The way different cultures perceive elite benefits…

Having previously been loyal to Hyatt and InterContinental exclusively, I actually found little variation as far as elite benefits go regardless of where I traveled to. Hyatt and InterContinental have very clearly published elite benefits, which makes it easy to manage expectations.

One thing I’ve found interesting ever since I became a Starwood Platinum is observing how different elite recognition is in Asia vs. Europe vs. the US, and also how different cultures perceive elite benefits. Starwood elite benefits can be fantastic — you can get a huge suite, free breakfast, free drinks in the evening, etc. Or you can get… nothing.

What’s interesting about that is that it leaves a lot of discretion to the individual hotels regarding how forthcoming they want to be with elite benefits (do they want to proactively offer a suite, only offer it if you request it, not offer it at all, etc.), often requiring a bit of negotiation.

Starwood upgrades Platinum members to the best available rooms including standard suites. Often times hotels legitimately don’t have suites available, while other times hotels just don’t want to upgrade customers to suites. The method many Platinum members use to “verify” if what the agent is saying is true is by logging onto spg.com and making a “dummy booking” — checking availability right before checking in to see if the hotel is still selling a premium room.

In other words, if I booked a standard room and get upgraded to an executive room, I would log onto spg.com as soon as I get to my room. If I see a suite available I should be able to get it. Many hotels will claim “oh, the room is not really available,” in which case I’m always sorely tempted to book the room and see what they’ll do.

Some would say it’s confrontational to approach the front desk when they don’t upgrade you and say “hey, you guys are still selling suites, can I have one?” Others say it’s the only way to get decent upgrade at many Starwood properties. At the end of the day I think it’s all about how you approach the front desk agent — if you’re nice about it there’s no harm, while if you’re rude about it there is.

Now, on to the “culture” part of this. Having stayed at Starwood properties as a Platinum member in the US, Asia, and now Europe, I can’t help but feel like my “requests” are met a bit differently depending on where I am.

US properties often don’t automatically upgrade to suites, though in the US I have no problem politely “pushing” for an upgrade within the rules. I think generally the US is pretty loyalty program-centeric, in that you have loyalty programs for just about everything nowadays. So at least in theory the companies (and front desk agents) understand I’m not being totally ridiculous in requesting the upgrade I’m entitled to (based on availability).

In my experience in Asia, Platinum treatment is typically excellent. In every case I’ve gotten a suite, club access, and free restaurant breakfast. They really treat elite members like royalty. However, when there’s a service failure, there has been very little responsiveness. So I see that the hotels I’ve stayed at in Asia definitely have a “formula” for treating elites well, though when things don’t go as planned I’ve been left just a little disappointed. Overall though, you can’t beat Starwood in Asia.

Then there’s Europe, which is where I struggle the most with this. Starwood hotels in Europe are typically quite stingy with upgrades, so you’re lucky to get just about anything other than an “executive” room. On one hand I have no problem nicely pushing for an upgrade, but at the same time I don’t want to come across as an “ugly American” (not my term, but what I’m often called here). On one hand hotels are choosing to participate in the Starwood Preferred Guest program, and all I’m doing is asking them to follow the rules of their program. At the same time I don’t think loyalty programs as a whole have picked up as much traction here as in the United States. I feel like they’re perceived more as “freebies,” as opposed to a reward for continued loyalty.

Case in point, I checked into the Schloss Fuschl hotel yesterday near Salzburg, Austria, after spending two nights at the incredible InterContinental Berchtesgaden. A basic room at this hotel costs 500 Euros per night, so my expectations were incredibly high. I was able to redeem some nights from Starwood’s second quarter promotion for this stay, which is an amazing deal.

At check-in I was told that “as a Platinum member of course we have upgraded you.” Great. I get to the room and as far as I can tell it’s a standard room. There’s no balcony (which other rooms seem to have) and the view is just of trees. If the hotel is sold out then so be it, I totally understand. But I logged onto their website and they were still selling junior suites.

I went back down to the front desk and nicely asked if they had any further room upgrades available, mentioning that I saw that they were still selling junior suites for the night. He typed away on his computer and then informed me I had already been upgraded to a “grand deluxe” room. Okay, perhaps the room had an extra 10 square feet, though it was far from “grand.” I asked if he didn’t have any suites available, and mentioned that I was under the impression that Starwood Platinum members get the best available rooms based on availability, up to a standard suite.

He informed me that wasn’t the case, and that because I was on a free night the hotel didn’t have to upgrade me to a suite. I would have been totally fine had he said that they didn’t have any suites available (and I wouldn’t have pushed it any further), but was irked by the fact that he said I wouldn’t be upgraded further because I was on a free night.

What exactly is a “free” night? Starwood’s likely paying the hotel very close to the best flexible rate for my room. The hotel is getting all that revenue. So the only thing that makes this stay different than any other is that Starwood is paying the hotel instead of me paying the hotel. It’s basically the same thing as telling a business traveler that because their company paid for their room and they’re on a corporate rate, they wouldn’t be upgraded.

