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Business travelers make fickle hotel guests

New study shows hotel loyalty among the road warrior set at an all time low
/ Source: The Associated Press

Business travelers may be the toughest customers a hotel faces, and sometimes their loyalty, along with the prized repeat business it represents, can't be bought. On top of that, the reasons some frequent travelers go hotel hopping may have nothing to do with whether or not they are satisfied.

That picture comes from a recent study done by Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research, which took a look at several hundred guests at two representative hotels in the U.S. Midwest, where room rates ranged from $149 to $275 per night.

Among other things, the study found that about 38 percent of business and leisure travelers alike were satisfied with their hotel and professed loyalty to it, but still could not guarantee they would stay at the same place on their next visit.

"Although marketers have long adopted the gospel of guest satisfaction as being instrumental in ensuring repeat business, satisfaction does not appear to have a substantive and sweeping effect on the loyalty of all guests," the report concluded.

The survey also uncovered another phenomenon — guests who are not satisfied but continue to go back to the same place for reasons not apparent, and who are probably bad-mouthing their experience to colleagues when they get home.

The report suggested that the hotel industry, which has invested millions of dollars in frequent-guest points programs, may want to reassess who it targets in light of the response it is getting from the satisfied-but-switching crowd. "Though business travelers are one of the most sought-after lodging segments, this study found that business travelers were the least satisfied, least loyal and least involved of the guest segments," the report said.

"Additionally, travelers on combined business and leisure trips were found to be the most difficult to predict, as they were most likely to be switchers, whether satisfied or dissatisfied," it added.

The researchers also found that the guests who listed themselves as satisfied and not likely to switch cited the attitude of the hotel staff as key, a finding that underscores earlier studies "that have argued for the importance of the people factor in services."

Perhaps the best place to find out how a hotel addresses some of these issues is to ask someone who just finished planning a new property, top to bottom. We found an example in the Amalfi Hotel Chicago, just opening its 215-room property and aiming for week-night business travel trade and weekend leisure guests.

"For prior generations, going to a hotel was an adventure, but today's (most frequent) travelers have probably been in 40 or more in a year," says Tim Pigsley, vice president for marketing at Hostmark Hospitality Group, a national hotel management company for whom the Amalfi is a new flagship venture. "But the market for unique lodging experiences is definitely growing here in the United States. The boutique market can take local fare and provide a higher level of amenities, yet provide a different experience in each city."

General Manager Paul Drummond believes a motivated staff with the right attitude is a key to bringing guests back and back again. In his operation, the employees have been assigned not job titles but roles, which he says will give them purpose and meaning beyond the ordinary.

Housekeepers are "comfort stylists," for example, and the doormen are "impressionists," a title meant to convey how important they are as the first and last face a guest is likely to see. Drummond's card lists his job as "maestro."

Among the amenities designed to build guest loyalty at the retro 1950s decorated Amalfi are a breakfast buffet in the elevator lobby of each floor easily accessible to guests still in nightclothes or bathrobes. The nontraditional entrance features not a sterile front desk, but comfortable furniture where an arriving guest is handed a keycard and can stop to relax or check e-mail. Rooms have free Internet access and DVD/CD players and there is also a complimentary evening reception with open bar and cocktail food.

Amalfi's nightly rates, after an initial introductory period, will range from $219 to $259.

Drummond and Pigsley also believe business travel is recovering from the dip that began in 2000 and that the real growth is occurring among properties that compete on the basis of service and amenities.