It’s widely agreed upon that traveler behavior and spending patterns won’t reflect business as usual for the next 12 to 18 months as travelers make up for lost time. Bucket list trips will be booked, and many people will happily spend more than usual to reunite with their friends and family members. For travel brands, this means that successfully leveraging customer data is going to be more important than ever to engage with travelers and attract, retain, and re-engage loyalty members.
Ahead of Skift’s upcoming Loyalty and Subscriptions Summit, SkiftX spoke with Amperity’s Jeanne Jones, vice president of community and customer marketing, and Alaska Airlines’ Elliott Pesut, director of marketing, to learn more about how they’re thinking about loyalty and the importance of customer data as air travel comes back to life in a post-vaccine world.
SkiftX: Can you talk about how traveler loyalty has shifted since the onset of the pandemic?
Jeanne Jones: The biggest change has definitely been that people aren’t earning or redeeming miles or rewards like we saw prior to the pandemic. This means we’re going to see a big wave of redemption once travel picks up again. The relationship between loyalty and business travelers has also massively shifted. Going forward, travel brands will likely focus loyalty messaging and benefits to be more in line with the wants and needs of leisure travelers, who will be willing to spend more on travel to make up for the last year.
SkiftX: How did Alaska Airlines adjust its loyalty offerings and brand messaging over the last year?
Elliott Pesut: Our goal was to really meet travelers where they were. The top priority during this time was emphasizing our safety procedures in our messaging, whether the customer was traveling with us or not. Our Next-Level Care brand campaign summarized the actions we’ve taken to keep our guests safe, including air filtration, cleaning, service changes, booking flexibility, and partnering with Covid-19 testing providers.
Another priority was ensuring our travelers’ benefits and perks they’ve worked so hard to achieve were safe and secure, whether that meant offering an extension to redeem a travel credit from a canceled trip or extending elite status through the end of 2021. We also experimented with some new initiatives, such as offering the ability for guests to turn travel credits into miles with additional flexibility. This was actually really popular with travelers who wanted to wait until they had a little more certainty about when they’d be traveling next.
We also provided some different ways for guests to earn miles on the ground. One of our more out-there ideas was our Strava Challenge partnership. Guests who followed our CEO, Ben Minicucci — a cycling enthusiast — on the app, and logged at least 360 minutes of physical activity during a two-week period in May, had a chance to win up to 100,000 miles. We were surprised by the success, but it showed that people were eager to engage with us.
SkiftX: Talk to us about the role of customer data in all of this. How do you envision customer data to be used going forward as travel bookings pick up?
Jones: Customer data is at the center of it all. Most of the campaigns that Elliott just referred to are driven from the airline’s partnership with Amperity’s Customer Data Platform. Looking at the overall customer value and the underlying data — who’s newly joined, who’s engaging, who’s not in the program, but might potentially join, the impact of new programs and campaigns — are key. Centralized customer data, complete and accurate customer profiles, and predictive customer insights to help define who your most valuable customers are is so important, especially as we enter this recovery phase.
We’re also facing the death of the third-party cookie. Being able to collect, access, and operationalize first-party customer data, and really look at it holistically, is going to be crucial to any brand. I think this will also fuel an increase in partnerships that offer brands the opportunity to share customer data, especially for airlines and hotels.
SkiftX: Now that travelers are starting to book again, how will Alaska Airlines apply customer data and re-engage its loyalty members over the next few months?
Pesut: Guests are definitely booking travel again. Maybe they aren’t flying this month, but they are making plans for this summer or fall to reconnect with family and loved ones. Additionally, many folks are looking at outdoor leisure destinations like Montana, Alaska, and Hawaii. Our marketing has been leaning into “bucket list” type trips and helping people find deals and consider destinations they wouldn’t have considered before. We’ve also added a ton of new markets over the last few months, and we’ll make sure our guests are aware of all the new options to visit.
But what I think is most important is that we use our data to help our guests prepare for their upcoming trip, so they know what to expect before they arrive at the airport. So much about the flying experience has changed: mask requirements, food and beverage changes, pre-ordering your food onboard, local health restrictions, testing requirements, or even documentation requirements at one’s destination. We use our Amperity data to drive our pre-trip targeting and make sure we are able to share all the latest information with the guest that’s relevant for their trip.
We also recently joined Oneworld Alliance, which is a huge deal for us. While international travel may be a bit slower to come back than domestic, this integration gives our guests — especially our elite members — a seamless experience and enhanced product offering in advance of international travel’s upswing.
SkiftX: What challenges did last year bring in traveler loyalty? On the flip side, what about opportunities?
Jones: The biggest challenge over the last year was the lack of customer engagement. People weren’t earning or redeeming miles, and business travelers — usually the primary customer when it comes to loyalty — were stuck at home.
On the upside, there’s now a pent-up energy from leisure travelers — they can no longer be thought of as secondary. It’s going to be crucial for travel brands to tap into this group using segmentation and testing around different audiences. Additionally, this is the perfect time for brands to optimize their loyalty programs and make changes to their programs’ benefits. The emphasis should be on a customer’s lifetime value.
SkiftX: What have you learned over this past year that you’ll take with you when designing loyalty offerings for Alaska Airlines going forward?
Pesut: First, we learned that educating our guests about the safety of travel is the top priority. This won’t end anytime soon, even as vaccines roll out and bookings begin to pick up. Second, we’re proud to be one of the few US airlines that awards miles based on distance flown and not on how much you pay, and I’m certain that this will remain the best value for guests. Third, Alaska Airlines is in a really strong position right now, since our network tends to lean more to more leisure-oriented destinations, such as Hawaii, Mexico, and the West coast. This, coupled with our Oneworld Alliance integration, is a gamechanger for our guest experience going forward. And finally, we’re working with Amperity to heavily invest in our lifecycle marketing, making sure it’s all squared away and running seamlessly now that bookings are picking up again.
This past year has taught us that loyalty can’t function in a silo. Along with our partnership with Amperity, the airline’s loyalty, marketing, storytelling, and revenue management sides of the business have really come together to holistically look at the customer data and insights at different stages of the funnel to stimulate demand and drive engagement. I’m really proud of where we’ve landed.
Join us at the upcoming Skift Loyalty & Subscriptions Summit to hear more from Amperity’s Jeanne Jones and Alaska Airlines’ Elliott Pesut about Rethinking Loyalty for a Post-Vaccine World.