For 124,000 Starwood Hotels & Resorts points, Michael and Georgia Soares might have spent six nights in Paris at Starwood's Hotel Prince de Galles on the Champs-Elysees. Instead, the Southern California couple used their hotel points to spend one night with John Travolta and the cast of the movie "Hairspray" at the film's New York premiere.
"We walked the red carpet and everything. It was cool," says Mr. Soares, a 43-year-old father of four who owns a restaurant in Orange County with his wife. The Soares also attended the movie's after-party, where they chatted with Mr. Travolta and snapped a few photos.
With a growing number of customers like Mr. Soares who have accumulated mountains of points, hotels are finding they need to do more than give away hotel rooms. Major hotel companies such as Starwood, Global Hyatt Corp., Hilton Hotels Corp., and InterContinental Hotels Group now offer customers enrolled in their loyalty programs the option to spend their points on an a wide array of unique experiences from weightless space flight to cooking lessons from star chefs.
The hotel companies say that only a small percentage of their customers have enough points to spend on such experiences, but that number is increasing. The average nightly cost of a hotel room has surged, and customers are racking up more points more quickly. The simple reason: The more a room costs, the more points the guest earns. Also, hotels have entered into a slew of partnership deals with credit-card companies, allowing cardholders to earn points with every dollar spent.
These forces have led many hotel companies to become stingier in their points programs. Hyatt, Hilton and Starwood recently changed their programs, requiring more points for higher-end hotels and irking travelers who complained the changes caused a devaluation of their points. Staying at one of Starwood's most-luxurious properties now requires 35,000 points per night for a standard room during peak season, up from from 25,000 points before the change.
Last year, Hilton reclassified hundreds of its hotels into higher categories meaning more points are required for stays there. For example, the Las Vegas Hilton, which used to be a Category 3 hotel, was reclassified to a Category 5. That means the cost of a night at that hotel increased to 35,000 points from 25,000 points.
Hotel officials say that allowing people to use piles of points for movie premieres and concert passes isn't a ploy to get guests to burn points on something other than hotel rooms. Instead, it is intended to create more loyalty and word-of-mouth buzz around the programs.
Customers are "really craving more experiences that are out of the norm, and we want them to be able to use their points to be able to do whatever they want," says Adam Burke, Hilton's senior vice president for customer loyalty.
Hotel companies say that the costs of their points programs have risen. As hotel room rates increase, hotels themselves have to pay more to cover their expenses when guests redeem points. That is because of a hidden business structure that governs the hotel industry. Hotel companies like Marriott typically don't own many of their own properties. Instead, an independent party owns the building and contracts with a hotel company that then manages the property under its brand.
Hotels are famously reluctant to discuss the details of how their loyalty programs are funded, but most programs generally work like this: When a guest checks into a hotel and earns points, the hotel owner pays a fee into a special fund set aside to cover the future cost of redeeming those points. When the guest redeems those points for a free night, the hotel-management company takes money out of that fund to pay the owner back for the hotel room. Typically, hotel-management companies pay only a fraction of the cost of the published rate for a hotel room.
But hotels must have enough cash on hand to cover all the points floating around in the world in order to be able to cover all the possible redemptions.
Hotel companies say regardless of whether a guest redeems points on VIP seats at a Justin Timberlake concert, or a night at the Waldorf-Astoria, it still costs the company money.
And companies are coming up with a dizzying number of brag-worthy ways to redeem points. Members of Hilton HHonors, the hotel's loyalty program, can try out dream jobs through a partnership with VocationVacations, a company that arranges three-day fantasy career experiences like wine-making. For 245,000 Hilton HHonors points, members can be a beer brew master; for 520,000 points, they can become a pro-wrestling ring-side manager; for 420,000 points, they can announce games for the Portland Beavers, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres.
InterContinental has teamed up with a company called Cloud 9 Living to, among other things, offer its members the chance to fly an Italian-built fighter plane through simulated aerial combat (475,000 points) and swim with great white sharks 200 miles off the coast of Mexico (100,000 points).
While many hotel companies set the "price" of the experiences in points, some, like Starwood, allow members to bid for experiences in online auctions. Earlier this month, bidding reached 48,000 points for a round of golf with PGA Tour winner Mark Calcavecchia and 41,500 points for dinner with master chef Masaharu Morimoto.
Recently, Starwood members paid 135,500 points for access to the "Entourage" premiere party, 75,500 points for a private party with New York Knick David Lee and 15 of their friends, and 73,500 points to attend a taping of "The Young and the Restless" soap opera.
Starwood loyalty program member Mr. Soares says he was more than willing to spend his points on red-carpet events that literally couldn't be bought.
But were a few moments with Mr. Travolta worth forgoing a week of free luxury lodging in Paris? Mr. Soares, whose wife is a "huge fan" of "Hairspray," answers without hesitation: "Absolutely."