Index:

  1. Introduction 
  2. Elite status (Tiers, ease of earning, lifetime)
  3. Room upgrades (suites!)
  4. Breakfast and lounge access
  5. Late checkout
  6. Miscellaneous (Customer service, Tech/IT, BRG, promos, partnerships)
  7. Points earning rates and redemption values
  8. Global footprint analysis
  9. Conclusions

To conclude, SPG made a near clean sweep of pretty much all categories it competed in. It was either the best or tied with someone for the top spot with the exception of high end redemptions and earning for base members.

  1. Best luxury/boutique/lifestyle and independent portfolios:
    SPG has nearly 8x times as many desirable properties (~550) to stay at compared to Hilton despite being 3.5x smaller overall. It has as many desirable properties as the whole of the Hyatt portfolio!
  2. It has one of the best and easiest to achieve top elite tier (Platinum 25)
  3. High earning value for top tier elites
  4. Best Lifetime Status
  5. Ranked highest for suite/room upgrades
  6. Joint highest for breakfast
  7. Highest for late check out
  8. Highest for customer service
  9. Highest for Tech/Websites/IT/Apps
  10. Joint highest for Best Rate Guarantee
  11. Joint highest for promotions
  12. Highest for dining benefits
  13. Highest for experience events (sporting events, concerts, private meetings with famous people)
  14. Joint highest for Airline transfers
  15. Highest for Partnerships
  16. Joint highest for global credit card partners
  17. Large scale events earning and benefits (50K+ USD)

It fared poorly in only one category: high end redemptions. If that is the only thing you are after then this may not be the program for you. Otherwise, it is easily the winner all round.

Whom SPG is best for: Elite, discerning, luxury, high end, young/hip and value travellers. Travellers to Middle East, India, China and rest of Asia.
Whom SPG isn’t for: Budget/economy travellers. High end/aspirational free redemption seekers.

Number 2 spot is much harder to award but for a certain kind of person each of the following could be the best (better than SPG even).

Marriott has the portfolio/properties to claim it solely on that basis and it also fares well with events, BRGs and airline transfers but absolutely falls flat on elite benefits (especially breakfast) and other soft areas (dining).

Whom Marriott is best for: Very Heavy business travellers (of budgets lower than SPG), corporate/professional event bookers. People who venture out of metro/urban areas in USA, travellers to Africa.
Whom Marriott isn’t for: People who value suites or breakfast highly.

Hilton produced stronger results than Marriott on elite benefits (especially breakfast) and most of the soft categories (customer service, Tech/IT/Websites/Apps, credit card partners) but fell flat on quality of footprint (which I weigh very heavily), BRG, airline transfers and events.

Whom Hilton is best for: Business travellers on a budget. Economy/occasional leisure travellers. Anyone with easy access to Hilton Gold. Anyone travelling to US/UK. Anyone venturing out of metro/urban areas in US/UK.
Whom Hilton isn’t for: High end travellers seeking high end properties in most locations. People who need last minute redemptions in non-US/UK locations. Anyone looking for lifestyle/boutique brands.

Hyatt is very asymmetric. It produced exceptionally strong results in elite benefits with a very polarizing result in upgrades (either best or worst depending on viewpoint) and either matched, nearly matched or beat SPG for every elite benefit. It also proved to be quite strong in dining rewards and events. However it had an extremely poor showing in soft categories (customer service, Tech/Website/Apps, promotions, airline transfers, credit card partners, BRG) and an abysmal turnout in portfolio and footprint rendering most of the benefits irrelevant/moot.

Whom Hyatt is best for: People who want confirmed suites in advance for family vacations.
Whom Hyatt isn’t for: International business travellers on budgets. Anyone on any sort of budget or location constraint…always keep an eye on the lack of footprint because 1 Park or Grand Hyatt in a city is not a practical presence.

Accor had a terrible time in trying to compete with the US chains and failed comprehensively in elite benefits or soft category comparisons. However, it is exceptionally strong in terms of footprint in some areas, is the only one which offers a redemption pattern opposite to all other chains due to being revenue based (so you can redeem when rates are low) and offers absolute footprint dominance in Australia and France. Its rates are consistently lower than competitors and this is a fantastic chain if you are an occasional traveler than seeks midscale/lower upscale properties.

Whom Accor is best for: Occasional travellers looking for upscale/midscale options cheaper than US chains. Travellers to France, Middle East (especially in summer), SE Asia or Australia. People looking for a redemption pattern that is the opposite of and complements the conventional ones. 
Whom Accor isn’t for: Loyalty travellers. Status seekers. Almost anyone is better off with any of the other programs here.

GHA Discovery really delivers on the high end, unique and boutique experiences but is an unrealistic choice for a business traveller since the footprint is too small overall. It has absolute dominance in Scandinavian/Nordic states

Whom GHA Discovery is best for: Occasional high end luxury or boutique traveller who seeks getaway resorts globally. Travellers to Scandinavian/Nordic countries.
Whom GHA Discovery isn’t for: People on a budget/economy travellers. Travellers to secondary cities¬†

Overall, this summary should enable you to pick the best program for you. If you are fortunate enough to be able to maintain multiple statuses, make sure you pick the most disparate ones and avoid overlap (eg: do not try to maintain both Hilton and Marriott).

2018 onwards, this equation will simplify a great deal. Assuming the merged SPG-Marriott benefits and redemptions are an average of what they currently are (so benefits worse than SPG but better than Marriott) and you have around 60 nights/30 stays to distribute, then you almost certainly must hold SPG/Marriott status and possibly supplement with GHA Discovery mid tier (10 stays) for its uniqueness. Get Hilton Gold from a credit card and forget about Hyatt unless a match opportunity appears. Giving 50+ nights to Hyatt for its Diamond status would mean losing SPG/Marriott (opportunity cost too immense).