By Joe Brancatelli
March 7, 2012 -- Walk into the lobby of any decent London hotel at the start of the business day and you'll find huddled masses of business flyers yearning for a room.

Their clothes are rumpled. They're tired and bedraggled from overnight flights. They desperately need a shower. They've been dumped in London by their airline, which schedules arriving flights from long-haul destinations around the break of dawn. They've been rebuffed by icily polite front-desk clerks, who superciliously remind them that standard check-in time is 3 p.m. and, no, there's no chance for an earlier room assignment.

"London is the worst," says Brian Williams, who's managed both the Ritz and Mandarin Oriental hotels in the British capital. "Every international flight into London arrives between 5 and 7 in the morning, and travelers show up at their hotel hoping for a room" hours before their reservation stipulates.

It's not just London, of course. Williams, now managing director of Swire Hotels, sees it at his stunning new properties such as the Opposite House in Beijing and the Upper House in Hong Kong. American businesspeople headed anywhere in Europe and many places in Asia fly into their destination hours before their room is ready. But it can happen in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas Chicago, Kingman, Barstow, or San Bernardino too.

Almost without exception, hotels want you to check in after 3 p.m. and check out no later than noon. And it's too bad if that doesn't fit your business-travel schedule. All over the world, hoteliers have a nearly unbreakable rule: The business traveler must adjust to our concept of what constitutes a hotel "night." Check in when we permit it, check out when we demand it. And if you want or need more flexibility, pay for an extra night of accommodations.

"It was tradition, set in the system," explains Michael Matthews, whose 50 years in the lodging industry has included stops at the Regent, Ritz-Carlton, and St. Regis chains. "Allowing each guest to check in whenever they wanted and check out 24 hours later was considered too difficult. It was easier for us to manage if we made everyone check in and check out at the same time."

But that rigid, do-it-our-way style of hotel management may be changing. Since March 1, super-elite members of the Starwood Preferred Guest program can take advantage of a scheme called Your24. Although there are some quirks and restrictions, Your24 is simple enough in concept: The guest chooses their own check-in time. The room is theirs for 24 hours after that.

In announcing the new perk for SPG members who stay a total of at least 75 nights a year at its chains, Starwood vice president Mark Vondrasek called Your24 "the preference of our guests" and part of the hotel group's drive to "make travel as personalized as possible."

Your24 is the boldest step yet in the concept of selling 24-hour rooms and the marketing of flexible check-in and checkout times. Yet Starwood's move is tiny in the totality of the lodging universe. Why? Because even with all of its brands (it operates, among others, Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, and W hotels), Starwood controls "only" about 1,100 properties around the world.

And, tellingly, none of Starwood's much larger competitors have matched the Your24 initiative, which was not-so-secretly tested for nearly two years and officially announced more than a month ago. Not Wyndham (17 brands and 7,200 properties) nor Choice (11 brands and 6,100 properties), global leaders in the economy-lodging segments. Not Marriott nor Hilton, Starwood's traditional competitors, which are each three times larger. Not Accor of France, with 4,100 properties worldwide. And not Britain's InterContinental Hotels, which controls 4,500 hotels around the world.

Indeed, the concept of a 24-hour room has been tried and abandoned before. In the 1990s, Ritz-Carlton hotels in Asia offered it as a perk to some corporate accounts and to individual guests who paid the inflated (and rarely chosen) full published price. Ginger Hotels, a new chain created by Taj Hotels for the fast-growing India market, briefly offered it as a standard amenity. The Four Seasons Hotel in Berlin promoted 24-hour rooms shortly after it opened in 1997. A Courtyard by Marriott at Warsaw Airport did the same thing when it first opened a few years later. In 2009, the Victoria-Jungfrau in Interlaken, Switzerland, offered a 30-hour room promotion for guests willing to pay the published rate.

But before Starwood's Your24 announcement, only a very few hotels around the world were still toying with the idea. Several Address Hotels in Dubai offer 24-hour rooms. The Four Points by Sheraton at Los Angeles International has promoted 24-hour rooms for about 15 years. So has the posh Peninsula Beverly Hills, where some hotel experts say the 24-hour room concept began.

"It really started as a marketing thing," explains Matthews, more promotional come-on than practical amenity. "Any five-star hotel is going to bend over backwards to give you what you want, regardless of the published policy. If you want an early check-in, they'll do it for you. If you need a late checkout, they'll do it for you. When you're paying a huge premium for a room, the hotel is going to go out of its way to accommodate you."

But not just five-star hotels. As any regular business traveler can attest, anyone with status in a hotel's frequent-guest program will often receive early check-in or late checkout. The benefit is sometimes published, sometimes not, and it is rarely marketed as a "24-hour room" or a "pick your arrival and departure times" perk. Still, elite hotel guests will almost always get the benefit of the doubt.

"It's interesting that Starwood is formalizing it," says Nick Patel, the chief financial officer of Naman Hotels, which has built and manages more than a dozen properties operating under brands controlled by Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, and InterContinental. "If you're elite, you're going to get the best treatment anyway."

Patel suspects that fewer than 5 percent of guests even want a 24-hour room. "The vast majority of business travelers don't want to hang around a town an hour longer than they have to," he explains. Besides, he said, at Naman's properties, elite members of the appropriate frequent-guest plan get early check-in or late checkout about 90 percent of the time they ask for it. Even guests without status are successful about 75 percent of the time.

Although every business traveler (including yours truly) can remember when we really needed a room for a few hours more than the hotel was willing (or able) to allow us to keep it, I believe that Patel's numbers are generally applicable across the lodging industry. "Any good hotel will do what it can for you," add Williams of Swire. "It's good business to accommodate your customers if you can."

Just last week, for example, I checked into the Hyatt Regency in Philadelphia around 3 p.m. The front-desk clerk looked up from her screen and said to me: "Oh, you're a Diamond," referring to my status as a top-tier player in the Hyatt Gold Passport program. "We've upgraded you to a suite. I see you're with us for just one night. Do you want the 4 p.m. checkout time we offer to Diamond members?"

Hmmm, a 25-hour room. What a concept.

The Fine Print…
Although no major hotel chain has matched Starwood's Your24 program, check with your frequency plan for details about early check-in and/or late checkout privileges. Like Hyatt Gold Passport, most of the plans offer space-available extensions based on your elite level. Several credit cards aimed at business travelers also have some sort of early check-in and checkout scheme too. The American Express Platinum and Centurion cards, for example, offer the Fine Hotels & Resorts package at about 700 properties around the world. It includes space-available check-in as early as noon and guaranteed 4 p.m. checkout.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2012 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.