I’m a little late to this party, but it’s worth mentioning in case you missed it elsewhere: In an era in which the typical travel “loyalty” program has made it harder to cash in miles or points, Marriott has removed its longstanding policy of blacking out certain dates for hotel redemptions. This is a good move. But it’s not as generous as it sounds.
Tim Winship digs into the fine print and gets it right:
When I received today’s news release from Marriott touting its upcoming “No Blackout Dates” policy, effective January 15, 2009, I naturally wondered whether this will amount to a substantive improvement for Marriott Rewards members, or just a new label on an old bottle.
The answer is to be found on the Marriott website: “Hotels may limit the number of standard rooms available for redemption on a limited number of days.” In other words, capacity controls remain in place. And some Marriott, JW Marriott, and Marriott Conference Centers properties are exempt from the new policy altogether.
Marriott Rewards members may indeed find more award rooms available on more nights at more hotels. Unfortunately, it apparently still remains very much at the discretion of individual hotels how accommodating they will be when program members choose to book a free stay at their properties. And that means that award availability will remain a question mark.
So in this case, “No Blackout Dates” is more a catchy tagline than a concrete promise. Perhaps it’s time for the travel industry to finally commit to a tagline without asterisks: “No More Empty Promises.”
Zing! But true. This is an improvement — dare I say, an upgrade — but it’s not yet at the level of the Starwood, Hilton, or Hyatt programs (which are not created equal either, but that’s a separate issue.)
Downgraded: Odds of seeing pole-dancer art on London-Gatwick approach
First it was the Kentucky Fried Chicken ad featuring a Colonel Sanders image visible from space. Now, a website’s advertisement featuring a giant chalk outline of a poledancing stripper is causing controversy in the UK. The image, in a field below a common approach path for flights to London’s Gatwick Airport, is only visible from the air, but is still causing an affront. It’s likely to be removed soon. But thanks to news reports and posts like this one far more people will see it online than ever would see it from a plane. (Yes, I’m guilty of supporting their marketing machine… I know…)
Upgraded: Kayak.com introduces alliance-based search
Aggregator Kayak.com tweaked its search tools ever so slightly, allowing you to sort by alliance (Star, oneworld, Skyteam) and not just by airline. But you can only sort it that way AFTER you’ve the basic search. (You can search preferred airlines up front, so why not alliances? Meh.) Orbitz has allowed alliance search for some time, but this is the first aggregator that I’m aware of that’s doing this.
Upgraded: Hertz’s environmentalist credibility
Last September, Hertz rolled out its “Green Collection” of rental cars and I was thoroughly unimpressed. Buick LaCrosse? Come on. Where were the hybrids? Well, it took nine months, but Hertz finally got around to buying more genuinely eco-friendly vehicles, with a purchase of 3,400 Toyota Priuses (or is that Prii?). That’s more like it.
Upgraded: Wine in coach. Viva jetBlue!
JetBlue is serving up some slightly more interesting wines than usual the usual coach fare. Thanks to a partnership with Best Cellars, the airline is giving their all-economy class passengers a slightly better guzzle. Choosing wine for coach can be challenging, since it has to be a) cheap, b) in tiny ready-for-sale bottles, unlike in premium cabins, and c) pair-able with a wider range of foods. I hadn’t thought about that last one before: After all, the wine in business and first can presumably be paired with the menu (though that’s not always obvious). But in coach, a wine demands “versatility in pairing with a wide assortment of airport meals people bring on planes, including pan pizzas from Pizza Hut and Taco Bell burritos with chicken and mole sauce.” (Taco Bell has a mole sauce? Really?) Either way, good for jetBlue, and good for their wine-imbibing passengers. (Thanks Tyler!)
Downgraded: US Airways right to serve any wine
Unlike jetBlue… US Airways, which got into trouble for selling booze without a license in New Mexico a few months ago, and which has been serving the sauce with a temporary scrip since then, was denied an extension of its license this past week. Tough break. BYOB, anyone?
Upgraded: Marriott; Downgraded: Ian Schrager (or is it the other way around?)
