This year I am traveling more than ever, giving Ryan Bingham a run for his money. As such, I find myself in many hotels some of which honor elite benefits regarding hotel upgrades, and others that do not. Instead of standing on the sidelines regarding this issue, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
All Benefits Are The Same
I have made this case before and I will continue to make it here and now, all benefits are the same. I would not accept an airline deciding not to allow priority boarding if my status entitles me to such. I would not accept an airline failing to award miles for a trip simply because they chose not to do so. Similarly, if I was number one on the upgrade list I would not accept sitting in coach if there was an open seat in first.
These benefits are part of an agreement, a contract between the customer and the airline and they are not ambiguous. The contract states that if the member completes the requirements (which are associated with remuneration) the airline will perform the benefits. Sometimes those benefits have caveats (such as space available) that are agreed in advance but remain clear – if there is a seat (or a hotel room upgrade available) it’s yours.
I view all benefits the same. The airlines and hotels treat them all the same, if there is a caveat and it’s stated, the rules are subject to that caveat but not outside of it. It’s not subjective, it’s objective. I, similarly, refuse to look the other way while the travel provider chooses which benefits to offer on a site-by-site basis. We seem to demand this from the airlines but give hotels a pass, and that has to stop.
Some Programs Are Clear
Starwood Preferred Guest is perhaps the clearest when it comes to their policy for elite upgrades. They have decided not to mince words and just come out with it, though hotels can apparently interpret what qualifies as a suite. Here is what SPG quotes for their Platinum guests:
“An upgrade to best available room at check-in — including a Standard Suite.”
Others are pretty clear though they leave some room for interpretation, like Hyatt.
“Enjoy an upgraded room based on availability at check-in, up to standard suites”
Some Are Vague
I have commented on IHG’s lack of love for their elites and their upgrade policy leaves the upgrade question fuzzy on detail. In an effort to maintain full disclosure, there is one particular property in the IHG network where I get excellent upgrades, all others are happenstance at best. IHG lists the benefit for Spire Elite guests stating:
“Complimentary Room Upgrades1″ with the (1) leading to a Subject to Availability disclaimer.
IHG doesn’t clarify what consists of a room upgrade. Is that a double twin to a single king bed when traveling alone? Is that a corner room, a club floor, a suite? They might as well offer the potential for a good parking spot “subject to availability” because there is about as much substance to the benefit as they have positioned it.
Marriott offers upgrades to both Gold and Platinum guests at checkin subject to availability but in this case, states neither what counts as an upgrade nor available. Out of all the chains for which I have held status that offers this benefit, Marriott has been the least likely to upgrade me on a stay, and thus, they are the least likely to receive my business when it’s not absolutely the last option.
Hilton’s upgrade offer is also vague listing out each applicable chain’s upgrade policy but then only bothering to say:
“Space-available upgrade to a preferred room”
While I have had excellent upgrades at most Hilton properties if I were to argue a point where the benefit had been ignored, who is to say what makes a “preferred room”? I prefer the Presidential Suite, but perhaps the front desk prefers I stay in my booked room near the ice machine. While I have no reason to complain about Hilton delivering upgrades when I find myself in their properties as a Diamond guest, they make it impossible to enforce as a customer if I am being slighted by a particular property. That won’t endear customers who feel they have been wronged by a property.
Hoteliers Have Incentive to Not Upgrade
Suites cost more money than standard rooms and those that prefer suites are willing to pay a premium. In the case of properties that have sold most or all of their standard rooms, suites ensure higher revenue for those last available rooms maximizing available revenue. It’s in the hotelier’s best interest to avoid giving away anything for which they may be able to charge more for later.
But that’s really short-term thinking. Frankly, if I checked into a property and they had a suite available left to sell but it was the last room in the whole hotel to sell, I don’t think I would mind them keeping it to get higher revenue from a customer that may book very late. However, that would be a pretty isolated case and far more often the hotel has plenty of suites to sell but simply don’t want to give away something for nothing. However, it is their full participation in the loyalty program that brings me to their location in the first place. I go out of my way to stay at SPG properties because this benefit is most enforceable at Starwood hotels and they tend to be nicer properties.
Many hoteliers are under the false impression that it is because of their high-value property, carefully chosen location, and excellent customer service that a guest has chosen their hotel. In reality, it may be one of those factors but it’s more likely (at least in the case of high-frequency guests) due to its affiliation with a chain. I will certainly choose the most convenient hotel for my business purpose so long as the property will give me a high-level experience for my custom.
I am a member of a few elite guest Facebook groups and one of the most common complaints is the lack of an upgrade when there is clearly plenty of capacity in the property on the night the guest is staying. For programs where there is a clearer directive (SPG, Hyatt) if a hotel declines your upgrade, hold the desk agent to the letter of the law. If they fail to comply, I suggest one of the following two tactics.
The softer tactic is to stop the checkin process and step out of line. Book a suite at the property from your phone in the lobby then checkin to that room and follow up with customer support later to match the rates. When you explain that you were being denied the room because you were told it wasn’t available but were then able to successfully book and checkin to said room, they should match your rate on the spot. It also will send the message home with the front desk agent, and they may take care of it for you once they see your new booking, utilizing the old one with an honored upgrade. “I guess there was a suite available after all, let me get you upgraded.” is an exchange that has absolutely happened to me in the past using this method.
The more confrontational of the two approaches is to call reservations while standing at checkin on speakerphone. When they ask where and when you want to book, you state that night and give the name of the offending property. Ask how many suites they have available at the various levels and if the phone representative has access to the information they tend to sing like a canary. This is the part where I lock eyes with the front desk agent as the phone representative states, “There are five junior suites, three standard suites, two presidential suites…” If they don’t give you an upgrade at that point, see the following step.
Voting With Dollars
We all have a choice to make; every single elite traveler can decide and influence the decision of hoteliers and the chains as a whole to honor the benefits they offer. IHG doesn’t give upgrades or treat elites outside of their invitation-only Royal Ambassador program so I don’t give them more business than what makes sense for my needs. When I have a choice, I exercise it. Starwood Preferred Guest, despite their issues, has one of the clearest statements on the matter so I often take my chances with them when presented the option because I know I can enforce the rule if needed. Hilton and Hyatt have been excellent in practice, though their benefits are not clear in writing, they also get my business without hesitation.
I believe whole-heartedly that some businesses only take note when their bottom line is affected. So I affect it. If they offer a survey, I will respond honestly and politely, but if I am shut down for an upgrade when there is a surplus of availability, I won’t be back. Only when I show hotels that it is unacceptable to select which of the benefits to honor and which to dishonor can I expect change. And while I am a single traveler in a busy world I believe a collective difference can be made. If as a community we all demand the benefits we are provided for by the program rules and vote with our dollars in favor of those properties that grant them, and vote against hotels that deny them – I believe we can affect real change.
Do you find that some benefits are harder than others to get enforced? Have you booked away from a property because of their lack of transparency regarding upgrades? Am I completely wrong and you think that hotels should be able to choose when to upgrade and when not?