Long story short, one tweet and 15 minutes later I was in a junior suite. Though it was slightly odd when the front office manager called and said “we heard on the internet that you don’t like your room, yes?”

At the end of the day I feel mildly uncomfortable here now as a “complainer.” At the same time, I was simply asking them to follow their rules.

The lesson (based on my limited experience) is simple — stick to Hyatt and InterContinental hotels in Europe, and limit my Starwood stays as much as possible to Asia.

Comments

  1. Ben. if the company policy is to upgrade up to a junior suite you followed the policy and should not feel like a complainer. they are the ones not following the rules.

  2. Good for you. I’ve had great experiences and some bad ones as an SPG Platinum. I always ask and pull up availability on my iPhone if I think the hotel isn’t following policy. Being nice about it usually gets me the suite.

  3. As a Starwood Gold Plus (SVO owner earns you the “plus” – whatever that means), I have never gotten anything as far as “elite benefits”. Usually I just go to my room, get a little mad then vow to not stay at that hotel again.

    Point being – do the hotels not know what their failure to recognize loyalty does? In my case, I feel it discourages loyalty. And what does an upgrade really cost the hotel? Or on the other hand, what does not giving an upgrade cost the hotel?

    The one thing saving SPG in my opinion, are the customer service & Twitter folks…they might be the best in the industry.

  4. Excellent post. Having lived in Germany now for eight months and traveled the Continent, I find Western Europe (with the exception of Italy) stingy when it comes to elite benefits, but the UK and especially Eastern Europe very generous.

  5. Great post Ben! I agree that it’s annoying to have to go to war for an upgrade, but someone’s gotta train these check-in agents. I hope you made it easier for the next SPG Platinum that checks into the hotel to get a real upgrade.

    I also like your use of social media in your attack plan. As much as travel companies use social media as a way to increase sales and brand awareness, they need to understand its a 2 way road and I’m glad Starwood came through to help you. I just hope they’d do the same for a non-blogger!

  6. As a Hilton Gold, frequently traveling in Europe I find that I have no problem getting the elite benefits.

  7. re: “Long story short, one tweet and 15 minutes later I was in a junior suite.”

    Do the Platinum masses see similar results to a tweet to SPG?

    I’m interested because at some point your online notoriety will affect the service you receive and thus basis the your reviews.

  8. @NYBanker Ben tweeted @StarwoodBuzz

    Great post and agree with others that you’re merely asking them to comply with SPG’s own program rules. Unfortunately if no one calls them on their program violations, they’ll just continue. You’re doing them a favor by helping enforce brand consistency and hopefully preventing future elite dissatisfaction at their property…although given that snide comment by the front office manager, seems they still may not get it.

  9. Ben – I feel for ya. And I understand how you feel like a mild complainer. I would too. But you really shouldn’t. Here you are as a Platinum – you are meant to feel thanked and treated extra well because of your loyalty – but instead you end up having to beg for your benefits.

    Starwood should really take a look at this – it’s giving them a very bad re. I’ve read your experience so many times on FT.

    Just a suggstion – next time print out the rules and benefits from the website – and next time maybe politely ask “Can I just ask politely, out of interest, when these are the clearly stated benefits of Starwood Platinum, and your hotel participates in the programme – why are you so resistant to give the said benefits. I’m just curious”

    Would be interesting to see what answer they give.

    I’m Starwood Gold so I am meant to get upgraded to “enhanced rooms”. But it is never offered – I always have to ask. And often, as I have read with other people – they hand me the key and say “Mr Anderson we have upgraded your room for you, as Starwood Gold” and I ask “Thank you, what kind of room is that”. The answer is more often than not vauge – and when I push for the actual type of room its the base room of the hotel. I then say – “Aren’t I meant to at least get a Deluxe Room or Superior” and eventually they punch away at the computer and I get it.

    I checked in to the St Regis Dana Point this weekend. And they said to the guy next to me “Mr Jones, we have upgraded you to a deluxe pool view terrace room compliments of the hotel” the guy seemed annoyed “Um, isn’t that the room I booked and paid for” / “No Mr Williams I am seeing notes here that say we upgraded you”. The guy was blunt “Sorry, that is the room I booked and paid for”……… eventually “Yes, you are right sir, I am sorry”

    I think Starwood tells hotels to just tell all elites – “We upgraded your room” even if they are in a base room – hoping guests are too stupid to realize.

    Very bad Starwood!

  10. Thanks! As an SPG Platinum periodically in Europe, I had the same suspicion as you, but never went through the rigor of checking availability (that’s why I read you!). I am also Hilton Gold so that’s my first choice in Europe now. BTW, in Asia Starwood properties are amazing.

