Fearful of cutting rates too much, hotels appeal to customers' softer sides

Business travelers who frequently spend nights away from home have likely noticed that their favorite hotels are paying them a bit more attention. The recession has taken its toll on corporate travel budgets and many hotels are doing everything they can to ensure repeat business.

One way hotels are doing that is by getting to know their customers and providing personal touches during their stay. That may be as simple as ensuring a favorite soft drink or snack is waiting in the room upon check-in. Such attention to detail can go a long way toward building brand loyalty among frequent business travelers, who may spend dozens of nights each year on the road.
And hotel chains have reason to be concerned. Not only is business travel down, but so is loyalty to a specific hotel. Only 36% of business travelers said they were brand loyal this year, compared with 42% two years ago, according to Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel analyst for Forrester Research. "And 2010 is likely to be more difficult for hotels because companies are telling their employees that every penny saved means fewer people laid off or fewer cuts in pay," Harteveldt told The New York Times.

One reason hotel chains are now so focused on personal touches is that cutting room rates to keep guests flowing through the front door has deleterious, long-lasting effects, says Joe Conto, assistant professor in the Hospitality, Resort & Culinary Management division at Paul Smith's College in upstate New York.

"All anybody can do is react in the same manner, and suddenly everybody's prices are down 25%," Conto says. While that may be a temporary boon for travelers, such price reductions take years for hoteliers to undo "because you've taught the guest that's how much this room is worth."

Further, reducing rates, such as through a promotion, alters a hotel's clientele base. "It changes who you're attracting," Conto says, adding that companies spend considerable time targeting a specific market of guests who use other hotel services, such as spas, lounges and golf courses -- amenities that guests simply looking for a cheap place to spend the night aren't likely to use.

Paying attention to individual guest needs or wants is a trend that travel-expert Marybeth Bond noticed getting its start about a decade ago -- particularly when it comes to women, the major decision-makers when it comes to travel, she says.

Focusing on women's needs means female travelers are more likely to find amenities such as emery boards and make-up mirrors in guest rooms, along with better quality pillows, beefed-up thread-count on sheets and menu items that appeal to women's appetites, says Bond, an author who offers travel insights at her Web site, womentraveltips101.com

But it isn't only amenities that appeal to female business travelers, it's attitude, too. A female business traveler doesn't want to be condescended to. "She wants equal treatment," Bond says, and hotels have learned to do that well.

Regardless of travelers' gender, Bond says, it's easier for hotels to raise the customer-service bar than in other related industries, such as airlines, which focus their efforts on their frequent-flier members at the expense of other travelers. "Whereas when you walk into a hotel," she says, "you're just as important as the next person."
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