Getting Our “Just Rewards” in Airline and Hotel Loyalty Programs

If you think your airline or hotel rewards program is “merely mediocre” … you’re likely not alone.

Rewards ProgramsU.S. News & World Report’s just-published annual listing of the best and worst rewards programs in the airline and hotel industries is confirming what many people already suspect: some of America’s biggest loyalty programs are also some of the least liked.

Let’s start with the airlines. USN&WR ranked the ten largest programs on a variety of attributes including the ease of redeeming points for free flights and hotel stays.

Best Airline RewardsThe three best performing airline rewards programs do include two with high participation rates — American and Southwest:

  • #1: Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
  • #2: American Airlines AAdvantage
  • #3: Southwest Rapids Rewards

But three other programs, including two of the biggest ones — United and Delta — bring up the rear:

  • #8: United MileagePlus
  • #9: Delta SkyMiles
  • #10: FREE SPIRIT

Ranked in between are four other airline rewards programs, generally ones with fewer participants because of the smaller size and narrower geographic reach of the airlines involved:

  • #4: JetBlue TrueBlue
  • #5: HawaiianMiles
  • #6: Virgin America Elevate
  • #7: Frontier EarlyReturns

As for which airline rewards programs experienced significant changes in their rankings between this report and last year’s, the biggest shift was JetBlue, which fell from the top-ranked position in 2014 to fourth place in the latest ranking.

Hotel Rewards Programs

Best Hotels RewardsUSN&WR took the same approach with hotel rewards programs, but evaluated a larger group of 18 programs. The five best-ranked hotel programs are the following ones:

  • #1: Marriott Rewards
  • #2: Wyndham Rewards
  • #3 (tie): Best Western Rewards and Club Carlson
  • #5: IHG Rewards Club

Marriott’s top ranking is a repeat from the 2014 USN&WR rankings, and it’s due to maintaining high strength in the three-legged stool of critical factors: having an extensive hotel network; a relatively lower requirement for earning and redeeming free hotel stays; and generous “extras” as part of its membership perks.

Also noteworthy was Wyndham Rewards ascent to the #2 position from #7 a year earlier.  Its dramatic improvement was attributable to changing its program policies to allow members to redeem a night’s hotel stay for a flat rate of 15,000 points across the board.

At the other end of the scale were these low-ranked rewards programs:

  • #14:  Kimpton Karma Rewards
  • #15: Le Club Accorhotels
  • #16: Fairmont President’s Club
  • #17: iPrefer
  • #18: Loews YouFirst

The worst programs score that way because in comparative terms, they lack easy ways to earn points.  Also, in many cases their geographic coverage and/or property diversity is lacking.

[Perhaps the bottom-ranked program will need to change its name to Loews YouLast …]

For the record, the hotel rewards programs that came in the middle of the pack are these:

  • #6: Leaders Club
  • #7: La Quinta Returns
  • #8: Starwood Preferred Guest
  • #9: Hilton HHonors
  • #10: Hyatt Gold Passport
  • #11: Choice Privileges
  • #12: Stash Hotel Rewards
  • #13: Omni Select Guest

More information about the USN&WR rewards program rankings for both industries can be found here.

What about your personal experience with various airline and hotel programs? Do you have one or two particular favorites? Or ones you’ve decided to stay away from at all costs? Please share your perspectives with other readers.

Hotel brands and social media: Leading and following at the same time?

If you want to see an industry that’s using social media to best advantage, you needn’t look any further than the hotel trade.

hotels on FBMore than any other industry segment, hotel brands seem to have gotten a very good handle on the whole “local/global” concept.

Hotel properties that are part of a large chain or group originate from the main brand, of course.  And yet, the nature of the business means that they are individual entities as well, across the country and around the world.

For this reason, many local hotels that are part of larger chains have established their own individual social profiles.  That’s turned out to be a great way to attract more consumer engagement compared to social pages that are focused on global hotel branding.

Moreover, the social profiles of hotel properties are the perfect vehicle for promoting programs aimed at generating more bookings via local special offers, vacation deals and the like.

Recently, social media analytics firm Socialbakers researched some of the world’s largest hotel brand groups to determine the extent of their social media presence by looking at the seven most important platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Tumblr, Pinterest and LinkedIn).

hilton logoAs it turns out, seven hotel brand groups have at least 1,000 separate social profiles on these platforms.  In the case of Hilton, it’s nearly 2,000:

  • Hilton Worldwide: ~1,850 separate profiles across the top seven social networks
  • InterContinental Hotels Group:  ~1,550 profiles
  • Marriott International:  ~1,300
  • Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide: ~1,250
  • Wyndham Hotel Group: ~1,250
  • Accor: ~1,200
  • Best Western International:  ~1,000

In looking deeper at the extent of the social profiles these giant brands, Socialbakers found some interesting details that may point to certain individual strategic differences.  Among the findings were these:

.  Facebook is the most popular social platform for everyone – no question – with at least 50% of each brands’ social profiles housed there.

