Are You Winning Or Losing With the New Marriott Bonvoy Program?

Mar 20, 2019

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No one, not even Marriott International, expected it to be easy.

When Marriott purchased Starwood Hotels and Resorts three years ago, the company promised to take the best of Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest and create one cohesive and satisfying program.

They had a lot of people to win over — about 120 million members, including SPG loyalists who had enjoyed generous perks with their elite status.

Since merging the three programs last August, and renaming it Marriott Bonvoy as of Feb. 13, members have complained to TPG and others of nights earned being undercounted, confusing changes in their elite status, failing to receive room upgrades with the status they do have and having problems getting their concerns properly addressed by call center agents. A group of travel experts even recently created a website called for members to air their issues.

“We just kept hearing stories of things going wrong with technology and service and people’s accounts having problems,” says Jeff Brownson, one of the founders.

Marcia Garcia of South Carolina, for example, says she initially did not get credit either for a one-night stay in Washington, DC, or a four-night stay in Houston the next month. She said she submitted a request for the missing nights on Marriott’s website and got no response for four days, but after she sent a Tweet, her account was updated within 24 hours.

Marriott says these are early day hiccups that are already getting resolved.

“The merging of the loyalty platforms was a massive and intricate undertaking and there were bound to be issues,” Marriott said in an email to The Points Guy. “Shortly after the unification some members were mapped to incorrect Elite status or found points or nights missing in their accounts. We have worked diligently to correct these issues and what was initially more widespread is now increasingly isolated and solved quickly.”

To address complaints that employees at customer call centers are not always helpful, the company says it is investing in technology, staffing levels and training.

The rebranding of Marriott’s loyalty program to Bonvoy was just one change from the last several months.

Marriott, now the largest hotel company in the world, is clearly putting great effort into building its membership, even paying for an advertising campaign during the Oscars for an undisclosed sum. The company says it is picking up 1.5 million new members per month and now has 125 million travelers in its ranks.

“Hotel brand loyalty programs have become the competitive weapon to counter the power of online travel agents and home sharing platforms like Airbnb,” says Chekitan Dev, professor of marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “Multi-brand hotel portfolios have realized that they need a cohesive framework within which to organize all their brands.”

For Marriott, Bonvoy means creating a new structure for a portfolio of about 6,800 hotels under 29 brands.

Speaking recently at the Marriott annual analyst meeting, CEO Arne Sorenson acknowledged some of the growing pains, but put a positive spin on the effort.

“Again, for those that are frustrated, we’re going to work through this and make sure we do well by them,” the CEO said. “But we’re still quite optimistic that this is going to work the way we planned it.”

Elite Status

Renaming elite tiers partway through the integration has caused some confusion for members. (Photo courtesy of Marriott)

In addition to individual glitches, there has been confusion among SPG members over how their former elite status transfers into newly created Bonvoy categories. Starwood Platinum initially mapped to either Marriott Platinum or Marriott Platinum Premier (with additional differentiation for reaching 100 nights and $20,000 in spending). Now those have been renamed yet again: The “base” level Platinum is granted after 50 nights; Marriott Bonvoy Titanium Elite is given to those members who surpass 75 nights; and Marriott Bonvoy Ambassador Elite is awarded to those who spend more than 100 nights and $20,000 annually.

“Anytime a loyalty program completely switches what they’re calling things it leads to confusion,” Brownson noted.

Marriott says the new elite tiers have made it easier for SPG members to earn Silver Elite status after 10 nights, while Marriott Rewards members can achieve Platinum status after 50 nights instead of 75. However, it’s worth noting that the combined program removed the ability for members to earn elite status based on number of stays (versus nights), one key element of the legacy SPG program that was lost in the integration.

Earning Comparison

For those road warriors who earn most of their points via hotel stays, plenty has changed.  This is especially true for SPG members, who saw a conversion ratio of 1:3 for their Starwood Preferred Guest balance when the integration was completed.

Previously, a SPG Gold member would have earned the equivalent of 9 Marriott Rewards points per dollar spent on hotel stays (3 SPG points/$).  Under the new program a Marriott Bonvoy Gold member would earn 12.5 points per dollar spent on hotel stays.  That’s approximately 39% more points earned for an ex-SPG Gold member under the new program (and a 4% increase for Marriott Rewards Gold members).

A 50-night SPG Platinum member would have earned that same 9 Marriott Rewards points per dollar spent on hotel stays under the old program.  As a Marriott Bonvoy Platinum member, that member will now earn 15 points per dollar, an increase of almost 67%. The equivalent level in Marriott Rewards (Gold) used to earn 12.5 miles per dollar, so the member would see an increase of 20% in his or her earnings.

