Travel Better – How To Use Your Hotel Points For More Than Free Rooms

Sharita J. Wilson

The Superbowl. Machu Picchu. The Oscars. F1 races. Concerts by the world’s biggest superstars. Private cooking classes with celebrity chefs. VIP access to the world’s best food festivals.

What all of these “Bucket List” experiences have in common is that they have all been enjoyed by travelers for free, by using their hotel points – and in many cases, they are unbelievable bargains.

Here’s a real-life example: Imagine seeing superstars like Elton John or Billy Joel from a VIP suite in Madison Square Garden, with complimentary food and open bar with a guest of your choice. Now imagine that the entire special night for the two of you costs less points than it would take to get a single free night at many hotels. Which would you rather experience? Except you are not imagining it, it’s real, and it will keep happening.

In fact, you could potentially cover one of these VIP concert (or NBA or NHL games) experiences just with the limited time sign up bonuses offered hotel branded credit cards – without spending a single night in a hotel.

Marriott is the largest hotel company in the world, and its frequent guest loyalty program, Bonvoy, is believed to be the largest of its kind with well north of 140 million members. Yet many of these members have no idea that these awards, often a much better way to use points than for stays, even exist. I have a friend who is a longtime road warrior business traveler, lifetime Million-miler on United and so on, who has been earning Marriott points for decades and spending them on hotel stays. I asked him and he had no idea what Bonvoy Moments was. When I told him, he immediately looked at attending the Miami Grand Prix.

“We created Bonvoy Moments around 2018, but with the pandemic it is still one of the best kept secrets in the program,” Mandy Gill, Vice President of Global Brands & Marketing for Marriott International told me during the recent NCAA “March Madness” Men’s Final Four in New Orleans. Built around special experiences, Bonvoy Moments is a small and lesser known but powerful part of Marriott’s loyalty program for frequent guests. The Final Four was living proof, as I was surrounded by a handful of savvy customers who had used their Bonvoy points to attend one of the most desirable “Bucket List” sporting events in the world. The package included not only premium tickets with hospitality suite to the last three games of the tournament, but hotel rooms in New Orleans the entire time, private hospitality at the hotel for breakfast and cocktails, gifts, and special VIP experiences like a Caesars Superdome tour and private coach’s breakfast with one of the winningest coaches in the NCAA.

The biggest once-in-a-lifetime type packages like the Final Four are typically auctioned, and the winning bids for the biggies usually top a million points, which equates to a free luxury trip to Hawaii or such – free lodging, that is. But the more typical Moments are straight up offers of a certain number of points, which can be as little as 5,000 – less than a night at one of the lower end properties in the Marriott portfolio usually runs.

“We did these ‘virtual’’ one on one Zoom conversations with basketball legend Grant Hill (who won two National Championships at Duke, an Olympic Gold Medal and played 19 seasons in the NBA before becoming co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks) and we sold them for 5000 points, and basketball fans loved it. Our Gen Z customers might have just started with us and don’t have tons of points, but they can go to concerts at the Moxy in downtown Nye York using very few points and enjoy it, and we are building lifetime customers. At the high end we have Ritz-Carlton Yachts and villas and the Superbowl,” explained Gill. “Bonvoy parents have used points to take their kids to see Justin Bieber and Harry Stiles and then they are heroes to their families. There’s really something for everyone. The key is to have a very wide variety of redemption levels, some straight for points, some auctions. The platform is just getting bigger and bigger, we’ve has 90 experience packages in the first quarter of 202 already. But it’s still one of our best-kept secrets and we’ve had members tell us they don’t tell their friends about the auction until it’s over, so they don’t have to bid against them.”

One of the New Orleans auction winners was a frequent traveler named Charles. He told me he had used his Bonvoy points to attend the Final Four a few times before, and also the Country Music Awards in Nashville as a VIP. Because he’s a Duke fan, this year he also used points to attend the Duke vs. Virginia game at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, a small facility where tickets for non-students are notoriously hard to get, and the NCAA regional finals in San Francisco.

Because it has partnerships with the NCAA, NFL, individual NHL and soccer teams including Manchester United, professional tennis and individual venues including Madison Square Garden, the O2 arena in London and Los Angeles’ Crypto.com arena, where the Lakers, Clippers, Kings and Sparks play, sports has long been the biggest part of the Moments program, so much so that a buzzword around the Marriott portfolio is that “there is a hotel brand for every fan.” But the expanding platform has increasingly focused on two other areas growing fast in popularity, concerts and culinary events, as well as spectacles such as the Oscars, a Bucket List night for entrainment lovers. “Special events such as the Oscars and Country Music Awards have been suspended during COVID, and before the pandemic the Oscars rivalled the Superbowl, and we are hoping to get back to 100%. We also hope to add Coachella as an option for 2023.”

