B&Bs try to draw more guests with frequent-stay plans

— -- When the Blue Door on Baltimore opened in February, the bed-and-breakfast had more to offer than three elegant guest bedrooms, good food and a view of downtown Baltimore and its harbor.

The B&B unveiled a Frequent Traveler Program — one of a growing number of frequent-stay programs offered by B&Bs and inns. For every seven nights at the Blue Door, guests get a free weeknight.

"We were corporate travelers before opening the B&B and thought a frequent-stay program would be appropriate," says Roger Eberlin, who owns the lodging with his wife, Cecilia. He estimates that 40% of their customers are business travelers. "We're trying for more repeat guests."

Seeking business travelers

Many B&Bs use frequent-stay programs — which usually provide a free night or a rate discount after a particular number of paid nights or stays — to reward leisure travelers and get repeat business. But at other B&Bs, the programs are more artillery in an uphill battle to attract business travelers, who often prefer chain hotels and their point-based reward programs.

Besides such programs, many B&Bs have added services and amenities that appeal to business travelers. A recent survey of B&Bs and inns by BedandBreakfast.com found that 93% offered free Wi-Fi, 75% had desks in some rooms, 70% had copy and fax machines, 68% had flexible cancellation policies, and 96% allowed late check-in and early breakfast.

Business traveler Sharon Adcock of Manhattan Beach, Calif., says she would consider staying at a B&B with a frequent-stay program if it's in a location she likes and often visits. But on most business trips, she would "probably still stay the majority of the time at hotel chains that offer points" that can be redeemed at hotels worldwide.

Many B&Bs are aware that the chains' programs are a powerful competitive obstacle.

Gary Blankenship, owner of the Walnut Street Inn in Springfield, Mo., says the frequent-stay program at his 12-bedroom inn "is a way to compete with Marriott and other hotel chains' programs." Guests there and 129 other B&Bs and inns in a Missouri trade association get a $100 lodging certificate for every six stays. The certificate can be used at any of the lodgings.

"The hotel chains' programs were cutting into our business," says Blankenship, who plans to start a frequent-stay program exclusively for his inn next spring. "Guests would say they couldn't stay with us because they needed four more nights to get a reward" from Marriott.

BedandBreakfast.com, which lists about 18,000 of an estimated 20,000 B&Bs, inns and guest houses in the USA, estimates that 1,500 to 1,800 offer their own frequent-stay program or participate in one with other B&Bs, says spokeswoman Marti Mayne. BedandBreakfast.com plans next spring to start its own program that "will be the most extensive and flexible B&B frequent-stay program ever," says CEO Eric Goldreyer.

Even some of the smallest B&Bs value frequent-stay programs. The Madeira Waters Inn in Madeira Beach, Fla., has just one room for rent (a two-bedroom, two-bath suite), but it offers an extensive program. Guests get 8,000 points for one paid night and 64,000 points for a week, and may cash in 60,000 points for a free two-night stay. They can also redeem points for wine and fruit, or trade airline miles or hotel chain points for free stays.

"The main goal is to attract more business travelers, but we want to reward all guests," says Chris Bogle, owner of the inn, which is a 10-minute drive from St. Petersburg.

Tough customers

Despite B&Bs' efforts to lure more business travelers, many say they will not budge.

Rod Loy, a pastor in North Little Rock, who travels on mission work, says frequent-stay programs offered by B&Bs won't attract him. "I want the consistent experience of a chain hotel. I know what the bed will be like in the Westin and what the TV will be like in the Hyatt. I'm never sure at a B&B."

Scott McKain, a professional speaker from Indianapolis, says he would never consider a B&B or an inn for a business trip. "No matter the quality of the desks, the speed of connectivity or frequent-stay points, they still lack the privacy and solitude that a true business traveler seeks after a tough day on the road."

That's not how another business traveler, Ellen Golds, of Westchester County, N.Y., sees it. She enjoys staying outside Boston at the Fireside Bed and Breakfast in Lexington, Mass., and says their frequent-stay program is a great bonus. It provides a free night for every 10 paid nights. "I don't like chain hotels, because they can be noisy, and the accommodations are not always that good.," says Golds, a consultant in the medical device industry. "I prefer a small B&B, because it's almost like a second home."