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Marriott’s Free “Influencer” Trip to Hong Kong and the Ethics of Comped Travel

Last week, a blogger leaked an email from Marriott Bonvoy about an upcoming “Influencer” press trip to Hong Kong. After the disastrous transition to Marriott Bonvoy, the company appears to be trying to buy some good press. Is there anything wrong with that? After all, in the last year JetBlue, Barclays, Hyatt, and American Express have all invited bloggers to exclusive events and covered their travel expenses. I don’t see anything inherently wrong with free trips like these, for bloggers or companies trying to court positive press. I do think bloggers have a responsibility to cover these events honestly. There are right and a wrong way to approach sponsored trips.

Victoria Peak Hong Kong
Hong Kong Skyline seen from Victoria Peak

The right approach to free “influencer” trips

Last year, Hyatt invited me to New York for a 2-3 day event. They were unveiling their new Hyatt credit card and wanted bloggers to cover it. Hyatt was paying for airfare and putting bloggers up at the Andaz 5th Avenue. I really wanted to go but couldn’t because I was in the middle of launch week and it was impossible to get away for a day, let alone three. But if I had gone on this trip, there would have been a few rules I would have abided by. With the inherent conflict involved in sponsored trips, I would have made sure I followed these two principles:

1. No reviews on comped hotels

I know I’ve vowed to stop writing trip reports, but I’ll probably keep doing it sparingly. These are resources readers may find useful, so I’m going to bite the bullet and write them…just don’t hold your breath because they will be late. That being said, I’ve vowed long ago that if I’m getting a comped room, I won’t review it. The experience will be inherently biased, not to mention an unrealistic portrayal of what the average hotel guest can expect. I want trip reports to portray a realistic hotel experience. If the hotel staff is aware that I’m a blogger and thus delivers service beyond what a regular guest may receive, that defeats the purpose of these trip reports.

On the other hand, if my experience is negative, it’s in poor taste to write a negative blog post about it. Imagine staying at a friend or family member’s house, then tweeting about how dirty the bathrooms were. You wouldn’t, right? Because if someone shows you enough hospitality by allowing you to stay with them free of charge, you don’t badmouth them. And even though we’re talking about a business transaction, I still find it in poor taste. On one hand, it’s acceptable for bloggers to receive comped rooms and travel in order to cover an event for an organization. On the other hand, writing an unbiased review about a comped hotel experience is damn near impossible.

2. Disclose that the trip is #sponsored

Nothing is more obnoxious than social media “influencers” whose sole jobs it is to sell products and experiences. When advertising is disguised as genuine endorsement, that’s not only misleading, it’s a violation of the FTC’s Endorsement Guidelines. Whether you’re a blogger or influencer (whatever that means), it’s absolutely your responsibility to clearly convey to your readers any financial incentive you may have received for promoting a brand. Even if you’re just attending a hotel-sponsored meet-and-greet, the ethical thing is to disclose that your attendance was made possible by the company covering your hotel and airfare.

What’s wrong with Marriott’s press tips?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Marriott trying to woo bloggers with free trips to Hong Kong. Every brand is constantly trying to manage their image and improve public perception. While bloggers hanging out in rooftop bars at 5-star hotels can certainly shine a positive light on Marriott, the brand needs to focus on the real issue: That once-loyal members are now so unhappy, they’re jumping ship to other rewards programs. Or that the large volume of complaints against Marriott Bonvoy has sparked the creation of a new verb, “Bonvoyed”, complete with a Twitter account, hashtag, and website where Marriott members are invited to share their grievances. 

The channel for these complaints should really be the official Marriott Bonvoy Twitter account. The fact that it does not, shows you that Marriott has work to do when it comes to addressing member complaints. Sending a bunch of bloggers to Hong Kong to live-tweet their own version of the Entertainment 720 experience is not going to make these other problems go away.

That’s my take. I’m not invested in Marriott and have yet to be Bonvoyed. But I hear the frustration from others who have and it’s unfortunate that Marriott is prioritizing the “appearance” of things via sponsored press trips over addressing the problems that their members are reporting on a daily basis.

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10 Comments

  1. Edward Thomas

    Interesting thoughts. However, I think you missed two big points:
    1) Marriott was inviting real journalists, not bloggers or influencers. I think that’s a big difference because publications like The New York Times and its famous travel section claim their journalists don’t take or accept free trips and free hotel stays. We kind of expect bloggers and influencers to have lower ethical standards than journalists.
    2) Marriott was requiring the participating to produce two separate stories in a NATIONAL publication on their trip.

    I think it will be interesting come April or May to see who writes about Hong Kong. Guess we’ll know who was paid off by Marriott.

    • The FT post I learned this from said it was sent to a blogger. They’re much more influential than a freelance writer for the NYT. I’m also curious about the positive coverage coming up. Though again, their efforts should be focused on fixing all the issues members have been having instead of worrying about appearances.

  2. And TPG is now hiring serious journalists from respected publications. We’ll see what happens to them.

  3. Now I don’t want to bash the publication that was mentioned because of all of the attention that President Putin, I mean Mr. Humpty Trumpty gives them; however, I personally only take advice from bloggers like Ariana and will never visit The New York Times for advice.

    Additionally, I feel that Ariana’s content is probably better than some journalist.

  4. Glad to see you are back to writing!

    It’s too bad Marriott has to keep spending money on “influencers” who would never spend their own money to stay at a Ritz…Though I’ve been a happy LTP with Marriott since 1994. I spend approximately 150 nights a year in hotels world wide, mostly Marriott and Hyatt. I wasn’t affected by the “Bonvoy” conversion – I think mostly because I didn’t spend much time at SPG hotels, so there wasn’t much of an opportunity to jack up my account during the merge.

    On another note:
    FTG isn’t a blog, nor has it been for quite some time. It’s simply another marketing channel for Bankrate and the big three banks to push credit card apps.

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