Barnett on Business Travel



February 10, 1991 -- Travelers are staying home and cutting back, so the hotel industry, with empty beds to fill, is wheeling and dealing like never before.

Best giveaway so far - free round-trip airplane tickets to Europe, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Canada or the United States for spending nine nights in any one of 39 North American cities.

The scheme, aimed at but not limited to business travelers, is called USA Plus '91. Sounds like a lottery or a sweepstakes but it's not. Actually, it's the brainstorm of an Inter-Continental Hotels marketing guru who realized he had to let other hotels in on the action to make it work.

Here is how it works: spend nine nights in '91 at any one of 39 different hotels around the country and pay what is called the "qualifying rate" and you earn a free round- trip ticket on SAS, United, Pan Am or American Airlines. No points to add up, no complicated quotas to reach. Just sleep over nine times and soar.

"The (hospitality) market is flat at best, the economy is not in the best shape," explains Roland Schuster, general manager of Inter-Continental's fabled Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. "This is designed to build business."

What's the catch? There are a few.

For instance, the "qualifying rate" is no real bargain, but then it's not the top price, called the "rack rate," either. And the rate varies, depending on the city and the hotel.

In Austin, Texas, travelers are charged $119 for a single or a double at the Wyndham Southpark Hotel.

In the Windy City, the Hotel Inter- Continental Chicago has established the USA Plus '91 qualifying rate at $210 for a single, $230 for a double.

Most are in between.

The Peabody Memphis charges $150 for a single as its qualifying rate.

Doing business in Washington, D.C.? The Willard Inter-Continental, a magnificent hotel, is fetching $235 for a single, $265 for a double.

But beware. These are "minimum" qualifying rates.

If, for example, you're staying at the Wyndham Midtown Atlanta on a Friday and the room rate is cheaper than the $145 a night rate set for the USA Plus '91 program, you won't get credit for that stay.

That's right. You cannot bunk in at the cheapie weekend rate that most hotels offer and get the voucher toward the free airline ticket.

The other catch: Membership isn't transferable. When you enroll in the program - no cost, sign up at the check-in desk - you get a USA Plus '91 card. It cannot be passed back and forth between spouses, children or in-laws.

What's more, the plan is limited to North American hotels only. A night at the delightful Inter-Continental- managed Mayfair Hotel in London doesn't count.

Otherwise, there are no other strings attached. You can stay five consecutive nights at, say, the stately, recently refurbished 81-year-old U.S. Grant Hotel in the heart of San Diego, and as long as you pay the $135 minimum qualifying rate, you're more than halfway to Copenhagen. Or to hundreds of other cities and resorts.

It's not surprising that this bright idea was hatched by Inter-Continental. While Hyatt, Marriott and Sheraton seem to be taking all the bows for granting frequent travelers all the goodies like room upgrades and the like, Inter-Con, known among global travelers for its lush hostelries worldwide, actually invented the "guest recognition" concept decades ago with its Six-Continents Club, points out Schuster, the Mark Hopkins GM who began his hotel career as a chef in his native Austria.

"Club members were designated with little red dots and they got late checkouts and upgraded rooms," says Schuster.

In fact, USA Plus '91 originally was born as Inter-Continental Plus in 1983 when the company opened a hotel in Houston "during tough times."

Back then, it only took five room nights to earn a free ticket to Europe, but then fewer Americans could play because you had to check into an Inter-Continental hotel.

Other hotels around the country are just as hungry for business.

"We're here to deal and willing to bargain," says Marje Bennett, a spokeswoman for Sheraton Hotels in Southern California. "Our salespeople are told not to lose the business."

Sheraton has a "warm and comfortable" promotion running nationwide through the end of March. Stay, pay the "best value" rate and get a $10 gift certificate good on any purchase over $75 at an Eddie Bauer clothing store, or from its mail-order catalog.

Plus, the luxurious 469-room Sheraton Grande Hotel in downtown Los Angeles dropped its weekend rate $20 a night to $95.

Hilton Hotels Corp. has done something even more creative. To persuade business travelers to stay over and unwind, Hilton has "awarded Thursday night official weekend status," says Mike Ribero, senior vice president of marketing.

Hence, the hotel's "bounce-back weekend" - which once began on Friday - now starts Thursday night and the savings are hefty.

For instance, Thursday night is $75 at the Pittsburgh Hilton & Towers and $69 a night at the Atlanta Airport Hilton.

Omni Hotels nationwide have some real weekend steals now through the end of February, among them $59 a night at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, D.C., the Omni Charlottesville, N.C., and at the Omni North Star in Minneapolis.

And even if you check in after the cut-off date at Omni or any hotel, a little civilized haggling will get you a rock-bottom rate in today's tough market - if rooms are not reserved.

Even the most exclusive resorts are dealing. In Maui's spectacular 380-Four Seasons Resort Wailea, which caters to lovers of all ages, is wheeling literally.

For 1991, the "rendezvous" plan gives you a free air-conditioned, full- size car when you spend the night in a naturally air-conditioned ocean- view room.

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union

Copyright 1990-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.