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by Brad Goodsell | May 01, 2011
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With all hotel reward programs, reading the fine print is essential. While hotels are eager to book group business, programs often have specific stipulations and limitations. Note reward expiration dates, blackout dates, and policies on combining rewards points with other discount offers.

If a hotel rewards program doesn't meet your objectives, speak with your contact. Some properties will customize a rewards program to meet your needs.

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As the economy gradually recovers, hoteliers are looking to woo groups with revamped rewards programs -- e.g., points earned on stays that can be used for future meetings, room nights, upgrades, etc. When leveraged correctly, such programs can yield real benefits for planners.

Set Policy It's good business to set company guidelines before enrolling in loyalty programs. Work with your planning and legal staff to develop a policy. Lay out how rewards will be earned and used, and determine if points will be credited to the company or if they will be earned by individual planners. Be sure to put clauses in both client and hotel contracts designating who will receive the points.

Also, determine officially approved reward uses, such as to pay for staff housing or travel expenses, reduce the master bill by a set percentage or even cover expenses pertaining to meetings industry events or certification classes, including registration fees. Lay out as many approved types of reward uses as possible for maximum point-spending flexibility.

Finally, determine which employees should enroll in these programs. Some companies choose a neutral party, such as an accounting or legal representative not directly involved in event management, to avoid ethical concerns. Others allow planners to earn and use rewards individually but stipulate limits in areas such as upgrading standard rooms to suites or staying extra nights, to ensure employees don't go out of their way to accumulate points.

When using a third-party firm, most chains will offer double points or split points, so both the meeting host and the third party can earn rewards.

Program Perks Nearly every hotel chain has a loyalty program. Following is a sampling of some that offer meeting perks.

• Hyatt Hotels & Resorts was the first hotel chain to allow enrollment by companies rather than individuals.

• Hilton Worldwide also allows "house accounts" for company, rather than individual, use.

• Omni Hotels & Resorts gives planners several reward options, such as one-year association membership, the registration fee for attending an industry conference, or a donation to a charity of the planner's choice.

• Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide allows flexible reward spending, including credits of up to $1,500 applied against the master bill.

• Marriott International is offering double points on meetings and events through September of this year. Points can be used for free nights for planners as well as services such as spa credits and meals, or they may be transferred to frequent-flyer accounts for major airlines.

• Caesars Entertainment launched a new program this month across its 50-plus locations in the U.S. and Canada. Planners earn points based on the master bill, with no earning limits. The points can be redeemed at any of the company's properties for rooms, restaurants, the spa, golf, merchandise or future meetings.