“Did you see who just walked in?” Brian Jacob asked in an earnest blend of excitement, triumph and urgency.
There are not many gatherings where a senior vice president of a hotel chain counts as a spot-on-sight celebrity. But on that Saturday evening in late April, the Marriott executive David Flueck had arrived in Northern Virginia for just such an event: a meeting of about 50 Marriott Rewards points aficionados who connected through a decade-old internet forum. They spend hours freely doling out ideas and recommendations online, and they affectionately call their in-person gathering “TIPPLE,” shorthand for “The Insider Points, Pints and Liquor Extravaganza.”
“It’s a bunch of Marriott loyalists, a bunch of Marriott travel geeks,” said Roger Nicholson, a 49-year-old operations executive from Texas who has more than 3 million lifetime points to his name.
“It’s probably no different than a group that meets on a forum for Comic-Con,” interjected Angelena Culotta, 35, who lives in Louisiana and inherited her Marriott allegiance from her parents.
“There’s probably a lot of similarities,” Mr. Nicholson, known on the Marriott Rewards Insiders forum as “nationwide,” said before he and Ms. Culotta, perhaps better known as “seatexan,” broke into laughter.
To the contributors who gathered at the Renaissance Arlington Capital View (on their own points — or, surprisingly, dimes), they are merely a digital band of travel enthusiasts who prize frugality, brand loyalty and friendships built on intermingled passions.
But that undersells what is an unwitting wider influence: With every answered question and shared strategy, they act as screen-named guides to a lucrative world governed by “Megabonus” promotions and fine print, category changes and free night certificates. Their insights — fueled by a mix of practice, speculation and maybe a bit of projection — are an open-ended Google search away.
I know from experience. Since I joined the National desk of The New York Times in 2013, I have amassed more than 2 million Marriott points, the bounty of about two dozen sunrises at the Renaissance St. Louis Airport, several nights at the Courtyard near Interstate 20 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and hundreds of nights elsewhere.
So I get it, or I thought I did. Then, when my wife, Meredith, and I were searching the internet for advice on where to spend our stockpile, we stumbled upon talk of this merry gathering. It turned out that in an ecosystem of some 110 million Marriott Rewards members, there were decidedly serious independent students of points science like Brian Jacob and Angelena Culotta.
“There are people here tonight who will know more about our portfolio than I will,” Mr. Flueck said.
His assessment seemed more like a reflection of reality than a demonstration of false modesty. He was, after all, a few minutes away from stepping into a violet-lit reception room filled with the authors behind observations on threads like “Platinum Benefit Choice” and “Where was your last Marriott stay and were you upgraded to a suite??”
A conservative estimate of the aggregate number of lifetime points in the room — 70 million, by Mr. Jacob’s count — would offer the equivalent of more than five years of free nights at some of the most sought-after properties in Marriott’s empire.
They earned their points through a variety of pursuits. Mr. Jacob, a government accountant in Ohio, does not travel for work but is a Marriott regular as a part of his quest to visit every county seat in America. Ms. Culotta is also a leisure traveler, but Mr. Nicholson picks up his points when he is on the road for business, sometimes passing a tempting Hilton that is 20 minutes closer than one of the 6,500 or so hotels that are part of Marriott.
In turn, Insiders have vacationed from Maui to Moscow. One man spoke movingly of a gilded visit to Paris with his mother, who had lived there as a child.
“Relationships, that’s the heart of this thing,” said Mr. Nicholson, who first logged on to the website in 2009 and browsed, without posting a word, for five or six years. “You’re rooting for people to have great trips. You share ideas and thoughts and the bad things. You share that, and over time, those stories become friendships.”
And so the Insiders began to get together, away from their laptops and smartphones. An initial meeting, in 2016 in Houston, was a hit, and Mr. Jacob soon began planning for another. But TIPPLE remains a mostly informal gathering: Aside from the reception that starred Mr. Flueck, the Marriott Rewards Insiders were left to craft their own agendas of sightseeing and drinking.
“It is a nerd convention, and I don’t totally understand it,” Sonya Nicholson, Mr. Nicholson’s wife, said somewhat admiringly as she surveyed the scene a few months before a points-paid anniversary trip to Italy. “But what is fascinating is that they bounce ideas off of each other.”
They have plenty. Do not redeem unless you are getting at least 1 cent in value per point. For Platinum Elite members, remember that Fairfield Inns offer a mere 200-point arrival gift, not the 400 points you get at a Courtyard. Steer clear of Residence Inns for paid stays because they offer fewer points per dollar.
