Update #2 (9/4): I don't know if I should bother continuing to update this, but given my incendiary tone, I feel like it's only fair to note IHG's response. So... after waiting over a week, I heard back from IHG that they would credit me points for the first night of my stay, but that the "eligible spend" from that night was $164. I have no idea how they came up with that number, which was less than half of the first night's total. I didn't continue to push it, though, since the bonus points I received from the IC Chicago more than made up the difference. As whether the stay will now qualify as a stay: maybe? If I end up earning all of the points I had hoped to earn after all, the moral of this post will change from "Make sure you know what you're doing" to "be prepared to wrestle with IHG if you're planning to stack promotions or push the envelope on points earning." Update (8/28): After I posted this, the Intercontinental Chicago contacted me on Twitter to get some more information about my stay. (I didn't tag them when I posted a link to my post, so it must have set off a Google alert or something.) The conversation moved over to email, and they offered me some additional points to compensate for the subpar room. I didn't ask for any comps when I mentioned the condition of the room at checkout, since I never requested a different room... that would be like eating an entire meal at a restaurant and then asking for a refund because you didn't like it. Given that they offered the points proactively, I was impressed with the service. As for IHG's own customer service, they never responded to my emails, although I did get a form letter DM'd to me on Twitter.
Off the top, I'll admit that the below issue is my fault for not reading terms and conditions carefully enough. It's still annoying, though, and IHG's piss-poor customer service (as in, they haven't responded to multiple emails or tweets) doesn't make it any better.
Here's how it happened: Justine and I needed to go back to Chicago on pretty short notice, and looking at the hotels around the Millennium Park area (where my parents live), it seemed like the best deal would be to book the Intercontinental Chicago, renew my Ambassador status, and use the free weekend night certificate for the second night. This, on paper, would also have the benefit of fulfilling two challenges in my IGH Q2 Accelerate promotion: 5000 points for renewing Ambassador status and 3600 points for staying in one of IHG's big-city markets. Checking off those two would also get me to five total challenges, which would unlock a bonus of 16,400 points plus another 1500 for staying in August. Add to that around 5000 points for the stay itself, and I was going to mine 31,500 points from a single stay. Not bad, right?
Seasoned IHG members probably know where this is going: since the last time I redeemed an Ambassador free night certificate, IHG has changed the terms of the program so that stays that include a free night no longer count for anything. No points earned, no elite night credits earned, and no Accelerate objectives filled. That hits me pretty hard, since not getting credit for a stay in Chicago means I won't hit the big city bonus, which in turn leaves me one objective short of the big 16,400-point bonus (in addition to missing the points I'd normally earn for a stay).
To make matters worse, I didn't check the per-night rate of the hotel, which was another mistake. The average rate was around $300 per night, but the first night was $400 and the second one was $200, meaning the free night certificate didn't save me nearly as much as I thought it would. I guess I just got sloppy here, but let my fuckup be a lesson here that this kind of shit is exactly how these programs finance perks like this in the first place. My screw-ups are subsidizing your outsized value on your next Ambassador weekend night stay, in other words.
Compounding my irritation, right before our trip, rates at the nearby Hyatt Regency dropped below $200 per night, meaning we could have stayed there for less overall. Sure I now have Ambassador status for another year, but with most of my non-work travel already planned and no Intercontinental stays on the horizon, I'm not really sure how much it benefits me. The goal here was for Ambassador membership to pay for itself in one stay through a combination of money saved on the free night and lots of points earned, and that didn't happen. (Or, more accurately, that did happen, but the opportunity cost of not staying at a cheaper hotel made it a net loss.)
Here's what really pisses me off: I paid more than full price for the first night at the hotel. The Ambassador weekend night certificate only works if you book the hotel at the special Ambassador weekend night rate, which is more than the best available rate. Sure I got the second (much cheaper) night for free, but I absolutely should get credit for the first night, since it was a fully paid night. IHG hasn't responded to me at all, which itself is infuriating, but it's no secret that IHG also has the worst customer service in the hospitality industry.
