Starwood v. Marriott

It’s been a wild ride since Marriott and Starwood first announced their proposed merger. After a few dalliances and weird engagement/disengagement with Anbang, it looks like the merger is now back on, according to the communication Starwood sent out today to its points program members:

“Nearly five months ago we shared the news that Starwood Hotels & Resorts is joining with Marriott International to create the world’s biggest and best hotel company — with 5,500 hotels and resorts in more than 100 countries. Today we’re pleased to announce that the shareholders of each company have approved the merger.

Since the original announcement, our members have asked many questions about the future of Starwood Preferred Guest® (SPG®). Soon we will begin the long journey to integrate the very best of SPG and Marriott Rewards®. Through this process, your perspective will help guide these discussions as we consider the following:

  • How do we continue to deliver the unique experiences, benefits and rewards you’ve come to expect both in and out of our hotels and resorts?
  • How do we take full advantage of the extraordinary new range of hotels, resorts and destinations that will be the hallmark of a combined Starwood and Marriott to add new recognition and benefits for you?
  • How do we protect the value of your currency and status, whether your Starpoints® balance, lifetime status or membership level?

Getting answers to these complicated, important questions will take time. In fact, we don’t anticipate launching a newly combined program until 2018. This means SPG will continue to run separately until then. In the meantime, we’re actively exploring ways to build bridges between the two programs to further enhance your experience.

In addition, we are not standing still: Among other things, we’re bringing you new access to one-of-a-kind hotels from Tribute Portfolio™ and Design Hotels™, plus exciting new SPG MomentsSM experiences through our unique partnerships with Major League Baseball®, Mercedes AMG Petronas and more.

Know that we’re listening to your feedback, and we value your input. Our merger is on track to close midyear, and as we have more news to share, we will reach out to you. You can also find the latest updates at spg.com/updates and via Twitter (@spg). Our members are at the core of everything we do, and that will not change. We remain at your service wherever you need us — in our hotels, at spg.com, on the SPG apps or via our Customer Contact Centers.

Thank you for sharing your travels with SPG.”

I’m a member of both programs, although I use Starwood more frequently in part due to its greater presence outside the US. Within the last two weeks I’ve stayed at both companies’ properties; while each have their virtues, overall there are a number of Starwood rewards program aspects that are heads above Marriott. For example:

1. Starwood has a vastly better, more navigable and user-friendly website, as well as phone/iPad app. Marriott’s website is cumbersome and hard to operate, especially if you are trying to use award nights or certificates for discounts. Marriott does not seem to want to make it easy for you, whether you are cashing in points for a free room or paying full freight.

2. And speaking of award nights . . . Marriot makes you pay taxes and fees and booking charges when you redeem points for a room. Starwood doesn’t charge you at all. In addition, Starwood lets you cancel easily if you need to do so online – Marriott . . . well, let’s just say I’ve never been able to effectively get that done with the website or app.

3. High point values for even modest properties – Courtyard by Marriott, for example, — in pretty moderately priced cities – make Marriott very discouraging.  Whereas you can get the St. Regis in New York City for 30,000 points per night quite often with Starwood, a Marriott (not a Ritz Carlton!) property in Richmond, Virginia, or St. Louis, Missouri can regularly cost that much.

4. Deals and special offers are hard to come by with Marriott – Starwood’s “pay full rate for one night and your birth year for the next night” and “buy three nights get one free” run frequently. Marriott is stingier with its deals and discounts, that is, when you can find them. And restrictions apply – as in, the restrictions are so difficult that you can hardly ever take advantage of the deals.

5. Customer service for SPG members is so much better than customer service for Marriott Elite members. The SPG reps I’ve spoken with on the phone truly go out of their way to help, and are so pleasant and nice. Marriott, on the other hand, makes me feel as though they are doing me a favor by even taking my calls.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a Marriott hater by any means. I love many of their properties and have had wonderful experiences  with staff on site as well. But the points program could use some work, and for those of us who work hard to be SPG Platinum every year because of how that program treats us, we have to wonder if the merger will help or hurt.

Les Bains – New Starwood Property in Paris

On a recent, semi-spur-of-the-moment trip to France, we needed a night in Paris when we first arrived before departing the next day for the Burgandy countryside.  I have a number of hotels that I like in Paris – ranging from the very basic Le Meridien to the very posh George V – but was looking for something different and new to try.

