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A GOLDEN AGE FOR FREQUENT STAY PLANS
By Joe Brancatelli
February 19, 2009 -- Any of us who've been on the road long enough to remember the golden age of frequent flyer programs can tell tales of triple-mileage wars or of earning 2,000 miles for 200-mile Shuttle hops--and then being able to turn those bonanzas into free first-class tickets to just about anywhere in the world.

I long ago stopped worrying about how many miles I earn because airlines have turned their frequency plans into one-way vehicles. Miles you can have. Awards? Not so much. And I've spent the last several years urging you not to play on the airlines' unlevel field.

Unfortunately, our bad feelings for frequent flyer programs have probably tainted our views of hotel frequent stay plans, too. Besides, hotel programs are much more complicated, harder to compare to each other and hobbled by the fact that the points and awards structures are unique to each hotel family. So with sweeping generalizations impossible to make, we tend to take hotel plans for granted.

But last weekend I earned an astonishing 51 points for each dollar I spent at a hotel and it reminded me to remind you that we really have to stop ignoring our frequent stay plans. I also need to suggest that right now could be the golden age of the hotel frequency plans.

Before I make those sweeping generalizations, however, let me give you some of the specifics of my Valentine's Day/President's Day score, which was all the sweeter because I wasn't expecting it, hadn't planned for it and didn't know about it until my frequent guest plan alerted me after the fact.

After exhausting all of our other options for a long weekend getaway, my frequent-flying wife and I decided we would settle for a trip down river to Manhattan. It was close (in other words, no flying); it had Sichuanese food (something we don't get enough of); and, thanks to the absolutely dreadful state of the economy, it was cheap.

In case you hadn't noticed, New York is getting pounded more than most U.S. cities just now. The meltdown of the financial and media industries has had a knock-on effect on travel to the Big Apple. So has the sudden and inexplicable strength of the U.S. dollar compared to the British pound and the euro. Both currencies have plunged against the greenback and many fewer Europeans are visiting.

So I was surprised, but not shocked, to find rooms at the Embassy Suites in Battery Park City--a leafy, pleasant riverfront development just a stone's throw from Wall Street--offering rooms for only $149 a night. That rate even came with double points in Hilton HHonors.

We spent a lovely long weekend doing what frequent flyers rarely do: enjoying our own home base. We even ordered a nice salad and a good club sandwich with fries from room service and watched Slumdog Millionaire on the hotel's pay-per-view system.

Three relaxing nights and about $700 later, we checked out, drove home and congratulated ourselves on a weekend well-spent. On Tuesday morning, I got the pro forma thank-you E-mail from Hilton. Oh, and by the way, it said, you earned 36,000+ points for the stay. Turns out that I had caught Hilton while it was offering a systemwide double-points promotion, a special New York offer and several other rich deals to buttress the rate's built-in double-points offer and my elite-status bonuses.

Thirty-six thousand points also happens to be enough for a free night in a nifty waterfront Hilton that opened last year in an obscure Sicilian town near where my ancestors are from. In other words, a three-night stay in downtown New York in these down times generated a free fourth night worth of points. And considering that I spent just $447 (before taxes) for the three-night stay, it means I actually paid an effective rate of about $112 a night for the weekend and my upcoming free night in the land of Brancatellis.

It is not my purpose to boom Hilton here. Whichever hotel family you prefer--Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Starwood, InterContinental, Wyndham, Choice, Best Western--and for whatever reason you choose it, everything I see from the rates and the bonus offers indicates that we're in the golden age of frequent guest programs. Your mileage may vary (so to speak), but it's clear that there's never been anything quite like this on the road.

In recent weeks, I've spoken with most of the bosses of the major frequent guest programs and they all agree: 2009 is going to be amazing. Record bonuses, unprecedented availability for reward stays and plunging per-night room rates.

"I've got rooms to fill," one of them told me. "If it takes bonus offers of an unprecedented nature, so be it. If I have to lower award levels to generate award nights, so be it. If the revenue folks have to lower rates, you'll see that, too. Past won't be prologue; we're going to have to be very creative and flexible."

This remarkable flexibility is partially a matter of the nature of frequent guest programs. For starters, each individual hotel pays to belong to the chain's frequency plan, usually in the form of a 5 percent skim off the top of our nightly payment. Individual hotels are also paid by the frequency program whenever we claim a free night. The rate a hotel is paid varies, of course, but property owners generally get something close to the nightly average rate it charges us.

Want an example of how desperate the chains are to fill the rooms of their individual properties? Surf to the Steals & Deals page and look at the point bonuses being offered if you book a room now. They are astonishing. And you know the frequency programs are promoting free stays, too, because you're getting some startling "limited time only" redemption opportunities in your E-mailbox.

The nightly rates we're paying? Consider that Embassy Suites in Manhattan. Its price plaque--you know, the in-room thing attached to some door that we stopped looking at years ago--says rates start at $699 a night. TripAdvisor.com says the hotel's average price is $389 a night. I've seen nightly rates there above $500.

If you need national statistical confirmation of these extraordinary hotel times, consider what's come from Smith Travel Research, the gold standard of lodging ledgers. For the week ended February 14, occupancy rates nationwide plummeted to 55 percent. The average daily rate we paid fell by 7.4 percent compared to the similar week last year. Worse for hotels, the revpar (revenue per available room), a crucial indicator of financial health, fell an eye-popping 16.4 percent year-over-year.

I never tell people how to spend their money. If you've lost your job or taken a big financial hit, the last thing you're thinking about is spending a few nights in a hotel to run up your points total or elite status.

But if you've got the dough and you're still on the road, start paying more attention to your frequent guest plans. It's their golden age. And I know I'm going to remember my 51-points-per-dollar stays with the same reverence and fondness as those 2,000-miles-a-pop Shuttle flights from the 1980s.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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This column is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.