In normal times, hotel promotions are on-again-off-again events, keyed to run during low-demand periods of the year, and disappear during those months when travel demand is more robust.
They're cyclical, and predictably so.
But the protracted economic slump has turned such simple marketing assumptions on their heads. It's been one long, undifferentiated slow season, spurring the major hotel chains to deploy back-to-back-to-back promotions for almost three years.
It's the longest sustained period of hotel promotional activity ever.
But that's ancient history. What travelers want to know today is what hotels can do for them tomorrow.
Looking Ahead: Current Data
One reliable indicator of hotels' future behavior is their current performance. Free nights and bonus miles would be a costly extravagance if their business had already rebounded fully. It hasn't.
While there are signs of strength, occupancy rates and room tariffs have a long way to go to regain their pre-recession levels.
According to STR, an industry research company, U.S. hotel occupancy rates for July 2010 averaged 67.9 percent, a 7 percent improvement over the same month last year, but still below the levels in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007, when occupancy rates routinely exceeded 70 percent.
Average daily rate (ADR), another key industry benchmark, is even more telling. For July, the ADR was $99.14, a mere 1.4 percent improvement from July 2009, and still 7.6 percent below the July 2008 ADR. Year to date through July 2010, ADR was $97.53, off 1.4 percent compared to the same period last year, and off 9.9 percent from 2008.
So while travel may be on the road to recovery, it's stuck in the slow lane.
Looking Ahead: Current Promotions
The combination of sluggish current momentum and uncertainty over what competing hotels will do is likely to spur the hotel companies to continue their promotional push well into next year.
Free Hotel Rooms
In the meantime, travelers can continue enjoying the fruits of the hotels' distress. A summary of the major hotel networks' current offers follows:
Best Western Rewards members who complete two stays before November 21 will earn double points.
If the qualifying stays are booked at bestwestern.com, members earn will triple points.
And if the stays are charged to a Best Western Rewards MasterCard, program members will earn an additional 1,000 bonus points.
Regular Rewards members can only earn the bonus once, after two stays. Elite members can earn the bonus twice, after four stays.
Members of the Choice Privileges program can earn 8,000 points—enough for a free night—for every two stays completed by November 3 at Ascend Collection, Cambria Suites, Clarion, Comfort Inn and Suites, Quality Inn and Sleep Inn hotels. The bonus may be earned up to four times by regular members, and an unlimited number of times by Platinum and Diamond elite members.
During the same period, Choice Privileges members can earn double points for every stay at EconoLodge, MainStay Suites, Rodeway Inn, and Suburban Extended Stay hotels.
Details of Hilton's systemwide HHonors offer weren't available at press time, but their fall promotion in conjunction with Delta is an attention-getter.
Through Dec. 10, HHonors members who complete one stay of at least two nights at any of 3,600-plus Hilton family hotels will earn a combination of Delta redeemable miles and elite-qualifying miles, depending on their earning preference. They can get either one bonus mile plus one elite mile for every dollar spent on qualifying stays, up to a maximum of 10,000 elite miles; or 500 bonus miles plus 500 elite miles per stay.
With the Great 10K promotion, Hyatt Gold Passport members who stay five nights at Hyatt family hotels through Dec. 15 will earn 10,000 bonus points.
The bonus may be earned an unlimited number of times during the promotion period.
Through Dec. 31, Priority Club Rewards members can choose to earn either a free night after every two stays, up to a maximum of five free nights after 10 stays; or double Priority Club points or airline miles after the second stay at InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, and Holiday Inn Express hotels, and starting with the first stay at Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites.
Stays at InterContinental's Asia-Pacific hotels do not count toward earning free nights.
Priority Club members must register for the promotion by Dec. 20, indicating their choice of bonuses. Those who choose free nights will not earn base points, miles or elite points during the promotion period.
Between now and Jan. 15, 2011, members of Marriott's Rewards program can earn one free night after the second paid stay charged to a Visa card. A maximum of two free nights can be earned during the promotion.
Free nights may be taken at Category 1 through Category 4 hotels, through May 31, 2011. Awards are not transferable.
Registration is required, and must be completed by Oct. 31.
Through Dec. 15, Starwood Preferred Guest members can earn double points for up to nine qualifying nights, and triple points for 10 or more nights, including the first nine.
There's no limit to the number of points one can earn during the promotion period.
Registration is required by Oct. 31.
Wyndham has a slew of double-miles and -points offers for stays completed by newly enrolled Wyndham Rewards members between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31.
Examples: double Southwest credits for stays at Days Inn hotels; double US Airways miles for stays at Howard Johnson hotels; double Delta miles for Ramada stays; and so on.
Tim Winship is editor at large for SmarterTravel , as well as the editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com, and a frequently quoted expert on frequent flier programs. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.