Searching the Starwood site, I found the latest addition to the company’s portfolio there – Les Bains – in the 3rd arrondissement.   Initially it was appealing because of the location (close to the Centre George Pompidou, Saint Chappelle, Notre Dame) and then additionally due to the legendary Haussman architecture that it showcases.  And, sure, it doesn’t hurt that Architectual Digest is also a huge fan.

But when we checked in we learned more about the history of this building and hotel – known now in its marketing and logo by three  distinct milestones in its past: 1885, 1978 and 2015 (more on that below).  To get a feel for why this is a truly unique property (and, by the way, with surprisingly reasonable rates even in the spring in Paris), here is the description from Harper’s Bazaar London in September 2015, noting this as one of “the best places to stay in Paris”:

As the Studio 54 of Paris, in its heyday Les Bains nightclub welcomed everyone from Yves Saint Laurent and Mick Jagger to Kate Moss and Johnny Depp. Since reopening in March, the Marais icon – once a 19th-century private bathhouse [opened in 1885] visited by Marcel Proust – invites you to carry on the party and stay the night in one of its 39 rooms and suites. The grandeur of the Haussmann architecture is enhanced by glorious marble bathrooms, wood panelling and antique furniture belonging to former guests, including a rug once owned by Gainsborough. Public spaces galore – including a bar, lounge, terrace and club – mean you can drink and dance almost anywhere, anytime. Or book into La Salle à Manger restaurant, headed up by Michelin-starred Philippe Labbé, where you’ll find a 15-metre-tall private dining-room in the former water tank of the Bains Guerbois.

Impressed yet?  No?  Then check out the New York Times’ review from June 2015, noting in part:

There were other clubs in that golden age of Paris night life, but perhaps none of them were as era defining. Opened in 1978 on the site of a 19th-century bathhouse in the Third Arrondissement, Les Bains Douches made stars of its designer (Philippe Starck) and resident D.J. (David Guetta), who were unknown at the time. Joy Division recorded a live album in the basement, where Prince performed impromptu and Depeche Mode played years before selling out stadiums. And then there was the crowd. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yves Saint Laurent, Mick Jagger, Johnny Depp and Kate Moss were there, indeed. But it was really about the cross section of clubgoers and creatives, highbrow and low, glamorous and underground, big names and nobodies, all mingling by the mosaic tile pool.

Oh, and by the way, the rooms are awesome – including red velvet sofas modeled on the ones in Andy Warhol’s Factory.  A few pictures below – the product of the 2105 renovation and reopening – showing the very modern sleek bathroom, terrace doors, the oh-so-retro telephone (dial 911 if you need anything at all in service, we were advised – no, seriously, 911, really), and the Marshall radio replica which is now your personal stereo system for the stay.

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Latest Photos from Traveling: New York City

Hello fellow travelers! As you may remember, I recently traveled to New York City for New Year’s eve. Here are a few pictures I snapped (and more to come!):

 

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New York, New York

Chris and I have strategized and planned, schemed and leveraged, and we’ve finally done it – managed to collect points and miles so that he and the kids and I can go to New York for fun for the week after Christmas and before the New Year.

We know, of course, a lot of things that we want to see – and teenagers are interested in seeing a lot of things that adults are as well, which makes it easier to plan in some respects. On our list: the 9/11 memorial; MOMA; some great restaurants to tempt our foodie palates; definitely a play or a musical or both; and some shopping at the Strand and a few other favorites.

A question for dear readers, however, as one issue has stymied us – what should we do for New Year’s Eve? We are staying in Midtown but are firmly against going to Times Square or any other crazy, crowded places that night. We’ve talked about ice skating but I’m not keen on that, and not sure that Rockefeller Center won’t be a nightmare of people queued up for skating too. Going to dinner early, or even ordering Chinese food into the hotel (see my 2014 blog post for more details on why that is one of my favorite NY experiences) and watching movies in the room is something we have talked about. But are we missing something?

Keep in mind anything outdoors is likely to be cold – if not snowy and slushy – at this time of year. And that all four of us like history, great music, and cool art – if any of that inspires you with ideas. Wait, maybe the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis is calling us . . . .

– Laura Flippin

Unexpected Pleasures

I know many of the hotels in my hometown of Washington, D.C. – not because I stay there; frankly I can’t tell you or any tourists that inquire of me which ones are the nicest to stay at.  As a local, I see mostly the public areas, generally restaurants, maybe the spa or cocktail lounge. To the degree there are “hidden gems” beyond that, you would be better off consulting Frommer’s or Fodor’s, or even TripAdvisor or Yelp.

