Major Starwood Preferred Guest Enhancements: Confirmed Suite Upgrades, Breakfast, Lifetime Status and More

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Update: The offer mentioned below for the Platinum Card from American Express has expired. View the current offer here

Update: The offers mentioned below for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Cards from American Express have expired. View the current offers here –personalbusiness.

Starwood is announcing major changes to their Starwood Preferred Guest program today and, get ready for it… they are pretty much all positive. As I wrote about recently, Starwood recently made the change to count award stays towards elite status, which I personally think was a great move. Following that move are a bunch of new benefits coming March 1, 2012.

Yesterday I got a chance to visit Starwood’s new Stamford, Connecticut headquarters and learn about these new program changes directly from the SPG team, which was great because we got to dig into the nitty gritty details of the new benefits with the people who created them. If you are unclear about any of the details outlined in this post comment and I’ll get the answer to your questions.

There are three main categories of enhancement: Elite Amenities, Platinum Status Perks and Lifetime Status. These new benefits will be available on all eligible (point earning) paid and award stays.

New Elite amenities:

SPG Gold Members (achieved after 25 nights or 10 stays, Complimentary with the Platinum Amex or with $30,000 in spend on the Starwood Amex) will now be able to select an amenity when checking into a hotel:

1)  250 points (125 at aloft, Four Points and Element)
or
2) High speed internet access for the entire stay
or
3) A complimentary beverage at the restaurant/bar- not in room. Max value of $15 USD/Euro

SPG Platinum Members (50 nights or 25 stays) will also have a new amenity choice:

1) Continental breakfast for the entire length of stay, including one in-room guest. This will be eligible at all brands and all hotels. Must be in the on-site restaurant (not room service). Hotels have flexibility to determine what this means, but generally continental breakfast is juice/coffee/breads/cereals – they will be allowed to offer a full breakfast for an up-charge beyond $15. If property has a club that serves food, you still have access as a platinum guest, so you could also choose the 500 Starpoints.
or
2) 500 Starpoints (250 at aloft, Four Points and Element)
or
3) Local gift (For ex. wine, olive oil, artisan piece)

New Platinum Perks at 50, 75 and 100 nights per calendar year

50 nights: 10 Suite night awards. You can use them to confirm certain suites and premium rooms beginning 5 nights prior to arrival, subject to availability. This is intended to be an upgrade to a suite, but some hotels wont be able due to capacity so there will be many options to choose from- including the most desirable oceanfront rooms at some resorts. Hotels have been encouraged to include premium suites as well. Members will have the choice to select exact room they will be on the list for and you will be able to see all options on SPG.com -> My Stays. There you can check the box for multiple rooms and starting at 5 days before your stay it will automatically search to see if they can confirm you in the most premium room and then going down. Members have the choice. Starwood did not disclose how the upgrade list would be prioritized, but I’d guess it’s based on your projected value to Starwood – including past loyalty and average nightly rate you pay. The great thing is that this whole process will be automatically by Starwood so you don’t have to worry about showing up at the hotel and trying to argue your way into a suite. The automatic system will keep checking for availability up until 2pm the day before arrival and at that point you’d get the upgrades back and you’d go for an on-site upgrade like every other Platinum.

75 Nights– Two benefits:
1) 4 Starpoints per dollar spent- 2 base points that all SPG members get, plus 2 points for being a “75 nighter” (regular Platinum members get one extra points per dollar). As always, you can bank an extra 2 Starpoints per dollar if you put your stay on  the Starwood American Express card.

2) YOUR 24– The ability to check in any time you want and check out 24 hours later. For example, if your flight arrives at 1am, you can confirm that arrival time and check out at 1am the next day, as long as you confirm it within 48 hours. This benefit is based on availability and will be managed online and through the Platinum line. A pilot ran with certain members this past year and nearly every single stay was accommodated. If you check in anytime 9am and after, you still get 4pm late checkout. If you check in before 9am, your 4pm late check-out will not be guaranteed.

If your room type isn’t available for early check-in, you can downgrade/change it- you will just have to work with the Platinum line to work it all out since they won’t automatically downgrade you. Unfortunately you have to confirm at least 48 hours in advance- for example if your flight is delayed and you arrive at a crazy time- you can’t just walk up and ask for this benefit (you can always ask for an early check-in, but in my experience getting really early ones is rare).

100 Nights: You’ll receive a Starwood Ambassador. These Ambassadors are the highest level of Starwood phone reps and will act as your personal concierge to make sure your reservations are exactly what you want and will even help you plan activities and resolve any customer service issues. If you currently have an Ambassador through the trial program, they won’t be going away.

Qualification: People will get credit for their 2011 activity! Those with 50 nights in 2011 will automatically get 10 suite nights on March 1, 2012 and they will be good until December 31, 2013. Same for those who hit 50 nights in 2012- you will get 10 awards and they will be good until December 31, 2013. Everyone should get emails this week stating whether they qualified for this benefit.

Lifetime Status

250 nights and 5 years of elite= Lifetime Gold Status

500 nights and 10 years of Platinum (not consecutive) = Lifetime Platinum

Your current qualifications will be emailed to you this week (along with your 2011 qualification) and will be online starting March 1. If you are impatient, you can call before March 1 and the phone agents will have access to that information.

 My Thoughts
Overall, I think this is a big net positive for a program that I thought was long overdue for some “refreshing”.  After seeing so much devaluation in the airline space, it’s nice to see improvements without any real give back in benefits. Simply put, benefits like free internet for Gold (though I believe internet should be free for everyone) and Free breakfast for Platinum can save you tons of money- especially when traveling in Europe when those costs can rack up quickly.

While these are nice additions, in my opinion there are other hotel programs that lead in certain areas:
Mid tier (Gold) benefits: Hilton Gold offers both high speed internet and a choice of continental breakfast or 1,000 points.
Top Tier Breakfast: Hyatt offers a full-breakfast, often available via room service, for all registered guests in addition to a 1,000 point amenity.
Suite upgrades: Hyatt offers their top tier 4 upgrade certificates that are confirmable for a suite at the time of booking for up to a weeklong stay each. Granted, these are only on paid stays (Starwood allows upgrade on awards as well), but the beauty of the suite upgrade is knowing in advance you’ll have a suite for that special occasion. Waiting until 5 days before check-in can be a nail-biter.
Confirmed early check-in: Intercontinental offers their top tier Royal Ambassadors confirmed 8am check-in at time of booking.

This being said, each of those programs have major holes like Intercontinental’s lack of benefits on award stays, Hyatt’s poor airline conversion rates and lack of Cash & Points and Hilton’s recent devaluation in points.

I do think this move will force the other chains to re-think their lifetime elite status programs. Hyatt currently makes you accrue 1,000,000 base points in order to get lifetime Diamond (that’s $200,000 in spend on hotel rooms!). I personally think Starwood’s 500 nights/ 10 years of Platinum is much more attainable, especially since award stays count. Even if you paid $300 a night for all 500 nights, you’ still be spending $50,000 less than Hyatt’s threshold.

The biggest question mark for me will be implementation, so I’m going to hold off on complete judgement until I see how this all goes into action. Will upgrades be easy to confirm in advance? Will it really be possible to confirm check-ins at 9am? Will this impact the average Platinum member (which I am, though I may decide to go for 50 nights this year)? It seems like the SPG team has been working on these changes for a long time and have the buy-in of hotel management, but only time will tell.

What are your thoughts on these new benefits?

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