Look, I happen to like Marriott hotels for what they are: Consistent, clean, competent, and overall comfortable spaces to spend the night. (4 C’s!) They usually don’t have too much bling or pizazz, though some of their big-city properties have that 1980s glitz that has an odd appeal to my mid-to-late-30s, graying-gracefully, receding-hairline self. So when I hear that they’re teaming up with Ian Schrager, king of the boutique hotel, to create a new boutique-y brand, I’m skeptical. It seems like a late-to-the-game attempt to create a “W” chain within a chain. If it adds a little funk to the Marriott decor, great. (Bye bye brass fixtures, please!) But it also smacks of desperation. And isn’t Ian Schrager past this? Seems like he’s here to cash in while the cashin’ in is good.
Upgraded: WestJet’s honesty; Downgraded: Little old ladies’ pensions
Canada’s WestJet (hearts) little old ladies. Not because they’re nice grandmas, but because they’re walking piggy banks, and the airline’s got a hammer. Consider this nugget from the airline’s president:
“There would be a little old lady coming up and she’d have a table and she’d have a chair and she’d have six or seven bags and we’d say ‘Yeah, take it on the plane. No problem.’ Now we’re actually going to charge a little bit of money for taking that table and chair and those extra bags on board. And that incremental revenue that we extract from that little old lady is very, very profitable to us. Some 85% goes to the bottom line.”
Good for him, for saying publicly what other airline executives discuss privately. So I guess the business traveler isn’t the company profit center; the rarely-traveled senior citizen is. Bank it.
Upgraded: Amputees and their TSA experience
Got a prosthetic? The TSA wants to make your security checkpoint experience kinder and gentler. Good! On the other hand…
Downgraded: Sippy cups, and TSA cinema verité
A former Secret Service agent reports that she was harassed when she accidentally carried her child’s sippy cup of water through security. Stupid enough, but it gets more absurd: The TSA actually released a silent security tape of the incident, labeled “Mythbusters,” in their own defense. Feel free to view the videos, read the incident report, review the embarrassed mother’s story, and decide for yourself.
Let me make myself perfectly clear: I want to help destroy this hotel. I’ve never been to it, but I want to help Spanish hotel chain NH Hoteles wreck the Alcala Hotel in Madrid. The company is holding a contest to see who can take a sledgehammer to the joint. Only 30 lucky few will get to play rockstar-cum-wrecking ball. Let the spirit of Keith Moon guide you.
Luke Mellor argues that hotels shouldn’t give internet access away for free, since doing so reduces their incentives to actually service the connection. I wholeheartedly disagree.
Unless upscale business hotels want to emulate some European ultra-discount airlines by offering a completely a-la-carte model for the provision of every hotel amenity, they should include such basic provisions as internet in the base room rate. Paying for wi-fi is fine at, say, a Motel 6, but not at, say, a Sheraton. (I know, the irony is that the lower-quality motel is more likely than the luxury hotel to offer the free amenities like phone calls and wi-fi.)
Which is why this following nugget makes me shake my head and mutter “unbelievable.” Shel Holtz recently paid $12.95 for wi-fi access at the Renaissance Toronto Hotel Downtown, only to be bombarded with banner ads that forced themselves onto his screen. He offered a rant on the subject on his blog.
Bad enough. But the real “crime” appears in the followup comments. Not only did these ads appear when Shel fired up the internet in his room. The ads similarly appeared the next day when he ran a wifi connection in the meeting room:
I’m in a meeting room doing a workshop. Here, I pay $25 per day for the wireless connection AND THE SAME DAMN ADS SHOW UP, which means my audience — people who paid to attend the workshop — have to see them. Unbelievable. Is anybody from Marriott paying any attention at all?
Unacceptable. In a business setting, after paying that kind of cash for a single day’s internet access (ridiculously high, by the way), there is no way you should be seeing ads.
I’m even willing to accept ads on a free internet connection, the same way I install NetZero on my laptop as an emergency backup ISP. (I admit, I haven’t used it in years, but it’s there, and I’ll put up with ads for the connection in a pinch.)
The Renaissance in Toronto, part of the Marriott chain, is not alone in this. It’s also not a chain-wide policy. The local franchisee apparently decided to milk a little more revenue out of the megabytes running through the hotel’s wires.
But forcing all paying customers to view ads for online poker while they’re conducting business in a public setting is out of line. Is it time for a Hotel Wi-Fi Hall of Shame Wiki ?