Today, however, I’m at a place in Washington that I’ve seldom visited – the Jefferson Hotel on 16th Street – and early in the morning, after breakfast and before lunch.  Chris is running the Marine Corps Marathon on Sunday, and usually books a massage the day before that to relax and get in prep mode.  This year, we waited a bit late to book the massage at the usual place we both like, and so I had to do some research on alternative options.  The Jefferson came up for several reasons – it’s a beautiful hotel, it’s very quiet and rather small so you aren’t subject to hordes of runners crowding locker rooms and waiting areas, and the staff have a reputation for superb client service.

While I can’t speak to how the spa actually turned out – Chris is the one who gets the benefit of the Jefferson’s “couture massage” – I do know that the food at the hotel is excellent.  Plume – the signature restaurant – is wonderful, inspired by Jefferson and particularly his time in Paris as US Ambassador to France. Quill – the cocktail lounge – is charming as well.  And for more casual fare, today we are off to the Greenhouse – which is like a European solarium in a 19th century marble palace.  Food, what food?  Not even sure we will notice it amidst the beauty of the surroundings.

But today, the genuine find for me is the library – a room designed based on Jefferson’s own book room at Monticello.  It’s a cozy, wood-paneled room, with recessed shelves of books written by those who have been guests at the hotel.  Even more alluring is a nook with a table and deeply cushioned benches – modeled after Jefferson’s own bed nook in Monticello.  Except better – Jefferson’s Monticello nook has always struck me as intriguing but uncomfortable (even for the exceptionally tall, over 6 feet, Jefferson).  No air conditioning, basic bed, tight quarters and candlelight might make it quaint but it also won’t win you many stars in today’s Michelin guide.  On the other hand, the Jefferson Hotel’s version is next to a discrete coffee bar, plenty of space, and genteel staff who solicitously offer cocktails, sparkling water, or just a bit of history about Jefferson and the origins of the hotel. All without waiting in line without other tourists.

For more information, check out: http://www.jeffersondc.com/

The Good Life

Lots of things about business/first-class travel are overrated, including that no matter what cabin you are seated in, you are still sitting in a tin can for hours on hours, with recycled air and cramped surroundings. But business/first class travel can provide a bit more space – and for me, far more interesting is exploring the upper class lounges that the different airlines offer.

During a recent busy travel month, I had a chance to check out the business/first class lounge for (1) British Airways at Terminal 5 at Heathrow, (2) the Al Italia business class lounge in Rome, (3) the United first class lounge in Chicago O’Hare, (4) the United first class lounge in London Heathrow, and (5) the Cathay Pacific business “Bridge” lounge in Hong Kong. Before exploring any of these, I would have guessed that the Cathay Pacific lounge would have come up trumps over the rest, but that United’s first class lounge in Chicago (the airline’s home base) would have been a close second. In truth, however, my experience was completely different than expectations. A few thoughts below, in order of worst to best lounges:

Al Italia business class lounge in Rome – Chris and I enjoyed a long weekend in Rome, and while the city is notorious for being busy and chaotic (a distinction that was well founded, as we noted from our trip), we had hoped that the AI lounge would be a welcome respite before we headed home. Instead, it was a disappointment – cramped, dirty, and in need of some serious renovations, the place was pretty awful. One upside was that the wine flowed freely – nice prosecco, white and red – plus excellent coffee and beer. But a basic diet Coke or even a regular Coke? – nowhere to be found. AI apparently eschews soda – and vacuuming. And decent food – there were a few middling bowls of over-mayonnaised pasta and some pathetic sandwiches, but nothing to write home about. Plus the décor was something out of Austin Powers but with not much pizzazz and a fair amount of wear and tear. Not to mention the garish orange and green color scheme, punctuated by a dreary grey tinge.

British Airways business class lounge at London Heathrow – Terminal 5. I may be biased as someone who has felt that Terminal 5 has been overrated since it opened (see, e.g. Gordon Ramsay’s “Plane Food”), but BA’s upper class lounge is just, well, okay, to me.  It’s vast and huge, and filled with people. But nothing feels personalized and overall the food is British cafeteria-like. If that makes you shudder, you have the right impression. The lounge décor is nice, and there is plenty of space despite the enormous capacity of the venue. But the food is pretty atrocious, and leaves you wishing for a Pret-a-Manger.

