Why Marriott’s ‘No Blackout Dates’ Policy Is Essentially Worthless

Dec 19, 2018

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It’s now been four months since the integration of Marriott, SPG and Ritz-Carlton, and bringing these programs together has created many headaches for our readers (and even TPG staff). Over the weekend, the program quietly updated the published terms & conditions of its “No Blackout Dates” policy, and while a Marriott spokesperson is emphatically stating that there has been no change in policy, it’s still an interesting case study.

Today I want to highlight why this Marriott policy isn’t worth the (electronic) paper it’s printed on.

Revision to Published “No Blackout Dates” Policy

Let’s start with the weekend change to the program’s T&Cs. Here’s what they had to say about this policy last week:

Blackout dates refer to a limited number of dates when a Participating Property could choose not to permit Members to redeem Points for Awards, but the Company has a “No Blackout Dates” benefit so that if there is a standard room available for booking by any means, whether by cash, credit or Points, then a Member can reserve the room using Points.  The following properties either do not participate in or do not fully participate in the No Blackout Dates benefit at this time:

  • Boscolo Exedra Nice, Autograph Collection
  • The Dedica Anthology, Autograph Collection
  • JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn® Resort & Spa, Scottsdale, AZ
  • Marriott Vacation Club and Marriott Grand Residence Club – all properties
  • Participating Vistana properties
  • Rome Marriott Grand Hotel Flora, Rome, Italy
  • Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, Hawaii
  • Wailea Beach Resort – Marriott – Maui, Hawaii

This was completely unambiguous. If a property had a standard room available, it must allow you to use points for it if it wants to stay with the terms of the program. This written policy had been in place since the integration on Aug. 18, though as of this past weekend, it’s no longer there. Here’s what the exact same section (3.2.n) now state (emphasis mine):

The Company has a “No Blackout Dates” policy, which means that, subject to the limitations and exclusions below, Participating Properties have standard rooms available every day for Award Redemptions. These limitations and exclusions are:  

i. Participating Properties from the following Brands may cap the number of standard rooms available for redemption on a limited number of days: The Ritz-Carlton®, EDITION®, JW Marriott®, Marriott Hotels®, Delta Hotels®, Autograph Collection® Hotels, Renaissance® Hotels, Gaylord Hotels®, Courtyard®, SpringHill Suites®, Protea Hotels®, Fairfield by Marriott®, AC Hotels®, Moxy® Hotels, Residence Inn®, TownePlace Suites®.

ii. The following Participating Brands allow only for Points/Miles earnings and do not offer Points redemption: Marriott Executive Apartments® and ExecuStay®.

iii. The following Participating Properties or Brands either do not participate in or do not fully participate in the No Blackout Dates benefit at this time:

  • Boscolo Exedra Nice, Autograph Collection
  • The Dedica Anthology, Autograph Collection
  • JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn® Resort & Spa, Scottsdale, AZ
  • Marriott Vacation Club and Marriott Grand Residence Club – all properties
  • Participating Vistana properties
  • Rome Marriott Grand Hotel Flora, Rome, Italy
  • Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, Hawaii
  • Wailea Beach Resort – Marriott – Maui, Hawaii

On paper, this looks like a massive devaluation to the 16 legacy Marriott brands, though Marriott regulars will be happy to regale you with stories of individual properties doing this in the past. In fact, that Marriott spokesperson has confirmed that this change to the T&C represents no actual adjustment to the policy, providing TPG with the following statement:

“On August 18, 2018, Marriott Rewards, The Ritz Carlton Rewards and SPG unified into one loyalty program and published updated program T&Cs and FAQs. There was no substantive change to the ‘no blackout dates’ policies for Marriott Rewards and The Ritz Carlton Rewards or SPG. Later, we discovered that the policy description for legacy Marriott Rewards and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards participating properties, was incorrect. This issue was fixed beginning this past Friday. As stated above, at no time, whether before or after August 18, was there any change to the underlying policy itself followed by our properties.”

I have some doubts about this, as the pre-August 18 terms of the legacy Marriott program didn’t explicitly allow brands to cap award inventory, and the same strong verbiage was included in the combined program’s FAQ page (since removed but still accessible using the Internet archive WaybackMachine). The redeem points section of the integration page even lists the policy as a benefit for members looking to redeem their points at the time of writing:

However, that’s not the focus of this article. Instead I want to highlight just how little teeth a “No Blackout Dates” policy like this has when you allow more than 75% of your combined portfolio to restrict award inventory.

