Marriott International’s new policy providing free Wi-Fi to loyalty program members who book directly, is attracting a lot of attention—mostly unfavorable – from travel agents.
Under the new policy, which goes into effect Jan. 15, free standard Wi-Fi is available to Marriott Rewards loyalty program members who book directly: via Marriott.com, with the Marriott mobile app, by phone at 1-800-MARRIOTT, or through a Marriott hotel.
The new policy applies to the company’s full service brands including Marriott, JW Marriott, Renaissance, Ritz-Carlton, Gaylord Hotels, and the Autograph Collection.
Travel Market Report spoke with agents for their take on the new policy.
Clients’ first question
“Clients want their Facebook and Instagram,” said Camille Bennett, owner of Cam1 Travel in Haverton, Pa.
“The first question they ask me is whether there is Wi-Fi in the room or do they have to go to the lobby. They want to know the cost involved,” Bennett said.
Dangling the carrot of free Wi-Fi for a direct booking is an “extremely negative trend,” according to Bennett.
“The way I see it, this policy is keeping agents on the outside looking in. It’s going to lock me out of being able to offer Marriott. I definitely won’t be promoting them,” she added.
ASTA has gone on record against the policy, while several agency consortia—including TRAVELSAVERS, the Signature Travel Network and the Ensemble Travel Group—have expressed concern.
In a letter to members, ASTA CEO Zane Kerby said, “The policy discriminates against consumers who use travel agencies and is not likely to be well received by them.
“Marriott’s plan to offer free Wi-Fi as an inducement to travelers who book direct with a Marriott brand or though Marriott.com will disadvantage loyal travelers who use the travel agency distribution channel.”
Not using agents anyway
However, some agents are philosophical about Marriott’s action.
“My feeling is that people who use agents are going to continue to use them,” said Hope Maddox, a leisure specialist with Baltimore, Md.-based Royal Travel Planners.
“My clients come to me because of the personal relationship I’ve developed with them,” she said. “Other people are more comfortable doing everything online and they want to go the direct booking way. They most likely weren’t going to use an agent anyway.”
Maddox books a substantial amount of the Marriott brands and also frequents the properties for personal travel.
“I’ve always found Marriott to be pretty responsive to agent concerns,’ she added. “I’d be surprised if they continue a marketing strategy that is getting a lot of objections.”
Effect on corporate agencies
Some agents noted what they see as a particularly negative impact of the policy on bigger agencies with a large book of corporate business.
“Of course it’s a slap in the face for corporate agents. But at least it’s getting enough attention so that Marriott is getting some feedback,” said Hope Smith, owner of Born2Travel, an independent affiliate of Montecito Village Travel.
Jennifer Doncsecz, president of Bethlehem, Pa.-based VIP Vacations, a member of The Affluent Traveler Collection, called the policy, “a blow to the leisure agent and even more so to corporate agencies.”
Who wants Wi-Fi more than corporate clients?, Doncescz asked.
“This does not show a partnership or support for the agent community. It’s extremely disappointing,” she added.
If Marriott wants to reward its loyalty program members, it can do so in a variety of ways, according to Doncsecz.
“They could have offered a downloadable app or a special promo code for Wi-Fi for example,” she said.
And while Marriott said the new policy doesn’t signify a change in its attitude toward agents,
Doncsecz is unconvinced.
“All I know is that Marriott is putting itself at quite a competitive disadvantage,” she said.
“Agents are bound to compare them to Starwood and other companies that are now more agent-friendly. I think agents really need to complain to Marriott about this.”
Don’t go there
At Avoya Travel, Scott Koepf said any instance of a supplier promoting direct bookings is troublesome.
“We’re very concerned about any vendor or supplier providing an incentive to book directly,” said Koepf, the agency’s senior vice president of sales.
“We hope they see the error of their ways and reverse the policy,” Koepf added.
“Other suppliers have moved away from travel agents and came back. We hope Marriott does the same.”