The Great Hotel Loyalty Footrace Has Begun

The buzzword in the hotel industry this year is "loyalty." Fed up with the growing onslaught of online travel agencies and the increasing popularity of shared-accommodation services like Airbnb, hotel companies are turning to their loyalty programs as the new shiny bauble of choice for catching and keeping customers.

This year alone, several major chains have overhauled their programs and beefed up their offerings with some innovative rewards. Too hard to earn and too complicated to redeem points, you say? Not anymore, road warriors. These new programs are all about more choices, integration across brands, and faster ways to earn points toward that upgrade or complimentary room-night stay.

  • Hilton, which last month dropped "Worldwide" from its name, renamed its HHonors loyalty program Hilton Honors (a good start, because that extra "H" was annoying) and made some major changes. It rolled out a partnership with Amazon that will allow members to use their points to purchase anything on the massive e-commerce site. Also, members now can use a combination of points and cash to redeem rewards. But wait, there's more. The new program allows members to pool points with up to 10 friends and family members, allowing groups to travel together on each others' points. Under the old rules, points were transferable only between two individuals. Hilton says it now has 60 million Hilton Honors members; 9 million of those were added in 2016.

  • On this past March 1, Hyatt's Gold Passport rewards program became World of Hyatt. The biggest tweak here is that points accrued by members during their stays to spend at hotel outlets such as restaurants and spas can be used to advance to a higher elite tier of the program. In addition, members now will get an upgrade upon arrival, if available. Another new perk: Members who stay at five different Hyatt brands are awarded a free night. Considering that Hyatt operates 667 hotels and resorts in a portfolio of 12 brands, such as Andaz, Hyatt Centric and The Unbound Collection, that shouldn't be too hard to achieve. While business travelers and meeting and event planners will continue to earn points by attending qualifying group events, such as a conference or trade show hosted at a Hyatt property, they can now use those points to advance through the program's tiered system.

  • This month La Quinta announced enhancements to its loyalty program, La Quinta Returns. The new program gives members more ways to earn points and more options for redeeming them. For example, members get to earn extra points suitable for sharing when they link their social media accounts to La Quinta Returns. The program's new Instant Free Nights lets members use a mobile phone to redeem their accrued free nights (if available) directly at check-in. The Redeem Away initiative allows members to redeem points for everyday purchases at groceries, restaurant and online bookstores through a variety of partnerships. "We are launching these innovative changes to our loyalty program to build on the company's third strategic priority __ to drive engagement with our brand by investing in points of differentiation and to attract new guests to La Quinta," said Keith Cline, president and CEO of the chain in a statement announcing the changes to the brand's loyalty program.

  • Marriott International, which seamlessly linked Marriott Rewards and Starwood's SPG in September 2016, has not minced words about the importance of these two programs to the company's financial health. Speaking at the merged company's Fourth Quarter 2016 investor's call last week, Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott, said, "SPG and Marriott Rewards are absolute juggernauts. What we can build with this loyalty program we think is going to be extraordinarily exciting and should help us draw a broad connectivity to a very large group of customers and a higher share of wallet from their travel. And that's long-term upside for the company."

For those of you wondering if Marriott will combine these two programs into one mega, 30-brand loyalty program, this just in: Last week Marriott announced that David Flueck had been appointed senior vice president, loyalty. In addition to overseeing the company's two rewards programs, the announcement read, "Flueck will provide global leadership and strategic direction for the future combined loyalty program."

Game on.