A 75-night SPG Platinum members would have earned the equivalent of 12 Marriott Rewards points per dollar spent on hotel stays (4 SPG points/$1).  That jumps to 17.5 points per dollar in the Marriott Bonvoy program, an increase of 46%.  Marriott Rewards Platinum members see a 2.5 point bump (an extra 17%).  Marriott released a chart last year that doesn’t contain the updated names but does show you the full landscape.

On the credit-card front, there’s a lot to consider. So much so that we put together a comprehensive guide to help you figure out which card to get. The most important thing to note here is that the old SPG Amex cards took a bath on earning rates.  However, you can “restore” the previous equivalent earning rate of 3 Marriott points per dollar on everyday spending if you use the card for spending in $25,000 increments, up to $100,000 this year.  This is only for folks who applied for and received the card prior to January 23, 2019.

Using Marriott Points

Many members are worried about increasing award prices, even for lower-tier brands like Fairfield. (Photo courtesy of Marriott)

Then there’s the ability to actually use points. The new awards redemption chart that debuted March 5 created more concerns, with 350 properties moving up to higher, more expensive tiers. This also added the long-anticipated Category 8 pricing, which pushed 66 properties from costing 60,000 points per night to 85,000.

On the flip side, some expensive properties, such as the two W hotels in Los Angeles — The W Hollywood and The W Los Angeles-West Beverly Hills — have moved down a notch to Category 6. But even some lower category hotels are now pricier to redeem, a fact that’s caused Edith Tolchin, a longtime Marriott loyalist in New Jersey, to reconsider her strategy.

“We used to be able to stay up to a Category 5 and wouldn’t worry so much about using up our points,” she says. “Now we’re cautious and use Category 3 or 4 hotels.”

Marriott says one of the great benefits of the merger is that travelers have more hotels from which to choose. That’s not a big draw for Tolchin, who says: “For old diehards like my husband and myself, we liked a few Marriotts and we didn’t care about Starwood and these other hotels.”

For Ashley Onadele, a Gold Elite member who lives in the Greater Bay Area in California, on the other hand, the availability of so many brands is the best part of the merger. She thinks the rollout of Bonvoy has generally gone well, though she worries about the devaluation of points.

“I’m concerned about my ability to redeem my points for more than one great stay,” she says. “For example, I was able to redeem nights at the JW [Marriott] Venice and the Wailea Beach Resort within the same year. At the rate the redemption chart is changing, I won’t be able to earn enough points to redeem a great stay like that as often as I’d like.”

Marriott says it is actually seeing increased demand for redemption. Moving hotels to Category 8, the company argues, gives members more of an opportunity to redeem room nights. In essence what it is saying is when the top-tiered hotels were available for Category 7 prices, standard rooms would quickly sell out. Now, the highest-status members with more points to use won’t have to compete for rooms as much, the company says.

“Many of these properties under SPG were not included in the awards chart and offered only upgraded rooms at a high premium,” the company says. “As we introduce enhancements, such as off-peak/standard/peak pricing, it will open up more availability to our most sought-after properties to our most loyal members.”

This is true of such specialty properties such as Al Maha Resort and the St. Regis properties in Bora Bora and the Maldives.  Where specialty properties like these would sometimes appear in the SPG system for 60,000 points per night (with restricted availability), the new Category 8 tops out at 100,000 points during peak season, which would translate to roughly 33,000 Starpoints. (This is definitely still a situation in flux, given that it seems some of these ultra-luxury properties may still be restricting availability.)

Benefits to Members

Marriott has launched updated credit cards, but is the Bonvoy program worth your loyalty?

Already, Marriott contends its new program is offering enormous benefits.

On average, the company says, members are earning 20 percent more points per dollar spent, and SPG members saw their points triple in number. Members can choose from new cobranded credit cards from Chase and American Express, which are offering welcome bonuses of up to 100,000 points. The company has partnered with the NFL, Universal Music Group and others to provide experiences that members can bid on as part of Marriott Bonvoy Moments, with more in the works.

Members will also soon have more ways to earn points beyond hotel stays, Marriott says.

Amy Bloomer, a business owner in Maryland, is one member who thinks the changes have been straightforward and easy to understand.

She stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner in Virginia on March 2 for 35,000 points. She has Gold Elite status and did not get an upgrade. But she did get a bottle of sparkling cider and a birthday cake for her daughter’s birthday, and says, “the complimentary champagne upon check-in was also lovely.”

To help keep members like Bloomer happy, Marriott says it will continue to tweak Bonvoy, including offering suite night awards and upgrades more consistently.

“We know our members value upgrades and we plan to refine the algorithm to better ensure the right members are getting upgrades at the right time,” the company says.

Featured photo courtesy of the JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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