Hotels are getting more people to join their loyalty programs than ever before. Now they just need to raise their engagement levels to keep them coming back — booking direct, as they'd prefer.
As major hotel chains make a big push this year to increase the size of their loyalty programs through book-direct campaigns, they might take satisfaction in the fact that their programs grew at a healthy pace in 2015 but that presents a potential challenge — a large chunk of their rosters are inactive.
Major chains saw their numbers of loyalty program members in 2015 increase an estimated 13.1 percent to more than 344 million members compared with 2014. [See note below on how we calculated those numbers].
But it’s likely that more than half of these memberships are inactive or lapsed, which generally means that a member hasn’t redeemed points or miles within the past year to 18 months.
For example, 25.5 percent, or 2.8 million, of La Quinta Returns’ 11 million members were considered active as of the end of 2015, a Securities and Exchange Commission filing states. And according to Wyndham, slightly less than half — or nearly 22 million — of its Wyndham Rewards members were active as of December 31, 2015.
InterContinental Hotels Group’s IHG Rewards Club is the world’s largest hotel loyalty program with more than 92 million members as of December 31, 2015. Marriott International’s Marriott Rewards and Starwood Hotels and Resorts’ Starwood Preferred Guest programs will eventually combine following completion of their merger in June, and the total membership of that new program would be around 75 million. [See chart below for more breakdown and comparison.]
Most programs also showed double-digit increases in membership year-over-year, with Choice Hotels International’s Choice Privileges program seeing a 19 percent year-over year increase in 2015.
Last year, Hilton Worldwide’s Hilton HHonors program was among the largest programs when accounting for percentage of room nights booked. According to an annual filing from Hilton, members of its HHonors program accounted for 52 percent of room nights in 2015 and 50 percent in 2014, while both Marriott and Starwood’s programs were 50 percent of room nights for both years, and Hyatt Hotel Corp.’s Hyatt Gold Passport program made up 35 and 36 percent of room nights booking during 2015 and 2014, respectively.
Lapsed Loyalty Members
Convincing consumers to join a loyalty program is only half the battle. Getting them to stay active and redeem their points is a challenge some brands aren’t having much success with.
That’s particularly true with airlines, as the International Air Transport Association estimates that as many as 80 percent of U.S. airline loyalty program members aren’t considered active members, says Kevin White, MasterCard’s vice president of global strategy and business development, who co-authored a report which examined consumer behavior and travel brands’ loyalty programs in 2016.
White also cited a recent Colloquy report which found that overall loyalty program active memberships decreased about 2.5 percent year-over-year in 2015 even as most programs are growing.
Confusion and frustration are among the top reasons why consumers leave or loyalty programs or see their memberships lapse. They aren’t sure how and when they can redeem points and some airline programs especially have tilted their programs toward elite members.
These trends are “absolutely” related to why Wyndham made changes to its loyalty program during the past year, said Noah Brodsky, senior vice president of worldwide loyalty and engagement at Wyndham Hotel Group. Considering Wyndham’s active membership percentage increased nearly 25 percent from 2013 to 2015, it appears its loyalty changes are working, at least on some level.
Brodsky said that, since Wyndham revamped its program last year and made it easier for guests to earn and redeem points, more than one million guests have returned to the program that were previously members but had been inactive.
“We talked to inactive members and members who had switched to other programs and heard so much about fatigue,” said Brodsky. “People have become part of so many programs and can only keep track of so many.”
“Many loyalty programs are so focused on the one percent of elite guests that they forget about everyone else. We want to show that everyone is important, and it’s not just about getting new people into your program. Reactivation is key as well.”
That’s also more difficult for airlines to do. Last week, United Airlines said it’s targeting its MileagePlus elite customers to bring them back into the program and this week American Airlines announced it’s doing the same for AAdvantage.
Hotels’ Loyalty Advantages
White argues that hotels have it easier than airlines when getting more travelers to sign-up for and remain active in their loyalty programs.
That’s the view of White, who said consumers, and particularly millennials, tend to perceive airlines only as a mode of transport rather than a part of their vacation experience, White said.
“But with accommodations the sway is more towards the experience side today rather than just a bed to sleep in,” he said. “This is where Airbnb has been successful and hotel chains are late to this game but certainly have been making waves into the more experiential side in creating brands that fit with specific customer segments which is much more difficult for airlines to achieve and requires a different approach.”
White’s assertion that hotels have the loyalty upper-hand over airlines isn’t necessarily true when it comes to business travelers, however, as they tend to be active participants in airline programs.
Hilton Worldwide was one of the first hotel brands to reinvigorate the direct bookings movement in 2015, and this month it launched the latest push in its direct bookings campaign, the “Hilton World Sale.” The campaign promises Hilton HHonors members will receive up to 30 percent discounts when booking direct. This is for properties in 102 countries across 12 of its 13 brands.
“What’s fascinating about that promotion is that it’s a broad promotion across their whole portfolio,” said Lars Holmquist, senior vice president of business development at the Collinson Group, a marketing company helping brands improve their loyalty relationships with consumers. “It’s interesting because these broad-based promotions are becoming less frequent. What you usually have are more targeted promotions, the trend had been to go more specific.”
