Skift Take

Hotel brands are looking to make loyalty programs even more rewarding. It’s not solely about points, but also about offering choice, flexibility, and personalized experiences for consumers. In addition, hotel brands are focused on supporting the success of their valued travel managers and buyers, who in turn leverage loyalty to drive compliance and a more rewarding travel program for their end travelers and clients.

Keeping loyalty members happy is table stakes in today’s post-pandemic hospitality landscape. According to Skift Research’s Travel Loyalty Programs Deep Dive 2022, 30 to 60 percent of room nights are booked by loyalty members across the major hotel brands. Hotel loyalty members also spend more on property and book more repeat stays than non-members.

As travel demand returns, loyalty programs are being retooled to cater to the needs of both leisure travelers and travel managers. IHG’s new loyalty program, IHG One Rewards, is well-suited to respond to this increased demand by personalizing the rewards experience — members can choose the rewards that matter to them, for example.

Informed by extensive research into customer sentiment, the new program is fueling richer, more rewarding travel programs for buyers and more personalized choices and experiences for their travelers and clients. To learn more about IHG’s approach to loyalty, SkiftX spoke with Heather Balsley, senior vice president of global loyalty and partnerships, and Mark Sergot, senior vice president of global sales.

SkiftX: What role did the customer play in driving changes to IHG’s loyalty program?

Heather Balsley: Our guests’ needs are changing, and we’re changing alongside them. By conducting extensive research among travelers, hotel owners, and operators, we were able to shape IHG One Rewards into a modern loyalty program that not only meets our member’s needs but also anticipates them.

In addition to extensive quantitative research, we conducted focus groups with business-to-business customers, road warriors, and industry experts to weigh in on the benefits we were creating. From that, it helped us know we wanted to lean into the idea of choice and flexibility because no two travelers are the same.

For example, our new Milestone Rewards benefits allow business travelers to pick their perks with each stay, which can be different when they travel for leisure versus business. We have also optimized our tier thresholds to offer richer benefits and motivate customers to stay engaged and reach for the next tiers, which are now more attainable.

Our guests are central to everything we do, and by putting guests in the driver’s seat we are not only building valuable repeat business to our hotels but are also creating great engagement with our members.

SkiftX: What sets IHG One Rewards apart from other loyalty programs?

Balsley: With this new program, we look to celebrate the individuality of our guests, giving them more value, enhanced benefits, and the flexibility to choose to be rewarded in their own way. IHG One Rewards now offers industry-leading value and exciting new benefits for our much-loved members to enhance their stays. The program’s new tier and bonus earning structure empower members with more choice, value, and richer rewards than ever before.

In addition to choice and flexibility, we’re also offering some of our most meaningful benefits earlier than any other loyalty program, delivered through Milestone Rewards. Our Annual Lounge Membership provides members who value Club Lounge access the opportunity to pick this benefit as early as 40 or 70 nights. The Confirmable Suite Upgrade is offered as early as 20 nights, and again at 40 and 70 for members who want to be able to confirm an upgrade in advance.

SkiftX: How do you ensure you’re offering the right amount of customizable options without overcomplicating the redemption process?

Balsley: One of the key takeaways from our research revealed that overall, the most sought-after perks were room upgrades and complimentary breakfast, followed by member discounts, bonus points, food and beverage credit, and lounge access. It was important that while we introduced new benefits to our members, we still kept it relatively simple to redeem them. We want members to be able to select the benefits that matter most to them during each stay.

With Milestone Rewards, each milestone has simple choices; we deliberately kept the number of options from two to four and ensured each was meaningful based on our research. These choices are enabled by an intuitive user interface in account management and the mobile app, in addition to personalized and relevant email marketing. Members will know when they have reached a milestone and have a choice to make, and then they can easily make that choice within their Rewards Wallet. On top of that, members then get to choose when to actually redeem their reward, enhancing the stay that makes sense to them.

SkiftX: What is IHG’s long-term view on creating loyalty with its business-to-business customers?

Mark Sergot: Creating loyalty goes hand in hand with building stronger relationships. We want to be an indispensable, solutions-focused resource to our business-to-business customers and partners. We want to create an outstanding customer-success-driven buying experience and enriching stay experiences for their travelers and clients. This means we need to be nimble, proactive, and responsive to the needs of our customers, giving them the programs and resources they need to be successful. One of the most important aspects of this is making sure we are rewarding customers, partners, and guests with a best-in-class loyalty program as they return to travel.