In general, it is easier to accrue and use points with Bonvoy than any other hotel program, simply because Marriott is the largest hotel company in the world, with nearly 7,000 properties across more than 30 brands spanning every style and price point – hence “a brand for every fan.” These include some of the world’s top tier luxury brands (Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, and Luxury Collection), “regular” luxury stalwarts (Westin, JW Marriott, Le Meridien, Tribute, Renaissance), hipper brands (W Hotels, Moxy and Edition), middle of the road giants (Sheraton and of course, Marriott), uniquely independent hotels that don’t fit chain molds and skew upscale (Autograph Collection), many lower priced, airport and frequent business traveler staples (Courtyard, AC, Aloft, Fairfield, Four Points and Springhill Suites), as well as several extended stay leaders (Element, Residence Inns and Townplace Suites). More hotels in more places means more options for every kind of traveler.

And just like the airline programs, earning points has gone way beyond just stays, with several co-branded credit cards (sometimes featuring 60-100,000 point enrollment bonuses), partnerships with restaurants, and most notably, a unique one with Uber that lets you link your Bonvoy account and earn points for rides and Uber Eats. The Points Guy, sage of all things loyalty, noted that “Marriott Bonvoy also offers plenty of other perks that fans of the program love… take advantage of your points by booking experiences ranging from tickets to the Super Bowl or Billy Joel in a suite at Madison Square Garden to private guide tours or VIP access to cultural events like Miami Art Week and the World Expo in Dubai.” Readers of ThePointsGuy.com site, who tend to be hardcore frequent travelers, just voted it the Best Hotel Loyalty Program.

“Since the pandemic, so many people want to get back to leisure travel,” said Gill. “We want to have the best loyalty program in the hotel business, and we always ask ourselves, ‘How can you gain more points and use those points in an easier, more fun way?’ For the Moments program, we push for things you could not get yourself, and we do this globally.” That can mean the F1 race in Sydney, soccer in the United Kingdom, concerts in Dubai or cooking classes with a celebrity chef during one of the many premier food and wine festivals around the world. Some recent examples of one-off experiences redeemed include a tennis clinic with Andy Roddick, having a custom wedding gown designed by bridal designer Justin Alexander, and a private dining experience with Chef Daniel Boulud at his new restaurant, Le Pavillon.

But there’s also a second notable brand extension, Marriott Bonvoy Tours & Activities. This is a compilation of local tours and experiences, such as walking tours, cycling tours, cooking classes, sightseeing cruises and private guides. It is similar to tour booking engines Viator or TripAdvisor, except tours and activities are vetted by Marriott, and travelers earn a bonus five Bonvoy points per dollar spent. “We are very picky about the tours and activities we offer, and it lets you plan and do everything on one platform,” said Gill.

As she explained, “People choose the destination first, then a hotel. They might say they want to go to New Orleans, and then depending on their style and budget, they pick the Ritz-Carlton, the JW, the W, Westin, the Saint (Autograph Collection), Sheraton, whatever. So generally, we try to focus on the destination and the local experiences that help them get the most out of it. The hotel is just part of that, within the destination it is about the experiences.”

Both platforms mesh with one of the biggest trends in the travel industry over the past decade, termed “Experiential Travel,” which has been epitomized by the move away from laying on the beach and the increased interest in deeper dives into history, culture, cuisine, learning something or doing a special activity on vacation. This is also known in the travel industry as “making memories,” and the best memories come from what you do, not where you stay.

This is why Marriott has built Bonvoy Moments, a platform that goes way beyond the traditional points for free nights redemption, and often offers travelers a better value. For example, a pair of tickets to see the Clippers play at the Crypto.com arena in LA from the Bonvoy Luxury Suite with food and beverages for two can be had for just 30,000 points. The same arrangements for a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden (MSG) can be 50,000. On the recent – and extremely popular – Elton John farewell tour, you could go to Moments and without any bidding, buy a pair of tickets in Marriott’s MSG VIP suite, including free food and alcohol for two, for 75,000 points. Billy Joel at MSG or Blondie at O2, both with VIP suites? 75,000 points.

To put these deals in perspective, all of these are for two people and less points than you would often need to redeem a single night at a Ritz-Carlton. I recently stayed at the St. Regis Bahia Beach resort in Puerto Rico and loved it, so out of curiosity I punched up a 2-night non-holiday weekend stay this month (April) at the hotel in the lowest room category. The price? 237,500 points. That’s more than three VIP concerts and does not include anything but the room.

Or as Gill put it so eloquently, “To See Elton John for two people in a suite with free food and booze and everything for 75,00 points is just insane. Some of these are great deals. We know there are members who travel a lot for business but what about everyone else? We want them to still be able to have experiences, so we have things at all levels, and we are adding more all the time. It might cost you 25,000 points to get a free room at a Fairfield Inn, but you could have gotten in on our Moments NFL Draft package for just 8,000.”

There are over the top Bucket List VIP packages to the Superbowl and Kentucky Derby at one end and very attainable yet still unique and special experiences at the other, something for every level of Bonvoy members – but first they have to know that the program exists. So I am telling them.

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