.  The Starwood Preferred Guest program (SPG) is aptly named as far as we’re concerned.  So where does that leave us in terms of our evaluation of loyalty programs?

The lesson we take away from this is that belonging to these programs is a good thing in the long run, but staying loyal can actually prove to be an obstacle to experiencing other brands and other types of accommodations.  The same lesson would ring true for airline loyalty programs.

This year we had to take a couple of flights outside of our usual program – Air Canada’s Aeroplan program and its connection to Star Alliance.  Add onto that the fact that we are likely to lose our particular elite status this year because we are putting off much of our travel until next year (and could not take all of our flights on Starr Alliance airlines), and we realize that we will no longer be treated as anything special.  And on an airline that’s even worse!

Despite the fact that we have been high-level elite members for many years, because we won’t have as many miles racked up this year we will lose our perks entirely – no priority check-in, priority boarding, free checked baggage etc.  So, where’s our incentive to continue to be loyal to Air Canada?  Well, and this is a message to loyalty programs, there isn’t one.  This means that for all intents and purposes, Air Canada has lost good customers.  The next time we’re looking for a business-class ticket to London from Toronto, we are just as likely to book on British Airways.  Over the years we would not have even considered it.

So here is the challenge for these programs: how are you going to find a way to keep your frequent flyers when they get to a point in their lives when they have the luxury of choice?  Or when they have one year when they fly less frequently?  Perhaps you need to consider how you might make us feel preferred, and not just members.  Maybe the SPG program could give you a few pointers.

You might like to read: The ups and downs of loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?

The view from where we're spending summer this year!
The view from where we’re spending summer this year!

The ups and downs of travel loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?

The Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay in California is set on a rugged bluff overlooking the Pacific and is part of Marriott’s loyalty program. We stayed here last year.

We’re just back from a brief summer holiday.  As usual, we traveled via our usual airline (in whose loyalty program we have been ‘gold elites’ for the past several years) and stayed for a few days in our usual hotel chain (in whose loyalty program we hold ‘platinum’ status – ostensibly much better than gold status).  We also spent several days in another brand of hotel.  This coupled with travelling at the peak of the summer season (is it not possible to prepare for the inevitable airport security screening even if you don’t travel often?) has led us to a few interesting observations and questions about airline and hotel loyalty programs.

For years now, or ever since the advent of the travel blog, travel writers have been weighing in on these loyalty programs, and this includes polls about the best frequent-flyer program and the best hotel loyalty program.  There are also myriad awards for the best of these programs.  The trouble with these polls and awards is the same problem exhibited by those readers’ choice awards we have discussed before in relation to cruises: that is, anyone rating the programs probably doesn’t have experience with more than one or perhaps two such programs, so how can there be any kind of useful comparison?  No, it’s a matter of trial and error for the discerning traveler when selecting and participating in these loyalty programs.  We’ll use our own programs as anecdotal evidence.

We’ve both been loyal Air Canada Aeroplan members for well over 20 years.  Our reasons for selecting this program are the following:

  • Our air travel inevitably begins or ends in Canada since that’s where we live.
  • Air Canada, despite its many detractors, is a safe, solid, clean, reliable airline.
  • Air Canada belongs to Star Alliance which is both the oldest and largest airline alliance in the world.  This means that we can get to practically anywhere in the word and still earn Aeroplan points.
  • We believe that you should never set foot on an airplane without being a member of its loyalty program – you should earn points on every trip on the off chance you ever accumulate enough to get some of their perks – which we’re getting to.
Whenever you travel on a cruise line, you are either automatically enrolled in their loyalty program or offered the opportunity to join. Their ‘perks’ require a completely separate blog post!

We have also been members of the Marriott hotel chain’s loyalty program for many years.  Our reasons for selecting this program (although we do belong to others for those odd occasions when there are no Marriotts around or we want to try a new experience) are as follows:

  • We ended up at a Marriott in down town Toronto one time many years ago when our first-choice hotel was fully booked.  The staff at the Eaton Centre Marriott on Bay Street was so fabulous that we never went back to our old favorite.  From the time when our then-eleven-year-old son started training at the National Ballet School until he graduated at eighteen (five years ago) and beyond, we have stayed there seven or eight times a year.  We have also stayed at Marriott Hotels all over the world, and their staffs never cease to amaze.  They must know a thing or two about staff training and nurturing!
  • What we’ve learned since then is that it’s easy to redeem Marriott points and we’ve done so happily for many years.  They have been particularly handy when travelling with an adult offspring or two to cover the costs of the extra rooms in expensive cities (like Paris!).
  • As above, we believe that you should never set foot in a hotel that is part of a loyalty program without being a member.

All of that being said, we have lately begun to wonder about the erosion of the so-called perks that follow from being a loyal member of such a program.

Just last week as walked through the terminal at Pearson International Airport in Toronto we were accosted by an American Express sales person who wanted to ‘sell’ us his credit card.  One of the perks he mentioned was access to Maple Leaf lounges, the lounges owned by Air Canada to which we have access as gold elite members of Aeroplan.

Then, as we entered the concierge lounge at the Toronto Marriott for breakfast to find there was hardly a seat in the place, we wondered about this perk, too.

So, we asked, when is a perk not a perk?  Our answer is simple: when everyone has it.  And so this is our conundrum with these programs.  So many credit cards have especially airline perks like lounge access and priority boarding as ‘benefits’ that it seems there is almost no one left who doesn’t’ have these ‘perks.’

If you’ve ever been in an airport business-class lounge when there have been several delays or cancellations, you know that it’s like the black hole of Calcutta.  We had the most dreadful experience of these lounges several years ago in Frankfurt (the Lufthansa lounge).  We had actually paid for our business class ticket, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of everyone else in there – and we’ve been in in there under those circumstances ourselves.  How do we know they weren’t flying business class?  Because when you get on the plane with everyone else who has that perk, you can see where they’re sitting.

And of course there’s the priority boarding ‘perk.’  Over the past two or three years, it has become increasingly clear that half of the travelers today seem to have this perk.  Have you seen the race to the priority lane the minute they make the boarding announcement?  This is, of course, really a race for bin space.  There’s nothing worse than being last on the plane only to find that you may have paid top dollar for your seat but there is no bin space left for your measly little carry-on bag since someone has stuffed an enormous wheelie above your head.

Our message here to airlines and hotels: Before you offer someone a perk, you better make sure it really is one!