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 Kempinski 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.