Marriott launched Honored Guest Awards a quarter century ago and the program (now called Marriott Rewards) is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Marriott Rewards is almost 30,000 members strong. We recently spoke with Ed French, Senior VP of Marriott Rewards, about how the program has changed over the years and what sets the program apart from the rest.
Marriott Rewards is celebrating its 25th year anniversary this year. What have been some of the program’s milestone moments over the last quarter century?
It has been 25 years since we launched the original Honored Guest Awards program, but we actually launched our first recognition program, Club Marquee, in 1979, so we actually have almost 30 years of history. We’re the longest running hotel loyalty program and we’re very proud of that. And when we converted to Marriott Rewards in 1997, we were also the first program that launched all of our hotel brands across multiple hotel tiers into a single earning and redeeming program.
In 2003, we launched our consolidated elite program so you could earn elite credit and receive elite benefits at all of our properties across all of our brands around the world. We’re still the only program that guarantees our elite benefits so our elite members can expect with absolute certainty that they will receive what they are due. We are also the program with the highest value in terms of our points, so you earn your dream vacation quicker with Marriott Rewards. Since 2001 we’ve also had our Stay Anytime awards, which have no blackout dates and no inventory controls so you can redeem points at any hotel any day of the year. And lastly, probably the most fun thing we’ve done this year is launch our Marriott Rewards Insiders online forum.
Why did Marriott decide to create an online community and how is the Marriott Rewards Insiders social network coming along?
It’s actually doing really well and we’re excited about it. The idea behind it came from two places. It came from our members who were becoming more and more interested in participating in travel-related social media. And a couple of years ago we had the idea that we could provide better service to our members if we let them interact directly with one another about planning trips, getting tips and things like that.
When we talked to our customers about doing it, they told us they loved the idea of being able to interact with one another. And the value of doing that through Marriott Rewards was that they would know other people in the forum would be frequent travelers with similar views and a helpful outlook. So we launched in March, and did a beta test to see how this would go, and we had a tremendous response. We rolled out on Aug. 1 to all of our elite members, and we’ve had over 50,000 visitors come to the forum, and we’ve had over 10,000 posts as well, which has been great.
The vast majority of commentary is about destinations and what you do when you visit places–where are good restaurants, what are tips and tricks about getting your business done, what are good places to bring your family, as well as a lot of commentary about different hotels and some around the Rewards program as well. The vast majority is extremely positive, people are really sharing great information with one another, and in cases where people have issues they want to raise in the forum, we make sure that we get back to them as appropriate.
Do you have people moderating the community?
We have a moderator really who just makes sure the posts conform to the very broad rules that we’ve put in place for participation. So really we have a moderator only from the standpoint of making sure that inappropriate posts don’t end up on the site. Of the 10,000 posts, we’ve only not posted one comment. Our goal is not to use this as a marketing or selling tool, this is about letting our members build their own community and interact in ways they want to interact.
Right now the site is only offered to elite members but we have plans to launch it to all Marriott Rewards members by the end of the year.
During the recurring MegaBonus promotion, why does Marriott offer different promotional offers to members?
One of the cornerstones of our strategies is personalization for members. We make sure people can specify what kind of pillows they want, if they want extra towels, which floor they would like to be on or if they would like a mini refrigerator in their room. We ask them if they would like those items beforehand and then we make sure it’s in the room when they get there. These promotions have evolved in the same way. We offer a base level promotion that is open to everyone but we know that for our more frequent travelers, they should have the ability to earn even more points because they give us so much more business. We try to tailor our promotion to a member’s level of activity so they can get the most out of it and so we can get the most out of it as well.
Marriott won Freddie awards for Program of the Year, Customer Service, Best Award, Member Communications, Customer Service and Best Web Site. What is it that sets Marriott Rewards apart from the competition?
I think the Freddie Awards that we won are a wonderful compliment from our members. And specifically, I think that what matters to them is customer service, our approach to communication, our awards structure, the promotions that we run and our Web site. So I think it really is about the basics of the program being designed in a way that reflects what our members really want. And we listen to member feedback so we can evolve the program in a way that is meaningful to them. Of course the fact that we’ve got 2,800 great hotels spread across 70 countries around the world helps as well.
I mentioned the value of our points and members find they can earn their free vacations more quickly in our program than with the competitors and I mentioned our guaranteed elite benefits. But I think what really sets up apart is our spirit to serve, which is making sure we are focused on serving the guest in the best way possible so they will keep coming back to our hotels.
Elite Platinum members receive one complimentary year of Clear membership. What percentage of members have enrolled for a free membership? Of the members who haven’t signed up, why do you think they haven’t taken advantage of this?
We’ve had about 10 percent of our Platinum members sign up for a free Clear membership. And we’re going to keep promoting that because obviously we want as many to sign up as would like to. I think that the real reason we haven’t seen a higher take up of the program is because the Clear is relatively new and the number of airports enrolled is small. It’s only offered in a minority of airports although it is growing quite quickly. The other thing I think we’ll do, although I don’t have a date for this, is we are thinking of allowing members to redeem points for a Clear membership and I think that will help as well.
What awards are most popular with members?
Our philosophy has always been to offer a broad range of awards so members can really pick what matters to them. The award that we won a Freddie for this year was our hotel and air package award, which is probably the one I hear the most about from customers, who say they really like it because they get a great value with both the hotel and the air travel to get there.
When it comes to our standard hotel awards, it’s the primary destinations you would imagine: New York, Paris, London, Rome and resorts. Our members earn at all of our almost 3,000 properties and they redeem at all of them as well. One of the things I’ll mention that is interesting is the popularity of merchandise awards has really been growing over the years and that’s something we’ve had since the inception of our program and it’s been an important redemption outlet for members. I think it’s a great value for customers, especially for frequent business travelers who may not want to use their points for another trip.
Do you have plans to add any new partners in the near future?
We do. If you look at the last couple of partners we’ve added–the Clear partnership and the Luggage Club–our partnerships will continue to be aimed at the core frequent traveler and what will help make their life easier when they are out there traveling. So we aren’t necessarily looking to add a huge number of partners–we want to add the right partners that add convenience and service to our members in ways that they value when they are traveling.
A recent thread was posted on FlyerTalk, stating some possible enhancements to the program, including no blackout dates, fourth night free on three-night hotel awards and Platinum elite bonus of 50 percent. Can you comment on any of these changes?
We are literally always working on enhancements to the program. So stay tuned–we will always have more news for our members and as soon as we have something to announce we will share it with them.