Yesterday I had the opportunity to chat with Mark Weinstein, SVP of Loyalty and Partnerships at Hilton Worldwide, as he discussed five significant changes coming to Hilton’s loyalty program later this year. They’ll be rolled out separately between now and mid-summer, but I think all of them are going to be worth the wait.
The first change is the move away from Hilton HHonors to simply Hilton Honors. No more double-H to worry about when referring to the loyalty program. As someone who received books on topics like the correct use of commas in his childhood (this explains so much about my personality), this is an immediate win.
Pool Your Points for Big Redemptions
I’ll skip ahead to the more exciting changes, starting with the ability to pool points in your account from up to 10 friends and family members. That means points from as many as 11 different accounts can be used to make a single redemption starting this April.
Much like pooling Avios in a British Airways Executive Club household account, more points in one place usually makes it easier to book high value awards like downtown luxury hotels or tropical resorts. At the very least you and your significant other can share each other’s points when staying the same room. You can even continue taking advantage of the fifth free night when using pooled points to book a longer award stay.
Redeem Fewer Points and Mix Points with Cash
The third change is the ability to flexibly use any combination of dollars and points when booking an award. Some competing hotel brands already do this, with fixed combinations. Hilton is unique in that it will literally have a sliding scale on the web page (and in the mobile app) so you can drag your finger to decide how much of each you want to use. This feature is coming a little bit sooner than points pooling, sometime in February.
Like pooling points, it will make it much easier to a small number of points for a high value redemption. Getting a discount on the Waldorf-Astoria Cavalieri in Rome, even if you have to pay a bit, is a much more exciting use of your points than a Hilton Garden Inn.
As part of this change, Hilton is also changing the way it categorizes hotels for award redemptions. As in, not categorizing them at all. I’m generally a fan of predictability and hate to see award charts go away. However, Hilton’s move makes sense for a few reasons.
Award categories were almost meaningless. Hilton had 10 categories, and within categories the price could vary by 20-30%. Most redemptions closely tracked the cost of the stay in dollars. We all know some hotels cost more than others, so if you can predict that using dollars, you can also predict it using points.
Also, no award rates are going up. What is changing is that the seasonal variability might allow even cheaper awards in periods of slow demand. Going to Reykjavik in January? Look forward to redeeming fewer points. See this chart for an example.
Finally, the cost of an award is still something you can research in advance. Hilton is planning to release a tool that lets you look up a particular property and see how rates change over the coming year. It’s no guarantee you’ll get that lowest price, but at least you know what to expect.
Put Your Diamond Status on Pause
A special benefit for Diamond elite members will let them place their status on hold in the event they can’t travel as often as they used to. People like me, now that I’m back in school. Beginning in April customer who have had Diamond status for (i) three years and (ii) either 250 lifetime nights or 500,000 lifetime points will be eligible for a one year, one-time exception. The new benefit recognizes that sometimes life happens, and we can’t always keep the status we’re used to. Trying to earn your way back from zero is no fun. (It’s already fairly easy to obtain Gold status with a credit card, so I don’t think anyone is at risk of losing that.)
Redeem Hilton Honors Points at the Greatest Store in the World
The last announcement is that Hilton has inked a deal with Amazon.com to let you redeem your points instead of cash. Many loyalty programs offer their own shopping catalogs, but Hilton is the first hotel or airline to partner with Amazon.com so you can buy literally anything you want. Expect this benefit to come in June or July.
I’ve met some of the Amazonians who helped develop this points redemption feature for other programs like American Express. It’s very popular, but personally I would not use this option. You’re likely to get a better value redeeming your points within the Hilton family. I also know many people who have more points than they need or so few that they can never book an award. Using them for a shopping spree is perfectly fine as long as you’ve considered your options.
In total, I see very little to be worried about here, which is often the first reaction when people hear that a major loyalty program is changing things. Points Pooling, Shop with Points, and the new Diamond benefit are all positives.
Points & Money awards are mostly good news. The elimination of a formal award chart — even as Hilton continues to provide a lot of price transparency — leaves open the opportunity to spring surprise devaluations. Given how the new changes are being structured by offering potentially lower awards from the beginning, I’m less concerned.
I also think that the risk of devaluation is reduced if there are fewer unused points creating a liability on Hilton’s balance sheet — Hilton claims it’s going to unlock 15 billion points. All of the new changes will encourage guests to use (and benefit from) their points more quickly, which is exactly what they’re for.