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WHY WE DON'T GET FASTER FREE NIGHTS
By Joe Brancatelli
September 13, 2012 -- Whenever I post a hotel points promotion on the Steals & Deals page, you fill my inbox and the E-mails all say essentially the same thing: Whatever happened to Hyatt's Faster Free Nights? When is Hyatt going to offer it again?

In case you're one of the six business travelers who don't recognize the moniker, Faster Free Nights was the greatest promotion in the 32-year history of frequent travel programs. It was as elegant and simple as it was rich: You completed two stays at any Hyatt properties around the world and you earned a free night at any Hyatt around the world. There were virtually no restrictions and there wasn't a cap on your earnings.

Faster Free Nights was the one frequent travel promotion that day-to-day business travelers always looked forward to seeing. And program gamers, who don't seem to have jobs and have unlimited time to play promotions ad nauseam, would have a field day. They'd fill FlyerTalk.com with tips for finding the cheapest stays at Hyatt properties, then boast about how many free nights they'd use at the Park Hyatt in Paris or a Hyatt resort in Hawaii.

The fun ended abruptly a couple of years ago. The last official promotion labeled Faster Free Nights was mounted in September, 2008. But the concept of a free night after two stays was the basis of Hyatt offers in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010. Since then, however, Gold Passport promotions have been straight points offers and none have been anywhere near as rich, enticing--or memorable--as Faster Free Nights.

So, more than two years later, inquiring business-travel minds still want to know: Whatever happened to Faster Free Nights? And when the hell is Hyatt going to come to its corporate senses and revive the greatest promotion in the history of frequent travel plans?

I have good news and bad news after speaking with Jeff Zidell, vice president of Hyatt Gold Passport. The affable Zidell (pronounced ZY-dell) is quite open about the factors that led to the demise of Faster Free Nights. But I don't get the sense that Zidell, who took over Gold Passport in 2008, can or will revive Faster Free Nights anytime soon.

"Hyatt has changed a lot in the last five years," Zidell explains. "It's hard to compare Hyatt then to Hyatt now. And Gold Passport is a substantially different program now than it was five years ago."

When Zidell arrived at Gold Passport after 12 years at American Airlines and two at Google, Hyatt was owned by the Pritzkers, a fabulously wealthy and famously dysfunctional family. Hyatt is public now. In 2008, Hyatt had about 350 properties. It has grown to around 500 today. The property mix has changed dramatically, too. In 2008, most Hyatts were full-service or luxury hotels trading at the higher-priced tiers. Today, there are also 165 Hyatt Place focused-service properties and more than four dozen Hyatt House extended-stay hotels.

Zidell believes part of the aura surrounding Faster Free Nights was that it was easier to understand than the confusing array of similarly named full-service Hyatt hotels. After all, what is the difference between a Hyatt, a Hyatt Regency and a Grand Hyatt? I certainly have never known.

"Maybe Faster Free Nights is what people latched on to when they thought of Hyatt," Zidell suggests. "Our brand message hasn't been as sharp as it should be and we're just now addressing that fact."

There's something to that, but Faster Free Nights got famous because it was rich and easy to play, not because it was a substitute for clearly delineated Hyatt branding. Faster Free Nights' car-rental cousin, National's One Two Free, proves how popular uncomplicated promotions are in the cluttered jungle of frequent travel plans.

And that's where we get to the meat of why Faster Free Nights has disappeared. Zidell changed the direction of Gold Passport. After spending his first year talking to Gold Passport members--there are 12 million now--he chose to add more year-round value and de-emphasize blowout promotions like Faster Free Nights.

"We decided to go with a suite of benefits that guests could use 365 days a year," the 46-year-old Zidell says. "We think that's important. We feel 'always on' benefits are a better value proposition than relying on promotions. Besides, we run Gold Passport to drive repeat customers," not once-a-year spikes in occupancy.

So when Zidell reconfigured Gold Passport in 2009, he added a bundle of high-value perks for elite members. Diamond elites, Hyatt's most frequent guests, got complimentary breakfast and evening hors d’oeuvres each night of their stay. All Gold Passport elites received free Internet access, which made Hyatt the first major full-service chain to comp it. All elites receive space-available room upgrades, of course, but Diamonds got even more: Four times a year they can confirm suite upgrades in advance for up to seven nights. And any elite Hyatt customer will tell you that the chain is remarkably generous with early check-in and late check-out requests.

Yet the 2009 Gold Passport remake didn't stop Hyatt from offering promotions to remain competitive with nearly quarterly offers from Sheraton, Hilton, Marriott and other major chains. So if you're going to keep the promotions going, why not offer Faster Free Nights again?

That brings us to the money quote, figuratively and literally, from Zidell: "Faster Free Nights doesn't work anymore in light of the value we offer on an overall basis in Gold Passport now. And now we offer [points] promotions two or three times a year. Faster Free Nights was once a year, at best."

Zidell makes another point that is at least worth considering: Not every business traveler wanted free nights. Unlike Faster Free Nights certificates, Gold Passport points don't have expiration dates. In fact, when Hyatt offered its final two-for-one promos on Zidell's watch, The Next Big Thing and The Big Welcome Back, they came with an opportunity to choose points instead of free nights.

"Members who earned free-nights certificates would complain when they expired before they could use them and that caused real customer-service issues," Zidell adds. "You never want to be in the position of making a customer unhappy and expired certificates make guests unhappy."

There's another reason Faster Free Nights stopped working for Hyatt, although Zidell didn't directly address the issue. Just as "miles" long ago stopped being a reliable indicator of what a frequent flyer contributes financially to an airline, "stays" stopped making sense as a measure of a guest's financial worth to Hyatt.

In the heyday of Faster Free Nights, Hyatt mostly offered full-service hotels. Nightly rates varied, of course, but a "stay" bore some broad relationship to what a guest was paying and generally tracked to the price of a free-night award. With Gold Passport now covering everything from a low-priced Hyatt Place near Dulles Airport and a low-rate Hyatt House in suburban New Jersey to that Park Hyatt in Paris or a high-ticket resort in the Maldives, it was becoming ridiculously easy to game Faster Free Nights.

Take the Hyatt House in, say, Parsippany, New Jersey. I've stayed there in the last year for as little at $79 a night. In June, when a thunderstorm mangled my schedule, I paid a walk-up rate of $70 at the Hyatt Dulles Airport. How could a total of less than $150 in room rate over those two nights equate to a free night at The Churchill, the Hyatt Regency in London? The rate there tonight is 320 pounds or $515. I don't need Zidell to tell me that kind of exposure makes Faster Free Nights an unacceptable financial risk for Hyatt circa 2012.

But given the past popularity and outsized reputation of Faster Free Nights, wouldn't a refined version make sense for Hyatt? One, perhaps, that offered 2-for-1 within several separate bands: Hyatt's low-priced brands, the full-service hotels and the much pricier Park Hyatt properties. Such an offer would not be as elegant as the old days, but it would still be a powerful, recognizable promotion and well within the spirit of the original Faster Free Nights.

"It's a great idea," admits Zidell, "but our technology currently can't handle that. We just can't [break out brands and qualify stays] that way."

So is Faster Free Nights dead, something we have to consign to misty watercolor memory?

"Never say never," says Zidell, "but I don't think people should look at things like promotions in a silo. If you look at what Gold Passport does 24/7, 360 degrees, I think we deliver better value today for Hyatt customers."

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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.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.