Hotel Reward Clubs Get Personal

Justin Steele

Hotel reward clubs are focusing on perks customized to please every guest--starting at check-in

A few months ago, I had to go to the Big Island of Hawaii for a last-minute assignment. I called the Fairmont Orchid to book a room for that evening. When the reservation agent asked for my President's Club number, I told her I wasn't a member. After all, I'm rarely lucky enough to stay in such luxurious digs, and I assumed there was an annual fee or some other requirement. The agent informed me that the lowest of Fairmont's three-tier memberships is complimentary, adding, "There are several in-hotel benefits available on your first stay after enrolling."

In two minutes I was enrolled. The agent then asked, "Now what room item preferences would you like?" Preferences? The agent explained that I could opt for down or foam pillows, and either a lightweight comforter or a heavy bedspread. I could also have a half-dozen beach towels in my room, she said--that way, I wouldn't have to grab one at the pool every time I hit the beach. All of my selections were in place when I arrived later that day.

I've since learned that it's pretty much always a good idea to sign up for a hotel's rewards program--even if you're not planning on staying with the chain more than once. Most programs are free and easy to join, and the perks begin during your first visit. Members of programs from major hotel companies like Hilton, Starwood, and Marriott have access to express check-in and checkout, a daily newspaper delivered to their rooms, late checkout, and a choice of pillow and bed types. In addition to the usual extras, Hyatt Gold Passport members can use the gym for free and cash checks of up to $250 per stay. Fairmont members receive free high-speed Internet connections and, though I didn't have the chance to take the company up on it during my assignment on the Big Island, a complimentary shoe shine. Even economy-brand programs have their perks: Red Roof Inn's RediCard members are allowed to pay by check and to fax five pages at no charge, and a free USA Today arrives daily.

In the hopes of differentiating their programs from others, hotel executives have been stepping up with bonuses that are increasingly personalized. Wyndham's ByRequest program boasts 2.6 million members, each of whom fills out a preference form when joining. Wyndham then tailors rooms to guests' specifications, including their choice of newspaper and pillow. All members also receive gifts on arrival: bottled water, a snack, and a beverage--depending on the guest's requests, that might mean Diet Coke and peanut M&Ms or fresh fruit and a small bottle of chardonnay. It may seem obvious to travelers, but when Wyndham was creating the program, it consulted focus groups and market research to find out that guests want "to be remembered with customized service, like foam pillows in their rooms if they're allergic to feathers," says Kevin Rupert, Wyndham's vice president of marketing and strategy. "Others want a snack and drink waiting for them."

To varying degrees, many rewards clubs now let guests customize their stay. Hilton HHonors members choose in advance which bonus gift they'd prefer--either two bottles of water, free breakfast at the hotel restaurant, or 750 extra points. With the Marriott Rewards program, members who request so can always stay on the ground floor (or a high floor) and in a room with a refrigerator. Marriott hotel personnel are also trained to note members' habits in their files; as a result, guests sometimes receive extra towels without having to ask.

Omni Hotels, which operates 40 luxury properties in North America, keeps a profile of preferences for each of its 500,000 Select Guest members. Among other benefits, members receive two complimentary beverages--their choice, of course--every morning while staying in the hotel. In September, Omni inaugurated a Sensational Wednesdays program, with weekly giveaways for members of its Select Guest club. So far the gifts have included the semiliquid chocolate Lava Bar, Archive aromatherapy soap, and Worry Stones, which you hold and rub for relaxation. The gifts may not exactly be personalized, but members sure aren't complaining.

Check out the perks

Fairmont President's Club Your choice of down or foam pillows, free shoe shine

Hilton HHonors Pick a gift: free breakfast, two bottles of water, or 750 bonus points

Hyatt Gold Passport Free use of the gym, late checkout, checks of up to $250 cashed

Marriott Rewards In-room refrigerator, express check-in, choice of pillows

Omni Select Guest Turndown service, two free morning beverages, special gifts like chocolate and aromatherapy soap

Red Roof Inn RediCard Fax five pages for free, OK to pay by check, free newspaper

Wyndham ByRequest Handwritten welcome note, choice of snack (candy, fruit, cookies) and beverage (beer, wine, soda)

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