United first class lounge in Chicago – I know, you’d expect it to be reflective of United’s flagship status at O’Hare, and it was nice and fine but nothing special.  The upsides are it is small – you don’t feel like you are fighting for a seat and an electrical plug as you do at many lounges – and very clean and new. It’s also hidden away in the C concourse area of Terminal 1; so hidden in fact that you have to hunt it down, but you also get the feeling that some people just give up looking for it, and so chances are you may have the place pretty much to yourself.  Indeed, there is NO sign or any indication of where it is. It’s tucked behind a customer service counter, and you need a map and breadcrumbs to find it. The food is decent; the alcohol and sodas are plentiful, and it’s very quiet too (a rarity in the airline lounge world). But all that just makes for a great business lounge, not a great first class lounge. There is no staff to take your order or offer you an a la carte menu. You’re on your own here, and while that’s fine, it just seems that United could do better (and indeed it does – read on).

Cathay Pacific business class lounge – a/k/a “The Bridge” – in Hong Kong – I confess, I may be a loyal United customer but I do love Cathay Pacific. There isn’t any comparison with US airlines when it comes to the service of those ex-US ones that do it well (Emirates, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, etc.). And Cathay Pacific’s upper class lounge in Hong Kong didn’t disappoint in general. It’s a lot like the BA upper class lounge in Terminal 5 at Heathrow – beautiful décor, and well appointed. Plenty of food and drink. But again it’s huge and there is no personalized service or attendance on you. More positively, though, the food – particularly the Asian cuisine – is pretty good – and a nice perk are miniature Haagen-Dazs ice creams at the bar (just ask – you’ll see other people getting them, and yeah, you’ll want one, too).

United first class lounge at London Heathrow-Terminal 2 – And the winner is . . . surprisingly United at LHR.  Maybe it’s because United is going all out since relocating to the newly-opened Queen’s Terminal (a/k/a Terminal 2) last year, and if that’s the case, fine with me!  The arrival lounge where you can get a shower and breakfast after taking the overnight flight from the US is great.  But the first class lounge for departures is pretty much the bomb.  Small, nicely decorated, and with staff that can’t wait to wait on you, plus food that rivals a lot of what you’ll eat even in nice London restaurants (take that Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay), this is a little gem I almost hope not too many people find out about. The real highlight is a small dining area, complete with fully laid tables, white tablecloths, wine glasses, a tower of wine, and a serving staff eager to please you with a wonderful a la carte, made to order menu. The regular food buffet is great, but go for the a la carte dining room.  I had the artichoke pasta ravioli, and it was so good I thought about hanging out for dinner and taking a later flight.  The wine selection is good, and you can enjoy it all with a nice selection of magazines and newspapers – Country Life, anyone? I don’t know what got into United or why this lounge is so great, but I can’t wait to go back . . . Now if United would just start flying the 787 to London too . . . Pictures below to whet your appetite.

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– Laura Flippin

 

Classic London Hotels

The British version of Bazaar recently published an article on great London hotels, part of the author’s enviable experience in finding a home away from home while her house was being renovated for a few weeks last year.  The rankings included:

  • Claridge’s – Best for Everything
  • Brown’s –Best for Ageless Style
  • The Bulgari Best for the High Life
  • Duke’s – Best for Solo Women

As to the last, the article acknowledges that Duke’s was the location of Ian Fleming’s favorite bar.  One wonders whether the creator of James Bond would be chilled or intrigued at the idea that his old haunt might be the place for single girls to hang out and have fun in Britain’s capital city.

Personally, I’m a fan of the Lanesborough, a lovely London classic that didn’t make the list.  Okay, so I’ve never actually stayed there – some reports claim it is the most expensive hotel in London.  But I’ve had tea there, and enjoyed the cigar bar with friends on a cold winter’s night.  It is truly one of a kind.  Opened on the site of the St. George’s Hospital in 1933, the original building was torn down, and a new one constructed in the early 1800s, later serving also as a hospital.  Today it’s a glamorous part of one of London’s most brilliant districts, on the Hyde Park Corner and adjacent to Knightsbridge.  Temporarily closed since November 2013, it is undergoing a grand renovation.  For those of us who thought it looked amazing before, we can only imagine what the next chapter will bring.

Laura Flippin

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