Starwood ups the ante for its most loyal guests

Acknowledging its most loyal customers, Starwood Hotels and Resorts this week announced enhancements to its Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) loyalty program.

One of the world’s biggest hotel companies, Starwood owns, leases, manages or franchises more than 1,000 upscale properties around the world, offering 302,000 rooms in 100 countries. 

The new elite benefits, which begin March 1, include:

  • Allowing SPG members who spend more than 75 eligible nights at Starwood hotels each year to choose their own check-in and check-out times during a 24-hour period, giving them control over their arrival and departure times;
  • Assigning a “personal ambassador” to SPG members who stay 100 nights annually. This individual works one-on-one with members, on an ongoing basis, to provide customized service any time, even when members are not traveling;
  • Bestowing lifetime gold status on members who have stayed 250 nights in total and maintained gold or platinum status for at least five years (not necessarily consecutive), and lifetime platinum status on members who have stayed 500 nights in total and maintained platinum status for ten years (not necessarily consecutive).

“Our goal is to make SPG so rich that it’s impossible for mega-travelers not to choose Starwood,” said Mark Vondrasek, Starwood’s senior vice president of distribution, loyalty and partnership marketing. “We also want to make the program wildly aspirational for all frequent travelers. And because we know that many of our members are also members of other hotel loyalty programs, we believe these upgrades give travelers a compelling reason to consolidate all their travel with us.”

The company noted that just 2 percent of its top-tiered guests generate 30 percent of profits.

Loyalty program experts said many new SPG perks are already offered by other hotel companies. For example, Lynda Hanwella, managing editor of InsideFlyer, a magazine devoted to loyalty programs, said both Hyatt and Marriott already offer lifetime elite status to their program participants.

But at least one loyalty perk sets Starwood apart from the competition. Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com, a website devoted to travel loyalty programs, called SPG elite members’ new ability to check in and out at their convenience “pretty terrific. As benefits go, it’s something that’s truly usable. And Starwood’s is the only significant program to do it.”

Both Winship and Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a market research company, questioned how popular services of the “personal ambassador” will be. 

“A lot of people who stay 100 nights are very self-sufficient,” Harteveldt said. “What I like about the concept is that the ambassador is there if you need him. It elevates the loyalty program from being a utility that’s used to a relationship that’s valued.”

Winship also said the “average traveler” would not have access to the new SPG perks, the exception being an “average traveler who aspires to elite status and has a fighting chance of reaching elite status.”

Moreover, what Starwood did not do when announcing the new perks is as significant as what it is doing, Harteveldt said.

“They’re not taking away benefits like United did, when it downgraded benefits of the lowest tier of its elite frequent fliers last September. They’re not introducing a silver tier between the standard and gold tiers, which would make standard participants feel less valued. They’re not allowing American Express to dictate to them what they can do with people who have a co-branded credit card. For standard members, they’ve preserved the integrity of the program,” Harteveldt said.

“Most business people understand that you treat all customers well but certain customers better,” he added, “because their volume of business earns them extra attention.”

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