Finance Marriott announced a new loyalty program — and Starwood hotel loyalists are sure to be relieved

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Marriott International announced a set of unified benefits across the loyalty programs for its three major hotel brands — Marriott, Starwood, and Ritz Carlton.

Marriott has announced a new rewards program. play

Marriott has announced a new rewards program.

(Reuters)

  • Marriott International announced a set of unified benefits across the loyalty programs for its three major hotel brands — Marriott, Starwood, and Ritz Carlton.
  • Marriott acquired Starwood hotels in 2016, but has left Starwood's beloved loyalty program (Starwood Preferred Guest) to operate independently.
  • While Starwood loyalists have mostly dreaded the changes, there was plenty of good news in the announcement.
  • The unified rewards program will become effective in August. The three programs will continue to remain separate until they are rebranded in 2019.

Marriott International has announced a new, integrated set of benefits across the loyalty programs for its guests.

This marks the first standardization of benefits between the Marriott Rewards program and Starwood Hotels' Preferred Guest program — Marriott acquired Starwood in 2016. The changes will become effective in August.

While the programs will remain separate for now, rebranded single program will be introduced in 2019.

The Marriott–Starwood merger

When Marriott closed on its acquisition of Starwood, making it the world's largest hotel company, questions among frequent travelers were quick to rise. Starwood has long had a somewhat unique culture among travelers, with a blend of chic, relaxed, professional, and sharp that inspired fierce loyalty to the company's several brands of hotel, including the W, Sheraton, and Westin. Could Marriott, a much bigger chain, maintain that culture?

Just as important to many travelers — would Marriott maintain the exceptional value of Starwood's Preferred Guest, or just SPG? Or would Marriott gut the loyalty program and its generous offerings?

Initially, Marriott chose to keep the two programs — and effectively, the two hotel brands — separate. You could only book Marriott hotels through Marriott, and Starwood hotels through Starwood. Similarly, you could only earn Marriott points and SPG points at the respective hotels.

However, Marriott provided the opportunity to link your Marriott Rewards and Starwood accounts, and swap points between them at a ratio of 1:3 Starwood to Marriott. This seemed like a fair exchange rate, considering the value of Starwood points. Similarly, by linking accounts, your elite status at one chain would be reciprocated at the other. While Marriott shared that the loyalty programs would be combined at a future date, hotel points aficionados raced to get the best value for those points in case Marriott announced a devaluation.

Revamped Marriott rewards program

The new, revamped rewards program announced today represents mostly good news for members of both loyalty programs, as well as The Ritz-Carlton Rewards members — Marriott has owned the brand since the late-1990s, but kept the loyalty program separate.

The programs will continue to operate separately until August. Then, members can combine their accounts into one single account spanning Marriott's entire portfolio. The programs will still technically exist as separate entities until a new, single program name is introduced in 2019, along with unified branding and online portals.

Until then, each program will have unified benefits, including a single rewards currency. When members combine accounts in August, any outstanding Starwood balances will be tripled to reflect the new valuation, and members will earn points at a rate of 10 points/dollar spent at participating hotels. Currently, non-elite SPG members earn two points/dollar, while non-elite Marriott members earn 10 points/dollar at most of its hotel brands. Marriott claims that members will earn an average of 20% more points for every dollar spent.

However, one change sees hotels no longer having one fixed price for award nights — that is, nights booked using points. Properties are being divided into eight categories, and there will be an award chart featuring different prices for peak, standard, and off-peak pricing.

In what is sure to relieve many Starwood loyalists, the new program will continue to allow users to transfer their points to more than 30 partnering airline frequent flyer programs. Additionally, it will continue to offer bonus points when transferring a certain amount. Currently, for every 20,000 SPG Starpoints transferred to an airline, users get 5,000 bonus miles. That ratio will stay the same, but multiplied by 3 — for every 60,000 points transferred, users will get a bonus of 15,000 airline miles.

Marriott also announced an expansion of the "Moments" experiential platform, through which members can spend points on various unique experiences, such as classes with master chefs, backstage tours at concerts, or even — potentially — the chance to throw out the first pitch at a World Series game.

The unified benefits also see a standardization in how to earn elite status. Silver status will be available after staying 10 nights; Gold after 25 nights; Platinum after 50; and Platinum Premier after 75 nights stayed per calendar year.

Marriott and Starwood credit cards

One question that's lingered about the merger has been what would happen to Marriott's co-branded US credit cards, which are issued by Chase, and Starwood's, issued by American Express. According to today's announcement, both issuers will continue to offer products.

A new "Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Credit Card" will be introduced by Chase on May 3, offering points for all spending, as well as a free-night certificate each cardmember anniversary and automatic elite status.

In August, American Express will introduce a new "Starwood Preferred Guest Luxury Card," offering similar perks as well as a handful of premiums, including an annual $300 statement credit for on-property purchases, a fee credit for enrollment in Global Entry/TSA PreCheck, and more. While the annual fee for this card wasn't announced, it is likely to be between $450–$550, in line with other premium credit cards that offer similar perks.

A spokesperson for American Express also confirmed that holders of the Amex Platinum Card will continue to receive complimentary Gold elite status under the new program.

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