As for the Ambassador program in general, I still like the idea in theory. For someone like me who is never going to travel enough to earn top-tier status in a more rewarding program like Hyatt or SPG/Marriott, Ambassador gives me a way to fairly cheaply buy my way into something approximating high-level status. I've had good luck with upgrades in every Intercontinental I've stayed in - only once was I not upgraded to a suite, and that was at the Venetian, which isn't really a "full" Intercontinental anyway. The upgrades are only supposed to be for one room category, but in my experience they have usually been better than that, and when I've been denied an upgrade due to availability, the hotel went out of its way to comp me all kinds of stuff to make up for it.
Although they don't give you free breakfast, it's not like Hyatt or SPG is offering guaranteed upgrades (often to suites) and 4PM late checkout for people who fork over $150 per year. Imagine if Hyatt ran a promotion where you could get upgrades and 4PM checkout for an entire year after only one stay at a Hyatt Regency... The blogosphere would explode. It's all you'd hear about for months.
So in that sense, I think Ambassador membership can be a fantastic deal if you can use the benefits. The first year I had it, I stayed at Intercontinentals five times, so it really worked out. The second year, I really only wanted it because I was hoping to get a suite upgrade at the Intercontinental Amstel (Amsterdam). Luckily I did - effectively paying $50 per night to upgrade to a room that would have cost around $500 more across three nights. (And that figure even dropped in half when I sold my unused free night certificate on eBay for $75. Unfortunately you can't do that anymore, since starting this year, your name and member number are printed on the back of the certificate.) This year, I was going to let it lapse, but it all of a sudden made sense given the recent trip to Chicago. Or, it would have if I hadn't dropped the ball reading the fine print.
(I should note that I didn't come up empty handed, since renewing at least got me 5000 points through Accelerate and another 10,000 bonus points through the Ambassador program. IHG points are usually worth around a half a cent per point, so those points theoretically will cover half the renewal fee. Still, I'm haunted by what could have been.)
And what about the Intercontinental Chicago, then? Meh. It's the worst Intercontinental I have been to, but since I've been consistently impressed by the quality of their hotels, that's not to say that the IC Chicago is terrible or anything. The problem is that there are two towers: the recently renovated Executive tower and the threadbare Grand tower. I went out of my way to book a room in the Executive tower, but I was then "upgraded" to a junior suite in the Grand tower. By the time we got up to our room, we were tired after waking up for an early flight and didn't want to deal with getting our room changed to the other tower.
The problem with the Grand tower is that it's in incredibly shitty shape for a luxury hotel. All the furniture is scratched up, the carpet is stained, the walls have huge chunks of paint missing, and the bathrooms are on par with what you'd get in a Holiday Inn. The room itself was pretty nice if you ignored all that other stuff - the bed was comfy, there was tons of space, the other furniture was nice for lounging, it had a big desk, etc. The only major defect with the room was that the windows in the living room didn't have blackout curtains, and since the junior suite only has a half-wall between the living room and the bedroom, you can't keep the room dark in the morning if you want to sleep in.
I definitely won't stay here again, given that the area has tons of hotels that are similarly priced but *way* nicer - like the new London House (Hilton Curio), the aforementioned Hyatt Regency, the Radisson Blu, and even the Park Hyatt Chicago, which I have sometimes seen for around the same price as the Intercontinental. It was nice to get upgraded to such a big room, and I always appreciate 4PM checkout (and the free movie), but I'd rather get more limited benefits from my Hilton Gold or Hyatt Discoverax status while staying at nicer (and usually cheaper) hotels.
Bottom line at the end of a long post is that while I still think it's great that Intercontinental offers Ambassador status, you have to be careful to make sure that the value proposition actually works out in your favor. And if you screw something up like I did, don't expect a response from IHG to make it right (or really any response at all).