W ith competitors like Airbnb nipping at their heels, hotels are rolling out experiences to their most faithful customers that go far beyond extra nights and room upgrades.
Want to improve your cooking skills? How about a class with a Michelin-starred chef? Or snorkeling in Hawaii with Jean-Michel Cousteau? Or basketball tips from NBA standout Dwyane Wade?
Marriott, with 30 hotel brands, including Starwood and Ritz-Carlton, and other hotel companies are marshaling their clout to attract sports stars, including professional surfers, and even a National Geographic photographer to create one-of-a-kind enticements.
Dan and Ginger Roberts, of El Dorado Hills, were drawn to Marriott’s offer of a two-day clinic at the Old Greenwood Golf Course in Lake Tahoe with Annika Sorenstam, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. They used accumulated points from their travels and joined a small group of rewards members in late July to see Sorenstam in action. They were also hoping to get some expert tips on how to improve their golf games.
“I’m an avid golfer,” said Roberts, a retired information technology executive. “I’ve loved golf since I was a child and played since I was a teenager, and I dream of being a great golfer.”
He added that he was struggling with his drive, and that “this was a chance to get one-on-one guidance from someone at Annika’s level.”
In rolling out such exclusive experiences, hotels are looking to establish deeper connections with their customers in the face of growing competition from startups. Home rental services like Airbnb claim 12 percent of the traveler accommodations market, according to a report this year by the market research firm Mintel Research. But that share is expected to grow, especially among travelers who are 40 and younger, and that has prompted hotel brands to rework their rewards programs to cement loyalty with their frequent customers.
“Hotels have started to feel the pinch from encroachment,” said Gina Cavato, an analyst for lifestyles and leisure at Mintel. “They are trying to boost loyalty programs by offering unique rewards options.”
Marriott is trying to differentiate itself by focusing on self-improvement activities, in part because its own research suggests this is how people will increasingly spend their money when traveling. According to Marriott’s consumer research, younger travelers are willing to spent twice as much — or nearly $300 a month — on self-improvement, including bettering their sports or cooking skills.
Such experiences not only boosted travelers’ self-worth and satisfaction, the research found, but travelers sought to share the interactions with experts on their social channels.
“We’re taking the best of Marriott’s loyalty programs — including our partnerships and extraordinary portfolio of hotels — and stepping it up with master classes that provide transformative experiences travelers cannot get anywhere else,” said David Flueck, Marriott International’s senior vice president of global loyalty.
The master classes, he said, allow the 100 million members of Marriott Rewards and the Starwood rewards program, SPG, to redeem their loyalty points for sessions with top athletes. In addition to golf sessions, the classes include basketball skills training at the JW Marriott in Miami. Wade, who has just joined the Cleveland Cavaliers, will conduct hands-on skills and drills on the hotel’s association-size indoor basketball court next summer as part of a two-night package at the hotel.
Big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton will teach a master surfing lesson on a standing wave machine at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Florida next spring. It will also be part of a two-night stay. At the end of the month, there will be a workshop with Ralph Lee Hopkins, a National Geographic photographer, at the Gramercy Hotel in New York. Marriott is also offering a tutorial on underwater conservation taught by Cousteau, at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, Hawaii.
Participants must bid for the classes with rewards points and some of the most coveted packages are well beyond 300,000 points — which equal a lot of hotel stays.
But Marriott is not just counting on well-known or celebrity experts. The chain also recently took a stake in PlacePass, which provides bookings for a variety of activities, like a private tour of Downton Abbey’s filming locations or a camel safari on Dubai’s red dunes. Those are not necessarily connected to staying at a Marriott or one its properties.
Other hotel brands are also changing their offerings. Hyatt, for instance, is offering for the first time an opportunity for its World of Hyatt loyalty members to participate in an excursion in November to Tokyo. The trip will include lessons from experts at the Mori Art museum about Japan’s pop culture, as well as from other experts on the Shinto religion, the progress made in cleaning up the devastating Fukushima earthquake and even sake.
Hilton Worldwide last year introduced a “Behind the Wheel” program that allows car-loving guests to drive a Lamborghini — with an accompanying instructor — at its Waldorf Astoria hotels properties.
“It offers guests the unique opportunity to test drive Lamborghini’s latest models,” said John Walls, Hilton Worldwide’s director of public relations, luxury and lifestyle brands. Since the program was unveiled — in locations as varied as Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Boca Raton Resort & Club in Florida — Walls said more than 200 guests have driven the vehicles.
The Waldorf Astoria brand is also working with the James Beard Foundation to allow participating guests to have culinary adventures, including a chef-led tour of the Mahane Yehuda Market for guests at the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem and a date-themed cooking class at its Ras Al Khaimah property in the United Arab Emirates.
The large hotel brands are mindful that right over their shoulder, Airbnb, in particular, is reinventing what travelers expect from a local stay by rolling out smaller-scale experiences and classes, which people can bid on through its site even if they are not staying in an Airbnb rental. One in Paris, for example, offers to teach patrons how to sculpt a head from clay, taught by an artist who studied at the Louvre museum. Another offers a class in San Francisco on creating a French macaron.
No nationally known experts are on tap, but the class drew 6,300 views on Airbnb’s website over a recent week — no match for a pool of millions of hotel rewards members but still an audience big enough to be desirable for any planned event.