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Analyzing Marriott's 2020 award category changes

Feb. 05, 2020
12 min read
Ritz-Carlton Kapalua
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Earlier today, we learned of Marriott's 2020 category changes, which will apply to award stays booked on or after March 4, 2020. While 71% of properties are remaining where they are today, that means that 29% are moving categories. And sadly, they largely aren't moving the direction we'd like. Only 7% are shifting down while 22% are shifting up. This represents a fairly large change in the Marriott Bonvoy program, as just 6% of properties shifted categories in the 2019 annual updates. But exactly where is this year's change being felt the most?

We took a deep dive into the category changes to answer that question.

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The raw data

As it's done in the past, Marriott has published all of the category changes online, though you're only able to view up to 300 of them at once. To help crunch the numbers below, we've pulled all of the properties into an Excel spreadsheet (you can download it at this link if you want to filter or sort the data yourself).

Here's a high-level summary of what we found:

  • A total of 2,185 properties are changing categories as of March 4
  • 499 are moving down in price
  • 1,686 are increasing in price

When you consider the current and future standard award rates — ignoring peak and off-peak pricing — the changes represent an average increase of 4,549 points per night across these properties. And when you include the properties that aren't changing categories, here's the bottom line:

As of March 1, 2020, the average (standard) award night across the Marriott Bonvoy portfolio will increase by 1,381 points.

Based on our valuations, that's an effective increase of $11.05 per night — though if you look just at the impacted properties, it's an average increase of $36.39.

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One quick disclaimer before going any further. The below analysis considers standard award rates only. While Marriott's peak and off-peak pricing can cause the award rate to fluctuate for an individual property, our analysis found that the majority of dates still fall at the standard level — which is where we'll focus our energy.

Changes by category

Let's now parse the data in a variety of different ways, starting by category. This is particularly important if you hold a Marriott Bonvoy credit card since these category assignments impact the properties at which you can use your annual night certificates. Here's a breakdown of how these changes impact the eight categories of Marriott's award chart:

CategoryTotal affectedMoving downMoving up% moving up

For starters, the majority of the changes are occurring at the middle to end of the spectrum. Of the 2,185 properties changing categories, more than 70% of them affect those sitting in Categories 2–4. And sadly, a large majority of Category 2 properties (93%) are shifting up in price. Even though these may be still considered a bargain based on the actual award rate (17,500 points per night), moving from Category 2 to 3 represents an increase of 40% over current, standard award rates.

Category 6 is another big area of concern. Of the 110 properties changing categories, 95 of them are moving up to Category 7 — which puts them out of reach for the free-night certificate (worth up to 50,000 points) on the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card on all but off-peak dates.

If, on the other hand, you currently hold the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card or the Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card, you're also seeing some properties that'll soon be out of reach for your reward-night certificates, as 216 Category 5 properties are moving up.

Here's the net loss for each of these certificates:

  • 35k certificates: 201 properties (losing 216, gaining 15)
  • 50k certificates: 86 properties (losing 95, gaining 9)

Of course, this isn't an exact science, since it doesn't account for the impacts of peak and off-peak pricing, but it still gives you an idea of how your annual credit card perks may be less valuable, on average, come March 4.

Finally, it's worth noting that Marriott's priciest award band — Category 8 — is seeing a notable increase. Marriott's website currently lists 71 properties in this award band. While four of them are dropping to Category 7 as of March 4, 28 current Category 7 properties will shift upward to Category 8. With a net gain of 24 at that top level, that means that you'll soon have 95 hotels and resorts that will require up to 100,000 points for a free night — an increase of 33.8%.

Changes by brand

Here's a breakdown of how the individual Marriott brands fared with these category changes:

BrandTotal affectedMoving downMoving up% moving up
AC Hotels by Marriott5474787%
Autograph Collection69135681%
Conference Centers1100%
Design Hotels202100%
Fairfield Inn3385128785%
Four Points93484548%
Gaylord Hotels101100%
JW Marriott2341983%
Le Meridien34181647%
Luxury Collection33112267%
Marriott Vacation Club Intl303100%
Moxy Hotels2112943%
Protea Hotels3022893%
Residence Inn2732225192%
SpringHill Suites1301012092%
St. Regis94556%
Towneplace Suites1312810379%
Tribute Portfolio134969%
W Hotels1641275%

As you can see, the brands are a bit all over the place. When you think about aspirational award stays, it's concerning that 97% of the Ritz-Carlton properties that are shifting categories are going up, though it's nice to see that four St. Regis locations are dropping (compared to five moving up).

