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Hotels That Fit You
by Rudy Maxa for Marketplace

The last few years have been pretty good for airlines and hotels that cater to business travelers, but the word on the street - and not just Wall Street - is that things are going to get tougher before they get better. Our Savvy Traveler, Rudy Maxa, tells us that even high-end hotels, for example, are trying to find ways to go on the offensive by attracting and keeping customers. Here's how...

What would you think if you checked into a hotel that gifted you with a little something from Neiman-Marcus - a butterfly-shaped, biodegradable paper with seeds embedded on it? Moisten it, plant it, and flowers known to attract Monarch butterflies will grow.

Well, you might get that if you're a regular guest at the swanky Monarch Hotel in downtown Washington, DC. You see the connection, of course - Monarch . . . butterfly? Or you could take a room just two blocks away at the Ritz-Carlton. If you stay there four times, on your next arrival, you'll find your pillowcases monogrammed with your initials. Go ahead, take them home with you.

Feel the love? Hotels, especially, fancy ones, want to form a relationship with you in the hopes that you'll be true blue and come back to them often rather than, well, rather then sleeping around. As business travel dips, that's more important than ever.

James McBride knows something about economic downturns. He was general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Kuala Lumpur when the Malaysian ringgit tumbled along with most other Asian currencies three-and-a-half years ago. He found himself trying all kinds of things to sell his luxury rooms for $80 a night. And that's when he thought up the monogrammed pillowcases. He tells me it's actually cheaper to give a couple of those pillowcases to a guest than to send up a fruit basket as a welcome gift. Which is why he introduced the perk when he took over the new Ritz-Carlton in DC.

Over the years, hotels have engaged in all kinds of one-ups-manship; for a while, there wasn't room for your toothbrush in a hotel bathroom, so filled was it with loofahs and lotions and shoe-polishing stuff. The bathroom amenity wars eventually ended and now it's "personalization." Like Nike, Levis, and Dell Computer, hotels want you to feel strongly about their brand, and if designing a little something yourself helps, well, consider it done.

Which is why Windham Hotels has run so many full-page ads in national newspapers over the last couple of months. The headline reads, "Until our staff is fully trained to read minds, we ask for your slight assistance." The hotel chain would like you to fill out its questionnaire that asks you to note your favorite soft drink, beer, wine, reading material, music, leisure activities, sports events, and spa products. Look, this is all to the good, as far as I'm concerned. Some hotels are also finally asking for your e-mail address, too. It took them about four years longer than the airlines to figure out capturing e-mail addresses is a great, cheap way of notifying customers of deals or special events.

So if you're doing business in the same town a lot, consider being loyal to one hotel. Who knows what might be waiting on your pillow at night?

I'm Rudy Maxa, from the Savvy Traveler, for Marketplace.


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