Hotel loyalty programs – are you truly connected?
It is no secret that travel agencies have endured a torrid last 15 years in our industry, whether it was the meteoric rise of the Online Travel Agency (OTA) or the constant reduction of revenue sources such as commissions from segments of the business, agencies have had to continually reinvent themselves to stay relevant to their customers.
One of the most important ways that agencies have been able to stay relevant to consumers is by providing excellent service to their clients and offering an extensive product knowledge that does not necessarily transcend into the OTA environment.
Packages, tailor-made experiences, etc. are very difficult to sell online and keep clients engaged. But
agencies don’t have to limit their scope of relevance to their customers to those particular segments of travel.
In evaluating the hotel booking environment, are agencies really truly engaged with hotel brands and able to use this expertise to leverage a better customer experience for their clients thus increasing the value of their relationship to their customer base?
Agents are valued
Hotel companies have for the most part been one of the segments of the travel industry that continue to value their relationship to agencies, in comparison to other travel constituents. Hotels have accepted the OTAs as a fact of life and an excellent source of revenue, yet there are still many advantages ceded to agencies not available to OTA customers, and first and foremost, the loyalty program is an excellent tool that agencies can and should take advantage of, as loyalty points are still given to agency guests.
This is not a secret to anybody in the agency world, but has your agency harnessed this competitive advantage fully?
Many agencies book based on the client’s loyalty preference and rely on their customer’s knowledge of the advantages of those programs. In corporate transactions, these may be highly influenced by corporate policy of the company employing the travellers, but there still remains opportunity for agencies to distinguish themselves, even if the list of hotels is narrowed by these corporate requirements.
Perhaps the most important question from the customer’s perspective, is how many points need to be accumulated to receive something free from the hotel company? This can be very confusing even for those of us in the industry, but agencies who engage themselves to these programs and commit to establishing themselves as a resource, whether leisure or corporate, are going to provide more exceptional service to their clients.
What’s the minimum
Most brands advertise a minimum number of points to accumulate a free night, but this is where it can begin to confuse both travellers and agencies. In many cases, high volume or popular destinations may require up to five times the points advertised in brand collateral, and this can take a lot of room nights or paid revenue to accumulate. Within many brands, there are also tier levels for hotels where the more famous brands or higher star/diamond brands that clients may find desirable will require a considerable amount of points to book.
Agents should educate themselves with research or engagement with hotel brand personnel, so they are comfortable with the speed of accumulation. Also understanding the brands within a company may prove valuable to their clients, Manhattan is a desirable destination for a freebie, but perhaps the client may enjoy the experience of a non-signature brand that is a star below the desired experience, but without having to give up on location or empty the entire balance of the loyalty account.
Brands constantly push out special promotions where clients can earn premium amounts of points for certain types of stays, and these are generally always available to agency partners. Staying abreast of these promotions and educating customers, while they are making their bookings can accelerate their redemption abilities.
Although agents are not booking these locations, recommending programs that align with their personal reward goals will add an excellent personal service that goes beyond the scope of what other distribution partners are able to achieve. Innovating with personalized service only enhances an agency’s value to its client base.
More than meets the eye
Additionally, the airline partnerships that tie into hotel loyalty programs are an important element, as well in this personalization – “double dipping” of airline points, in addition to the hotel loyalty points, is another factor agents should be cognizant of, and is something that not all distribution partners can provide.
Finally, loyalty programs are not confined to free stays, redemptions are available for gift cards, experiences, gifts, etc. Not all clients can earn free nights at a Manhattan hotel, but their travel may still entitle them to benefits – stay abreast of this.
Hotel loyalty programs are a crowded space, but present a great opportunity for agents. By partnering with hotel companies that have not turned off the commission revenue streams to agencies, agencies can capitalize on loyalty programs to increase client satisfaction, retention and relevance. In the present era, can an agency afford not to?
Eric Barber is the senior director, national sales for Realstar Hospitality, and he will be contributing a monthly column to Canadian Travel Press offering an insider’s look at the hotel industry.