Loyalty of the Road Warrior: How Hotels and Airlines Can Market to Frequent Travelers
A couple of months ago the website Frequent Business Traveler partnered with FlyerTalk to release a study about the habits of frequent travelers.
You can go check it out for yourself, but the main gist is:
“The survey found that travelers are more loyal to their favorite airlines than to hotel brands: over 93% of those surveyed said they prefer to fly with a particular airline or alliance, while only 72% said they prefer to stay at a particular brand of hotel. Within those two groups, airline customers overwhelmingly fly with their favorite airline or alliance, even if the flights are not as convenient as those offered by another airline, while only slightly more than half said they would travel to a less conveniently located hotel in order to stay with a favorite brand.”
Wow. Now that’s saying a lot about brand loyalty. When you consider that travel is already a big pain, going out of your way to fly or stay with a particular brand conveys serious loyalty.
However, as great as this survey was, it didn’t go in-depth into how these frequent travelers become loyal to those particular airlines and hotels. Since I work for a company that helps businesses advertise to potential customers, I was curious how the hotel and airline industry won brand loyalty.
How Solid is Brand Loyalty?
First of all, loyalty is not as set in stone as that survey would lead you to believe. I spoke to Erin O’Reilly about her brand loyalty and she replied that she would consider herself “semi-loyal.” O’Reilly, the co-founder of Appomattox Partners, has traveled extensively for the capital markets industry and due to flooding has been living in a hotel with her family for the past few months. So while her family has been pretty loyal to the Starwood brands of hotels she stressed “that doesn’t mean I don’t have other travel memberships elsewhere.”
Paul Benario, a Chicago-based business analyst who travels 45 weeks out of the year, said that his loyalties have been swayed in the past. He explained that his loyalty can change “just by something that turns me away from the old loyalty.”
That means that something as simple as one bad customer service experience can have your current customers switching over to your competitor.
Benario used to be loyal to car rental company Hertz. So loyal that he had worked his way up to the President’s Circle Status. But after receiving low quality and high mileage cars and less than stellar customer service at multiple locations, he had enough. He listened to a coworker’s suggestion to try Avis. Avis matched Hertz’s President status and Benario stated that he only gets “Fantastic customer service and great cars.” The company frequently provided him cars that are outside of the automatic two level upgrades, including BMW and Infiniti.
Barry Maher, author and professional speaker whose schedule keeps him traveling, used to be loyal to the now-merged Continental Airlines. But before that he flew Delta all the time. On a trip from California to Virginia, Delta lost his bags not only on the way there (prompting him to have to buy new clothes for his presentation), but also on the way back. Additionally, Maher was carrying copies of books in his luggage and they were all ruined from extensive water damage.
Maher told me that he had to jump through multiple hoops to get compensation for the ruined books. Then he added, “And through most of it I got the strong impression that Delta’s customer service reps might just be more concerned with keeping me from getting restitution than with helping me to get it.”
You can bet that he avoided Delta after the entire experience.
How Do You Win over Customers?
So what’s the secret sauce to winning over customers? Is it price? Location? The best branded swag either side of the Mississippi?
The answers aren’t complicated at all. They all fall under the umbrella of good customer service. Maher said that “Actual customer service would be nice. Having as little go wrong as possible that’s their fault and when something does go wrong doing whatever they can to make it right.”
O’Reilly elaborated with “consistency among the brands.” She cited the example of the Starwood Hotels & Resorts that have many brands: W Hotels, Sheridan, Weston, and Aloft, among others. And “some of their hotels and programs aren’t as customer-friendly and the service isn’t as great.” She also enjoys having a personal concierge so that “when you complain you feel like your complaint is being registered with somebody.”
Also important to many road warriors? Point and reward systems. For most loyalty programs, the longer you stay with one hotel chain, the faster you’ll earn points for upgrades and free nights. However, the fine print can turn off potential customers. “I have been deterred in the past by thinking ‘Oh, these points aren’t going to add up very quickly, why am I going to stay with one particular brand?’” explained O’Reilly.
