By Stephanie Rosenbloom – The New York Times – May 3, 2016
If you answered the latter, hotels are trying to change that. And you may stand to gain.
A few weeks ago Hyatt Hotels began offering discounts to members of its loyalty program who book their rooms through Hyatt instead of a third party such as Travelocity. The announcement came after MarriottInternational introduced new discounted rates for loyalty program members who book directly with Marriott (which created an unambiguous marketing campaign called “It Pays to Book Direct”). Both chains announced their discounts in the wake of Hilton Worldwide, which said in February that it was rolling out the largest marketing campaign in its nearly 100-year history to tell its loyalty program members that they would receive discounts on rooms at more than 4,500 hotels around the world if they booked directly.
Hotels have been trying to get travelers to book through their websites and call centers for years, but now major chains are going further than ever to woo travelers away from third-party booking sites, which charge commission fees and have been a barrier to hotels marketing directly to their guests. (Stay tuned: When asked during its most recent earnings call about hotels offering discounts for direct booking, Expedia said that it was considering more flexible ways to work including “testing link-offs from our site on to the direct sites of some of our chain partners,” said Mark D. Okerstrom, Expedia’s executive vice president and chief financial officer.) With hotels and booking sites vying to be the point of sale, travelers are in a position to win, not only scoring perks like room upgrades, but lower rates too.
The discounts at Hyatt hotels are for properties in the United States, Canada and Australia and apply to members of its loyalty program, which is free to join at Hyattgoldpassport.com. Members who book directly can now receive up to 10 percent off reservations made through Hyatt.com, its app, call centers and travel agents. The chain also offers a best-rate guarantee. Later this year, guests who book directly will be allowed to make on-demand requests to their hotel through the app. They can also check in online and manage their reservation on their smartphones.
The new rates at Marriott are available more broadly, at over 4,200 hotels worldwide, to loyalty program members (it’s free to join at marriottrewards.com) who book directly on its website, app, call centers or through certain corporate travel professionals. Karin Timpone, Marriott International’s global marketing officer, said in a statement that the company wants “to help dispel the myth that other travel websites offer better rates for our hotels.” If guests find a better rate within 24 hours of booking directly, Marriott will match that rate and offer an additional 25 percent discount.
It was Hilton that led the direct booking charge with its “Stop Clicking Around” marketing campaign, which highlights its new discounts along with other benefits of booking direct and being a member of its rewards program (which is free to join at Hhonors3.hilton.com). For instance, its mobile app allows members to check in, choose their room from a digital floor plan and use a digital key.
Yet it’s not just major chains that are pushing for direct bookings. Independent and boutique hotels are also offering perks to travelers who book directly. Aqua-Aston Hospitality, a hotel management group in Hawaii, for instance, gives $20 daily Starbucks gift cards to guests at its Lite hotels. Some of the group’s other properties, including the Kauai Shores Resort, Aqua Waikiki Pearl, and Ilikai Hotels & Suites, give Hawaiian snack baskets, even car rentals, to guests who book directly.
The spike in offers comes at a time when the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., has voiced its opposition to consolidation in the online travel agency business, such as the acquisition last year of Orbitz by Expedia, a deal that was particularly bothersome to hotels, they said, since they paid Expedia commissions that were higher than Orbitz’s. The group has also waged a campaign against deceptive booking sites that are made to look like a hotel’s own website but are not. The Federal Trade Commission has warned that such sites may charge fees, fail to honor guest requests for certain types of rooms and even take travelers’ money without booking a room. These developments aside, there have long been practical reasons to book directly with a hotel.
A few years ago I wrote about how hotels were offering best-rate guarantees to those who booked with them. Direct booking has had other benefits, too, such as upgrades to rooms with better views, free food and drinks, free Wi-Fi, spa credits and a more personalized stay. That’s because any requests you make, like additional pillows, are going straight to the source, as is information about any special occasions you may be celebrating. Nowadays booking directly may also include the ability to check in on your smartphone. Making changes to reservations is often easier or more seamless as well. And of course there is the matter of the hotel’s rewards points. In general, you don’t get them if you book through a third party.
Mark Weinstein, Hilton Worldwide’s global head of customer engagement, loyalty and partnerships, said in a statement that last year 57 billion points (that’s more than 1.6 million free nights, according to Hilton) went unearned because guests booked their stay through a third party. “There is a huge misconception that third parties always offer lower prices for our hotel rooms,” he said, “which is simply not true.”
Even so, third-party booking sites have their own loyalty programs that — for people who travel only a couple of times of year or prefer to hop among brands — may make more sense than joining a single brand’s reward program. The Hotels.com loyalty program, for instance, gives members one point for each night they spend in a participating hotel chain or boutique hotel booked through the site. For every 10 nights they stay, they earn a free night (the maximum value of the free night is the average daily rate of the 10 nights stayed).
The scope of such programs is hard to match. At Hotels.com, free nights can be earned at more than 200,000 hotels and redeemed with no blackout dates. You won’t get points from, say, Hilton. But if you have commitment issues, it’s good to know that there’s a loyalty program even for you.