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In Marriott-Starwood Merger, Best of Both Worlds for Customers

As expected, following approval by Chinese regulators, Marriott this morning completed its acquisition of Starwood, creating what the company’s news release touts as “the world’s largest and best hotel company.”

The size part of the claim is easily enough assessed. With the merger, the Marriott network will span 5,700 properties, with 1.1 million rooms, representing 30 brands, in over 110 countries. That’s big, to be sure. And it may indeed be the largest in terms of rooms, although both Choice and Wyndham have more hotels in their portfolios.

The best hotel company? That’s a claim that’s as difficult to judge as it is easy to make. For some travelers, it will be decided by the outcome of the merging of the two companies’ loyalty programs, Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest.

They’re both solid programs, with their own strengths and loyal followings. But they’re also very different programs, and there’s no easy way to mash them together into a coherent whole that retains the best features of both.

Recognizing the importance of the programs’ consolidation to Marriott’s long-term business prospects, the company has elected to run the two programs independently for the indefinite future. Asked about the timeline to merge the programs, a Marriott rep said this: “Our focus has been getting to this date of the merger being finalized. Now we are rolling up our sleeves as we look to merge the programs. As we have been doing, we will continue to listen to members. Therefore, the work ahead will be dictated on doing what’s best for our members and getting it right, rather than by a date.”

In the interim, beginning today, the two programs will be linked as follows:

  • Program members who link their accounts may transfer points back and forth between the two programs, with one Starpoint worth three Marriott Rewards points.
  • Once accounts are linked, elite status will be matched.

Although that linkage is being positioned as a temporary situation, to give the company time to design a single consolidated program, it’s hard not to see it as the best of all possible outcomes, allowing customers to take advantage of the best features of both programs, and switch back and forth between them as the need arises.

That’s a potential problem for Marriott’s marketers, who may be setting up Marriott and former Starwood loyalists for disappointment, when eventually they’re forced to participate in a single program that will necessarily be a compromise.

For those loyalists, however, this may be the very best of times, with access to elite perks across two popular programs and the ability to move points back and forth as the need arises.

The post-merger period is commonly viewed as a time of instability and confusion, as two companies struggle to bring their operations into alignment. In this case, at least as far as loyalty programs go, it’s best viewed as a period of opportunity.

Enjoy it while you can.

Reader Reality Check

What’s your preference: participating in two linked programs, or in a single, compromise program?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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