The Critical Points: We’ve been overlooking the most interesting hotel loyalty program

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Each week in his column “The Critical Points,” TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.

I’ve made my points-and-miles career out of focusing on the small nuances of loyalty programs or covering loyalty programs that have value but live on the fringe of every day coverage. After seven years of scouring award charts, deciphering program terms, and reading emails and Facebook messages from our audience, I sometimes fall in the trap of thinking I’ve seen everything.

Over the course of this year, I’ve once again been wowed by a program I had previously ignored.  When a status match offer for the Global Hotel Alliance (GHA) Discovery program (no longer available) showed up, I secured a match to top-tier Black status and began to investigate what Discovery members could expect. What I’ve found is a lot of fun, has the potential for extreme value, and is even offering double tier credits through the end of the year.

Here’s why you should jump on this program.
GHA Discovery Basics
The Global Hotel Alliance is made up of 32 hotel brands around the world and has more than 550 properties in 78 countries. This is not a large footprint (Marriott has over 7,000 hotels, by comparison), but there are definitely plenty of destinations to visit around the world. Many of the individual properties look outstanding as well, and some of the brands may even ring a bell for you. Most Americans are probably familiar with Omni Hotels & Resorts (much more on this below) and Outrigger Resorts, and if you travel overseas, you’ve likely heard of Kempinski and perhaps even Anantara.

The Discovery program unites all 32 brands under a single loyalty program where you can earn elite status stay credit and enjoy existing benefits at any member property. There are three level of status: Gold, Platinum and Black. Gold is given upon sign up, Platinum is earned after 10 qualifying nights in a calendar year and Black is awarded after 30 qualifying nights in a calendar year.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the benefits for each status level:

I’ve mulled over this chart a few times over the years, but the lack of the ability to earn free nights with Discovery (or so I thought — more below) and no breakfast meant it stayed at the bottom of my interest lists. However, after further research, it turns out I missed the writing between the lines.

In fact, after my first stay at a GHA property as a Black status member, I have now decided to mattress run to ensure I am GHA Black for 2020. And with the just-announced double night credits promotion — valid through the end of the year — you can snag this status with just 15 nights between now and December 31, 2019.

There are two aspects of the program that I’ve found valuable:
The Omni Select Guest program, which has an odd but fun relationship with GHA The property-unique local experiences Black and Platinum Members can enjoy
Let’s take a closer look at how these can offer such terrific value for your hotel stays.
Omni Select Guest
Omni Hotels & Resorts are a part of GHA Discovery, but the hotel chain of 52 properties in the US, Mexico and Canada has its own loyalty program named Select Guest. It operates very similarly to (and even appears to be embedded within) GHA Discovery. There’s the same Platinum and Black status levels with the same 10- and 30-night qualification criteria. You also get reciprocal status in Discovery by holding Omni Select Guest status — or vice versa. After achieving Discovery Black status via a match (no longer available), I called Omni Select Guest — which has its own website and log-in separate from GHA Discovery — to ask to be matched to Black in Select Guest. The phone agent used my information to verify my Discovery Black status, and my Omni Select Guest status was then updated accordingly.

On top of all the published benefits offered to Discovery Black and Platinum members when you stay at an Omni location, there are a few additions. Elite status members receive a morning beverage each day (a pot of coffee delivered to your room whenever you want is actually awesome), complimentary clothing pressing (two for Platinum and unlimited for Black), bottles of water each night, one free movie per week, and weekly, chef-inspired small bites delivered to your guest room.

I’ll cover my first visit to an Omni as a Select Guest Black member below, but in short, it was fantastic.

However, what I really like about Omni (on top of the stay benefits) is the ability to earn free nights. A free night requires 20 award credits, and you earn one credit per night you stay. Once you are a Platinum or Black member, you earn double award credits towards free nights, meaning for every 10 nights you stay, you’ll earn a free night. The best part is that there is no dollar amount tied to the free night, nor is there a minimum room rate required to earn an award credit. You could stay 10 nights at the cheapest Omni property as a Platinum or Black member, earn 20 award credits and then redeem your free night at the most expensive location around.

Now don’t get too excited. To be very clear, you can only earn and redeem free nights at Omni Hotels & Resorts, not any other GHA member properties. There are only two limiting factors I have found for free nights: 1) There must be a standard room available at a property (though Black members are eligible for space-available suite upgrades), and 2) there are published blackout dates specific to each Omni during high-demand periods.

A “Buy 10, Get one free” loyalty scheme with no dollar amounts being factored in is a pretty great return for a chain like Omni. The free night can even be used at the all-inclusive property in Cancun. You could stay at $150/night Omni properties and after only 10 nights with elite status, redeem a free-night credit for a $1,000/night suite on your next vacation. Even though this brand only has 52 properties, they are typically very nice and are located in some great destinations. And Black status makes these stays competitive with the best domestic hotel nights I’ve had.
Discovery Local Experiences
Along with Omni’s program, the other very intriguing part of GHA Discovery is the list of local experiences. Once you obtain Platinum or Black elite status, you have the ability to earn Local Experience awards which can be redeemed for property-specific excursions, meals or on-property credits. After spending a lot time looking at these and dissecting the program, I would nominate Discovery Local Experiences as the most fun and innovative hotel elite status perk in existence. Local Experiences are divided into those available to Platinum members and those available to Black members, and each one of the 550 GHA properties provides unique ones. Some even allow you to redeem a local experience credit without having a room booked.