For some frequent travelers, receiving immediate benefits like upgrades will win their loyalty. Benario stated that “Frequent travelers love to feel appreciated.” A bump up to business class or a nicer room just for being a request customer can be enough. For an example, Benario was stuck in the last row of coach on one of his flights. He was chatting with one of the flight attendants who knew that he had top status. There was nothing to be done about his seat, but the flight attendant did give him a free drink. “Anything like this that has a very minimal cost, but can make someone feel appreciated always helps,” he explained.
It’s not a difficult concept, and many hotels know it. Michael Conley, the general manager of Sleep Inn & Suites in Lawton, Oklahoma said that hotels must keep up with brand loyalty. It’s “an expense, but you have to budget through it.”
Does Social Media Help?
Well, social media certainly doesn’t hurt. Most of the travelers I interviewed don’t follow their favorite hotel and airline brands on social media. Benario, though, follows all of the brands he traveled with on social media. He said “in many cases that reaching out to [the brand’s] social media department via Twitter can provide better/faster results than actually calling the premier phone numbers.”
Conley said that Sleep Inn & Suites just started their new Facebook page and are also on Twitter. The staff makes sure to check it daily, and every other day at least. Conley finds it necessary because “it is where more things are pushing.”
What about Promotional Products?
Frequent travelers all seem to agree on one thing: if your hotel or airline is handing out promotional items, make sure that they are useful.
Barry Maher has received plenty of travel kits but explained, “I got a drawer of this stuff at home. I couldn’t tell you whose brand is on any of it.” He continued by saying that free Internet, use of the fitness center, or upgrades would be a better way to secure his loyalty, but did admit that “the only thing I’m likely to keep would be the things that are really useful like a thumb drive. I can always use them.”
“If a company were to provide me anything useful (clothing, hats, travel mugs, etc.) I would more than likely use it,” said Benario. He specifically cited a phone stand from Hyatt that he really appreciated. It unfortunately didn’t fit his phone, but he did pass it on to a friend who could use the item.
O’Reilly suggested that hotels or airlines could use branded tote bags as gift bags for customers. It’s a nice way to make up for a customer service disappointment or to welcome back repeat guests. “I think if they probably filled those with other brand items for guests they would probably get better rave reviews from guests and repeat business.”
The Sleep Inn & Suites (like most hotels) makes sure that the paper, pens, and everything else in the room is marked with the hotel brand since many guests will take the pen and/or paper with them when they check out. But Conley understands that there are different levels of marketing materials. “Some just probably get tossed in a drawer. With coffee mugs and koozies, those seem to be out more often for people to actually utilize.” He recently ordered a travel mug that is getting good reception, and is considering candy bowls for sales calls.
[Full disclosure: Conley and O'Reilly are customers of Quality Logo Products.]
How Can You Make Changes Right Now?
Now that you’ve made your way to the bottom, here are a few actionable tips for appealing to frequent travelers.
- Make the fine print and details of your rewards program easy to understand. Don’t hide information. Explain the benefits of your program clearly so your customers won’t feel defeated before they even begin.
- Even the smallest courtesies can make a huge difference. Free drinks, late checkout times, and small gifts can boost moods and make guests feel appreciated.
- Consider co-branding with nearby businesses. O’Reilly cited the Four Points Chelsea that gives their guests cupcakes from nearby Billy’s Bakery. You’ll make your guests happy, and a local business can gain more exposure!
- When picking out promotional items to give customers, consider products they will actually use. Apparel, phone holders, mugs, and flash drives are held onto longer than travel kits.
- Train your employees to handle customer service situations without having to defer to management. Spell out exactly what power they have: can they give out points? Do they have the capability to upgrade a room? Can they offer free drinks? Giving employees a set of standards will reduce customer complaints.
- Send out a survey to your loyalty program members about features they would like to see in your hotel or on your airline. Reward them with some bonus points and wait for those answers to fly in.
The study said that people will be traveling for business even more this year, so winning loyalty will be key.
I’ll leave you with this excellent quote from Michael Conley: “It’s all about guest service. We tend to go out of our way. We don’t want anyone to feel like, it’s past them and we can’t do it. If we seriously can’t do it, we’re going to point them to someone who can do it for them. But it’s all about guest service.”
Do you consider yourself a road warrior? What’s the best way a hotel or airline could win your brand loyalty? Hotels and airlines, what do you do to make sure your guests keep coming back?