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Darryl Hicks of Tungsten Revenue Consultants, an 80-employee company in Montreal, uses loyalty programs for business travel.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Earlier this year, Darryl Hicks got off a plane and made his way to the Hilton Barbados Resort, a hotel property sitting on a white sand beach dotted with palms. The chief executive officer of Tungsten Revenue Consultants, an 80-employee company in Montreal, was exhausted and winter-weary, although looking forward to meeting with clients.

The moment he arrived at the resort, however, everything changed. After flashing his Hilton HHonors Program rewards card, which gives him elite status, free upgrades and perks, staff immediately sent him up to a top floor for a special, streamlined check-in. They offered him a free orange juice or a beer. Then he grabbed his room key that granted him entrance to an exclusive floor with spectacular balcony views of the ocean.

"To walk in after a long flight, drop my card and have them whisk me up to a gorgeous room, I was thinking, 'OK, I can live with this,'" he says now.

Like many small business owners in Canada who work long hours travelling and meeting with clients and prospects, Mr. Hicks knows how important those hotel rewards programs and affiliated credit cards really are. Not only is it possible to earn free hotel visits and room upgrades – a boon for startups, in particular, who are looking for ways to save money and still get the job done – card perks make the business of travel manageable.

"Let's be honest, none of us want to be away from our families that often," he says.

Hotel corporations obviously want the return business, even from new, small companies that don't necessarily start with "G" and end with "oogle." The business opportunities are huge. According to Industry Canada, 69.7 per cent of the entire private labour force worked for small businesses in 2012. It's little wonder then that nearly every hotel chain offers free loyalty rewards programs to woo frequent business travellers.

Yet the number of hotel rewards credit cards geared specifically to small businesses in Canada remains small, admits Jeff Kwok, a Vancouver-based loyalty card fanatic and travel agent who writes the Canadian Kilometers blog.

"There aren't that many [hotel branded cards], and Canada, as a credit-card market, is more heavily focused on people instead of small businesses," he says.

Even so, small-business customers have a few to choose from. The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, for instance, is good for Sheraton, the Westin and other related brands. With an annual fee of $120, it offers 10,000 Starpoints as a welcome bonus, good for up to three nights, depending on the hotel type, as long as you charge $500 in purchases on the card in the first three months. For every dollar you spend with the card, you earn one Starpoint worth roughly three to five cents toward the next night in a hotel.

Then there's the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Visa, a personal card, also with a $120 annual fee. It's a good choice for an entrepreneur who wants to give out cards to a couple of key employees, as supplementary cards are provided at no charge. The welcome bonus is generous, too: one free night stay in typical Marriott hotels (rather than luxury resorts) plus 30,000 points once you buy something. It also bills itself as the only hotel rewards credit card in Canada with no foreign currency transaction charges in addition to the exchange rate, which could save money if you often travel to the U.S. or overseas.

The MBNA Best Western MasterCard is another option for frugal startups. Think no annual fee, no supplementary card fee and it even offers reward points for cash advance transactions of more than $50 (not that these are ever a great choice if you're trying to save cash; interest is charged from the day you borrow). Just spend $6,000 on the card within the first year and you'll find yourself upgraded to elite status, which may earn you welcome snacks and room upgrades.

No hotel card? No problem. Maureen McCabe, who worked for IBM for 18 years before launching McCabe Marketing in Toronto, has used her Capital One Aspire Travel Platinum MasterCard to earn free hotel rooms in London, Ont., Ottawa and Michigan. Although there are benefits to having a hotel-specific rewards card, her regular business travel card gives her flexibility to book where she wants and she accumulates points quickly.

She says all those points and free hotel nights make it easier to decide whether she should attend a conference or take a chance on visiting a prospective client outside the city.

"I'm always asking myself, 'How much more can I put on my credit card versus writing a company cheque to earn more points?'" she says.

Earning travel freebies has helped Joelle Parenteau build her five-employee business, EpicPerks, in Ottawa, which runs a buying group for small businesses so they can leverage collective buying power and enjoy corporate rates on anything from office supplies to hotel stays. Hey, if she can visit an industry summit in Banff for free, why not take a chance and go?

"There are a lot of events that are business development opportunities, but it can be a tough decision because you don't know exactly what the return on investment is going to be," she says. "But if you rack up points, it gives you that confidence to say, 'OK, I can afford to go.'"