A recent search through my wallet revealed no thick wad of cash or credit cards, but the wallet was bulging. I carried a lot of plastic cards: Advantage, Mileage Plus, Honored Guest, Gold Passport, Vista, Plus, SET, as well as the gold, silver, red, white and green cards of virtually every frequent-travel program in the country.
Unless you have a specially programmed computer, it's become almost impossible to keep track of all the airline and hotel bonus programs.
Want to fly to Europe free? Stay eight nights at selected Inter-Continental, Ritz Carlton and Fairmont hotels.
How about a free trip to Hawaii? Stay just seven nights at any Omni hotel.
Does a free ride on the famed Venice-Simplon Orient Express excite you? It's one of the rewards offered by the newest airline entrant in the frequent-flyer madness, People Express.
People Express? It seems that everyone is now in the battle to lure the business traveler.
Overseas, Holiday Inns has something called Club Europe, a frequent-travel program for business travelers.
Name an airline or hotel chain that doesn't have a bonus program, and chances are you're naming a company that's about to start one.
Dozens of Entrants
In recent weeks there have been dozens of new entrants in the frequent-travel game.
To introduce its new property in Denver, Stouffer hotels offered a frequent-stay program worth $500 in awards to anyone who would stay there at least six times.
With one stay at the hotel, guests would get a 30% discount on their rooms and a 10% reduction on the price of Hertz rental cars. Stay No. 2 earned a free dinner at the hotel's restaurant. No. 3: an upgrade to first-class on Continental Airlines. Stays four through six earned U.S. savings bonds as well as complimentary weekends at any Stouffer hotel.
Even the smaller Red Lion Inn chain has a frequent-flyer bonus program in conjunction with Alaska Airlines.
To stay competitive, existing frequent-travel programs have been enhanced. Alaska Airlines wants your business so much that it has introduced the Gold Coast Travel mileage incentive plan, offering travel awards to destinations such as Hawaii, Europe and Asia, routes the airline doesn't even fly. (Free trips to Hawaii can be earned after only 35,000 miles.)
Not everyone is a fan of these programs. "We understand what they're doing and why," says Victor Emery, director of the Savoy group (owners of the Savoy, Claridge's, the Connaught and the Barclay in London), "but it's a come-on we find distasteful. The important thing in a hotel is value, not gimmickry. We get our repeat customers by providing good service. We've endured six generations of satisfied travelers," he says, "who just want to be treated properly."
"We don't like these programs," agrees James Nassikas, president of the Stanford Court hotel in San Francisco, "because everybody and his brother now has a gimmick, a device or a giveaway. And in many cases, that's all they have. They've forgotten the one thing a hotel should have, and that's to offer good service.
"What I'm really miffed about," Nassikas says, "is that these programs leave the little guy out in the cold. If we are to compete at all with these frequent-traveler programs, it can only be with service."
And, occasionally, price. In some cases the upscale Stanford Court hotel is cheaper than a room at other supposedly less expensive hotels.
Stay and Pay
Many frequent-hotel-stay-programs give awards only to guests who pay the full or rack rate for their rooms. This can get quite expensive. "What we've found," says one hotelier, "is that a guy traveling on company business will willingly pay that rack rate to earn his bonus points or a free airline ticket. But if he's on his own, he won't even consider it. What does that say about developing product loyalty? Also, what does it say about the true cost of the room?"
Although no hotel chain will comment on precise figures, some industry estimates place the cost of some of these programs at $48 per person per room per night.
What this means is that a lot of American businesses are buying their employees perks on the installment plan, and paying more than they should for hotel rooms.
Still, the travel award programs march on.
Even some travel agents have gotten into the awards game. Premier Travel in San Diego has its own frequent-flyer program. It is over and above any other airline program to which its clients may already belong.
Build Product Loyalty
"The business has become so competitive," says owner Eric Fuller, "that as the airlines try to build product loyalty for their service, we're doing the same as travel agents. No matter what airline you fly, we want you to book your tickets through us."
Premier's program rewards its frequent travelers with free airline tickets. "And, like many of the airline programs," Fuller says, "we track your progress for you."