With IHG One Rewards, frequent business travelers and guests of IHG will now have more opportunities for faster bonus earning. Additionally, Milestone Rewards allows individual travelers to flexibly earn and redeem rewards that support their unique personal and professional needs. Members can choose rewards such as Confirmable Suite Upgrades, Food & Beverage Rewards, and Annual Lounge Membership to redeem on their own terms, for example. It’s all powered by the new IHG One Rewards app, which allows members to access these rewards on the go.

In addition to the value and flexibility these changes will offer business travelers, our new loyalty program will also help provide cost savings for our B2B customers. For example, Free Breakfast as a Welcome Amenity Choice for Diamond Elite members can help minimize food and beverage expenses, and business travelers will be able to select an Annual Lounge Membership as their Milestone Rewards choice, which can serve as an alternative space for small meetings, reducing costs for room rentals and food and beverage. This is only the beginning, and we will continue to enhance IHG One Rewards to ensure that traveling is as rewarding as possible.

SkiftX: How is IHG listening to the business-to-business audience, and in what ways is it informing IHG’s future? Why is it important to you personally for IHG to have a pulse on the voice of the customer?

Sergot: We can’t be a valuable resource for our customers and partners if we aren’t listening to their needs, understanding what’s important to them, and using that information to provide solutions that help them and their organizations succeed.

We have a diverse group of customers, from small and midsize businesses to large corporations, including entertainment, sports, corporate group, and corporate transient businesses. This also includes luxury segments like vacation packages, high-end tours, and leisure travel experiences. Each segment has a different set of needs, and we collaborate with our customers in a variety of ways to learn their priorities, including customer advisory boards, internal surveys, and ongoing conversations. It’s a constant two-way conversation, where we’re listening to what matters most to them and crafting solutions based on their feedback so we can help our customers achieve their goals and be successful. These conversations have become more important than ever with how quickly circumstances are changing in different global markets.

Listening is one of the most important parts of my role, but more importantly, it’s a priority for all of us at IHG. We are committed to listening, so we better understand our customers and ultimately become their partner of choice, again, focused on their success.

SkiftX: In addition to the new loyalty program, what programs and platforms does IHG offer to support each segment?

Sergot: The diversity of our customers means we need to have an equally diverse set of tools and resources in place to meet their travel needs across our collection of 17 brands with more than 6,000 hotels in more than 100 countries around the world.

Our Customer Insights Portal, a first for the hotel industry, is our global solution for large enterprises. This user-friendly digital platform provides travel managers with easily downloadable, customizable reports that give them greater visibility and transparency into their spending and savings. These deeper insights allow us to provide stronger counsel and allow travel managers to make more informed decisions about their travel programs.

IHG Business Edge is our global award-winning platform that streamlines the travel process for small and midsize enterprises (SMEs), tailored to fit their needs. This is a one-stop-shop digital experience that provides SMEs with access to spending and savings data, premium content, and the ability to book travel through a customized portal. Travel managers also have access to benefits like loyalty upgrades and a peer-to-peer network with key learnings from other SMEs.

We continue to respond to the changing needs of meeting planners and business events strategists, providing them with the tools and flexibility needed in an uncertain environment. The program includes tools and resources for hybrid events, flexible and rewarding offers, and partnerships to enhance the meeting experience for both in-person and hybrid meetings.

We also recently launched our Luxury Advisor Portal, another one-stop digital experience for our luxury customers to gain access to robust content, luxury program information, and a streamlined booking experience.

We will continue to enhance these programs and platforms by listening to the needs of our customers and working with them to reach their goals. We will also continue to offer more destinations, hotels, and experiences to choose from.

Our next article with IHG, an interview with Julienne Smith, chief development officer for the Americas, will explore how loyalty is a key component of the brand’s wider growth strategy.

For more information about IHG’s new loyalty program, visit the IHG One Rewards landing page.

This content was created collaboratively by IHG Hotels & Resorts and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

Tags: hotel marketing, hotels, ihg, loyalty, loyalty programs, SkiftX Showcase: Hospitality