The Luxury of Hotel Loyalty Programs

09/17/2010 12:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Finally," is the word most used to describe the recent announcement of Ritz-Carlton's new loyalty program. Finally, after probing journalists and frequent hotel guests started asking "when?" Finally, after a busy year at the company that included a change in management and planned expansion across the globe. Finally, the Ritz-Carlton is offering hotel loyalty points to its guests, and the program just might spark a new era of loyalty programs for luxury hotels.

While its parent company, Marriott International, has long offered a points program to its members, the Ritz-Carlton has historically resisted giving its guests points for stays. The reason? Because up until now, guests preferred recognition instead of rewards, according to Herve Humler, the hotel's new CEO. The Ritz-Carlton concept was always: you pay for quality, not for points.

Knowing a guest preferred sparkling water over flat water, or chocolate to wine, is what made luxury hotel brands stand out -- their service is uniquely personal. While hotel guests loyal to Marriott, Sheraton, Hilton, and Hyatt hotels, for example, would redeem points for free stays, they couldn't count on gluten-free bread baskets in their room when they arrived. In today's economy, however, every additional point helps and Ritz has bowed down to the occasion and created the Ritz-Carlton Rewards program worthy of a five-star stay. Together with Neiman Marcus, designer Vera Wang, National Geographic Expeditions Photography Workshops and luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, Ritz is allowing people redeem points for uniquely luxury experiences (a concept one might say coincides with a Ritz-Carlton hotel stay).

The Ritz-Carlton Rewards program will be offered in addition to the existing Marriott Rewards program. Rewards and be honored at both chains, so for example, an elite Marriott member will be given the same elite perks at a Ritz, and vice versa. There are five tiers of point redemption in the Ritz program, and each of the 70 hotels in the brand's portfolio will be assigned a tier. Stay at a first tier hotel and redeem 30,000 points; a tier two hotel is 40,000; tier three is 50,000, etc. According to Ritz-Carlton officials, 90 percent of the hotels are in tiers one through three, making it easy for guests to accumulate points. For every four nights you stay, the fifth night is free. Stay eight nights and get the 9th and 10th night free. Or, redeem your points for gift cards at luxury retailers or exclusive tours in international destinations.

So, finally, the wait is over. News outlets and travel writers are putting their spin on "why now?" but the one question we haven't answered is: what's next? Who cares why it took so long. Now that it's here, what will this do for hotel loyalty programs across the board? The granddaddy of luxury hotels has finally rolled out a hotel loyalty program and now, all eyes are on the other luxury hotel brands like Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental to see if they match the move.

Bottom line: Luxury travel means luxury service and as hotel guests, we deserve these programs. Luxury travel costs money and we invest in luxury because we want the experience and the service. While we might have the money to spend on luxury hotel stays, in today's economy, our money is more valuable than ever and rewards are what keeps the customer coming back. Rewards, in today's luxury travel lifestyle, are the recognition.

Will you join the new Ritz-Carlton Rewards program? What do you want to see from luxury hotels' rewards programs?