Join the Loyal Family

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Airlines used to offer ‘frequent flyer’ programs – only for those who spent half their lives on aeroplanes. Today, they’re ‘loyalty schemes’, geared towards rewarding both occasional travellers and globetrotting entrepreneurs. Richard Holmes signs up.

The name says it all, really.

But while the free flights, car upgrades and complimentary hotel breakfasts are all part and parcel of being a loyal customer, travel industry loyalty schemes are becoming increasingly intelligent about ways to keep your business… and keep you happy.

“Loyalty cards are definitely becoming prevalent in the market,” says Mohamed Hamza, General Manager at Hilton Durban. “Hilton HHonors now has 30 million members worldwide, and that gives us great information on the travel patterns and needs of our frequent guests.”

Understanding their customers ensures you get the service you deserve, but most travellers are looking for benefits that help the bottom line too. And to really reap the rewards of repeat business, it’s important to decide carefully where your loyalties lie.

“Frequency is a very important factor. There is no real benefit in signing up for multiple programs if you spread your spend too thinly,” says Andrew Stark, General Manager of business-focused travel agency Corporate Traveller. “Businesses need to decide which programs they will benefit from. Consolidating spend on a specific partner/carrier means greater negotiating strength… and ultimately better rates.”

Better rates, better service and a better experience hopefully means better business being signed and sealed. And as the travel industry evolves to stay one step ahead of the customer, it’s important that corporate travellers keep up.

For while the customer may always be king, it’s only the ‘king’ who is able to flash the gold (or blue, silver, platinum or diamond) card, who will truly receive royal service.

Airlines

I’m willing to bet you have an airline loyalty card in your wallet? Perhaps you have a couple – doing your best to take advantage of the free flights that must surely follow all of that ‘chicken-or-beef’?

Airlines lay claim to some of the oldest loyalty schemes in the business, and have certainly been the boldest in convincing us that being a Voyager, Executive Club Member or Guest is the key to untold rewards. And airline loyalty schemes can certainly be rewarding, if your expectations are realistic and you pick the right carrier.

When it comes to earning and burning loyalty miles, size certainly does matter. Consolidation has become the name of the game as airlines form alliances, merge companies and allow members to accumulate and redeem miles on flights operated by an array of carriers.

“Given that the global economy is unlikely to recover rapidly, there will be more consolidation within the airline industry,” suggests spokesperson for British Airways in South Africa, Stephen Forbes, “with smaller carriers seeking to join alliances, so they can lock in customers by offering them more benefits.”

So the first step when choosing a loyalty card is to ensure your chosen airline is a member of – or has a deal with – one of the big three alliances: Oneworld, Star Alliance or Skyteam, allowing you to earn and spend loyalty points on any member-carriers.

For example, EgyptAir, Lufthansa German Airlines and South African Airways are all members of the global Star Alliance, which allows members of the EgyptAir Plus, Miles & More and Voyager frequent flyer programs to earn and redeem miles on airlines ranging from Air Canada and Continental Airlines, to Ethiopian Airlines and Turkish Airlines.

But “with 19 million members, grouping 31 airlines and over 100 non-airline partners, Flying Blue is the most attractive and biggest frequent flyer programme in Europe,” enthuses Ralf Karsenbarg, Commercial Director Southern Africa & Angola for Air France/KLM. “Flying Blue members can redeem their Flying Blue miles on all Skyteam airlines and some Flying Blue partner airlines, as well as non-airline partners.”

Remember though that some major players – such as Emirates – have the financial clout to remain independent. The airline’s loyalty currency, Skywards Miles, “may be redeemed for rewards with Emirates’ global partners, which include South African Airways, Japan Airlines and our newest partner, Alaska Airlines,” explains Hendrik du Preez, Sales Manager for Emirates Airlines South Africa.

Apart from affiliated carriers, non-airline partners are also becoming a key selling point for many carriers’ loyalty schemes.

 Lufthansa’s Miles & More members can spend miles at Hilton Hotels, Marriott International and Radisson Blu Hotel & Resorts, while car rental partners include Avis, Budget, Europcar and Sixt.  Miles can also be spent at selected shopping centres by redeeming miles for a multi-store MasterCard Gift Card.

Of course you can only spend what you’ve earned, and while the simplest way to earn miles is to fly with your chosen airline, global carriers are also offering more innovative ways for you to build up rewards.

Emirates, for instance, allows “members to earn 20 percent of the Skywards Miles earned by their family members on their Emirates flights,” says Du Preez. Similarly, EgyptAir allows you to accrue miles from up to five family members. Each family member will have a separate EgyptAir Plus membership number, but miles will be credited to the main membership account.

