There’s a story about a meeting planner who retired with hundreds of thousands of hotel points, earned on behalf of his company, and then traveled around the world redeeming them.

Those were the days.

In this era of transparency, you’d be hard-pressed to find any corporate meeting planner who would cash in meeting points for personal use. In fact, many planners and their companies are so skittish about perception that they avoid points programs entirely, not even accruing points they are entitled to.

But with recent changes in some of these programs, it’s time to reconsider the ban on points and start using them strategically.

The Enrollment Dilemma

Individual loyalty programs are a well-known concept. Points programs for meetings are trickier, because even though the spending is coming from the corporate coffers, the rewards accounts are set up in the name of an individual—the meeting owner, the meeting planner, or whoever signs the contract. The challenge comes in figuring out how to use those points: How can a free room night, dinner for two, or a spa package—typical loyalty rewards—benefit the company?

There are ideas out there: You could use a weekend getaway as a contest prize for attendees or you could use the points to pay for your team’s rooms during a site visit. Still, figuring out which business lines “earned” the points and how to allocate the benefits appropriately isn’t easy.

But with budgets as tight as ever, it is worth sitting down with your team and creating a policy that works for you and your compliance and legal departments. Otherwise, you could be leaving money on the table.

Some hotels are trying to help. Last year, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts became the first (and so far, only) hotel chain to allow enrollment by a company rather than an individual in its Gold Passport Rewards Program.

That makes a difference to Victoria Johnson, CMP, CMM, global manager, meeting services and sourcing, at Underwriters Laboratories Inc. She would like to include, as part of her strategic meetings management program, a policy that lays out exactly how points are to be accrued and used—specifically, that they be earned by and credited to the company and used only for meeting expenses.

“That way no one can raise an eyebrow,” Johnson says. “I would like the chains to allow enrollment with the company name rather than my name. That is still not a standard, but to me it should be a no-brainer.” Up to now, her practice and recommendation has been to use a neutral party as the enrollee—“someone in accounting, or the director of procurement”—to avoid any impression of points influencing decision-making on the part of a meeting professional who sources hotels, as she does.

“When I get planners who put their name and account number in a contract, I say they can’t,” she notes. “My pursuit of an SMMP policy will include that. The goal is to do it fairly.” That is, the corporate divisions that accrue the most points should be the ones to reap the most value from those points.

Works in Progress

That’s a sticking point for one planner at a financial services company, who has been diligently accruing points earned through meeting spending for several years. “We have accounts with four major hotel chains,” she says. “We have a clause written in our contract riders to include the account number so that we get credit consistently.”

All the accounts are in one person’s name, but any benefits are used only for company-sponsored programs and events—or, rather, they will be. “We haven't yet determined how we will use the points,” she explains. “We are in the process of figuring out how many points we have by lines of business so that when we use them for meetings, those who earned them get the credit. We are looking at other ways to use the points as well, such as toward room nights when we attend meeting industry educational conferences—Financial & Insurance Conference Planners or Meeting Professionals International, for example. It's a work in progress.”

She’s onto something with the meeting industry organizations, however. Hearing from clients that, because of budget constraints, they had to forgo their memberships in some associations, Omni Hotels & Resorts added a benefit to Select Rewards, its meeting rewards program, that gives a meeting planner one year of association membership or the registration fee for a meeting industry conference when the planner books a meeting of $25,000 in revenue (thereby earning 25,000 reward points).

“When meeting planners told us their companies were suspending their support of external professional development, such as participation in MPI and the National Business Travel Association, we saw an opportunity to partner with those and other industry educational organizations and benefit our group and business travel clients as well,” says Tom Faust, vice president, sales, at Omni. “We launched the program to use rewards to renew memberships or pay registration for attending education conferences of most meetings or travel organization. We saw it as a creative way to extend our benefits program, and it was well received.”

Likewise when Hyatt Hotels & Resorts revamped its planner rewards program in 2009, the company was responding to feedback from clients. “We know that some meeting planners are not able to use points individually, so you can now open a rewards account under your company’s name,” says Kate Stephens, manager, Gold Passport Planner Rewards at Hyatt in Chicago. “Then the points can be used for the company, for individual rewards, or for a contest prize. There is also the option to use points for future meeting credit.” Traditionally, she says, “The points go to the person who signs the contract, which often is not the meeting planner. So we allow points to be split up to three ways. If the CFO signs the contract, the points can be split between the CFO and the meeting planner. All of this is addressed and agreed upon in the contract phase.”

Another big change for the Hyatt program was to allow double points when a third-party meeting or site selection company is involved. “A third party gets the equivalent number of points as the client,” Stephens says. “They don’t need to split the points. We want people using the program. We think it’s a great perk and a great incentive for loyalty.”

Omni, too, allows both third parties and their clients to receive equal points for meeting spending.

Unofficial Policies

“We want to put something in place but the project has not made it to the top of the list,” says one corporate meeting planner, adding that even though there is no policy, “we do not accept points individually. Unofficially, for some of our smaller meetings, the business owners put them on their cards.”

Another corporate meeting manager says that to this point she hasn’t enrolled in meeting rewards programs, but intends to research them and share the information with her team. “In the past, we have avoided collection of points because the points went directly to the planner and we thought that could be deemed a conflict of interest,” she explains. Now, however, she believes it’s time to take another look at how points programs might be managed to offer meeting savings.

Then again, she adds, why not avoid all the complexity, and just credit the master folio? “I’d rather get a rebate. We track our cost savings, but we can’t track it in points. If a hotel knows a typical meeting accrues a certain number of points, just give us a rebate. I use the analogy of gift cards. Retailers love them because so many of them never get used. Points sound great in theory, but how many go unused?”

Good question—and it may be time to start using yours.