Hotels try new ways to earn loyalty

Are you struggling to keep prices up this year? No matter what business you are in, this article by Elizabeth Olson from the New York Times illustrates how added value extras could help you create loyal customers, and avoid price wars and discounted products. Click here to view the article in its original context, or scroll down.

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When Greg McHale checks into his hotel room after a day of business travel, he expects what he calls the “wonderful and bizarre,” namely complimentary Snickers bars, Diet Pepsi and, sometimes, a compact disc of his favorite electronic dance music.

For Kimpton Hotels, it is a small price to pay for the loyalty of someone like Mr. McHale, a Web entrepreneur who spends 50 or 60 nights a year on the road. And for Mr. McHale, the personal touches — part of the hotel chain’s loyalty program — make it worth his while to seek out Kimpton’s hotels.

“The level of personal attention really blows me away,” said Mr. McHale, founder and chief executive of Good2gether, which connects nonprofit organizations with donors and volunteers. “So if there’s a Kimpton in town, that’s where I’ll stay.”

Not all hotels go to such lengths to please their guests, but this year most are stretching their creativity to attract and, perhaps more important, retain guests. Hotels have been particularly hard hit by the drop in business travel, and brand loyalty has often given way to practical cost concerns as companies have cut expenses.

Only 36 percent of business travelers said they were brand loyal this year, compared with 42 percent two years ago, according to Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel analyst for Forrester Research. “And 2010 is likely to be more difficult for hotels because companies are telling their employees that every penny saved means fewer people laid off or fewer cuts in pay.”

Hotels are responding by offering free nights, upgrades and loyalty points. Many hotels, especially the high-end chains, are introducing twists to cultivate customers. Amenities including free breakfasts, no-fee Internet connections, late checkouts and paid parking are being bundled in business traveler packages. Marriott Hotels, for instance, calls its package “Business Boost,” while Hyatt Hotels has “Business Plan” and Sheraton Hotels “Road Warrior.”

As part of its package, Hilton’s Conrad Chicago Hotel is giving guests their choice among best-selling books, and a personal shopper is available to help select gifts for those left at home.

Beyond packages, some hotels are trying to make stays more enticing by reducing fees for the minibar, subsidizing some meals, offering free in-room spa services or free dry cleaning. The hotel industry is trying to keep room rates stable, which is not easy. The average occupancy rate in October was down 6.2 percentage points to 58.1 percent, and per-room revenue dropped 13.8 percent to $57.57 from the year before — the worst numbers in more than two decades, according to Smith Travel Research, in Hendersonville, Tenn.

To try to hold the line on rates, hotels are offering guests more for their money.

“It’s about offering added value rather than lowering rates,” said Sam Shank, chief executive of DealBase.com, an online search engine for hotels. “When travel fell after 9/11, hotels dropped their rates and it took a while for them to bring those prices up again. They don’t want to go through that again.”

Many corporations have room rate arrangements with hotel chains, but their employees typically claim the loyalty points for personal use, especially for long weekends or upgrading to concierge floors, where they can have a nicer breakfast, access to snacks and, in the evening, a glass of wine with hors d’oeuvres.

Loyalty points are a major selling feature for many travelers, said Don Berg, vice president for loyalty for Intercontinental Hotels Group, the world’s largest hotel operator whose brands include Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn. The group has 47 million club members.

About 90 percent of the points are redeemed for personal use, he said. The hotel group, taking a page from the American Express and Visa rewards programs, also offers members special access to concerts and sporting events. Starwood Hotels has a similar program.

“People have guilt over being away from home and family, and this is guilt-free currency to make up for that,” Mr. Berg said. “No expiration on our loyalty points is, by far, our most popular feature.”

William R. Snider, a Houston software consultant, was able to use his loyalty points from Holiday Inns to indulge his love of baseball. He used his points to bid on, and win, World Series and All-Star game packages that provided accommodation, meals and transportation and also allowed him to mingle with players.

“I had a blast,” he said.These awards make me want to stay at Holiday Inns, if at all possible.”

Among the most inventive in catering to customers are the high-end properties. Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, for example, will store a guest’s suitcase between visits, the hotel’s general manager, Mehdi Eftekari, said. “So if you are traveling between Los Angeles and New York or London, you always come back to freshly washed and ironed clothes packed away in your suitcase.”

An array of exercise gear, including socks and shoes, is available to guests so they do not have to worry about smelly clothing, he said.

Kimpton offers specially prepared dinners for its most frequent guests, including one recently in Manhattan for top-tier female travelers. The chain has also introduced weekend trips like the one in October for its most frequent travelers and their spouses, in Oregon’s wine country. The wine-tasting getaway came with meals made by Kimpton chefs, and a balloon ride over the vineyards.

Paul Seus, a management consultant from Chicago who attended the Oregon weekend with his wife, Amy, said Kimpton’s special treatment cemented his loyalty.

“Kimpton called me and asked me if I would like to do something special,” Mr. Seus said.

“I’ve traveled my whole career, and I used to stay, well, wherever,” he said. “Now I’ll only stay somewhere else if I can’t find one of their hotels.”

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What do you think? Do you have an idea for how to implement a scheme like this in your business? Have you had a surprise experience like this in a business you’ve used recently? Share your thoughts here!

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