Bonvoy, Mergers & Corporate Culture

One thing I’ve experienced in the course of my business travels is the massive impact to customer service when two large corporations merge. It hit me first when Northwest and Delta merged. I was a Platinum member with Delta’s frequent flyer program, and the mess that resulted prompted me to do a status match over to United… a change I haven’t regretted once. (not that United is perfect, I’ve seen the unbelievable customer disservice stories, but if you have some priority level with them it’s a pretty good airline… not to mention the United lounge in Tokyo is absolutely amazing).

The next time a merger collided with my business travel arrangements was when I was pulling a regular commute from Palm Springs to San Francisco on Alaska. Then Alaska and Virgin America merged and the nightmare began. It took them close to 2 years to merge that most fundamental of databases… their frequent fliers. So even though (in theory) you were flying “Alaska/Virgin” Virgin treated Alaska’s frequent travelers like ordinary travelers, and vice versa… a fact that pissed off a lot of us who have suffered through too many flights and expected to be treated like the vital Bread & Butter customers we are. At that point, even though I was an MVP with Alaska, I started booking United flights on a smaller regional jet (something I try to avoid), just to be sure I’d get decent customer service. Plus Alaska and Virgin had two separate agreements with the SFO airport, so I literally never knew which terminal I was going to land in or fly out of. It was a trying time.

I finally bypassed that bit of annoyance by moving up to Northern California just outside of the Bay Area. It was a 2-4 hour drive into the office, but still better than all the hassles of air travel. Until, of course, I got laid off – which is just one of the really interesting things that has happened to me this year, in addition to 3 weeks in Spain, 10 days in Chile, a broken ankle, a smash & grab at home, and eye surgery during which I woke up (completely).

What we discovered in our trip to Spain, is that the merger between the hotel giants Marriott and Ritz Carlton (and all their many associated brands), is no different than any other large travel company merger. It’s a mess.

Until staying at a Hotel Hospes (a pre-merger Ritz Carlton brand) and an Aloft (another Ritz Carlton brand) in Seville Spain I hadn’t realized how different the internal cultures of Marriott and Ritz actually are.

You see, Marriott’s culture is built around relationships, especially with people who will stay frequently. The design of the lobbies, the Concierge Lounge privileges, the room layouts, and the general amenities are all designed to make business travelers feel comfortable and special while they’re (frequently) away from home. In this culture, the frequent travelers represent revenue they can rely on regardless of the season and economic conditions. A frequent traveler who is used to being given special treatment when away on business, will also choose the same hotel when traveling for leisure. Why not? They get extra perks and considerations that often translate into savings and fun experiences on their personal trips.

Ritz Carlton’s and its suite of brands were designed to make the occasional pleasure trip feel luxurious. Where Marriott focuses on business amenities and soothing the weary road warrior when they stumble across the threshold, Ritz’s customer base wants to walk in and be wowed. They want every meal eaten at a Ritz property to feel fabulous, and they spend a lot of their time away from the hotel.

While a business traveler wants to be able to get a quick bite to eat from early morning (before heading out to a local meeting or company location) through noon (because… time zones), the leisure traveler wants to sleep in, then go out to explore and find some wonderful brunch place with photo-worthy quiche and lattes with small landscapes done in foam.

While a business traveler wants immediate onsite access to a reasonably priced drink and a decent bite to eat after a long day of planes, trains, Ubers, etc… the leisure traveler wants a quick nap and directions to the best sight seeing destinations, or to head out for some chill time with friends or family in exotic locations. An introvert on a business trip will sit in their room and read a book or work on the latest report. An introvert on a leisure trip will go out for a stroll. This matters when it comes to room sizes and amenities like arm chairs and desks.

These are not just different types of customers, catering to them is inherently a different business model and corporate culture. And this is why Marriott and Ritz are stumbling as they figure out the essential steps of their joint adventure.

Accustomed to squeezing every customer for the maximum dollars per square foot of hotel room, and to handing out maps to local attractions and recommending the most expensive restaurant around, Ritz culture is just not prepared to provide a stiff drink to someone checking in at 2pm or a basic breakfast at 6am. Alcohol is served during what the local staff considers to be “reasonable” hours, as is breakfast and dinner. Lunch isn’t even really a consideration because every tourist is going to want to go out and have new culinary experiences at that hour, or be saving money for a big dinner splurge.

So here is the big takeaway, for now at least. When a Marriott Platinum or Titanium member walks into a Ritz culture, they’re going to be disappointed.

At a Ritz property, status is pretty much irrelevant. If you want to spend more money on a better room, GREAT! A free upgrade? Lips curl in disbelief. They’re thrilled to book you for their in-house “cultural experience”, but the food is mediocre if not outright terrible and the cultural experience can be had for a fraction of the price elsewhere. You can enjoy a $6 demitasse of coffee and the breakfast buffet will be $27. Because they don’t expect to see you again, your small dissatisfactions with the room or the food or the location, are pretty much irrelevant. Although this is changing, leisure travelers have better things to do than fill out surveys and write reviews. And the Ritz brand knows this… it’s a culture based on highlights, so the sexy lobby decor, the luxurious linens and the high end bath products are always going to overshadow the fact that the in-room refrigerator never worked properly.

And if you do provide feedback on what they could have done better, you can count on someone telling you, condescendingly, that you’re wrong and no hotel ever would have done it differently (because in their mind they are the experts in running a profitable hotel, and you’re an amateur). In my experience at a Ritz property, your business is less important than your check out date – you’re just a tourist after all, a head in a bed.

I am hoping that Marriott’s focus on constant quality improvement and customer relationships will catch on, but for now every Bonvoy property isn’t necessarily going to provide the same experience.

In short, mergers are consistently terrible for customer service. Let’s hope this one gets sorted out quickly.

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