Many high-end hotels around the world are adorned with plaques promoting titles like “the Leading Hotels of the World”, “Preferred Hotels & Resorts” and “Relais & Chateaux”.

These titles don’t mean much to travellers, but independent hotel owners join these groups to increase their global visibility and compete with more recognizable brands like Hilton, InterContinental or Starwood. Member hotels pay fees to be listed in the organization’s directory or website and to participate in their loyalty scheme. Like the seal of approval that typically comes with a chain affiliation, member hotels are subject to secret inspections to ensure the organization’s standards of quality are met. Otherwise, they get tossed out.

And the groups offer guest recognition programs designed to promote loyalty to member hotels. Though some of the perks on offer are similar to chain loyalty plans -- room upgrades and free wi-fi, for example – they are not based on point accumulation. Any traveller that joins the loyalty program and makes a reservation through the group’s website is eligible for that plan’s perks.

For example, members of Preferred Hotels i Prefer program (free) get extras like a cocktail in the hotel bar, discounts on spa treatments, and early/late checkout privileges. Similarly, Leading Hotels’ Leaders Club ($100 per year) members get breakfast for two, in-room gifts such as fruit plates or wine, plus one free night for every five stays.

Which one of these hotel groups is best for you? It depends on what type of traveller you are. We’ve detailed the most widely known groups below.

The Leading Hotels of the World offers nearly 450 properties, most of which are located in or near large urban areas. Member hotels are frequently iconic grand dames that attract upscale business travellers, such as the recently renovated Pierre or the Mark hotels in New York City, the Ritz Paris or the Setai in Miami Beach. These hotels are best suited to high-level executives and diplomats, or those who want to stay at “the best hotel in town”.

With more than 800 properties in its portfolio, the Preferred Hotel Group has segmented them into categories like historic, boutique or the less expensive sterling, to help travellers choose the accommodation that suits them best. In June it created a Preferred Pride category of “gay welcoming” hotels that cater to LGBT travellers. Standouts from the overall collection include Montage Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, the Elysian in Chicago, and the Chancery Court in London. With such a broad selection of members, Preferred Hotels appeals to a wide cross-section of travellers.

Relais & Chateaux hotels are typically on the smaller side, located in rural areas near major cities (mostly US and Europe), very upscale and have a renowned restaurant on site. The combination of lodging and cuisine provides travellers a true sense of place. Think Meadowood or Auberge du Soleil in California’s Napa Valley, the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, or the Waterside Inn or Inverlochy Castle in the United Kingdom. These hotels are best suited to business travellers hoping to combine work with culinary pleasure.

Small Luxury Hotels of the World is a collection of 520 boutique-style hotels around the world, including the elegant Huntington Hotel atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, the Shangri-La in Santa Monica, California, the Arch hotel in London and Lanson Place in Hong Kong. These hotels are best suited for business travellers who prefer the personalized attention offered by smaller hotels.

Design Hotels is a collection of about 200 properties exhibiting cutting edge design qualities. Club members get access to special discount rates, in-room movies and subscriptions to design magazines. Standout members of this chic, primarily European group, include the popular Crosby Street Hotel and Standard Hotel in New York City, and the Eccleston Square Hotel and Haymarket Hotel in London. These hotels are best for business travellers with a keen eye for design who like a busy social scene in the lobby bar or restaurant.  

Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel