A guide to 5-star treatment

Here's what you can get with some fast talking and a business card.

Print Edition: February 19, 2009

I envy those Page 3 people with recognisable faces for just one thing-wherever they go, people jump to roll out the red carpet. But there are others, far from rich or famous, who still manage to get the best tables in restaurants, who saunter into nightclubs sure of a warm welcome…What's their secret? Simply, they are regular guests.

So everyone from the bouncer to the maitre d' knows them. Then I realised that I too was a regular at the club rooms of some hotels -and had managed some great deals by leveraging this. A club room is a larger version of a deluxe room and includes privileges like airport transfers, free breakfast and cocktails and access to a meeting room. With hotels running on half capacity, courtesy the global economic slowdown, the perks have been upgraded to include secretarial and concierge services, free Wi-Fi and more.

In an attempt to woo the one group that travels irrespective of the season, economic cycle and mood, 'ask and you shall get' is fast becoming the hotelier's mantra for 2009. Here's what you can get with some fast talking and a business card.

Discounted tariffs

If the company you work for uses a specific hotel regularly, there are some amazing deals to be had. A friend was sent to Kolkata and stayed at the ITC Sonar Bangla. The published tariff for a club room is Rs 21,000. My friend's firm negotiated a tariff of less than Rs 10,000 a night, with complimentary ironing and discounted telecom usage. And you don't have to work for a large MNC for such a deal. The fact is, if you work with any reasonably well-known company, hotels will give you their corporate rate, which is anything from 10-30% off the regular tariff, going up to 50%. If you make a bulk booking, for six couples or more, you could get a discount of up to 30%.

Chances are that you'll forget to do all this when you're planning a holiday. I've found that speaking to the general manager of the property after checking in can get you a good deal. Even hotels in popular tourist spots, from Goa to McLeodganj, are willing to give you a good deal if you manage to speak to the right people. I generally use this tactic to get a room upgrade at a discounted rate. It helps if you travel off season, when hotels are scrambling to fill rooms.

Sometimes, all it takes is a certain amount of chutzpah and willingness to push your luck. I recently managed to get a discount of almost 60% at Delhi's Svelte Personal Suites. The rate mentioned on the Website was Rs 9,000 till 15 January, a special rate that was 35% cheaper than the regular tariff, introduced after the Mumbai terror attack. When I tried my luck further by calling the front desk for the best possible rate, I got a quote of Rs 6,500. A bit more haggling and I ended up with a spacious suite, with complimentary breakfast and dinner, for just Rs 6,000. It helped that I was making a reservation when the hotel's main clients, embassy personnel, had checked out for the Christmas-New Year holidays. Interestingly, the hotel occupies the top floors of South Delhi's hippest mall, Select Citywalk. This means the hotel saves on real estate costs and doesn't need to provide in-house entertainment and multiple dining options. Hence, it is willing to pass on the benefits to guests who ask for a discount on the published rate of Rs 14,000.

The mall-cum-hotel format is fast gaining popularity. The NCR's newest business hotel, the Leela Kempinski Gurgaon, hugs one side of the swanky Ambience mall in Gurgaon, and is open for reservations, although it will only be completed by March this year. Till then, it has a great promotional offer in place. The regular tariffs start at Rs 13,000 a night, but till end-February, guests only have to pay Rs 9,500. Vella Ramasawmy, the hotel's general manager, says that this and other great deals are part of the hotel's strategy to "displace business out of the competition".

Services galore

Branded toiletries, a 24-hour travel desk, chocolates on the pillow after your bed is made…Regular guests are getting used to such facilities and no longer see these as a service. To keep them happy, hotels are coming up with new services that I find perfectly acceptable. While staying at Bengaluru's ITC Windsor, I discovered that my room came with its own free butler service. I was offered a room on the hotel's Eva floor-reserved for women-and instead of Jeeves, I got Ms Jeeves. She did my unpacking, helped me connect my laptop with the hotel's broadband and then vanished. All I needed to get this genie back in my room was ring for her. Or call, which I did when I was returning to the hotel after a long day, and found that she had run a bath for me as requested! Strangely, when I asked if she was constantly run off her feet by demanding guests like me, she said that the majority of guests did not avail of this service, confusing it with concierge services.

Most hotels also offer a separate check-in area for its club room guests, while a select few have upgraded to the in-room check-in concept. Exclusivity apart, this makes the entire process much faster for guests. For jet-setting executives and travel buffs like me, this feature alone makes the more expensive club rooms worth every penny.

Loyalty programmes

Here's some bad news. Just checking into a club room at a great tariff does not make you a valued guest, as I found to my regret in Mumbai. At the Taj President, I checked into a club room close to a wing where major renovation work was in progress. What's the point of shelling out extra for a spacious room with better amenities if you are compelled to roam the streets till the workers pack up for the day? That's when a friendly fellow guest let me in on a secret: loyalty programmes. "My seniors advised that patronising myriad hotels was a mistake, so I signed up for the loyalty programmes of two leading hotel chains," said the 26-year-old executive at DHL. Not only did this mean that he always got a room far from the drills and hammers, it also resulted in enough loyalty points to bag a free weekend stay for a couple at any ITC hotel across the country.

This was enough to have me trawling the Net for the best hotel loyalty programme in the country. While each option guaranteed complimentary room upgrades, express check-ins, late check-outs and royal treatment, I found that it took longer to accrue points when it came to the Taj InnerCircle programme, and that the Marriott and Oberoi chains were limited to a few destinations. The Sarovar Group, on the other hand, despite a presence in practically every tourist hotspot and metro, had a fledgling loyalty programme. Seven hours on, after zeroing in on the ITC-Welcomgroup Loyalty Guest Programme, I checked into the ITC Grand Central's much better executive club room. The good news is that loyalty programmes are not just for business travellers; those who travel even once a year to the same place-a pilgrimage spot or a beach resort-are also eligible. If nothing else, they can get freebies and perks such as spa vouchers, free airport transfers or discounts on meals.

Bespoke wonders

If you're a regular, or a member of the loyalty programme, you can make strange demands and have them met. For instance, at Chennai's Chola Sheraton, after overindulging in seafood, I felt the need for some mild food to soothe my stomach. I tentatively asked the staff if I could have khichdi, fully expecting the kitchen to refuse. But I got what I wanted without a murmur. At another meal, I asked for a clear chicken soup, again not on the menu. Not only did I get it, the kitchen also sent me some fruits. When I was gloating about this to friends who were staying at the Rain Tree Hotel, they calmly informed me that they had been invited to dinner by the hotel management because they complained about some deficiency in service. Why was the hotel falling over itself to appease these guests? The company they were working for had a contract with the hotel, promising a fixed number of guests every year. On the whole, I think I got the real service. My friends got dinner because the hotel couldn't afford to lose the corporate client; my hotel offered me extra service simply because I was a regular guest.

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