Move over, room upgrades. There's a new hotel perk in town, and it might be worth more to business travelers than a bigger bed.
"Like many airlines, hotels such as InterContinental and Hyatt are now opening exclusive hotel club lounges to entice travelers to book with them," says Clem Bason, president of travel website company the Hotwire Group.
Club, concierge or executive lounges, which typically require upgraded room bookings or frequent guest program membership, can be a lifesaver for busy business travelers. Perks include being able to take a shower before the room is ready, meeting privately with a client or enjoying free meals, concierge services and cocktails in a private setting.
The number of lounges is growing, especially among high-end hotels. About 18 percent of more than 8,500 hotels at all levels surveyed last year by the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Foundation have a club floor or lounge. That's up from 10 percent in 2004. Of those hotels, 89 percent of them were classified as luxury or upper upscale.
While club lounges been around for decades, they have become a renovation priority for hotels looking to keep room occupancy high and secure customer loyalty during the recession, says Dr. Lalia Rach, a board member of the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International.
The Sheraton hotel chain invested more than $100 million to upgrade 120 club lounges around the world after Starwood Preferred Guest members, which make up half of Sheraton bookings, rated them as one of the top two benefits of staying there. The Sheraton Club experience is available to all Starwood program members or with a room upgrade.
Lounges are also a way for a hotel to reinforce its brand via décor, ambiance, convenience, comfort and amenities. They're also not limited to business travelers: families and leisure travelers are also catching on, though some hotels cater more to business needs than others. Hotel lounges are generally "less stuffy," offer more luxurious services and are more comfortable than they used to be.
"We like to live our lives in public. The club lounge is becoming more of a den," Rach says.
Lounge amenities vary widely by hotel brand, and there are several ways to access them. Smaller hotel chains and independent hotels often offer free access for booking higher end suites, while many larger hotel chains make it a frequent guest perk and may or may not charge a daily fee for the service.
For example, travelers gain free access to the club lounge at London's new St. Ermin's Hotel -- one of four hotels owned by Amerimar Enterprises -- by booking king suites.
"Any guest who books the appropriate level room and requires privacy for a meeting can utilize the lounge. It's geared toward the business traveler but open to anyone based on booking. All guests who have access are told about it in advance," says Douglas McHugh, general manager of St. Ermin's. Its club lounge includes a full bathroom with shower, meeting room with audio/visual equipment, tables, to-go coffee and gourmet hors d'oeuvres.
Business travelers should inquire about club lounge requirements and amenities at the time of booking, says Sandi Daniel, CEO of the Fire Light Group, which coordinates incentive packages for business travelers. Ask whether it is quiet, has reliable Wi-Fi and morning newspapers, and quality to-go items. Lounges that open early and stay open late are most convenient for business travelers, Rach says.
Mid-range chains like Hyatt, Marriott, Sheraton and Starwood typically include continental breakfasts, hors d'oeuvres, non-alcoholic beverages, computer use and private concierge attendants, Daniel says.
"These lounges are a great place to wind down without hanging out in a large hotel lobby bar area where it can be noisy, and also a bit of a singles scene sometimes," Daniel says. "If you just want to catch up on e-mail, relax, maybe have a snack and a cocktail, it has a more homey feel, which is often so much nicer then locking yourself up in your hotel room and ordering room service."
Luxury chains like the Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, Fairmont and St. Regis take it one step further, often offering complimentary full breakfasts, heavy hors d'oeuvres, cordials, desserts, cocktails, champagne and private concierge services.
"For light eaters, it is enough food to get by without having to go out somewhere and dine alone in a restaurant or order room service," Daniel says. "As a woman who has traveled in business for over 30 years, I find these clubs to be a godsend for many reasons. They are often only accessible with your room key, which makes safer travel."
The hotel industry is starting to understand that business travelers want soothing, exclusive and convenient experiences, Rach says, but there's still work to be done across the board. She hopes other hotels will follow the chains that have done club lounges well.
"Our industry has not put the money into renovation. It's time for the industry to refresh itself."