Marriott Will Shed Blackouts but Retain Limits

Frequent travelers are no strangers to the slippery use of language. Surcharges that have nothing to do with service or convenience are labeled "service fees" and "convenience fees." Advertised prices fail to disclose the full price. The friendly skies are anything but.

So let's begin with what I take to be a simple truth. To most travelers, "No Blackout Dates" means restriction-free. In the realm of travel loyalty programs, where that promise most often appears, it means there are no barriers to booking an award flight or a free room night.

Technically, it can be argued that it's a lesser claim—namely, that there are no pre-established days, as in a published list of blacked-out days, on which awards are not offered. Capacity controls may remain in place, limiting access to awards—they simply aren't communicated in advance.

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Given the common understanding of blackout-free awards, making the claim in the second, narrower sense borders on misleading. I made the same point several years ago when the airlines abandoned their published blackout dates, promoting the change as though it were a new consumer benefit. In fact, there were no more awards available.

When I received today's news release from Marriott touting its upcoming "No Blackout Dates" policy, effective January 15, 2009, I naturally wondered whether this will amount to a substantive improvement for Marriott Rewards members, or just a new label on an old bottle.

The answer is to be found on the Marriott website: "Hotels may limit the number of standard rooms available for redemption on a limited number of days." In other words, capacity controls remain in place. And some Marriott, JW Marriott, and Marriott Conference Centers properties are exempt from the new policy altogether.

Having worked for Hilton's program more than a decade ago, I can personally attest to the difficulty of convincing all hotels in a major chain—many of which are independently owned and operated—to agree to a meaningful award availability commitment. Giving a room to an award customer that could have been sold at rack rate is a painful business decision, especially for hotels that routinely operate at or close to capacity.

But Hilton now offers its members awards with both no blackouts and no capacity controls. It can be done.

Marriott Rewards members may indeed find more award rooms available on more nights at more hotels. Unfortunately, it apparently still remains very much at the discretion of individual hotels how accommodating they will be when program members choose to book a free stay at their properties. And that means that award availability will remain a question mark.

So in this case, "No Blackout Dates" is more a catchy tagline than a concrete promise. Perhaps it's time for the travel industry to finally commit to a tagline without asterisks: "No More Empty Promises."

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