Piling on the perks

From free cigars to fluffy pillows, hotels are pulling out the stops to win your business these days.

Complimentary shoeshine? No problem. Personalized business cards? Consider it done. How about a free after-dinner drink? Choose between the port, Grand Marnier or a premium tequila.

Hotels are trying to one-up each other with imaginative amenities like never before, according to Scottsdale, Ariz.-based corporate travel analyst Bruce Tepper. “Especially among premium properties, there’s a real fight to get the most frequent travelers as repeat customers.”

That’s a nice way of putting it. Actually, hotels are going to some very creative-and at times bizarre-lengths to ingratiate themselves to their guests.

Take San Francisco’s $200-a-night Pan Pacific Hotel. When the hotel staff noticed frequent travelers arriving with their own pillows in tow, managers commissioned an internal poll to find out why. The survey revealed that the Pan Pacific’s pillows were too hard. So the property bought a special machine that fluffs feather pillows.

“With guest comfort our most primary concern we responded by implementing a pillow preference program so guests can leave their pillows at home,” says general manager Volker Ulrich.

The machine, which looks like a mid-size photocopier with a plastic window on one side, expands pillows to the point that they’re practically bursting at the seams. Although it’s too soon to tell if road warriors have stopped packing their own pillows, managers seem hopeful that this fluff story will have a happy ending.

At the Ritz-Carlton San Juan Hotel & Casino, business travelers are wooed with gratis Dominicans at the cigar bar. Take your pick of an Arturo Fuentes, Monte Cristo, Avo or anything else in the humidor that strikes your fancy. Sip an after-dinner drink while you savor every puff. Go ahead, it’s on the house.

Qualifying for these perks isn’t difficult, says Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman Leslie Lefkowitz. All it takes is a visit or two to any of the chain’s properties, which is enough to create a record of your preferences in the chain’s national database. If you like a fine cigar with port after dinner, it’s a safe bet that you won’t be paying for the privilege.

Don’t feel like waiting that long? The Ritz-Carlton in San Juan offers summer specials that specifically include a free cigar and drink, plus private town car airport transfers, a daily half-hour massage and free overnight suit pressing.

Shutters On The Beach, the exclusive Santa Monica, Calif., beachfront hotel, prints custom “in residence” business cards for corporate travelers who are staying a week or longer. In Asia, hotel business cards are relatively common at upscale properties. They’re practically unheard of here.

A more common but no less impressive service is the free shoeshine. More than 36,500 shoes are polished every year at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, for example. That’s 63 pounds of polish used to buff everything from loafers to boots.

“We wanted to offer a meaningful amenity to the business traveler,” says hotel spokeswoman Cherry Kam. “And this isn’t just another mint on the pillow.”

Just what are these hotels up to? Do they think they can make us any less cranky when we’re in a strange city and want nothing more than to be back home, in our own bed? Or do they think that by going above and beyond the call of duty, they might make us want to travel more?

It’s hard to say. They might succeed at the latter, but not the former. I mean face it; business travelers aren’t on the road for their health. However, if you must go, you might as well take advantage of what’s being offered.

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