The Hidden Value in Marriott Rewards: Interview with Ed French
Ed French is the Senior Vice President of Marketing Platforms & Marriott Rewards at Marriott International, and has served in this capacity since 2003. Prior to this, he served in a similar role with American Airlines
He is incredibly humble, was very courteous to following up with me after attending the Freddie Awards, and it was a pleasure to interview him on the Marriott Rewards program. Enjoy!
1. What do you enjoy about working for Marriott?Ed: It’s a great company to work for. While it is a very large and global organization, it still maintains the feel of a family company. It’s wonderful that we still have our founder’s son involved in the company as Chairman of the Board, which adds to the unique family feel. Also, we are company that is focused on at all levels at building and maintaining relationships with our customers, which makes my team’s job that much easier.
2. What is unique about the Marriott Rewards program?Ed: What sets Marriott apart is the depth, breadth, and quality of our hotel brands and properties. From the Residence Inn to the Ritz Carlton, our properties are able to provide meaningful value to consumer, across a broad spectrum of travel needs. We operate 3,800 properties in over 70 countries around the world. Each of our hotel brands is geared toward different guests, with very different needs. It’s all about having about having a hotel and a hotel brand for all of your travel needs—whether a luxury vacation, weekend family getaway, or a business trip. Ultimately, I think it is part of our DNA is to provide value and a great experience, wherever they stay.
3. What is your favorite Marriott property/favorite brand?Ed: This is the most common question I get asked, and I suppose I need a one-line answer. Honestly, I don’t have one because there are so many properties and opportunities within Marriott. That said, I did recently vacation at the JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort & Spa, Costa Rica. We were able to relax by the beach, venture through the rainforest, and indulge in seafood—all while doing it in an exotic foreign country.
Alright Ed, down to brass tax. Even though I personally like the Marriott brand of properties, not everyone does, and even I would argue there some shortcomings. Not to say any program is perfect, but it’s just the nature of the matter.
The next several questions will include some of the most common objections to the Marriott program. While I may come off as attacking, I have faith picking at the weaknesses because I know that Marriott is a very strong loyalty program, and think that this can actually bring out your strong points as well.
4. How do you justify the 50-night Gold/75-night Platinum requirements? I mean, with some other programs, I can reach top-tier with a mere 25 stays.Ed: Hotel loyalty program are not all commoditized, which I think is a good thing. We have more hotels than all but one of our competitors (who is the same size as us), and a better range of brands, from select-service brands to luxury properties. Thus, our program is not the same across the board, and we offer different things to our customers based on their needs. In doing so, we find it actually drives more loyalty. We not only have more choices at which our members can earn elite status, we also have more ways to earn than other programs. There are a number of different paths to racking up elite status with Marriott Rewards, in addition to staying at our hotels, including:
- Signing up for the Marriott Rewards Visa, and receiving 15 nights toward elite status, AND additional nights, as you spend more
- Earning 10 elite nights for hosting an event or meeting
- Earning nights for timeshare usage at Marriott Vacation Club
And in your defense, if one stays at your properties 3 nights each time, it seems it would be about the same as 25 stays with another program.
Also, I recently completed a 6-stay Gold challenge—good through February 2014. How many other program out there offering the same level of benefits for a mere 6 stays?Ed: Definitely. The Elite Challenges, both for Gold and Platinum Elite, have been very well received. I hear issues from some members about the elite requirements. Yet, our Gold and Platinum Elite levels are actually up 20% this year, due to all the ways we have for them to earn and retain their status. In the end, we balance benefits to make them real and meaningful for our customers.
5. It’s good to see that Marriott has added suite upgrades as a benefit to Gold and Platinum members, although based on my experience this has been going on for a while. How come there are no confirmed suite upgrades, besides using points (except at the Ritz-Carlton… GRR!!)Ed: We do in fact encourage our properties to make sure that suites are available to our elite members. That said, it can be hard to guarantee. Many of our properties sell them, while others will sometimes give them to guests booking a block of rooms or holding a conference… We are working to make sure more properties make suites available for upgrades (it is now a standard at our Asian properties and we hope to continue to expand it). Currently, our US Platinum members get suite upgrades about 10% of the time. In addition, we also upgrade our Gold and Platinum Elites to preferred rooms, with better views, etc. and to the concierge level. As a side note, our program has more Concierge and Executive lounges than any other program, primarily in our Full-Service Marriott, JW Marriott and Renaissance hotels worldwide.