  11. Ben, last month I had an award stay of four nights at the Goldener Hirsch in Salzburg (great location in the middle of everything) and at the time I was only SPG Gold. I simply emailed the hotel before arriving asking if they followed SPG T&Cs regarding upgrades. I received an email response that they did on a “space available” basis. When we arrived we had been upgraded to a beautiful suite. Being only Gold we did not receive free breakfast but I didn’t mind as I LOVED sampling the different pastries from the shops in the area.

  12. A “complainer” ? I think you had every right to further discuss the issue that was at hand and I wouldn’t view it as a complaint.

    #poweroftwitter

  13. Also, props out to Starwood for monitoring, replying, and fixing the issue at hand. Not too many hotel social media “concierges” actually actually respond to a good percentage of concerns come it.

  14. I agree with TIM: “I think Starwood tells hotels to just tell all elites – “We upgraded your room” even if they are in a base room – hoping guests are too stupid to realize.”

    And was wondering the same thing as NYBANKER: “Who did you tweet to – spginsider?”

    I am only GOLD, but had the same problem at the Westin in Grand Cayman. My issue was that there was no “double” full size beds available, since I had 2 adults and 2 teenagers staying in the same room, they said they could only upgrade me to a “king” sized bed, thus we had to say “no”. Surely there was an upgradeable room with 2 beds in it, as daily we saw many empty ocean view rooms completely empty. grrrr SPG!

  15. I really enjoyed this post… However, I might add, from a Marriott perspective, I’ve been upgraded to a suite as a Platinum as I recall almost every time, without my having to ask in Europe, in Asia on the other hand I’ve seldom been upgraded, but, as long as I have lounge access, I’m happy!

  16. I find it interesting that only when you take to public commenting do you get a different result. It does make me wonder if a non-blogger with a twitter account would get the same treatment. I love your blog but do agree with the other commenter that you might get special treatment because of what you do. I hope that isn’t the case.

    On the other hand, I can’t wait to see the pictures!!!

  17. Sounds like the tweet I sent out @ Westin Moana where I’d paid more for the ‘club / upgraded’ room (Ocean view) and the room had mold/view of nothing. Fine for 1 night but not 4. Sent a tweet and I received a call from SPG within 20 minutes and the hotel within 1/2 hour.

  18. I have been SPG Platinum for the past couple of years and SPG Gold for many years prior to that. I get the occasional upgrade, but overall the program is useless. It’s the points that are useful for me.

  19. Definitely not you who is the complainer. I hate these hotels that seem content to take all the marketing and extra bookings of being part of a wide marketing chain, yet fail to give the benefits. Interestingly to your other post that’s why I tend to stay clear of Andaz 5th Ave these days. These hotels all have Facebook pages now so tweets and posts on the walls should certainly help make it public their dis-service

  20. I agree with everyone and especially loved the way Tim phrased his comment to the front desk – brilliant.

    One question. I’m Twitter ignorant and just signed up after reading what you wrote – but found no way to “follow” Starwood much less Platinum Concierge. Who exactly did you Twitter about this?

  21. Pretty sad that a Luxury Collection property would be dishonest with you. Free nights are absolutely upgradeable. You are not a complainer or ugly American, but rather holding up your end of the bargain.

    By the way, I had very nice stays recently at the Westin Grande and Sheraton Airport in Frankfurt. Nice executive lounges at both and the Westin had the Fanta you like.

  22. SPG in the US and Europe is pretty useless. I do not get many upgrades and you do usually get some excuse to an upgraded room that might have 1 window rather then 0.

  23. That’s incredible how efficiently that was handled through a simple tweet. That’s much better service than anything you could have gotten through calling their main call center. Unbelievable.
    I agree with the others though, I wonder how much of this was due to your internet notoriety. In your tweet, you don’t mention that you’re Platinum level. Clearly, the SPG twitter person knew who you are.

  24. saw the tweet & response live (was signed on at the time). pretty cool stuff… i question if “regular” platinum members would have the same response from @StarwoodBuzz

  25. I know at the hotel Jagdhof, the sister property who share the staff, at least in winter, they really do try to upgrade their platinum members. I had a talk with the GM last year, who is also the GM of the Schloss Fuschl, and a nice guy, he does care about SPG elite members. If you have the time, try having a chat with him. Ciao, Thomas

  26. While Lucky’s “fame” may have played a part in his success in this case, I can vouch for SPG’s attention to non-bloggers in at least one instance. A couple months ago, I found that a hotel’s club lounge was closed on the weekend, in contravention of Starwood’s new policy. At check-in, the front desk basically just said sorry and didn’t do anything. I e-mailed corporate customer service and within a half hour received a reply. Shortly thereafter, the front desk called to give me a food & beverage credit.

  27. Ben,
    You did the right thing. If the hotel participates in SPG they should follow the rules of the program and grant upgrades to suites upon availability. Maybe the front desk will come see your post.

  28. I am a nonblogger and have used twitter a few times, with great results! Mold and holes in one room…after tweeting the pics and getting a response, all the sudden turned to a suite for the whole stay.

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