Airlines have also recently cottoned on to the benefits of partnering with credit cards, allowing you to earn loyalty points as you swipe. In South Africa, the likes of kulula.com, BA/Comair and South African Airways all offer branded credit cards that enable you to earn kulula moolah, Avios and Voyager Miles without stepping foot on a plane.

British Airways is positioning itself as a key innovator when it comes to corporate travel, thanks to its groundbreaking loyalty program ‘On Business’.

“On Business is designed for small and medium-sized businesses which don’t have a large enough travel budget to secure corporate discounts, but which do travel enough to earn some benefits,” explains Forbes. In addition to the traveller earning Executive Club Avios, the company earns On Business points for every international British Airways flight. “These can be redeemed online for flights, upgrades and hotel vouchers.”

But benefits can only be redeemed if there’s availability, and the lack of ‘reward seats’ has long been a bugbear of loyalty program members. However, airlines are slowly taking steps to make it easier to cash in your loyalty points.

Emirates offers “Saver flight rewards in any cabin, which cost less, but are available in smaller numbers during peak periods,” explains Du Preez. And if you have more miles than time, “Flex flight rewards are also available in any cabin with extensive availability.”

South African Airways offers a similar choice, with its AnyDay Awards allowing you to book any available seat. Conversely, the MileageKeeper Awards will eat up fewer precious miles, but have limited availability.

Airlines are also becoming more flexible about reserving tickets when you don’t have sufficient loyalty miles.

“If you’re short of the points you need, you can often still get the reward you want,” explains Lauren Egger, Sales & Marketing Executive for Qantas Airways in Johannesburg. “You can use Points Plus Pay at our online store, or buy top-up points to boost your balance.”

But there’s more to airline loyalty than using your miles for free flights. Loyal customers get special treatment, and airlines offer the likes of complimentary lounge access (even when you’re booked in Economy), limousine transfers and additional baggage allowances.

Of course, many of those benefits only apply to members that have reached the higher status levels of a loyalty program. And from those lofty heights, it’s clear that all travellers are not created equal when it comes to last-minute bookings.

“Platinum and Gold members are guaranteed a confirmed Economy Class reservation on any Air France or KLM long-haul flight worldwide – even one that’s sold out,” says Karsenbarg. “We also offer extra availability on award seats on Air France and KLM, for Elite and Elite Plus members.”

So what benefits has your airline loyalty card given you over the past 12 months? If you haven’t seen any of those mentioned above, perhaps it’s time you open your wallet, take out that card and ask yourself how much your airline values your business?

BA grows Executive Club

British Airways has added a new tier to the existing three levels of its Executive Club. In addition to Blue (entry level), Silver and Gold, a new Bronze tier has been created “to reward frequent flying Blue members who have earned just half the tier points” required to move up to Silver, explains spokesperson Stephen Forbes.

Apart from earning a 25% tier bonus for every mile flown, Bronze members will also benefit from using the faster Business Class check-in, and be able to select their seats seven days before departure.

The Executive Club was voted 2011’s Best Frequent Flyer Programme by Business Traveller Africa’s sister title in the UK.

Hotels

While airline loyalty programs tend to bag most of the limelight with leisure travellers, astute corporate globetrotters have long realised that international and regional hotel chains offer exceptional rewards for repeat customers.

And while the basic concept remains the same – earn points by spending a night at participating hotels – loyal customers often receive far great benefits on terra firma, than up at 30 000 feet.

However, as with airlines, to maximise your opportunities for earning and burning points, it’s essential to consider the footprint of the hotel group you sign up with.

“Hilton HHonors is a phenomenal loyalty program that really gives a lot back to our guests,” says Mohamed Hamza, General Manager at Hilton Durban. “Our loyalty offering is also a global program, offering access to all of the 2700 hotels across the 10 distinct brands that make up Hilton worldwide. This means you can earn points and redeem room nights at not only Hilton hotels, but also the likes of Hampton, Conrad, Waldorf and Doubletree.”

With their Prokard scheme, Protea Hotels also offer an impressive array of participating properties, with over 100 hotels in eight African countries.

“Card holders can claim a guaranteed discount of up to 10 percent off the best available rate of the day, and get five percent off any advertised special on our website,” says Danny Bryer, Director of Sales, Marketing and Revenue for the Protea Hospitality Group.

“Members can also accrue points whether travelling on business or leisure, and they can make a single booking of up to nine rooms and earn points on all nine, provided they themselves are guests,” says Bryer.

But cheap rooms and free nights are only an incentive if you can actually book them.

