Loyalty tattoo

How loyalty in travel is messed up

80% of the people who book an holiday are not sure which airline they are going to fly before they book their holiday. And of the ones who do, many are on different levels disappointed in loyalty systems. This is not an airline issue or a hotel issue or a travel company issue – it is an issue throughout many travel companies it seems. So here are some of my thought on how loyalty in travel is messed up.

Difference between loyalty and transactional relationship

I spent 200 nights at IHG, Marriott and Hilton properties last year and have one of the highest tier levels with each and every one of their programs. I am Platinum as well with the Thalys trains. However, I would not necessarily consider myself a loyal customer to these. I have a mere transactional relationship with them.

Although I am not loyal to the IHG brand or their rewards program (they make up most of the hotel screw ups), but do consider myself a loyal customer of the QO hotel in Amsterdam and the Indigo Antwerp City Center in Antwerp – hotels where I come often and have built a relationship with the staff.

I consider myself loyal to some of my favorite travel brand: Icebreaker, IKEA (yep, with their colored toilet bags, plastic bags) – brands where I do not have a relationship with the staff, but just align with their purpose and products.

Too often, travel brands confuse the emotional aspect of loyalty with the transactional relationship. The fact that I choose your brand with my money, does not necessarily mean I have chosen with my heart.

Root causes

I think there are several root causes here.

Not being sure about their intentions

As mentioned before, travel brands confuse the emotional aspect of loyalty with the transactional relationship. It is maybe telling most hotels and airlines refer to their programs as ‘reward programs’ or frequent flyer/ traveler programs. IHG (Crown Plaza, Holiday Inn, …) refers to its IHG Rewards Club as ‘The World’s Largest Hotel Loyalty Program’ and staff is trained to thank higher tier levels ‘for their loyalty’ when checking in. So there is already some inconsistency here.

If you go the rewards route, it’s not weird that there’s a serious group of travel hackers who spend their time leveraging reward program loopholes. Also (and I will get back to that later), you’ll have to make sure you have the basics of your rewards program right.

If you are opting for the loyalty root, you have indeed to invest in building an emotional connection with the traveler and go beyond treating the relationship as a mere transactional one.

And often you’ll just notice some programs are not well thought-through. Some programs even seduce travelers to actually fly/stay with other hotel chains.

Travelers know the product better

This is not to disrespect the many hard working people within travel companies, but it is hard to beat the knowledge of someone who has spent 100+ nights nights at your properties for several years. That person will know the different routines of the different hotels, will have heard inside stories from hotel staff, will have seen the good and the bad.

Additionally, customers often stay customers for several years, corporate employees tend to hop to a new job within 2-3 years.

Travelers just know your product better.

Travel companies often think from their own perspective

Related to this, travel companies often think from their own perspective. I once had a scrum team (they’re a great team and I really don’t mean this in a bad way) from a large travel provider suggesting me things I would like as a frequent traveler. Many of those (a press app) I didn’t want, some that were essential for me (wifi, power sockets) hadn’t even made it to their list. Great that they involve customers, but it is another example there is often a big gap between what companies think and customers need.

Not having the basics straight

I had plenty of times (even in premium) properties that bath rooms were just dirty (I had a 5/7 stays score for dirty bath room at the same property once, part of Marriott) or items were broken (I at some point had a 4/7 stays score for broken iPads in my room from the same property, part of IHG).

Not building an emotional connection

Although I invest a lot of time and energy in getting to know brands, booking brands, etc, I have never ever had a IHG, Marriott, Hilton or other local hotel GM or -let alone- central office person reach out to me.

That is, only after seriously screwing up and me escalating the problem (e.g. dirt hotel room for the 4th time in a row, data privacy issue with IHG, etc) they sometimes might offer getting in contact.

It is exemplary of the distance between the organisations and their customers. Some other examples:

  • I still find it hard to understand why travel companies claim to be customer-centric but still address their customers as ‘pax’ (a soul-less abbreviation of “passenger”).
  • It often seems difficult for front desk employees to recognise a returning customer.
  • It seems difficult to spot people who are spending their birthday at your property (see my failed birthday experiment).

Great examples of loyalty interventions

Not all loyalty programs are equal and some just have really smart interventions to have loyal customers feel appreciated. To name a few (I will keep updating this list – also see my post on what I’m looking for in a travel company):

  • I love Kimpton’s smart acts of hospitality: their social hour, their secret password, their ‘raid the bar’ concept.
  • At QO Amsterdam, after only two breakfasts, one of the ladies at the breakfast remembered my favorites (oatmeal with oat milk, fruit salad and black coffee).
  • I love the super efficient and friendly Platinum service line at KLM.

Not-so-great examples of loyalty interventions

In contrast to that, I am keeping a list of hotel screw-ups. Most notable loyalty screw-ups:

  • At a certain point, 7 out of my last 9 stays were not posted to my IHG Rewards Club account.

In conclusion

Loyalty tattoo
Loyalty tattoo

It seems both travelers and the travel industry are trying to figure out what loyalty means. But as travel brands fail to crack the code on emotional loyalty and opt for a transactional relationship instead, they are extremely vulnerable for issues there. When the inevitable screw-ups emerge in transactional relationships (missing points, not recognising people), there is little wiggle room to fix things.

Also, see another post on what I am looking for in a travel company.

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