By Mitch Lipka
(Reuters) - When it comes to hotel stays, Gary Burris is loyal to a fault.
In about 20 years of traveling, he has stayed 1,079 nights in Marriott International Inc hotels, where he expects - and receives - a certain level of service, says the 51-year-old sales manager for Oregon-based Tec Laboratories.
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Hotels covet loyalty from customers like Burris. More than two-thirds of frequent travelers stay with the same hotel company more than half their days on the road, according to a 2014 study on hotel loyalty by Deloitte Consulting.
The drive to keep them coming is creating a kind of loyalty program escalation, just ahead of the busy summer travel season. Hilton and Marriott have by far the most popular hotel loyalty programs, according to a 2014 study by MMGY Global, and Wyndham unveiled a plan for its hotels in early April that it hopes will jump it ahead in market share.
The idea Wyndham claims will be transformative is awarding a free room-night for 15,000 accumulated points (you get 10 points per dollar spent) at any of the chain's 7,500 properties on any day without blackouts. In other words, you could earn your reward staying at the chain's lower-end Super 8 or Microtel motels and get your free room at one of its top-end properties.
By comparison, Hilton and Marriott have the standard tiered system of reward redemption: The higher the level hotel, and the busier the season, the more points it takes to get a room. Marriott has five tiers; Hilton has 10.
Wyndham Chief Marketing Officer Josh Lesnick says travelers have complained about all the complexities of earning free stays - with numerous levels to sort out. Instead, in Wyndham's plan, all 7,500 hotels are in the same bucket.
Busy travelers say that their loyalty is less about earning points and more about how they are treated. Especially good treatment warrants an especially deep loyalty.
Leora Lanz, for one, is particularly devoted to The Lenox Hotel for her frequent stays in Boston.
"The staff knows me and my family already, and treat us like we're in our home away from home," Lanz, 50, says. While she is a consultant to hospitality companies, based in Long Island, The Lenox is not a client. The hotel earned her respect the old-fashioned way - through good service.
When Hurricane Sandy knocked out power on Long Island and Lanz sought an escape from the devastation, she called The Lenox. After her family's 10-hour drive to get there, she says they were warmly welcomed, given snacks and led to a room set up to accommodate all five of them and even their dog.
"You want to hear your name. You want to know the company knows you're a loyal customer," says Matthew D'Uva, president and chief executive officer of the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals.
Extra-special service includes running routes mapped out for a frequent jogger, allowing repeat guests to leave things behind or having a treat awaiting a known foodie. "Use the data to create unique experiences," D'Uva says.
Road warriors who have experienced an extraordinary level of service explain that loyalty is a two-way street. Making one-on-one connections with staff you see on each stay is key. Those relationships, they say, can be the entree to having the hotel call a sister property you're going to stay at and extend that same red carpet.
"By building relationships with the property and key staff, expressing your personal gratitude, and most of all, being a friend, not a guest, you’ll find that being loyal to the property far outweighs being simply brand loyal," says Andy Abramson, CEO of the marketing firm Comunicano Inc.
(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Ted Botha)