Travel Marketers: Does Your Loyalty Program Experience Miss The Mark?


Within the highly competitive travel industry, companies are under immense pressure to differentiate their offerings, solidify their brand in positive customer memories, and generate lasting customer loyalty. But sometimes this exuberance inadvertently leads to communications and interactions that degrade the experience of travel companies’ most loyal customers. Those that want to keep their best customers coming back should strive to:

Create excitement about perks—not guilt. As a member of multiple hotel and airline loyalty programs, I don’t go more than a day or two without at least one email promising me the opportunity to win an “exclusive” getaway or attain a higher membership level. Usually these messages are friendly and upbeat, if a tad impersonal. But when I recently received an email from Marriott with the subject line “Don’t you want 25,000 bonus points?” it felt more like an admonishment. A few days later, another email asked, “Why are you passing up bonus points?” Such subject lines might test well for email open rates. But what do they do for your brand? Instead of getting jazzed about working toward a vacation package, I felt mild embarrassment at being reprimanded for passing up “free” points. Marriott’s emails also put me on the defensive—why should I have to justify my level of participation in a hotel loyalty program?

Create clear paths to perks—not ambiguity. Every Westin and Sheraton registration desk has a small welcome carpet positioned in front of one of the registration positions, clearly marked for Starwood Preferred Guest Gold and Platinum members. It seemingly points to a special (faster?) check-in line. The problem is that there’s often no hotel rep standing in that position—leading loyalty members to wonder if and when they’ll actually be helped if they stand there. Another hotel, Hilton Garden Inn, offers a free drink coupon to repeat guests. But the good will this garners tends to evaporate upon discovery that the coupon can only be redeemed for the cheapest wine and during a narrow time window. These experiences create a mismatch with customer expectations and can lead to confusion and other negative perceptions.

Make customers feel special—not singled out. My friend Rodney* is a member of United Airline’s secretive, invitation-only Global Services program. He’ll be the first to admit that he enjoys the elite perks, like pre-emptive rebooking when his travel plans go awry. But, as a regular businessman who just happens to fly a lot for his job, he’s not used to—and doesn’t want—a lot of unnecessary attention drawn to him. Unfortunately, the gate agents at one particular airport didn’t get this memo. As they began the boarding process for a recent flight, they called out, “Global Service member Rodney Wilkins, you may now board the plane.” And so he did—with dozens of eyes upon him. Certainly, United could have used less public means to express its appreciation for this very loyal (and introverted) customer.

For any loyalty program, it can be tricky to determine the communications and interactions that will best resonate with customers. But by getting it right, companies can enjoy the perks of happy, loyal travelers.


*Name has been changed.



 Kerry Bodine is an independent customer experience consultant and the co-author of Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business. She’s a regular contributor to the Underline blog, so look here for future posts. Kerry also tweets at @kerrybodine.