Starwood Preferred Guest introduced new elite benefits and a lifetime elite program, effective March 1. Added benefits include a welcome gift for Gold members, the option to choose free breakfast for Platinum members, in addition to suite upgrades for Platinums who stay more than 50 nights, and bonus points for those who stay over 75 nights in a calendar year, among other benefits. We spoke with Chris Holdren, Senior Vice President, Starwood Preferred Guest & Global Web, about the new benefits.
How long did SPG work on developing these new benefits and what kind of research did you do with members to see what they wanted?
We worked for over three years and we started by going around the world and meeting with guests. We asked them not about loyalty programs but about loyalty in their own lives—people they were loyal to, businesses they were loyal to and loyalty in general. We found a few key insights that we thought were really powerful. One thing we found that was very encouraging was that loyalty is a universal aspiration for people everywhere. People hunger for loyalty in their lives, for feeling that someone is there with them and has their back when they’re on the road. We also learned that loyalty is really built in small increments over time so you’re not instantly loyal to something. It takes time to build loyalty–whether it’s with people or with companies. Insights like that really grounded our work and set the direction for how we should develop new benefits and a new and innovative look and feel for the program to convey that feeling, and to help build loyalty.
Why did SPG decide to offer lifetime elite status?
One of the things we heard loud and clear was that in real life, loyalty isn’t measured in 12-month increments. You aren’t re-evaluating your relationship with your spouse or best friend every year. In addition to that, one of the groups that I’ve always felt we needed a lifetime status for was for people who’ve retired and who have spent the last 12 or 13 years with SPG, and who are entering a phase of life where they won’t be traveling as much. Introducing a lifetime elite program was something we could do to reciprocate that loyalty and show that it was a two-way street.
Of all the new benefits, which do you think will be most valued by members?
The main thing we were trying to do with the new benefits is provide more choice for our members to allow them to have more control over their experiences and help enhance their membership. All of the benefits have broad appeal. For times when they are staying on an award at one of our beautiful resorts around the world, being able to confirm an upgrade in advance so they can get a suite when it really matters for them has been very well received. The free breakfast benefit provides a lot of value for people, but really the lifetime elite status has generated a lot of comments and interest from our members and really does answer a core need of our members. The other benefit people are really resonating with is Your24. Since the dawn of the modern hotel industry we’ve asked guests to check-in at 3pm and check-out by 11am. And why should our most valuable guests need to check in on our terms instead of their terms? With Your24, if you’re traveling and arrive at a resort at 8pm at night you have that room until 8pm on your day of departure. If you’re flying overseas and will arrive at 5am you can have your room ready at five in the morning.
SPG calls itself the “richest elite program in the industry”. How so?
There are a number of things. Those who stay with us 75 nights or more can earn four points per dollar, which is a 100 percent earning bonus over our Preferred level. That is the richest elite bonus offer in the industry from a point-earning perspective. We’ve always had suite upgrades available upon check-in to our Platinum members on both paid and redemption stays and now by adding confirmed upgrades for guests who stay 50 nights or more, it really is the best of both worlds. You can always get a suite if one’s available and on trips where it’s critically important to you, you can now confirm a suite. Across the board, we feel our benefits provide the most value. The other piece is that we are the largest hotel operator in the upper upscale and luxury space and we are also the most global. No one has more global luxury properties than we do nor are they in more countries than we are.
We read that real SPG members will be used in photos for your advertising. How did you find the members to feature?
We’re very excited about this. Half of what we announced on Feb. 1 was around the new benefits but the other half was about an entire new look for SPG and that is centered around our members. So we’ve done a couple of photo shoots so far in New York, Miami and Puerto Rico and we’re going to continue to shoot pictures of members around the world this year. We reached out to members through social media channels, through FlyerTalk and milepoint and some of our other avenues and we saw a tremendous response from our members. We worked with the famous photographer Alessandra Petlin. She brings to life the phrase that every picture tells a story. She has a way of shooting people that really conveys their story in a powerful way. We were happy to match her up with members to really convey what the experience of being a SPG member is like. Being a member is being recognized and having that loyal relationship with someone who is there with you on your travels. We’re excited to be able to feature real people to talk about their experience to help bring the program to life the way that it should be.