6. It is good to see Marriott giving their elite members breakfast benefits when club lounges (at some properties) are not open on the weekends. But the terms and conditions state that resort properties do not have to honor this for resorts, as well as Courtyard hotels. What is your reason behind this?Ed: Marriott was the original hotel company to offer free breakfast to our most frequent guests, and over the years competitors have copied us. Today we offer breakfast 7 days a week at our hotels outside the US and Canada. Our standard for US/Canada full service hotels is to offer breakfast on the weekdays only, though many go above and beyond. We have heard loud and clear that this is an important issue for our elite members and for domestic properties, we are evaluating. But the truth is that it is incredibly expensive to provide. Hence it’s taking us a little while to decide our plan. In contrast, historically we have made a large investment in the concierge lounge while our competitors have not.
7. Have you ever thought about adding points & cash awards, like for example, Starwood has? I noticed you guys just launched a version of this, but I mean where one might spend $50 and 10,000 points instead of $150 or 25,000 points per night.Ed: Yes, I understand where you are coming from. As you know, we launched a way for our members to combine point redemptions and cash nights in an easy search and booking process on Marriott.com recently. Our goal is to make booking a redemption room easier, with more flexibility. We have in fact considered the “Starwood” option. We even evaluated our version against that of our competitor with our members, and found the attractiveness of both options to be fairly even. We went with our option both because we knew it was valuable to customers (we are seeing thousands of these redemptions in the month since launch), but also because we have other discounted reward options, including PointSavers and 5th Night Free. Remember you can use PointSavers for up to 25% off the normal award rate.
25% off is great, but what about 50 or 75%?Ed: Again, this is something we have analyzed, and we just can’t afford this as a business.
Maybe I will have to get other Marriott loyalists to revolt against this!Ed: Haha, ok. On the technical side, we added the ability to search Cash vs. Award, and even added in the PointSavers awards automatically. Ultimately, a core proposition of our program is our long list of the most popular destinations, and we provide the best value for these destinations, particularly for 5 or more night stays.
8. What is the deal with BOGOs. Why are they gone and will they return?Ed: Buy-One, Get-Ones, or BOGOs, were an offer where one could buy a meal or even a night, and get another for free. We never promoted or promised them to customers, but we did include them in our elite member kits for a number of years in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Frankly, most elites did not even know about them. In the end, it’s awfully hard to justify a 50% discount, especially when most elites did not know about them. And, of those that did, only a very small number redeemed them. At the same time, it became really hard to convince our hotels to do them, and more and more they refused to accept them, so we stopped. Unfortunately, we handled the communication poorly and our members were upset that we abruptly stopped. We continue to evaluate what we might offer along these lines, but we don’t have anything at this point that we are ready to talk about.
PFHEWW!! You survived the tough part. Now onto some (relatively) easier questions:
9. Maybe this means I am picky, but Marriott seems very good at dealing with customer disputes and resolution. What is your secret?Ed: Companies and organizations, especially Marriott, have guiding principles. Some are focused on the bottom line, and worried only about the cost of doing something. Again, at Marriott we are all about providing lasting value for our customers. So ever since Marriott started out in business as a restaurant chain, when customers have had issues, we have made sure to address them, so that they will stay with us again.
10. What do may members not realize about the program that perhaps they should?Ed: As I mentioned earlier, I think people don’t understand the depth and breadth of the brand and hotels in the Marriott Rewards program. For example, no other program has a luxury brand like the Ritz-Carlton or our large number of extended stays Residence Inn hotels. And we add 100-200 new hotels every year and expand the number of countries and cities we operate in. We have also added a number of new chains or brands in the last few years—including our recent addition of Gaylord. We have never expired our points, and although our terms and conditions technically allow for it, we have no plans to do it. In addition, folks many may now know about 5th Award Night Free feature. When booking an award using Rewards points, the 5th night(s) are free. This really makes awards much more doable for a lot of our guests. Finally, I don’t think people recognize all the different ways that there are to earn Elite-level credit. They just don’t understand that there are a number of the quick paths to elite status.
11. Why do properties such as the Springhill Suites, Fairfield Inn Edition, and the Autograph Collection not credit points for spend on incidentals?Ed: In the beginning of Marriott Rewards, we had hotels with restaurants, spas… that offered point earning on all spending. And we had other hotels, like Fairfield Inn, that only offered rooms and therefore you only earned points on that. As our group of hotel brands has become bigger and more complex, we’ve chosen to amend which of these newer brands earn points on total spend versus rooms only. It’s an economic decision, ultimately, but we know it is confusing for our guests. It’s something we’ll continue to evaluate as we grow.