White Collar Travel: Accelerate your trip to the hotel club-level lounge

Access to a hotel‘s club-level lounge is a small perk. It doesn’t equate to an ostentatious suite, but does rank higher than bathrobes. The amenities are nice, usually consisting of a mix of free food and liquor, but they won’t change your life. For me, at least, the lure of the lounge involved having a place to go that wasn’t my room. I could hit the lounge with a book and relax while sipping a drink. It beat the lobby, which usually had too much traffic for my taste. If I needed to get some work done, the change of scenery was a plus, and the environment afforded a bit more privacy than the public areas of the hotel.

Unless you pay a few extra bucks for club-level access, though, you can only gain admittance through your status with the hotel’s rewards program. This takes time, unfortunately, as the hotel uses the lounge as a way to thank you for your loyalty (translation: spending). There’s a third way to get into the lounge that many business travelers don’t think to try – negotiation. It will only take a few minutes of your time, and it could buy you several months of comfort ahead of schedule.If you’re on a long-term engagement, you will be a frequent guest at the same hotel (unless, for some reason, you choose to bounce around). As early as possible in the project, contact the hotel’s management and let them know your plans. Explain that you’ll be staying with them for a while and that you’d like to be comfortable while you do. Tell the manager that you’d be willing to make your reservations far in advance and would appreciate early access to the club-level lounge. You may not be able to get a room on the club floor, but that isn’t as important as lounge access.

Before you make your case to the hotel’s management, put your case together. If you aren’t on a solo project, ask the other people traveling with you if they want to get in on the action (they probably will, even if they have no plans to use the lounge). Note how long you’ll be staying at the property and calculate how much you’re going to wind up spending there in room expenses alone. Don’t lead with this number, but have it in your back pocket. In all honestly, it probably won’t get that far: when you tell the manager how long you’ll be a guest, he’ll already be doing the math in his head. When you multiply that number by everyone who is on your project, the result is an incredible amount of spending power. It will be noticed, and it will have an impact.

The beauty of the hospitality business (unlike the airlines) is that it really does tend to be focused on the guest. If a hotel’s management sees a promising business opportunity, it has the flexibility to accept it. As a result, guest loyalty increases, and word spreads. And, it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents. Most hotel professionals are simply committed to ensuring their guests have positive experiences. If they can do something to help you, they will. Giving you early access to the club level in exchange for a commitment from you for a long-term stay doesn’t cost the hotel any real cash, but it sure brings plenty in.

Asking for early access to the club-level lounge could be the best 10 minutes you invest.

Are you planning a mileage run? Four reasons to rush to the airport

There are only a few weeks left in 2009, and frequent travelers across the country are staring more intently at their mileage statements than Santa does at the naughty/nice list. The stakes are high: miss the elite cutoff, and a year of upgrades, accelerated check-in and other perks disappear. For passengers who see gold or platinum status levels within reach, year-end “mileage runs” can make a great investment. Pay for a cheap flight, even if it is just for a night or a same-day return, and use this benefit for the next twelve months on upgrades and services that would cost a fortune otherwise.

With the low prices airlines are offering these days to bring passengers back into the cabin, the return on your investment in a “mileage run” is higher than ever. But, it’s not all to the flyer’s benefit … there’s an upside for the airlines, too. They get loyalty.

Randy Petersen, founder of FlyerTalk.com, a website for frequent travelers, told USA Today, “Whenever someone doesn’t requalify for elite status, they become free agents. And in tough times, airlines don’t want to gamble that some of their best customers will leave.” He puts the number of elite-level passengers at 7.3 million of the 210 million passengers who belong to at least one loyalty program.

So, the airlines are rolling out the red carpet for mileage runners. Here are four mileage run deals to kick around with the end of the year approaching.

1. Through December 15, 2009, American, Continental and United are doubling the elite-qualifying miles they give their passengers. So, a shorter mileage run goes a little further.

2. In the middle of next year, Continental and Untied are going to give each other’s elite passengers unlimited upgrades (based on availability) on domestic flights — and premium coach seats, too. So, if you hit the right status on either airline this year, you’ll gain even more for your efforts.

3. Starting in the spring, Delta will let you roll over extra elite-qualifying miles and credits you don’t need to reach a status level to the next year. So, you don’t have to worry about starting from zero when January 1, 2011 rolls around.

4. Delta is also adding a new top level — diamond — that will include even better perks, including free Sky Club membership.

For the frequent business traveler, especially, reaching a high elite level involves so much more than bragging rights. It defines your lifestyle for the next year — from how early you need to get up on Monday morning to your mood when you get home Thursday or Friday night. But, there are better measures to watch than up-ticks in frequent flyer accounts. My friend and former coworker from the road warrior days put it best: “The only thing better [than accumulating airline and hotel status levels] is watching them expire.” Yeah, nothing tops getting off the road for a while when you live that life.

Status seekers pulling back

It’s not just the travel companies’ bank accounts getting hit in this market – loyalty programs are getting spanked, too. The management consultants, investment bankers and attorneys – now fewer in number than a year ago – who accumulate elite status quickly aren’t spending as much time on the road. With considerably less travel time being logged, the folks who used to have platinum status on multiple airlines and in multiple hotels aren’t hitting the same levels they have for the past several years.

A study by Colloquy, which conducts marketing research for loyalty programs, showed that loyalty program membership dropped 28 percent in the travel industry. In 2007, the average traveler belonged to 2.8 of these programs. Now, it’s down to merely two. Lower- and middle-income men are being cited as the source of the decline, as they’ve been hit harder by layoffs.

Additionally, active participation in loyalty programs is down almost a third. This year, the average traveler is participating actively in 1.5 programs – a year ago, it was 2.2. Among the wealthy, this type of engagement fell 13 percent – from 2.3 programs down to two.

According to Colloquy, travelers are focusing on fewer programs and looking to get as much as they can out of them, rather than spread around their travel with the knowledge that they’ll have enough to reach and maintain high statuses with several travel companies.