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Back at the Controls

Loyalty translates to royalty for frequent travelers, as hotel operators pile on perks and pampering

September 24, 2002|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When dozens of engineers and salespeople at Loronix Information Systems began requesting the same hotel chain for accommodations while on the road this year, corporate travel manager Kathy Darnell said she had to find out what was up.

"I wondered what they were getting out of it," Darnell said of the Durango, Colo.-based company's 150 frequent travelers. "These weren't luxury hotels or anything, and they didn't have exorbitant rates. But suddenly they were very popular around here, and I had a whole bunch of people wanting to stay there."

With business travel still down 30% to 40% from a year ago and companies continuing to restrict travel budgets in a soft economy, the hotel industry has been forced to react in an unfamiliar way: compete like never before for a dwindling segment of guests that has long generated plenty of new business to go around.

For most hotels, business travelers--who usually pay the highest room rates--account for at least half of the overall guests, and loyal companies are routinely rewarded with meal credits, preferred rooms or other perks. But service, for the most part, has stayed the same.

Now, as leisure travelers continue to trickle back without too much prodding and convention business continues to show steady recovery, hotel operators have realized they have to do more to attract business travelers.

"Basically, hotels have been able to rely on new demand in the business sector for so long that many simply don't know how to compete now," said Sean Hennessey, director of hospitality practice for PricewaterhouseCoopers. "But if their service is not going over and beyond to keep business travelers happy, they should know someone else's is. For once, business travelers rule. Whatever they want, they can get, and I'm not just talking about mints on their pillows."

From luggage-free travel services to free long-distance phone calls, business travelers are enjoying a host of new pampering programs designed to keep them checking in.

At Wyndham International hotels, the chain Darnell said her traveling staff now prefers, individualized service is the focus. Besides high-speed Internet access in every room, the hotels have business travelers fill out a profile of personal preferences--including pillow types, preferred magazines and ideal room temperature. Upon arrival, guests find their rooms appointed to their specifications, with their favorite snacks and beverages waiting.

If they visit a particular Wyndham hotel regularly, business travelers also can opt to leave a supply of clothes and toiletries behind for their return, when the items will be cleaned and waiting for them in their room.

"Our guys love it," Darnell said. "If they have to travel these days, they just want a little extra comfort. I don't think it's too much to ask."

More than 500,000 business travelers have filled out the personal profile and joined Wyndham's frequent-traveler program since it began this year, said Dave Johnson, chief marketing officer of the Dallas-based company. In June, when Wyndham announced that free long-distance phone calls would be standard for business travelers, membership spiked dramatically, he said.

"We strongly believe that unless you're offering individualized service that really caters to each and every business traveler, you're not going to make it," said Johnson, noting that business travelers account for a third of Wyndham's guests.

Although the free long-distance calling is an added expense for the 167-property national hotel chain, Johnson said revenue in that area was already shrinking as companies insisted that employees use cell phones for business calls instead of racking up hefty charges in hotels. By offering free calls, Wyndham attracted more business travelers who will potentially become loyal guests, Johnson said.

"We're going after them any way we can," he said. "And we're going to keep them happy once they get here."

In that sense, many business travelers say it's a great time to be a frequent traveler.

Shinobu Toyoda, a San Francisco-based entertainment executive for Sega Corp., said he spends no fewer than 200 nights a year in hotels throughout the world and takes about 100 flights a year within the U.S. He has noticed obvious service improvements (complimentary bottles of wine and fruit baskets) as well as more subtle changes (speedier checkouts or extra smiles from the hotel staff).

"It's almost like hotels have started to ask the question, 'What can I do for you?' " Toyoda said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "They always asked that before, of course, but it was superficially. Now they mean it because they're doing whatever they can to make it better."

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