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Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - Page updated at 11:30 a.m.
Frustrated with your hotel? No need to be loyal
By Joe Sharkey
The New York Times
I don't much like my bank. Yes, I know, welcome to the club. Also, I am not particularly fond of any airline. Yes, I know, welcome to that club, too.
Nevertheless, I'm wedded to my bank, if only because it would take enormous effort to untangle all the various auto-pay deductions, direct deposits and other arrangements. And airline service? I wish I had real choices, but with capacity and route cuts, mergers and the overall commoditization of air service, none of us do anymore.
But hotels? That's where we do have a veritable cornucopia of choice. Business travelers who used to trade expertise about airline mileage loyalty programs are now more likely to swap advice and anecdotes on the ins and outs, and especially the considerable perks, of hotel loyalty programs.
That is why a management consulting firm called CG42 will be publishing this week a study that surveyed more than 3,200 high-volume travelers belonging to various loyalty programs at the nine leading hotel companies. The study looks at "brand vulnerability" among hotel loyalty programs. It ranked them by which are judged to be the most vulnerable to members' switching to competitors' programs. Most business travelers have a decided preference in hotel companies but also tend to belong to multiple hotel loyalty programs.
Last year, the first brand-vulnerability report by CG42 received considerable publicity when it evaluated loyalty attitudes in retail banking. In that report, "the frustration levels with banks were off the charts, but the switching dynamics in that category are very difficult," said Stephen Beck, managing partner of CG42. Hotels are significantly different.
In short, you may only wish you knew how to quit your bank, but you sure do know how to quit your hotel brand. In all, travelers frustrated with their primary hotel programs are projected to move more than $10 billion in spending this year to competing programs, Beck said.
The study evaluated frustration levels at each hotel program in five main areas: dealing with incompetent staff and service; not having loyalty points properly credited; not having a promotional deal honored as advertised; difficulty redeeming loyalty points; and difficulty maintaining status level because points expire too quickly.
Other frustrations included unsatisfactory physical condition of properties, billing mistakes and being nickel and dimed with extra fees for services like Internet access.
"Some of the basic frustrations, like not having my points properly credited, create a floor upon which something like dealing with incompetent or unprofessional staff just adds fuel to the fire," Beck said.
"I am a frequent traveler, and when I have a problem with getting credits and I can't resolve it on the website, I then pick up the phone and find myself frustrated, trying to explain my problem to somebody who doesn't understand the program as well as I do," he added. "So now I'm probably saying,'Gee, I have a pretty big point base here with this program, but I also have all the other hotel programs in my wallet. So where is my next stay going to go?"'
Each of the nine companies in the study has numerous hotel brands in its management portfolio, of course. Here, ranked from the companies deemed to have the highest brand vulnerability in their loyalty programs to the lowest, are the CG42 standings: Carlson, Best Western, Wyndham, Marriott, Hyatt and Choice are in the higher vulnerability categories; Hilton, Starwood and InterContinental Hotels are on the least-vulnerable end of the scale.
An abstract of the study will be posted Tuesday on its website, CG42.com, the company said, and I suggest consulting that for more detail.
I described the gist of the report to the various hotel companies. There will be a follow-up column with more on their responses, as well as reader responses about hotel programs. While airline loyalty programs are diminishing in popularity, hotel loyalty programs are increasingly valued by travelers and by hotel companies themselves.
Some responses in general: A Carlson spokeswoman pointed to the "relatively new" Club Carlson program, and a money-back guarantee for any guest who is not fully satisfied. She noted that there are no blackout dates on awards, and that loyalty points do not expire.
A Wyndham spokeswoman also said there are no blackout dates on award redemptions.
A spokeswoman for Choice said the CG42 rankings "appear to be consistent" with industry trends but noted that the Choice Privileges program was judged "the second-best program overall" this spring at the annual Freddie Awards, which rank travel loyalty programs of all sorts.
A Marriott spokeswoman said the company could not comment until it saw the full report. But I might note that the Marriott Rewards program has won a Freddie Award for best hotel loyalty program for five years straight. And I haven't heard back from the other hotel companies. Yet.
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