Complimentary hotel stays and airline upgrades are a well-deserved reward for spending 12 hours on the trade-show floor, lifting heavy boxes, and not having enough time to eat. While hotel loyalty programs were created more than 25 years ago for frequent travelers, the concept of tailoring a program to target meeting planners is at an all-time high. In a lumbering economy, hotels want to entice planners with complimentary hotel nights, discounts on group meals, and credits to their meetings’ overall bills.
Three major programs:
• Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Preferred Planner program: Planners don’t get points; they get Starpoints, implying higher benefits for meeting planners over leisure or business travelers. The program is further expanded to offer Instant Meeting Awards, the ability to get up to a $1,500 credit on your group bill as long as you are a Starwood Preferred Planner with 15,000 Starpoints (and, of course, a signed hotel contract must be in place). But there’s a terms and conditions catch to get meeting planners to book with Starwood again. Star points earned for the group’s recent meeting may not be redeemed toward that meeting. So if you haven’t reached 15,000 points, you’ll have to wait until your next appointment to earn the group bill credit.
• InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) Priority Club Meeting Rewards: The program awards planners for “qualified” meetings. Reading the fine print is also essential here. Planners must have a minimum of 10 rooms occupied in their block from a minimum of one night up to five consecutive nights, depending on the brand in IHG’s portfolio of hotels. InterContinental and Crowne Plaza have an additional requirement that meeting-related food and beverage charges must be applied to the master bill. Planners receive different status levels depending on how many meetings they book: Gold Elite status for planners who host one qualified meeting in a calendar year; and Platinum Elite status for those hosting two meetings per year. Benefits of status range from the gold level’s 10 percent bonus in points and priority check-in to complimentary room upgrades and a 50 percent boost in bonus points at the platinum level.
• Marriott’s Rewarding Events: The program also offers levels of elite status and allows planners to choose between hotel points and airline miles. For every $1 in total meeting charges, planners can earn three hotel points up to a maximum of 50,000 or 1 mile up to a maximum of 15,000.
Marriott, IHG, and Starwood have all received Freddie Awards, honoring the best frequent traveler programs worldwide for the last 20 years. Receiving an award by giving travelers rewards confirms the industry’s intense focus on points. But for meeting planners bound by industry guidelines and organizational policies, does redeem points for personal gain step dangerously close to the edge of ethics?
Joshua Grimes of Grimes Law Offices, a firm specializing in associations and the hospitality industry, says there is no industry standard on points; however, many companies have policies that employees and contractors must follow.
“Sometimes these policies require people earning points for business travel to credit them to the company account,” Grimes says. “Other times, the [individual] may keep them.”
Sheila Evans, director of sales Southern region for Hilton Worldwide, has clients who create a “house account” for points. Similar to an escrow account at a bank, Hilton holds the rewards points for use as the group books meetings. This ensures that the issues go to the company, not the individual planner. “Some clients use their points in company giveaways or donate them to their favorite charity,” Evans says.
Grimes says that most hotels have a policy allowing the meeting sponsor to designate who gets the points, the only condition being that the issues will be paid to only one person or entity. “This means that any recipient may be designated,” Grimes says. “However, ethics considerations may dictate that the points should go to the meeting sponsor unless that sponsor designates another recipient.”
Evans says it must be stated clearly, who will receive the points before signing the hotel contract. “This is usually decided by the meeting planner or the person booking the program,” Evans says.
Ethical considerations can be stretched further when a planner bases a destination or venue decision on the reward of points. Kyle Greer, program manager for the Society of International Business Fellows (SIBF), books properties based on how they fit his organization’s needs, not by their points program.
“Our key concerns are location, meeting space, and service level,” Greer says. “It is critical [that] we pull off high-caliber meetings and events, and we’ve yet to find that a point system helps in any way.”
Paulette Hopkins, president of The Hopkins Alliance, puts a clause in her contracts listing the designated representative who will receive the points. “But it has never been the decision-breaker [over another property],” Hopkins says.
While Grimes says there is no legally correct answer, under the federal Sarbanes-Oxley law, the points would have to go to the company or organization sponsoring the meeting. “Otherwise, there could be an implication that the planner chose a particular hotel because he or she was personally earning points — a suspect incentive because it doesn’t benefit the meeting sponsor,” Grimes says. “The best policy is for the planner to give the company the points or to disclose to the company that the hotel is offering them and seek approval from company officials to keep them.”