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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/5/2009 11:25:44 AM ET 2009-10-05T15:25:44

If you’re looking for a hotel deal, you should have no problem finding one. Many hotels are offering a variety of value-added perks ranging from free nights, meals, spa treatments, theater tickets — even car washes.

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In Telluride, Colo., for example, on-the-house services performed by staff at the Inn at Lost Creek include ski waxing, car washing, and folding and hanging guest laundry.

“That’s definitely the way it’s going,” said Bobby Bowers of Smith Travel Research. “Business is so bad now that what a lot of companies and individual hotels are doing is showing added value or added gratitude. It’s a trend happening in a lot of spots and will probably continue being that way for a while.”

But given what Jan Freitag, also of Smith Travel Research, describes as “an unprecedented decline in room demand of a magnitude we haven’t seen since post 9/11,” great rates and value-added services may no longer be enough because “there’s this fight for the next available guest.”

Some customers are finding themselves as the beneficiaries of a hotel’s “stealth gratitude.”

Champagne and teddy bears
When Ceridwen Lewin and her husband visited the Hilton Los Cabos to celebrate her birthday, they found the room decorated with streamers, more than 60 helium filled balloons, and a gift of upscale bath supplies and champagne. “The reservation agent had asked if we had any special occasions, but this was a completely unexpected level of acknowledgement of my birthday!”

Staci Torgeson didn’t get champagne, but was delighted when a crib delivered to her room at California’s Marina del Rey Marriott arrived with complimentary baby products (baby wash, lotion, etc) and a cute little teddy bear for her daughter, Kendal. “In this economy of cutting corners and adding additional charges,” says Torgeson, the samples and the teddy bear were “a very nice gesture and something that would definitely make me choose that property again.”

And 50 years after their honeymoon stay in room 870 at the Peabody Memphis Hotel, Mr. and Mrs. Royer tried to book a stay in the same romantic room. The hotel has been reconfigured and that room number no longer exists, but the hotel surprised the couple by presenting them with flowers and rolling back their room rate from $179 to just $8, the amount they paid back in 1959. Care to bet if the Royers will be back for their 60th anniversary?

Will you catch a deal?
The idea of treating guests to surprise perks isn’t new.

At Ritz-Carlton properties, where there is no formal loyalty program in place, every employee is authorized to spend up to $2,000 per guest (and in special cases, more) to solve a problem or perform a service that helps keep that person as a loyal customer.

Hot hotels under $150Throughout the year, the Kimpton Hotels chain often sends gifts to members of its loyalty program based on the likes and dislikes a person has entered in a profile. For example, Kimpton recently sent many pet owners 50 pet treats personalized with their pet’s name. And guests that noted that they were concerned about the environment received 50 reusable eco-bags. “These unexpected treats have resulted in significant changes in stay behavior,” says a Kimpton spokesperson.

But now more hotels are jumping on the bandwagon. This past summer, the Hyatt hotel chain announced a new program of randomly distributed gifts, such as free drinks or spa treatments, that the company hopes will surprise customers and create an increased sense of gratitude and loyalty.

A few budget hotel chains have adopted stealth gratitude programs as well. Over the past two years, Roy Flora of the Microtel Inns & Suites hotel brand has surprised more than 40 guests by telling them that their hotel stay is on the house. Several other Microtel property owners are following Flora’s lead; the owner of the Microtel property in Greenville, N.C., now gives away one free stay a week.

But it’s all on a surprise basis. So you just never know.

Will random rewards stick around?
What would you prefer: a straight-ahead loyalty program that clearly spells out how anyone can gather points or credits and trade them in for set rewards, or a “you-never-know” program that tries to win your gratitude and loyalty by catching you off-guard and surprising you with gifts or services that are very specific to you, your interests or the way a hotel desk clerk thinks your day is going?

The world's best hotel bedsRobert Palmatier, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Washington, studies just this sort of “relationship marketing.” He says that standardized, point-accumulating programs don’t pay off for many hotels — and airlines — any more because the rewards are increasingly seen as just part of the contract.

“If you get an upgrade on your flight to Hawaii by using miles you may not feel grateful because it was just part of the deal,” he says, “But what if, as a repeat customer, you sometimes get a surprise upgrade when you go to the airport? You’d probably feel good about that and you’d tell other people.”

Top 10 new rooftop barsOn the other hand, Palmatier says, it can seem unfair if one person stays multiple nights at a hotel in hopes of getting a free stay only to discover that someone else gets a free stay just because it was their lucky day.

“If someone stays 10 nights to get the 11th one free, they have essentially ‘earned’ their reward,” says Palmatier. “If they perceive another customer who receives a reward for doing nothing, then that customer didn’t have to earn their reward, which makes it unfair.”

Fair or not, Smith Travel Research's Freitag says in this “not-very-pretty environment” of an increasing number of hotel rooms and a decreasing demand in hotel stays, gratitude hospitality is just one way hotels are trying to take care of their customers. Special perks have always been available for the most important guests, he notes, but hotels offering special perks and fighting for guests is just smart business.

But what happens when the industry rebounds?  “In 2011,” Freitag says, “we’ll see more demand and it will be interesting to see if hoteliers continue to offer these perks even if they don’t have to do it.”

And it will be interesting to see if as travelers, we find ourselves trained to expect them.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, and a columnist for USATODAY.com.You can follow her on Twitter.

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