In the eyes of travel agents, hoteliers appear to be
increasingly divided into “they love me” and “they love me not” camps.
Among the former is JDB Fine Hotels & Resorts, which
pays agents two percentage points above the typical 10% commission and offers
perks such as arranging for a private boat to pick up clients from the airport
when visiting Venice.
Meanwhile, Marriott International would fall into the “love
me not” category, at least for members of the Travel Leaders Group agent
consortium. Marriott, the largest U.S. hotel company, is one of a number of
hoteliers that have recently stepped up efforts to sway potential guests away
from OTAs and toward direct bookings, but it is the only one of the four
largest U.S. hotel companies — the others being Hilton, Hyatt and Starwood —
that does not participate in the consortium’s Worldwide Hotel Program.
“The larger hotel companies are being more aggressive with
direct-booking efforts, but we’ve seen hotel companies with a parallel strategy
to ensure agents bring business to hotels,” said Erick Rodriguez, senior vice
president of Travel Leaders Group’s hotel division. “It varies across the
Indeed, there has long been a broad spectrum of approaches
taken by hotel companies to either maintain or boost travel agent-based hotel
bookings, ranging from the basic, commission-only policies of ower-end or
moderately priced chain hotels to fam trips, guaranteed upgrades for clients
and other perks meted out by luxury hotels that are either independently run or
part of smaller chains.
With the largest hotel operators shifting much of their
marketing dollars toward getting prospective guests to book direct and U.S.
hotel-room demand growth heading toward a plateau, the spectrum appears to be
evolving into more of a line that separates hotel companies that are redoubling
their efforts to widen the travel-agency sales channel from those that aren’t.
Much of the agent-friendly contingent is represented by
marketing specialists representing independent properties and smaller chains.
JDB is a New Jersey-based marketing and reservations company that represents
about 100 independent European hotels and conducts 100% of its business through
The Motif Seattle is managed by Destination Hotels, which offers special rates on its travel agent portal.
Larger still is Preferred Hotels & Resorts, which
represents more than 650 hotels worldwide, including the Sagamore in upstate
New York and Paris’ Hotel Mayfair, as well as smaller luxury chains such as
Montage Hotels & Resorts’ five U.S. properties.
More than 40% of Preferred Hotels’ reservations are made
through a GDS, while younger, more independent travel agents who regularly book
directly through Preferred Hotels’ website are estimated to account for another
20%, according to Rick Stiffler, the company’s vice president for leisure
As for chains, their efforts to gain travel-agent bookings
tend to coincide with their price points: The higher the hotel company’s
typical rates, the more perks they try to shower on the agents and agents’
clients. That trend is best illustrated by Select Hotels & Resorts and the
Worldwide Hotel Program, both of which were launched in 2014 by Travel Leaders
Under Select, which includes more than 700 hotels worldwide,
ranging from independents to smaller luxury chains such as Peninsula Hotels,
qualifying travel agents can generate perks for their clients such as early
check-in, free breakfast (which can be expensive at resorts) or a free bottle
of wine or spirits. What’s more, they can sometimes generate a higher
commission rate than the standard 10%.
Meanwhile, the Worldwide Hotel Program includes about 33,000
hotels worldwide, ranging from upper-upscale chains such as Hilton and Hyatt’s
flagship brands to limited-service chains such as La Quinta. In addition to 10%
commissions for agents, clients can get free WiFi, free breakfasts and,
sometimes, discounts off the best available published rate, Rodriguez said.
Paradoxically, Marriott was a key player in the concept of
expanded travel-agent perks, via its Ritz-Carlton Stars program, which was
launched in 2002.
“They were so successful that Four Seasons and Belmond [then
Orient-Express] copied it,” said Jack Ezon president of New York-based Ovation
Vacations, a member of the Virtuoso consortium. Ezon also named Four Seasons,
Rosewood Hotels & Resorts and the Dorchester Collection among luxury hotel
chains that continue to increase agent perks.
Now, Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood Hotels &
Resorts has the hospitality industry and agent channel buzzing with speculation
about how Starwood’s SPG loyalty program will be integrated into Marriott
Additionally, Destination Hotels, the resort operator that
earlier this year merged with Commune Hotels & Resorts, parent of Thompson
Hotels and Joie de Vivre Hotels, recently relaunched its website with a
travel-agent portal that provides special rates and contact and GDS code
As Destination and Commune continue to integrate, the aggressive sales approach with travel
agents taken by Destination properties, such as Southern California’s Terranea
and Santa Fe’s Inn and Spa at Loretto, will likely be expanded to the former
Commune properties as well, according to Leslie Kaminski, Destination Hotels’
global director of travel industry.
“The OTA model is a totally different business model that’s
not really loyal,” Kaminski said. “We want more bookings from the agents, and
we have a huge sales team for corporate and leisure travel that’s constantly on
Such hotel companies and representatives are widening their
efforts to a travel-agent contingent whose booking growth rate is expected to
parallel the overall industry’s growth. In 2014, travel agents and
travel-management companies accounted for 28% of the U.S. travel market,
compared with 28% for supplier-branded websites and 16% for OTAs, Phocuswright
reported earlier this year. That market share is expected to remain steady
Still, that’s largely because of additional efforts from the
cruise industry to curry agent business, implying that travel professionals’
sway over other sectors such as lodging and airlines could be declining
Meanwhile, both consolidation within the hotel industry and
increased efforts by the largest hotel companies to divert reservations from
OTAs and toward direct bookings have many agents concerned about how much
attention they’ll continue to get.
Since the beginning of the year, hoteliers including
Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and InterContinental Hotels Group have either launched
or expanded programs that offer discounts and other perks to loyalty members
who book direct. The programs have received some pushback from the agency
channel because of lack of clarity over whether loyalty members who book
through agents are eligible for such perks.
The Terranea Resort in Southern California is part of Destination Hotels, a company that aims to get more agent bookings.
“A lot of time, you’ve got two different marketing
organizations working on their approach to customer acquisition, so they may
not have the best marketing and PR around our business,” Rodriguez said.
“Sometimes they have to backtrack.”
Additionally, two relatively agent-friendly hotel operators,
Starwood and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, have been swallowed up. AccorHotels in July completed its $840 million acquisition of
Fairmont’s parent, FHRI Hotels & Resorts.
Meanwhile, Marriott’s $13.6 billion acquisition of Starwood has much of the travel
industry questioning the fate of Starwood’s SPG loyalty program and the future
of Starwood’s agent relationships.
Still, other companies continue to step up their agency
sales efforts, especially as recent economic signs point to a flattening of
demand for U.S. hotel-room growth after six-plus years of steady increases.
Ezon observed that within the past month or so, Oetker
Collection and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts each added travel-agent perks
programs, including a guaranteed response to agents from the hotel companies
within two hours of an inquiry and guaranteed upgrades for clients.
Meanwhile, Travel Leaders Group about a year ago added a
third tier to its hotel partnership program called Enhanced, which now includes
55 hotels including the Blakely New York and offers perks such as higher
commissions for agent bookings.
Still, Ezon said that the independent luxury hotel operators
continue to be the most aggressive and effective in ensuring continued agent
bookings by taking the personal approach. He cited Hotel Santa Caterina on
Italy’s Amalfi Coast as a prime example, noting that the hotel owner personally
greets his clients upon every stay and almost always provides a room upgrade.
“Every front-line agent is trying to keep relevant,” Ezon
said. “In order to do that, they always need to look like a hero.”