Properties Can Easily Restrict Availability Yet Still Comply

Over the weekend, I was looking for a room near downtown Fort Lauderdale to take my wife and daughter to the national tour of Hamilton this coming weekend. During my hotel search, I noticed that the Fairfield Inn & Suites Fort Lauderdale Downtown/Las Olas had a standard guest room (two queens) available for sale with cash, but not when using points.

However, when I changed the date to a random weeknight in March, that exact same room suddenly showed as available using points:

Intrigued, I dug a bit deeper and discovered that this property is a quintessential example of how hotels can use these ambiguous policies to prevent members from redeeming points. Want to spend a weekend at this location? Well, I hope you’re not wanting to escape the winter weather. When I searched, every single weekend was blocked for two-night award stays until April.

Unfortunately, this gets even worse, because the property appears to be manipulating the two standard room types (one king and two queens) to its advantage.

If you search for a one-night stay on Friday Mar. 22, you’ll see that a room with two queens is available using points. The next night, a room with one king is available using points. The reverse holds true the following weekend: Friday Mar. 29 has an award stay in a king room available, while on Saturday Mar. 30 you can redeem points for a room with two queens.

Over both weekends, two-night stays in both room types can be booked at cash rates. This isn’t an issue where the rooms are sold out. The property is apparently, for whatever reason, manipulating its award inventory to prevent members from redeeming points for a stay covering a Friday and Saturday night. And yet, because they can point to the fact that a room is available using points on both nights, they are not “blacking out” award stays.

(We have reached out to the manager of this property to inquire about this approach to inventory management, but have not received a response at the time of publication. We will update this article if we hear back.)

There’s no way to turn back time to see if these results are new (since the updated terms and conditions were posted) or whether this property had always blocked award redemptions on the dates above. Nevertheless, it illustrates the huge problem with a “No Blackout Dates” policy that still allows properties to restrict inventory.

An actual “No Blackout Dates” policy is fantastic for award travelers, since it typically doesn’t allow participating properties to play games with standard rooms during periods of high demand. It’s one thing if all of the standard rooms are booked when you try to use points; it’s an entirely different thing when a property is formally allowed to restrict standard award availability (and then does so to the extent above).

How Marriott Compares to Other Programs

Marriott’s “No Blackout Dates” policy doesn’t come close to those of Hyatt and Hilton.

While no program is perfect, here is what the World of Hyatt’s terms and conditions have to say about blackout dates and award availability (emphasis mine):

Standard-room Free Night Awards may be redeemed only when standard rooms are available at the Standard Rate at the selected hotel or resort. Standard-room Free Night Awards are not subject to blackout dates at Hyatt hotels and resorts. (Redemption of Standard-room Free Night Awards at participating M life Rewards destinations may be subject to blackout dates.) 

With Hyatt, there is not a long list of excluded properties and brands to comb through, which helps when holding a property’s feet to the fire if they do try to play games with availability.

Hilton Honors has a similar policy (emphasis mine):

Members may book a Reward Stay for standard or premium room types using nearly any combination of Points and money, in increments of 1,000 Points and starting at 5,000 Points. Points & Money Rewards are available at any hotel in the Hilton Portfolio that participates in the Hilton Honors Program, with no blackout dates.

Members may use full Hilton Honors Points to book a complimentary standard or premium room. Standard Room and Premium Room Rewards are available at any hotel in the Hilton Portfolio that participates in the Hilton Honors Program, with no blackout dates.

Marriott’s published policy is now far behind these programs.

Bear in mind too that we’re less than three months until Category 8, peak and off-peak pricing is set to take effect. While we don’t know exactly how properties will determine peak vs. off-peak dates at this time, it’s highly likely that dates with higher demand (read: higher room rates) will price as peak dates and require additional points, giving properties yet another tool in their policy arsenal to diminish the value of Marriott Rewards points when it comes time to use them.

Bottom Line

It’s time to call a spade a spade: Marriott should either put a full “No Blackout Dates” policy into writing and effect or stop insulting customers and get rid of it entirely. If you’re like me, you were heartened over the unambiguous language in the combined program’s T&Cs. However, that’s now been changed, and as you can see from above, legacy Marriott properties are able to adjust award inventory and still comply with a toothless policy. One can only hope that this won’t be expanded to legacy SPG properties.

If you’re a loyal Marriott or SPG member, I’d strongly encourage you to reach out and express your frustration. Let them know if you’ll be taking your business elsewhere, as a program that makes it this easy for properties to prevent you from using your hard-earned points may not be worthy of your loyalty.

Featured photo courtesy of Marriott Residence Inn.

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