It's also not surprising to see the vast majority of Protea Hotels shifting to higher categories. These have typically represented a fantastic value for your Marriott points, though it's disappointing to see a lot of that value being stripped away.

As a family traveler, I am concerned about the large number of Residence Inn and TownPlace Suites locations that'll jump in price. I've found that these can offer great value, especially for booking right into a suite for a standard award price. Of the 273 Residence Inns changing categories, 251 (or 92%) are moving up. It's a similar story with TownePlace Suites: 103 of the 131 affected properties (79%) are moving to a higher category.

Notable properties changing categories

On the whole, this is bad news. However, we'll highlight a few of the bright spots in the upcoming Marriott category shifts before returning to the negative changes.

Notable Marriott properties going down in category

The brand-new W Aspen will drop from a Category 8 to a Category 7 property, which makes a ton of sense given that the nearby St. Regis Aspen is a Category 8 hotel and is generally a step nicer (and pricier) than the W.

W Aspen (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

The W Washington D.C. -- conveniently located across from the White House -- will also take a step down the chart from a Category 7 to a Category 6 hotel.

The Westin San Diego and Westin San Diego Gaslamp will fall from Category 6 into the very useful Category 5 price range.

If you want a fancy international getaway, the St. Regis Kuala Lumpur is also dropping from a Category 6 to that all-important Category 5 rate, so get those 35k certificates ready if you are looking for a St. Regis in Malaysia.

Notable Marriott properties increasing in category

Most of the properties that points travelers care about for their vacations are going up, not down.

Outside of the W Aspen, ski properties are taking a hard hit in this round of category changes. Increases are happening at The Westin Snowmass (Category 5 to Category 6), The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa, Avon, Vail Valley (Category 7 to 8), The Westin Monache Mammoth (Category 6 to 7), Residence Inn Breckenridge (Category 5 to 6), Springhill Suites Jackson Hole (Category 5 to 6) and Le Westin Tremblant (Category 6 to 7), just to name a few.

Popular leisure beach destinations are also in for an ugly wave of change. In Aruba, the Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino (Category 6 to 7), Renaissance Aruba (Category 5 to 6) and Ritz-Carlton Aruba (Category 7 to 8) are also going up a notch on the award chart. You'll find the same pattern at the Marriott Grand Cayman (Category 6 to 7), W Punta Mita (Category 7 to 8), Westin Maui Resort and Spa (Category 6 to 7), Sheraton Kauai Resort (Category 5 to 6) and all of the Atlantis properties in the Bahamas.

Sadly, popular urban destinations weren't spared either. New York City is particularly hard hit -- losing many of the remaining good Category 5 redemptions to the next level up. AC Hotel New York Times Square, seven Manhattan Courtyards, six Manhattan Fairfield properties, the Sheraton Tribeca, Maxwell NYC and many more are all going to be out of range of the Marriott 35k certificates beginning on March 4. Even the massive, popular New York Marriott Marquis is going up from a Category 6 to a 7.

A few other cities facing multiple notable Marriott property award price increases include Dublin, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Barcelona and Anchorage.

The Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino (Photo courtesy of Marriott)

What does this mean for you?

So given all of the above information, what does this mean for you as you look forward to engaging (or severing ties) with Marriott Bonvoy in 2020? Well, it depends on how you planned to use your points. If you've been eyeing a property that is dropping in price, you're probably excited about the changes. But, that'll be the exception, not the general rule with these adjustments.

Anyone looking to book an award stay at a hotel moving to a higher category is likely frustrated — especially with just four weeks of advanced notice to earn the points you need and lock in the current award prices. We'd strongly encourage you to review the list of properties that are changing categories, as you still have time to lock-in the old award rates — as long as you book before March 4, 2020.

If you want to book something now, but don't have all the points you need yet, remember that the Marriott Points Advance feature has changed significantly since the last round of award chart changes. Now, locking in a Marriott award reservation without having all the points at the ready only guarantees you a physical room -- it doesn't lock in the current award price. So, that won't help you in beating this upcoming round of changes.

All in all, this represents an unfortunate development for Marriott Bonvoy. Tweaking an award chart is one thing, as is adding peak and off-peak pricing to more closely match award rates to demand and revenue. However, shifting nearly a quarter of your properties to a higher category without an equivalent shift of hotels to lower categories is a significant change.

We'll continue to dive into these changes in the weeks leading up to March 4, but hopefully, this analysis has shed some light on just how big of a change the Marriott program will undergo in less than a month.

Featured image by The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua is a great deal for 60,000 points per night. (Photo courtesy by Ritz-Carlton)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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