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Marriott and Starwood jolted their loyalty program members awake on Friday by allowing them to link award accounts.

After a long summer in which progress on the Marriott and Starwood merger seemed glacial, the transaction kicked into high gear late last week after approval from the Chinese government unexpectedly cleared.

And to the surprise of many, one of the first steps that the new venture took was to enable linking between loyalty program accounts, effectively allowing Marriott Rewards or Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) members to use points interchangeably.

Part of the surprise comes from the fact that earlier this year Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott, suggested that Marriott Rewards and SPG wouldn’t fully be integrated into one until 2018, leading many to believe that the programs would remain unmolested through at least 2017. In fact, Sorenson’s words are still true — Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest will still independently operate in the short term. What many loyalty members weren’t expecting, however, was how quickly benefits from the other hotel operator would open up.

Hours after the merger closed on Friday, Marriott and Starwood revealed a mechanism to link programs, bringing parity to elite status between the programs and giving loyalty members the ability to freely transfer points across balances. An SPG Platinum member, for example, could fill out the form and instantly earn Platinum elite status within Marriott Rewards. Points could then be transferred from SPG to Marriott and used to redeem for free nights at any of the previously-unreachable thousands of Marriott properties — with elite benefits to boot (though it’s still not possible to directly earn points or qualify for elite status across program lines).

By contrast, when American Airlines and US Airways merged, the carriers took nearly five months to link loyalty programs.

Marriott and Starwood may be moving fast as part of an effort to keep loyalty members happy in the face of upcoming changes. Starwood’s Preferred Guest Program, though significantly smaller than Marriott Rewards, enjoys fierce support from its user base because of strong redemption options and a co-branded credit card. To prevent membership attrition, management may be rolling out shared benefits as fast as possible.

In the meantime, bloggers and loyalty program members are scrambling to catch up with the news and learn about new benefits — each side now has thousands of new hotels in which points can be redeemed while the number of partners has also scaled (United Airlines, for example, partners with Marriott Rewards to share elite status while Delta partners with Starwood).

As the community remains distracted, Marriott and Starwood seem to have earned a reprieve from any unrest within the loyalty program community. If this level of attention remains as such, the two hotel giants may yet be able to keep the majority of their customers through the end of the merger.

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Tags: loyalty, marriott, marriott bonvoy, marwood, starwood

Photo credit: Marriott and Starwood's loyalty programs aren't combined yet, but members can exchange points between the programs. Skift

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