Home Sweet Hotel

For inns to rate with BusinessWeek readers, they need comfy rooms, high-speed Net access, and some little extras thrown in.

Like a groggy road warrior rubbing his eyes in the first light of day, business travel is trying to wake up from a three-year slumber. While hotel occupancies and room rates remain depressed, a recent poll of business travelers by American Express indicates that nearly 40% of them planned to travel more next year. Perhaps you're ramping up your travel plans, and while your airline choices may be limited, hotels aren't. That's why we turned to the smartest business folks we know -- our readers -- and asked them to name the best places for the business traveler to stay. Nearly 1,200 subscribers participated in this, our first hotel survey. They logged on to BusinessWeek.com and told us where they like to stay -- and why. The results were revealing.

NET WIN

It was virtually impossible to find the single best hotel. We asked readers to name their favorite property and got almost 1,200 different answers. But they did center on what really counts (after price and location, of course): 39% said the quality of the guest rooms was paramount. The hotel staff and health-club were also high on the list, but the real surprise was high-speed Internet access, which placed a strong second. "That's an area you're going to see a lot of hotels focus on in the next year," says Bjorn Hanson, head of PricewaterhouseCoopers' hospitality practice.

We had no problem identifying the top chain. Marriott International (MAR ), with 24%, was the winner by a wide margin. True, Marriott is the largest hotelier in the world, and its breadth of locations gives it a leg up. But respondents almost universally lauded the company for its consistency. "They never provide an unpleasant surprise," said one reader. "In every Marriott throughout the world, the staff is always caring," gushed another. One person recalled how a Marriott staffer in Wichita made some sandwiches at no cost after the kitchen was closed.

Such attentive service is no accident. "We spend well over $100 million a year on training," says J.W. Marriott Jr., chairman and CEO. "Every day there is a 15-minute exercise on things like how to greet a guest, how to handle a complaint. I tell our people: 'We don't manufacture anything. We provide experiences."'

Consistency and number of locations were also reasons 12% of the respondents picked Hilton Hotels (HLT ) -- the No. 2 finisher in the survey. They often singled out the company's loyalty program, which allows members to earn points for each stay in both an airline frequent-flier program and the Hilton plan. The number of brands under the Hilton umbrella was also a plus. "I can stay at a Hampton Inn and earn points toward Hilton stays," one subscriber noted. In addition to Hilton and Hampton Inns, the company's portfolio includes DoubleTree, Homewood Suites, and Embassy Suites.

No. 3 on the best-chain list was Westin, something of a surprise since, with just 120 hotels worldwide, it's much smaller than many of its rivals. Readers cited Westin's exclusive Heavenly Bed -- a custom-designed mattress with 250-thread-count linens and a down comforter and pillows -- and its Heavenly Shower, which features a double-headed, massaging showerhead and a curved curtain rod to prevent what the company calls "curtain cling." Parent Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (HOT ) is rolling out better bedding at its Sheraton properties. Close behind was Four Seasons. The 49-unit tries to make it easier on guests by letting them store luggage between visits, and providing items such as nail clippers, now verboten in carry-on bags.

FREEBIE FEST

Other chains that scored well relative to their number of hotels were Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton, and W (the letter doesn't stand for anything in particular), a five-year-old brand from Starwood with only 20 locations worldwide. Readers cited its "hip" decor. Said one: "The hotel colors are bright, the design of the room creative, plus the Aveda product giveaways are a nice touch."

Indeed, many of our survey respondents indicated they like getting something for nothing, even if they are traveling on an expense account. Readers picked Embassy Suites as the No. 7 chain overall, often mentioning the free hot breakfasts, after-work drinks, and hors d'oeuvres offered at all locations. Another reader loved Hotel Monaco's policy of putting a live goldfish in the rooms to "keep [guests] company." Hotel Monaco is a seven-unit chain, part of the Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group.

Hotel executives say they are responding to travelers' desire for such extras. Marriott is rolling out free in-room Internet access at all of its Courtyards, Residence Inns, TownePlace Suites, and SpringHill Suites. The higher-end Marriott and Renaissance brands are offering Internet access bundled with unlimited local and domestic long-distance calls for a flat $9.95 per day.

Wyndham International (WBR ) is taking that one step further. The chain offers frequent guests free Internet access, long-distance phone calls, and personalized in-room welcome baskets with items like fruit, wine, beer, and peanuts. These are given instead of free nights, but guests don't seem to mind. Since gratis telecom services made their debut last summer, membership in Wyndham's loyalty program has quadrupled, to 1.6 million. "People want to know they can be on a 40-minute conference call and it won't cost them 50 bucks," says Darcie Brossart, Wyndham's director of brand communications.

Readers' picks of their favorite loyalty programs came up much like their favorite chains, with Marriott first and Hilton second. Here again, readers chose these programs for the number of locations and variety of brands under one plan. Last summer, Marriott tweaked its program to allow frequent guests to earn free stays 30% faster than many of its rivals. "The bottom line is how soon can I take my family on a free vacation," says CEO Marriott.

Our readers have a fair amount of leeway in choosing where they earn those frequent-traveler points. Some 85% of respondents said their company didn't require them to stay at specific hotels or chains. About 60% said the hotel's cost was only somewhat or not important in making their plans.

When they do look for the best rates, most travelers troll for bargains on independent Internet sites, a practice the hotel chains say they are trying to discourage. Earlier this year, for example, Hilton began requiring its franchisees to offer the same rates on Hilton.com as they do through a third-party site. Starwood says it will match any price found on an Internet site at any of its 740 properties. And Hyatt is offering an additional 20% off the best Internet rate you find. With the travel industry still in a slump, knowledge is power.

Corrections and Clarifications "Home sweet hotel" (Personal Business, Oct. 27) incorrectly said that nail clippers were not allowed on flights. The rule is that metal scissors with pointed tips are not allowed in carry-on luggage.

By Christopher Palmeri

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