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Business Travelers on Wanted List

After being taken for granted, corporate clients find themselves being wooed by hotels. The perks range from traditional to New Age.

September 23, 2003|June Sawyers | Special to Chicago Tribune

Business travelers have been the backbone of the hotel industry for so long that it became easy to take them for granted.

Not anymore.

With occupancy rates dropping to 59.1% from 63% in 2000, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Assn.'s 2003 Lodging Industry Profile, hotels have a lot of unanticipated empty beds to fill.

Now business travelers are being wooed, pursued and flattered through incentive and frequent-guest programs, discounted corporate rates and various packaging and bundling schemes. Work-related amenities like 24-hour business centers, executive tech suites and executive floors have become commonplace.

For hotels catering to business travelers -- from popular chains to wily independents -- keeping up with technological times has meant that even minimal standards have changed. Today's business-ready rooms often include oversize desks, ergonomic chairs and in-room fax machines, along with now-expected dual (or more) phones with data port connections, voicemail and high-speed Internet access.

And hotels also are keeping up with the times in on-the-road health trends. Hilton offers a "Get Fit With Hilton In-Room Fitness Program" that features, among other services, delivery of treadmills to guests' rooms.

Various chains specializing in long-stay accommodations also are going beyond the room to provide business space for their largely corporate clienteles. The Conference Center of the Americas, adjacent to the landmark Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla., provides 76,000 square feet of space for upscale executive meetings, executive education and public policy conferences.

What's more, a new generation of hotels attempting to entice the business traveler has emerged.

Hotels like the Standard and the Mondrian in Los Angeles, the Tribeca Grand and the Benjamin in New York, the Nine Zero in Boston, the Topaz in Washington, D.C., and the Watertown in Seattle dare to be different, hip and even, at times, a bit funky. The San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotel chain, with more than 35 boutique hotels in the United States and Canada, will send a goldfish to your room if you ask.

And to liven up your board-room on the road, the W hotels (which also offer a "Whatever/Whenever" service -- whatever you want, whenever you want it) will replace the once-stuffy setting with a "W Sensory Meeting," which features mood music, aromatherapy scents and candles.

Hardly your father's business meeting.

Or your mother's.

The Hotel Teatro in Denver has introduced amenities that appeal to female business travelers, especially those with security concerns. On the "Guided Run" program, a hotel staff member will escort female joggers on the city's Cherry Creek Trail, a paved path moments away from the hotel. Afterward, the concierge rewards runners with a selection of nutrition bars, fresh fruit and mineral water. The hotel's "Yoga-on-Demand" (yoga mats and props, delivered to the guest's room) also is popular with fitness-minded female guests.

Even bed and breakfasts are getting into the act. The Inn on 23rd Street in New York City bills itself as "the affordable alternative for the business traveler" in fliers sent to local businesses. The Queen Anne B&B in Denver takes a more aggressive approach, advertising in the Denver Business Journal, offering a corporate rate of 15% off and distributing a newsletter to 7,000 former and prospective customers. It also promotes the B&B to local businesses as an ideal setting for small gatherings.

Elsewhere, at top-end business hotels, butlers are, perhaps, the hottest trend.

There are bathtub butlers, concierge floor butlers, pillow butlers and, especially in demand now, technology butlers. These "e" butlers (the Ritz- Carlton Chicago calls them "compcierges") are trained to handle everything from showing a guest how to turn off a laptop to fixing computer crashes.

Not to be outdone by all this specialization, the Pan Pacific in San Francisco provides each guest with a "personal" butler who is expected to tend to every need. That can include fetching a favorite cup of tea (based on a log of past preferences), packing a guest's suitcase before departure or more mundane tasks such as running errands and shining shoes.

But with all these added services and amenities, there's one thing today's business travelers don't want: surprises.

Her hotel's premise is to allow business travelers "to remain productive while they're on the road," said Susan Maier, director of public relations at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago.

"People are willing to pay the money as long as they can see the value," she said. "But it comes down to service and the consistency of the product."

Going a little beyond the call of duty also helps to develop customer loyalty and build goodwill.

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