Hotels often grant points based on dollars spent rather than room nights booked, a standard that many large airlines have adopted over the last 18 months, which is a break from the past when they largely rewarded loyalty based on miles flown rather than dollars spent.
White’s report states, “according to a 2015 CardHub.com analysis, ‘roughly 18 percent of frequent travelers become loyal to a given hotel brand primarily because of its rewards program and the average millennial business traveler is actually willing to pay an extra $41 per night to stay at a hotel that belongs to his or her loyalty program…hotel chains reap an average of 50 percent more revenue from customers who belong to their loyalty programs than those who do not, according to a study from the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University.’”
How Travel Loyalty Measures Up to Other Industries
Collinson Group recently surveyed consumers and found fatigue was indeed pervasive among its respondents. “Consumers often don’t see something personalized in a hotel or airline program even when you give over your information,” said Holmquist. “When looking at the ubiquity of some of these programs, they begin to look the same and I think that develops some of the fatigue as well.”
Holmquist feels most hotels and airlines have had more success at achieving a critical mass with their loyalty programs than other industries, such as retail. “The process of making a hotel or airline booking involves sharing certain key information already. So the additional work required to ensure that you join the loyalty program and participate in it incrementally isn’t that much more.”
“Can you imagine walking into a retail outlet and giving them the same information that you have to give when you book a flight?”
Airline Loyalty Programs’ Struggles
There’s less data available to get a handle on whether airline loyalty programs are growing or shrinking.
Delta Air Line’s SkyMiles program, for example, had more than 312 billion miles in 13.3 million reward redemptions during 2015 and had more than 296 billion miles in 12.5 million reward redemptions during 2014. Southwest Airline’s Rapid Rewards members redeemed more than 7.3 million rewards during 2015 compared to 6.2 million in 2014. And JetBlue’s TrueBlue program had $24 million in liability as of December 31, 2015 and 2014, which is the amount an airline owes in loyalty rewards to its customers.
While these numbers point to more rewards being redeemed in 2015, we still can’t say whether a program is bigger or smaller from a previous year.
Regardless of how they’re doing, the estimated 80 percent of members in U.S. airline programs that are inactive are more of a financial burden than benefit for carriers, “We have seen through a lot of our engagements in the past with airlines that disengagement after enrollment is still an issue and costly problem for airlines,” said White.
“For example, if you fly on an airline just for a specific route or occasion but don’t really have the intention to travel again in the future with them and you join their loyalty program, you will earn points that will sit with the airline for a number of years meaning that the airline has a liability for those points until they expire or until they are used.”
Brodsky said commoditized experiences in airlines is one disadvantage that sector faces that hotels don’t. “You have to create individual and distinct fits and differentiating brands is key.”
Still, many airline loyalty programs have the advantage of being tied to alliances where members can use their points on a variety of carriers with varying degrees of offerings.
Stacking up the Programs
Skift ranked some of the world’s largest hotel loyalty programs based on information reported in hotels’ SEC filings. We compared total memberships from 2014 to 2015 and the percent of room nights that a loyalty program accounted for to see how programs have changed.
Some data in the following chart are missing as the data did not appear in filings or brands wouldn’t confirm the information. This also isn’t an exhaustive list of hotel loyalty programs. AccorHotels, for example, with its 3,700 hotels in 90 countries, would likely have one of the largest programs but it didn’t disclose relevant metrics.
The Largest Hotel Loyalty Programs, 2015 vs. 2014
|Program||Membership as of 12/31/2015||Membership as of 12/31/2014||Membership Percent Change||Percent Room Nights 2015||Percent Room Nights 2014||Percent Change Room Nights (+/-)|
|IHG Rewards Club||92M||84M||10%||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown|
|Marriott Rewards + Ritz Carlton Rewards||54M||49M||10.2%||50%||50%||0%|
|Best Western Rewards||25M||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown||Unknown|
|Starwood Preferred Guest||21M||Unknown||Unknown||50%||50%||0%|
|Hyatt Gold Passport||20M||18M||11%||35%||36%||-2.7%|
Source: Securities and Exchange Commission Filings
*These numbers are the total number of Wyndham Rewards members as of December 31, 2013, and the year-over-year percent increase from 2013 to 2015. Numbers for 2014 were unavailable.
**These percentages are for the percent of room revenue that Choice Privileges accounted for because the percent of room nights booked was not available.
Note: Our calculations about loyalty membership program totals and the percentage increase in 2015 is an estimate. Starwood and Best Western didn’t disclose their membership totals for 2014. For the sake of comparison, we assumed Starwood and Best Western’s programs had the same membership numbers during 2014 as they did in 2015. The 13.1 percent total growth we calculated could be higher or lower depending on both brands’ actual membership numbers.
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Photo credit: A room at a Hualuxe property. IHG Rewards Club is the largest hotel loyalty program by membership and also had the most absolute growth from 2014 to 2015. InterContinental Hotel Group