Disclaimer: To be clear, this is NOT how to guarantee yourself a downtown hotel room for next year. These are just some strategies I came up with as a IHG member over the years to try and keep the cost reasonable, as I am not willing to pay the $400+ rates I have seen outside the block and I have never had luck with the housing lottery. 2019 will be my 4th year attending GenCon for the entire weekend and will be the first time I was able to implement these tips to actually get a downtown hotel. Relevant IHG Hotels include Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge and Candlewood Suites, and the Crowne Plaza.
- Keep checking even if on any given day you do not see available rooms. I reserved my room 8/19/18, and the next day did not see any more rooms available on the regular online search. However, other friends checked at different times and saw rooms. One year, I even saw rooms outside the block in November. Sometimes calling the hotel directly will also get you further as far as availability. You can reserve rooms with IHG properties about a year in advance. I say "about" because I feel like it used to be a year on the dot, but rooms were not available to select for Gencon 2019 weekend until August 18 or 19 of this year.
- Enroll in the IHG Rewards Club; you need this to bank points, period. Stay at IHG properties if possible when traveling and check for point promos. You will need 75-90k points for a three-night stay at most of the properties downtown. If you do not travel much in your day-to-day-life, consider getting the IHG Premier credit card (actually, this is a good card even if you do travel, I have it). They currently have a promotion where you can get 100,000 points to use if you meet the spending requirement and are a new account holder. As of right now, the points cost for the Crowne Plaza is 30k points/night, so if you stayed Thu-Fri-Sat night, that covers your hotel cost. The annual fee is $89/year, but IMO $89 for three nights is worth it. When you pay with points, all of your nightly base stay costs, including taxes, are covered. Parking, food, and incidentals are not covered. Currently, you can also stay a 4th night free if you pay for three consecutive nights with points and have the card.
The typical promotion for the credit card is 60-80,000 points, btw. Even then, it is still likely cheaper to just purchase the extra 10-30k points than pay $450 or whatever for that last night.
- If you stick with the credit card for over a year, you also become eligible for a free anniversary night, which has no black-out dates. It does have some hotel level restrictions, but all the hotels in downtown Indy should be eligible. If you are willing to play the long game for 2020-2022, this is a good option. Personally, I am using a combo of points and my anniversary night for next year.
- Once you join the rewards club, you can make a "normal" reservation with a credit card, and then change the reservation to use points/rewards at a later date as long as it's before your stay. I have done this when I wanted to lock in a reservation well in advance but I didn't have sufficient points at the time; later, when I had earned more points, I called and changed the reservation to pay with points. So if you see a room, reserve it! I have only done this reserving with the flexible (refundable) rate- I do not know if you can do this if you pre-pay.
EDIT/IMPORTANT: Beware the flexible rate! In the past I have booked this rate and have not been charged a deposit, but if you pick this rate for the Crowne Plaza they will charge a deposit in full to your card at the time of booking. Since I wanted to use my anniversary night, I was going to wait until it became available in a couple months to change my reservation to points, but I did not realize I would be charged the deposit. I was able to change my stay to points; however, due to it being Gencon, they stated their terms are that they would still charge me the deposit (this has never ever happened when I have paid with points before) but that it would be refunded to me once I showed up for my stay. So, even if you pay with points, you have to be willing/able to take that initial hit of the deposit at the time of booking, which was (UGH) >$2K for four nights outside the block rate with all the taxes and whatnot.
- If all you care about is just getting a room and cost is irrelevant or secondary, the credit card also gives you Platinum status (the next-to-highest status level), which gives you a Guaranteed Availability benefit. The one caveat is that if you use this perk, you cannot use points and have to pay the going rate; not sure if you can use your anniversary night. It does state on the website that the granting of this perk is at the final discretion of the location manager. In full disclosure, I have never used this benefit, so I'm not sure if it gets overruled often or not, but I would imagine it comes down to how hard you are willing to push them for it. I don't see why they wouldn't allow it, as they are likely making more money with someone willing to pay full rate than the housing block rate.
I hope people might find this helpful. I was frustrated by my poor luck in the housing lottery, so I've been trying to find alternative ways that don't cost an arm and a leg. I realize this is also not "easy" but it did save me the frustration and inevitable disappointment of the housing lottery. I can't speak much to points/benefits coaching for Marriott/Hilton/Hyatt, but I would imagine the same basic concepts -check early and often, mine those club benefits- apply. One thing I do know is that the JW and Le Meridien are not eligible for the Marriott Credit Card's anniversary night.