“From a reward perspective, Prokard allows members to redeem their points anywhere, anytime, as long as there is room at the inn,” says Bryer. “We’ll give the very last room in a hotel to a Prokard member spending points, if there’s a room to give. We don’t put time or location restrictions on our loyalty card users.”

An easy way to sidestep the issue of availability, though, is to broaden the ways members can spend their points. As with airlines, most hotel loyalty programs offer a host of options for redeeming points at partner companies, allowing you to spread your spend according to your needs.

“One of the strongest benefits of Hilton HHonors is that you can ‘double-dip’ on earning points,” explains Hamza. “When you stay at any Hilton property you earn hotel points as well as miles redeemable with airline partners. Hilton is the only hotel company that offers this.”

“We partner with SAA, Qatar Airways, BA, BMI, Singapore Airline, Air France/KLM, Etihad, Emirates and others,” adds Hamza, while car hire companies Thrifty, Sixt and Europcar are all partners with Hilton HHonors.

Peermont – which operates hotels, casinos and resorts across South Africa and Botswana – operates a loyalty program, known as Winners Circle, aimed more firmly at the leisure market. The program’s wide-ranging partners include the likes of Boston City Campus, Drain Surgeon, Netstar and Europcar, but the main benefit is discounts – of up to 40% – on accommodation at all Peermont properties.

The new Legacy Lifestyle program from Legacy Hotels & Resorts offers an even wider array of partners for both earning and spending so-called Legacy Rands. “The difference with Legacy Lifestyle is that it is not just a Legacy Hotels & Resorts offering – it hinges on the premise that our customers like to maintain a certain lifestyle,” says Mike Rowley, Marketing Manager of the Legacy Group. “You earn rewards from day one, and every Rand you spend is a Legacy Rand earned that can be spent at a Legacy Lifestyle partner.”

Legacy’s partners range from art galleries to island getaways, so it’s an attractive offering for travellers who don’t want to be tied down to hotel rooms, when it comes to redeeming loyalty points. However, some hotel groups prefer to keep the bulk of the benefits in-house.

Southern Sun, which operates 90 hotels throughout Africa and the Middle East, offers substantial rewards for members of its Frequent Guest program. Members earn up to 20% of their spend in Sun Rands, which can be used for future bookings at hotels in the Southern Sun group, or at a small group of partners.

A key feature of Southern Sun’s offering is that Sun Rands are also calculated on your overall spend in the hotel – accommodation, meals at hotel-owned restaurants, telephone calls and even laundry services are all eligible.

While free rooms and a pile of points to spend may be attractive, where loyalty cards often prove just as useful to the corporate traveller is the added value they offer members.

Southern Sun Frequent Guest members enjoy value-adds such as priority reservations, late check-out, complimentary newspapers and free accommodation for partners.

“Depending on the tier of their membership, Legacy Lifestyle members are also afforded speciality treatment and privileges by way of free welcome drinks, free Internet access, the option for room upgrades, complimentary valet services, early check-ins and priority late checkout,” adds Rowley.

“All Gold and Diamond members automatically receive room upgrades if there’s space available,” says Hamza of the Hilton HHonors program. “These members also have access to our Executive Lounge, which offers complimentary continental breakfast, snacks throughout the day, afternoon tea and a full bar in the evening.”

Private lounges are ideal for quiet one-on-one meetings, but remember that extra charges usually apply for outside guests. A further benefit of hotel loyalty cards is that the benefit accrues to the traveller, not the company paying the bill.

“While card holders are staying at a hotel on business, they – personally – can be earning points that they can use for their family holiday travel,” explains Bryer. “Their company is paying for the room anyway, so why not earn free nights, get discounted meals and earn room upgrades, if it doesn’t cost you anything more than an annual membership fee?”

A fair point, and while the benefits of loyalty cards are hard to ignore, it’s worthwhile considering carefully – when you’re deciding which program to join –exactly how many nights you spend away from home.

For, while some loyalty schemes are free to join, programs like Prokard charge a membership fee – R495 per year for introductory Blue membership, and R1250 per year for a Gold Prokard. You’ll need to do the maths as to whether you’ll make your money back… and then some.

Hilton HHonors doesn’t charge for membership, but a minimum number of nights are required to progress up the status levels of cards. A similar approach applies to the Legacy Lifestyle card, where you’ll need to spend R9500 in a year to attain the top-level Black status.

