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Companies don't show loyalty with their awards

  • Published Sunday, April 24, 2011, at 12:06 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, April 24, 2011, at 2:44 a.m.

About a month ago, I contacted the Marriott Vacation Club office to make a reservation for a vacation stay next year, and I asked the employee to check on a seven-day hotel award, which I thought was about to expire in a few months. I was informed that the award had been converted into 25,000 points and credited to our account.

I asked to speak with a supervisor, since I preferred seven days to 25,000 points. The supervisor said the only thing he could do was to offer us a five-day award. He said some mass emailings went out last year notifying readers that our type of seven-day hotel award would expire at the beginning of the year. I expressed my disappointment in having to accept his offer.

I searched the Web and my saved mail messages for the announcement of the hotel awards expiring in January. I found nothing. So I went to the Marriott's customer service website and emailed from their site a note asking them to please send me a copy of that mass email announcement about the awards expiration. I also expressed my concern that we did not receive a personal call, letter, or email notifying us of a change in the expiration date. After two weeks, I mailed a letter. I still have received no response. Can you help? —J.J. Mortensen, White Rock, N.M.

A: Can Marriott arbitrarily downgrade all of its seven-day awards to five-day awards? In a word, yes.

Check out the Terms & Conditions of Marriott's Rewards program. It says Marriott and its travel partners have the right, "without limitation, to change, limit, modify or cancel Program Rules, regulations, rewards, and reward levels at any time, with or without notice, even though such changes may affect the value of points or miles already accumulated."

Put differently, Marriott reserves the right to downgrade your award certificate. It doesn't even have to tell you about its decision.

This rule isn't unique to Marriott. Every major airline, car rental company and hotel loyalty program does the same thing — yet another reason that collecting miles and points may not be a habit worth getting into.

Still, just because Marriott could downgrade the certificates and not tell you doesn't mean it should. Hotels are in the hospitality business, and no one wants an unhappy guest. Since you are a loyal, longtime customer, Marriott should have tried to work with you to figure out a way of addressing your grievance, rather than leave you with two bad options.

Sending an email to Marriott was the right idea. But instead of asking it for evidence of the mass mailing, maybe you should have presented your problem and suggested a solution. You wanted seven nights, not five. How about asking for it? If 25,000 points wasn't acceptable, maybe 30,000 points would have worked?

If you had framed your request in that way, as a good customer who was unhappy with the Marriott Rewards program changes, but with options for how to fix it, I think you might have received a different response. Actually, make that a response — period.

There's nothing simple about award programs. When the rules change, it can take a while for employees to understand what's happened and how they can work with customers who might run into trouble with redeeming their points. I thought there might be some confusion on Marriott's side, given the way in which it handled your initial query.

I contacted Marriott on your behalf. A representative responded quickly, confirming my suspicion that the employees you worked with were ill informed about the program changes. "The Marriott Vacation Club representatives that you spoke with were correct in that we no longer offer seven- night standard hotel rewards, but were mistaken when they informed you that we no longer have seven-night travel package rewards," a representative said.

Marriott offered you a seven-night award and gave you another year to use it.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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