Here’s how you earn Local Experiences in the GHA Discovery program:
Members receive one Platinum Local Experience award upon reaching Platinum status, and another each year their status is renewed. Members receive one Black Local Experience award upon reaching Black status, and another each year their status is renewed. Platinum and Black members earn subsequent Local Experience awards every time they stay at a new Discovery hotel brand; the Local Experience award will correspond to your current membership level and will be issued five business days after checkout.
There’s a pretty good FAQ section dedicated to local experiences on the Discovery website that is worth a read. They do expire as well — 12 months after issue for Platinum members and 15 months after issue for Black members.

With 32 brands, you have plenty of chances to earn Local Experience awards in addition to the one(s) you’ll earn for qualifying for status. Some of them are even experiences not open to the general public, difficult for the general public to book or just very valuable from a monetary perspective.

For example, here in my hometown area of Atlanta, Black status members staying at the Omni Atlanta at CNN Center can swim with Whale Sharks and Manta Rays by redeeming a Local Experience award:

The Omni Dallas Park West gives a $300 (!!!) food and beverage credit to Black members redeeming a Local Experience award:

If you love to shop, the Omni Frisco Hotel in Texas offers a Neiman Marcus experience consisting of a $250 Neiman Marcus shopping credit, a Champagne lunch for two at Mariposa restaurant in Neiman Marcus at Willow Bend, luxurious car service to and from Neiman Marcus, and additional amenities:

At the Anantara Kihavah-Maldives Villas, you can take a luxury yacht on a private sunset cruise for you and your loved one:

There are stadium tours, outdoor adventures, custom-made dining experiences, cellar tours, wine pairings, spa treatments, wellness classes, cultural immersions — really anything you can think of that would make a hotel stay much more than just a room and bed to sleep. I continue to scour these local experiences in anticipation of booking some of the best around the world. Paragliding in Austria? Yes, please. A complimentary, five-course meal with champagne and a digestif at a Michelin-starred restaurant? Sign me up.
My first stay with Black status … and my future strategy
I’ve held Discovery Black status all year, but until really investigating the program over the last month, I hadn’t taken advantage. Anxious to see what a stay would entail — as published benefits are not always reality — I booked at room at the two-year-old Omni at the Battery Atlanta, which overlooks Suntrust Park, the new stadium of my beloved Atlanta Braves.

Prior to the stay, the property’s loyalty ambassador reached out to me twice to see if I needed anything and to ask about the type of welcome amenity I preferred. I booked a base-level room with two queen beds for ~$200, interested to see if the promised double-upgrade perk for Discovery Black status members would materialize. If you look in the above picture, you’ll see the property only has 15 balcony rooms which overlook Suntrust Park, and I was upgraded to one prior to check-in.

The room certainly has a heck of a view to catch a Braves game, and the decor in the room was cleverly on theme — including framed artwork with original scouting reports of Braves legends and a map of Georgia made out of baseball covers. I was given a very nice welcome amenity of wine, chocolates and macarons along with a handwritten note.

The loyalty ambassador actually greeted me at check-in and informed me that all Black status holders are pre-assigned the best (non-suite) rooms they have available, and my keys were on a rack behind the check-in desk, all ready to go. I was given an Omni Beverage Benefit option door hanger — which I could use to get a free drink at the bar, a free coffee at the coffee shop in the morning, or a beverage delivered to my room (by hanging it on my door by 2 a.m.):

Between the luxury feel of the Omni, all of the small amenities, the impeccable service, and the room with the balcony and tremendous views — it was all enough to impress me with Discovery/Omni Select Guest Black status. It’s something I believe is worthwhile to keep for 2020 and try out more extensively. For my one night in Atlanta, I was given all published benefits of Black status, including a late checkout, without having to request them.

There are Omni properties in beautiful locations around the US — including a few resorts I would love to try — so I plan to visit many of them, all while earning my way toward Omni free nights. With the current double stay credit promotion, I only need 14 more nights in the final quarter of 2019 to keep my Black status through February 2021. This would give me over a year to explore more Discovery properties around the world.
Bottom line
Unless you travel to the same city on a routine basis that has a GHA property, it may not be practical for you to chase Platinum or Black status. However, with the double elite night promo through the end of 2019, I would look hard at your travel plans and see if you can pick up 5 nights somewhere in order to reach Platinum — and unlock your first local experience.

I look forward to trying some of these new brands in my upcoming travels. Many of the hotels look amazing, and I’ll earn local experience credits and enjoy Black status benefits along the way. I’m even toying with the idea of a 2020 GHA mattress run that takes me to seven different brands over the course of 10 days, allowing me to experience a wide range of what the Discovery program has to offer (and to enjoy local experiences at many of them).

To be frank, I’m quite disappointed that this value has been under our noses the entire time, as I’ve missed out on a few years of luxury hotel stays with terrific benefits and unique experiences. That said, you can always make up for lost time, so join GHA Discovery today and branch out from your preferred mega-chain. You may be surprised by what you discover (pun intended).

Featured photo by the author.
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