‘Pods on a Plane
Apple announced a deal with United, Delta, Continental, Air France, Emirates, and KLM to link inflight entertainment systems with iPods. “Available starting mid-2007, the connections would power and charge iPods in flight. It would allow travelers to watch and listen to videos and songs of their choice, instead of having to watch airlines’ programming. Instead of using the small iPod screen, passengers will be able to watch TV shows or movies on larger seatback monitors.” No word on whether you’ll be able to download songs in-flight.
Cells on the Seas
All sorts of attention is paid to the possibility of cell phones on airplanes, but no one has expressed horror at the thought of getting calls on a cruise ship. The time has come. “I’m on a ship! A ship!” Yay.
Fondue on a plane?
Molten cheese, is there anything better? Swiss style fondue, Besides being social and delicious, can now earn you miles. Select prepackaged fondue cheese can earn you 500 miles on American Airlines. See here. (Beware the bombastic and loud audio/video that plays upon opening…) Alas, we can’t enjoy fondue at 35,000 feet yet. Via Gary Leff’s View from the Wing.
Delta guarantees you’ll be late
Delta Connection flight 5283 from New York-JFK to Washington National: late 100% of the time in September. Jeez. Book the earlier flight.
Marriott goes electric
Marriott hotels will now let all guests receive their final bills (“e-folios”) via e-mail. Saves trees, and provides an electronic record. As long as the accounting department accepts this for expense reports, then we’re good to go.
Christopher Elliott suggests a potential problem in executing this strategy: Marriott’s website still lists smoking rooms for dozens, if not hundreds of properties. I’d add that this has two ramifications: an IT problem, and a customer service problem.
The IT problem is simpler to solve, though not without its costs or hassles. The customer service problem is harder, but could have bigger payoffs: Does the company contact each person who reserved a smoking room? If so, do they offer to “walk” the guest to an equal or better property that offers smoking rooms? A refund? A free night? They might lose the smoker’s business in the future, but doing something will be necessary for the smoking ex-guests to keep any positive feelings toward the chain. And treating them nicely might actually lead to some positive word-of-mouth — among the nonsmoking crowd. (“Well, they kicked me out because I smoke, but they gave me a room at the Hilton.” “Oh, really, how nice of Marriott! They’re all-nonsmoking AND have good service?…honey, let’s book a room!”) Failing to find a replacement room for the customer on the other hand could lead to some cranky postings about Marriott in TripAdvisor.
On the other hand, meeting and convention business might be more at risk, as Sue Pelletier has suggested. I would wager that largely American-audience meeting clienteles might not be affected much, but international groups might balk at a Marriott meeting. Or maybe they’d just contract a separate hotel for the smokers. Perhaps Marriott itself would subcontract a portion of the block to a local rival, sending them all of the smokers. Though competitors should consider the possiblity that an influx of smoking guests might a Trojan Horse: As I suggested earlier, it may not be in any property’s interest to be known as a smoky hotel.
Marriott Hotels in North America are going smoke-free in September. Last year, Westin, part of the Starwood chain, banned smoking in all its rooms and public spaces and began to impose fines on violators of the ban.
The Marriott move goes further by extending the ban to all brands under the corporate umbrella. That means Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, Courtyard, Fairfield, etc. Westin’s policy affected 77 hotels. Marriott’s policy affects 2300. That’s huge.
Smokers are bound to be miffed. But hotels are private property, and the move is a market decision. I also don’t think there will be an all-smoking hotel chain coming down the pike, like the all-smoking airlines that have been proposed. Consider that 85 to 90 percent of hotel rooms at mid- to upscale chains are already nonsmoking. The market for smoking rooms is small and shrinking, despite the smoking population being larger than 10%.
As a non-smoker, I’m all for the ban. (Here come the angry e-mails!) I haven’t been stuck in a smoking room for several years, but if this reduces my odds of getting stuck in one, then all the better. But the more noticeable change will be in the public areas, such as lounges.
Smokers will still be allowed to go outside for a drag. Or they can stay in another hotel.
I predict that other chains will follow suit. If smokers migrate to another brand, then those brands might develop a reputation as being “smoky.” That, in turn, could drive away the larger non-smoking market. So expect other Starwood brands, Hyatt, and Inter-Continental to eliminate smoking as well. Smoke-filled rooms may all but disappear at major chains, except for the lower-end brands. (If Motel 6 or Econolodge go smoke-free, I’ll be surprised.) In any case, thumbs up to Marriott for the change.