The business-travel industry was taken aback by Marriott's recent surprise decision to scale back its Honored Guest program. The sudden move left business travelers wondering -- and worrying -- whether other hotel companies might be getting ready to make similar cutbacks.

But that doesn't appear to be happening, according to several business-travel experts.

"I don't think this creates a wave in the guest industry," said Randy Petersen, an authority on frequent-flier and frequent-stay programs who publishes a monthly update newsletter, Frequent. "If anything, this is the best thing that could have happened to Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton and other hotels."

Although Marriott's frequent-guest program has long been a popular, pace-setting benefit for members, Petersen said, it was so far ahead of other hotel programs that much of the competition was feeling smothered.

About a year ago, most major hotel chains announced improvements in their frequent-stay plans, but still lagged behind Marriott in overall generosity to favored guests. Just this past spring, a frustrated Hyatt Hotel Corp. took direct aim at its arch-rival by offering special bonuses to Marriott guests who switched their allegiance to Hyatt.

Now, other chains are likely to be encouraged to upgrade their programs to compete head-on with Marriott. Radisson and Hilton, for example, are looking into ways to make their frequent-guest programs more competitive, said Petersen, particularly in rate discounts.

One change that is happening in such programs is the movement by hotels away from generous partnership arrangements with airlines. The days of what Petersen calls "double dipping" -- earning both bonus miles and bonus frequent-stay points for the same trip -- are ending. Instead, the hotels will be improving and adding programs that reward hotel stays only. The airline/hotel partnerships won't be abandoned, Petersen said, but they will no longer be so lucrative.

Frequent-guest programs reward repeat customers with free lodging, travel or merchandise, based on the number of points they have amassed during previous stays at the hotel. The programs were launched in 1983, about two years after frequent-flier programs began.

From the start, the hotel programs attracted frequent travelers interested in special breaks, future free rooms, meal discounts and other perks. But they also proved costly to support -- costing roughly 2 to 3 percent of a hotel's revenues.

And they have never had the same widespread appeal as the frequent-flier programs. An estimated 17 million travelers belong to frequent-flier programs, while only 7 million have joined frequent-guest programs. A study by the Hyatt Corp. last year found that only 4 percent of the 1,126 travelers surveyed cited the frequent-guest programs as the most important reason for picking a hotel. What really mattered, according to the survey, was the hotel's location and service.

Still, the hotels continue to invest in the programs, regarding them as costly necessities.

"The hotel industry still has a basic problem with occupancy, which only runs about 64 percent year-round," said John Holland, publisher of The Business Flyer, another monthly newsletter that keeps track of business-traveler programs and activities.

Frequent business travelers account for the lion's share of revenues at most of the hotels with frequent-stay awards programs. And the hotels, Holland said, can't afford to lose these guests to competitors who offer better benefits.

Marriott concedes that its new schedule of awards is not as generous as its old schedule, but maintains that the program was changed to streamline and simplify it -- and that even at reduced levels, it is still better than what any competitor is offering.

"What used to be 24 packages of awards, from cruises to rental cars, has been distilled into six basic packages," said Ralph Giannola, Marriott's vice president of business development. "But we're still offering everything from a free weekend night to a full vacation with airline tickets, hotel and rental car."

The new award schedule, Giannola said, represents what Marriott's frequent guests are most interested in. And the six packages retained, he said, "account for 90 percent of our {awards} redemptions over the years."

Gone under the new program: cruise and meal discounts. Also, it now takes 15,000 points rather than 10,000 points to qualify for the lowest award level. And, as of Sept. 1, points will no longer be earned on the tax portion of the hotel bill.

Marriott's 3.3 million Honored Guest members have until March 31 of next year to redeem points already accrued under the old award schedule.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Marriott's program revisions, other chains have stepped up promotional efforts to win new guests. For example:

To mark National Tourism Week last month, Budgetel Inns offered members of its frequent-guest program, the Roadrunner Club, the chance to amass twice the number of points -- the company calls them "verification marks" -- toward a free future stay at any of Budgetel's 72 inns. Normally, it takes 12 visits to earn a complimentary stay, but during that week, every night spent was recorded as two visits, so a six-night stay earned a future free visit.

At Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, in a departure from the typical frequent-guest program, members of the hotel chain's "Private Reserve" corporate-services program can use Four Seasons' concierge services for business or personal use -- even if they are not staying at the hotel. The Private Reserve program is available to corporations that book at least 42 nights per year at any one of the Four Seasons' 23 hotels. Corporate travel planners and hotel guests whose companies are members can call a concierge at any one of the hotels to arrange theater reservations, airplane charters, even fresh salmon delivered from Seattle to their homes. Charges are billed to a major credit card.

By emphasizing hotel stays and custom-tailored services rather than discounts for cruises or air travel, according to the Business Flyer's Holland, these and other hotel chains have begun shifting their guest business toward programs that are cheaper to operate. They also are using the occupancy problem to their advantage. Under the restructured frequent-guest programs, hotels will be pushing first and foremost to fill their accommodations, especially on weekends, when the occupancy rate is usually the lowest.

"There isn't as much cost with this type of frequent-guest program as there is with a frequent-flier program," said Holland. "All the guests are doing is sleeping in a room that's empty."

Touch-Tone Travel The Thomas Cook travel agency has set up a new Thomas Cook Express service that lets business travelers and corporate travel planners book airline trips by entering travel data on a touch-tone telephone.

The service is free to the agency's clients and provides a quick and easy way for travelers to arrange their own trips. Clients dial a local Thomas Cook number and get an automated voice that guides them in arranging an itinerary.

A subscriber number and the caller's personal identification number produce a profile of the traveler's company and its travel policy, as well as a personal profile of the traveler's seat preference, special meals and frequent-flier number. Using a printed guide, the caller can punch in departure and destination points, airport code numbers and preferred dates and time of travel.

At the caller's request, a list of all flight options can be faxed to the office or home -- and travelers can call back to actually book a flight.

A word of warning: For multi-leg or particularly complicated itineraries, you're still going to need the real live voice of a travel agent.

Business Traveler's Best In the magazine's first readership poll, Business Traveler International has published the names of seven winners in its 1989 "Best in Business Travel" survey.

Top air carrier honors went to Singapore Airlines, while British Airways was judged the favorite for airline business-class travel. Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport was named the best airport worldwide.

The Regent Hotel in Hong Kong was voted the best individual business hotel, while the award for best international hotel chain went to Hilton International. Readers selected London as their favorite business city and picked Hertz as the best car-rental company.