Marriott’s Merger of Hotel Rewards Programs Tests Members’ Loyalty

Marriott’s Merger of Hotel Rewards Programs Tests Members’ Loyalty

In advance of the official merger on Aug. 18, Marriott said it added customer service representatives and trained some of its existing call center workers to handle an expected influx of calls. Since then, the company said it has added 225 “loyalty care associates” and would add more if demand warranted it. It said it also added 200 workers to help answer merger-related emails.

“The most important thing to me was the Platinum phone reservations line,” said Corey Loeffelholz, who spends as many as 160 nights a year away from his home in Wisconsin for his job at a technology company. Being able to reach a live agent right away was a big advantage if he was trying to make a reservation while rushing through an airport, he said. “That was the level of service I’d come to expect from Marriott and it was an advantage over other chains.”

Mr. Loeffelholz said being routed to an automated phone tree had the potential to be a deal-breaker. “That was my No. 1 benefit. Now, I rarely get straight through to people,” he said.

A Marriott spokesman said that voice-activated automated call routing on its elite line was intended to help get customers’ questions answered more quickly, and added that callers still have the option of saying “agent” to reach a customer service representative. The company said that its recently added enhancements had cut wait times on the elite line by nearly 75 percent since Aug. 24.

Balancing efficiency with customer satisfaction is a needle Marriott will have to thread carefully to keep elite-status guests happy, said Chekitan Dev, a professor of marketing and branding at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. High-spending travelers expect to be catered to, he said, and any reduction in the perception that elite status confers an elevated level of personal service could erode loyalty. “People expected a certain amount of customer service and personalization,” he said.

While there were scattered claims across social media and on frequent-traveler message boards of rooms and affiliated credit cards being canceled out of frustration, conversations with hotel owners indicate that these threats are not being carried out on a wide scale, said Michael Bellisario, a vice president and senior analyst at Robert W. Baird & Company, a financial services company that buys and sells Marriott stock.

“So far, no one’s seen a material change in direct bookings,” he said, adding that he didn’t anticipate mass defections. “You get used to certain perks. No one likes change. I feel like there’s always that initial grumble factor.”

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