Legacy Lifestyle “is free to join, and it is free to remain a member. No hidden costs,” says Rowley. “In addition, Legacy Rands earned do not have to be redeemed at a specific partner – they can be redeemed at any Legacy Lifestyle partner. So, if you don’t spend a sizeable number of nights in participating hotels each year, the points and rewards you’re entitled to may be negligible. In that case, a wide-ranging offering such as Legacy Lifestyle allows for more flexibility. But in between the room upgrades, the complimentary bubbly and the free nights away, it’s important to bear in mind that some of the most important benefits of hotel loyalty programs are the intangible ones.

“If you’re a frequent traveller you get to earn points, but we also get to know your personal likes, dislikes and travel habits,” says Hamza. “From a hotel point of view, it simplifies our job in really looking after the guests that are so loyal to our company.”

So, even if you’re only due for a free night away once a year, perhaps those smaller touches – the speedy check-in, the clerk greeting you by name, and your preferred pillow waiting on the bed – are reward enough?

Car Rental

Car rental companies seem to lag behind other sectors of the travel industry when it comes to loyalty programs, with most happy to be a ‘downstream’ partner for hotels and airlines. Hiring a vehicle will earn you loyalty points on the hotel/airline’s program, which can in turn be spent on car hire, but most car hire companies seem content to leave it at that. Avis Rent a Car, for example, is partnered with both British Airways and South African Airways, but has no loyalty program of its own. However, it does attempt to encourage loyalty with its Preferred Service program.

You won’t earn points towards free car hire (you’ll have to spend Voyager Miles or Avios for that), but it does offer streamlined hiring for members, with a single ‘Master Rental Agreement’ for all future hires. Hertz offers an almost-identical product with its global loyalty program Hertz #1 Club Gold. In addition to similarly streamlined hiring, though, members are also promised exclusive offers. Regionally, Hertz is partnered with South African Airways, Status Hotels and Leopard Creek Country Club.

Europcar has perhaps the best loyalty offering, combining airline partnerships with the opportunity to find yourself behind a flashier set of wheels. “Europcar’s Privilege program is not a points-based programme, and customers who rent vehicles more frequently are rewarded by being moved up to higher tiers based on their number of rentals,” explains Dawn-Nathan Jones, CEO of Europcar.

Members enjoy preferential pricing (depending on whether you fall into Club, Executive or Elite tier), Voyager miles on eligible rates and partner discounts at Accor hotels internationally. Customers on the top-level Elite tier can also enjoy complimentary vehicle upgrades.

“A great advantage of this programme is that customers receive benefits in all 150 countries where Europcar is represented,” adds Nathan-Jones. “Privilege members are also entitled to make use of Europcar’s Ready Service at major airports, which bypasses the normal counters and allows keys-in-hand without paperwork.”

“Tempest Car Hire does not have a loyalty program at the moment,” says Mellindree Narayanasami, Marketing & Commercial Director. “It is a project however that we are currently working on.”

Frequent travellers have their say

“The trick is to choose the airline that you use the most, and, if they are a member of an international alliance, then use those partners when flying overseas. Most airlines have hotel, credit card and retail partners… use the full range of partners to clock up miles.”

“I recommend people have a hotel loyalty card, as well as the airline cards. Hotel check-in staff still have the discretion to upgrade you to a higher grade room if you ask nicely…”

“Don’t be stupid and let the miles blind you – it’s not logical to pay thousands of Rands more for a ticket just because you get miles.”

Wally Gaynor, Managing Director of Club Travel

“I fly 15-20 times a year locally, and 2-3 times internationally. I joined SAA Voyager and Emirates Skymiles, but as I started to meaningfully interact with the programs I found them difficult to understand or realise any value, except lounge access. I have reached a stage now where I am going to change my credit card to give me lounge access and simply fly on a more budget airline.”

“In doing so, I have saved my company money and also freed myself from having to fly at only particular times to fit in with the loyalty program’s availability. I can now find a cheaper flight amongst the competition, don’t have the burden of dealing with clunky administrative systems, and – after having my account accessed fraudulently – don’t have to worry about losing miles.”

Alvin Visser, consumer researcher

Earn and burn

Loyalty schemes let you redeem those miles far and wide. Here are some partnerships you might not know about:

Hilton HHonoursSingapore Airlines
Qantas AirwaysFinnair
South African AirwaysEuropcar
Air France/KLMBest Western Hotels
Legacy LifestyleLUX* Island Resorts
British AirwaysAvis Rent A Car
Emirates AirlinesJapan Airlines
Starwood Hotels and ResortsEmirates
LufthansaEthiopian Airlines
South African AirwaysSabi Sabi
Air France/KLMDisneyland Paris
EgyptAirRadio Shack Cairo

Richard Holmes

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