Late last fall, the idea for Hotels for Heroes was unveiled at a press conference at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.
The concept sounded too good from the start: It involved allowing businesses to make donations and the public to offer points accumulated via credit card/loyalty program purchases — which are usually used by the cardholders, but go unused in other cases for various reasons — to the program, which offers free hotel rooms to the loved ones of injured soldiers while they recuperate from injuries in hospitals nationwide.
While Hotels for Heroes, generally speaking, has been met with considerable positive reinforcement, that hasn’t equated to instant participation by the corporate world. The major hotel chains the group has initially targeted each has its protocol and channels of communication, so there have been points when those involved have wondered when the program would gain momentum.
However, to varying degrees from different chains, it has. Bethesda-based Marriott International was the first to sign on, with five of the other major players in the industry recently following suit.
The players involved are hoping that this “will lead to a snowball effect and more success,” said David Coker, president of Rockville-based Fisher House Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the military by opening its homes to military families visiting injured loved ones at hospitals nationwide,
One at a Time
Indeed, Marriott’s commitment kicked off what has been a somewhat steady trickle of good news, said Coker, an U.S, Army vet.
“Marriott has an account set up with our program and it will soon be letting its guests know how they can contribute to Hotels for Heroes,” he said. “We’re hoping that Best Western, which also signed on and is planning its approach, becomes as deeply involved in the program.”
Coker, who donated his Marriott Rewards points as well, said that AmericInn Hotel & Suites was another early sign-on and is staffing the program, and that Wyndham Hotel Group is active and ready to go. In fact, Wyndham has donated 10 million points (which equates to 1,000 room nights).
Silver Spring-based Choice Hotels International is set up for guests to donate points, which the corporation will convert to cash in support of the program. And Starwood Hotels & Resorts is making a corporation contribution of 1 million points.
“The challenge with all of these corporations,” Coker said, “is getting the program staffed through all of their departments.”
For now, Hotels for Heroes is building its infrastructure for the program (such as creating donation web sites) and wants to ensure that the hotel’s guests are aware of the program and are presented with the opportunity to participate. “We’re optimistic that everything will fall into place,” he said.
While the official kickoff will be announced at a press conference on Monday, July 16 at a site to be determined, Fisher House is testing its system. “And given that each of the six chains has its own process to help the families,” Coker said, “we’re testing them separately.”
Addressing the Need
All involved hope and are planning that the first six companies will spur many more participants from the hotel industry. “The more the merrier,” said Jaime Lennon, press secretary to Congressman C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger. “The ultimate goal is to reduce travel costs for the loved ones of our injured troops so that they can be by their bedsides, which is often the best medicine.”
Lennon said that Rupperberger and his aides “are thrilled with progress [of the program] so far. The sooner we can start helping military families, the better,” she said. “We’ve already heard from the families of wounded warriors who could benefit from donated reward points,” noting that they are usually recovering in a military hospital where the local Fisher House is full or these is no Fisher House, period.
Also noting his excitement for Hotels for Heroes, which is actually an expansion of an existing program called Hero Miles (which was started by Ruppersberger in 2003 and provides free round-trip airfare to wounded warriors), is Kevin Carnes, general manager of the Four Points by Sheraton at BWI Airport.
His upbeat feeling comes from the fact that having “a high-profile company like Marriott come on board in itself speaks to the importance of the Hotels for Heroes effort,” Carnes said. “We’re moving forward with great optimism.”
Those thoughts were also echoed by Joseph McInerney, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel Lodging Association, who learned of the effort when Carnes brought it to the attention of the association after the bill to found the program was signed in late 2011.
“We got involved last January,” said McInerney. “We really appreciate all of [Carnes’] efforts to keep in touch with the offices of Congressman Ruppersberger and Sen. Cardin,” who has also been heavily involved in getting the program up and running.
Despite what’s been perceived as its slow-ish start in some quarters, McInerney feels that for Hotels for Heroes program is gaining momentum. “Its apple pie and motherhood,” he said. “The response has been positive from everyone. It’s the right thing to do and I feel that the hotel companies will get on board.”
McInerney comes to the program from a slightly different angle. “I’ve been on the corporate side of the business (with Sheraton, among others) and I can tell you how long it takes to get approvals,” he said. “Naturally, all of the companies have questions about how the program works and how they integrate it into their system. There’s a lot of back-end [work] to do.”
Due to that challenge, he said, some companies simply donate points, because they’re merging Hotels for Heroes into existing awards programs before its details are clearly defined.
So for McInerney, this is simply time to keep after the prize, so to speak. He’s contacted the CEOs of all of the large and small hotel companies [about 50 total] to come on board; since the big six have given the thumb’s up, the smaller companies will normally follow. And he thinks that’ll happen in short order.
“We’re feeling good about our progress,” he said. “It’s just [been a bit slower] than we’d like. And don’t forget that there are also management companies that own hotels and we want them to support Hotels for Heroes, too. So, there’s plenty of room to grow.”