“We certainly do talk about points,” said Bob Pape, a Hawaiian shirt-wearing lawyer from England. “It does tend to be about areas where there is proper debate: where are good redemptions, how to get reduced rates, how to make the most of the points you’re spending and where the soft points are of a promo that they’re running. There’s a lot to talk about.”
There were also questions to pose one-on-one to Mr. Flueck, whose attendance had been the subject of good-humored speculation on one pre-TIPPLE thread. (The discussion also included talk about whether J.W. Marriott Jr., the Maryland-based chain’s executive chairman, or Arne M. Sorenson, its president, would appear.)
“I’ve had a chance to read some of your posts,” Mr. Flueck told the group in a tone that set off a roar of laughter.
“We were just kidding,” a woman called out.
Except they almost certainly weren’t.
A gathering of self-educated points experts — and the notion that Marriott would send an executive to spend Saturday night at it — is a reflection of simultaneous eras: one in which travel loyalty currencies have come to stand as both a hobby and cottage industry, and one in which the internet has seemingly transformed everyone into an airline, hotel or restaurant critic.
In the early 1980s, when the most consequential frequent flier programs made their debuts, industry executives thought they were giving rise only to a clever marketing effort that would discourage travelers from toggling among brands. They did not foresee that, decades later, people would be weaving together weekends built around pub crawls and points strategies.
“We simply didn’t anticipate that interest would be as deep, as widespread and as sustained as it has proven to be,” said Robert L. Crandall, who was president of American Airlines when the carrier introduced its AAdvantage program — and who is now credited with kick-starting a trend that changed travel.
“What has actually happened was simply outside the scope of our imagination,” he said. “We were ambitious, but we didn’t anticipate it would turn into the kind of obsession that it has turned into for some people.”
Frequent flier miles add up. So do hotel points. Car rental companies are in on the scheme, too, luring the young and old alike.
A few minutes after I left the Marriott gathering, I was browsing Twitter when I saw a post about how a couple had blended their Delta Air Lines SkyMiles loyalty into their wedding, which included authentic beverage carts. (According to Delta, the groom knew the bride was perfect for him when they did a “mileage run” solely to collect SkyMiles, spending about 47 hours flying around the country without ever leaving airports or airplanes.)
The internet certainly stoked the travel rewards craze, placing points-saturated credit card sign-up offers within a few keystrokes and holding who knows how many words about how to get a free week at a luxury hotel in London and which of those hotels has the best free hors d’oeuvres. Of course, some negative commentaries can be written off to cranks, just as some glowingly positive ones can be the handiworks of well-intentioned, if inexperienced, travelers.
But experience and a near-lawyerly attention to detail are what make the Arlington crowd particularly powerful: They are travelers who can write with authority about properties and perks at Marriott-branded hotels around the world.
“They understand travel at a level differently than the average person who makes four or five trips a year,” said Thom Kozik, a former Marriott executive who attended the first TIPPLE. “If I could communicate to a handful of those members the true value of the program or the true capabilities the program afforded them, they were going to be a far better ambassador to their friends and families than my emails or websites ever would be.”
Marriott, which recently merged with Starwood and has been laboring to keep its former rival’s most devoted customers, is among the few hospitality behemoths to nurture such an internet forum. The company declined to share most of its data about the forum, which is moderated by Marriott but largely editorially independent, but said that as of April, the site's active membership had increased 74 percent from a year earlier.
To Mr. Kozik, who said he had learned the value of a free breakfast benefit from reading posts from the Insiders, the website was a low-cost focus group of unmatched authenticity, and its gatherings a delightful meetup of passionate travelers.
“Marriott could not have manufactured this group,” he said. “All they could do is set up the forum, but the group itself had to come together.”
But Ms. Culotta seemed as surprised as most everyone else in Arlington about how they were spending their weekends: at TIPPLE, wearing name tags where their usernames were printed larger than their real-life names.
“We have a good time,” she said. “We have more of a good time in person than we do on the forum, and many of us have a relationship outside the forum where we talk almost daily.”
For many contributors, the forum is their only social media.
Mr. Jacob and Mr. Pape are constant, easygoing presences. Ms. Culotta, who credits the information she learned online with helping her to reach Marriott’s highest level of elite status, checks in five or six times a day, but never on weekends. Mr. Nicholson normally logs on as early as his first cup of tea.
The Starwood merger, which will lead to a reconfigured program this summer, has been “like Christmas” on the forum, he said, because “you get a whole lot of content.”
Mrs. Nicholson will sometimes wake up in the night and see her husband still awake, browsing and posting in the darkness.
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