.  Twitter is the next most popular network, with profiles there representing between 20% and 40% of all social profiles for each brand.

.  Starwood Hotels and Accor are somewhat less Facebook-centric than the others – and they also have a more significant presence on Instagram and LinkedIn than the other brands.

.  Pinterest appears to be the least attractive major social platform for individual hotel profiles.

.  Hilton and Marriott have the largest number of social profiles in North America. 

It would seem that the big hotel brands are both leading and following when it comes to their social media presence.

While they may be ahead of the curve compared to many other industries, they are also following the lead of their own consumers – so many of whom rely on conducting their own online research and consulting user reviews to determine where they want to stay – not to mention the best room rates and deals they can find in order to do so.

How about you?  Like me, do you follow certain individual hotel properties on social media, or instead do you focus on hotel brands more broadly?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

Hotels Finally Turn the Corner on Customer Satisfaction

Hotel guest satisfaction surveys
According to J. D. Power, hotel guest satisfaction ratings in North America are up for the first time in years.

One of the industry segments that took the biggest beating in customer satisfaction during the recent recession was the hotel sector.

Annual surveys conducted by J. D. Power charted a continuing decline in satisfaction rates.  In everything from reservations and the check-in process to the cost of stay, hotel customers have been giving “thumbs down” for the past half-decade.

Until now.  

Marketing information services company J. D. Power & Associates, part of McGraw Hill, has just released the results of its latest annual survey, based on responses from more than 68,700 hotel guests in the United States and Canada collected between July 2012 and May 2013. 

J.D. Power has conducted these hotel industry surveys annually for the past 17 years.

According to the 2013 North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study, the overall guest satisfaction rating index is 77.7 on a 100-point scale. 

That may seem like a “Gentleman’s C,” but it’s an increase from last year’s 75.7 score. 

More to the point, it’s the first time in quite a few years in which the aggregate rating has gone up.

Where has satisfaction increased?  Pretty much in every category surveyed, with the largest gains coming in the reservations process, check-in/check-out procedures, and hotel costs and fees.

Other categories included in the study were guest room satisfaction, food and beverage service, other hotels services, and hotel faciliites.

The largest area of continuing discontent is in Internet usage.  Customer complaints are all across the board — ranging from spotting connectivity and slow speeds to usage charges.

Other areas where improvements are sought are in HVAC comfort and controlling noise levels.

What about customer reaction to rising hotel rates?  After all, they’ve gone up by about 5% over the past two years. 

But the J. D. Power survey found little concern about rate increases.  Rick Garlick, director of the survey, suggests that pulling out of the economic downturn might explain this lack of concern.  “The economy may be playing a part in price satisfaction because people have a little more to spend,” he noted.

The people who appear to be the least satisfied with their stay experience are the ones who chose to stay at a hotel based on price alone.  It’s like the adage says:  “You get what you pay for.”

On the other hand, the most satisfied guests weren’t necessarily people who stayed at 5-star properties.  Instead, they’re ones who evaluated hotels carefully beforehand using online tools such as third-party hotel reviews and ratings.  The “eyes wide open” strategy, as it were.

Such evaluation tools have made it easier to know what to expect from a hotel stay, contributing to overall satisfaction ratings because there’s less likelihood of a “rude awakening.”

The J. D. Power surveys also ask respondents to rate hotel brands.  I was interested to see which hotels scored highest in the various different categories in this year’s survey:

  • Luxury category:  Ritz-Carlton
  • Upscale:  Hyatt
  • Midscale Full Service:  Holiday Inn
  • Midscale:  Drury
  • Economy/Budget:  Microtel (Wyndham)
  • Extended Stay:  TownePlace Suites

Come to think of it, none of these results is particularly surprising.  In fact, three of the brands (Ritz-Carlton, Holiday Inn and Drury) have been tops in their category for three or more consecutive years of the J. D. Powers studies.

Additional survey findings are available here.

Hotel in a Hurry: 30 Stories Built in 15 Days

Chalk up another eyebrow-raising construction engineering marvel in Asia. Malaysia and Taiwan may have the world’s largest skyscrapers, but China is becoming the “quick construction” center of the universe.

The latest example is a 30-story hotel prototype structure built in Changsha, China in just 15 days at the end of last year.

Broad Group, the construction company responsible for the feat, claims that the 183,000 sq. ft. hotel can withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, along with being substantially more energy efficient, sound and heat insulated than conventionally constructed facilities.

Broad Group completed this hotel just a few weeks after completing another “quick construct” project in China’s Hunan Province — the 15-story Ark Hotel — in just six days.

Here’s a time-elapsed video of the Ark Hotel construction, spanning a grand total of 360 hours. Reportedly, there were no on-the-job injuries despite the hyper-compressed timeframe.

How did Broad Group accomplish this feat? The company reports that it uses prefabricated modules rather than building the entire structure onsite. These modules shorten the time while making construction management coordination much easier. It’s interesting to see in the video how that coordination works to telescope the time needed for building.

Of course, the next question that comes to mind is whether something like this could ever be “exported” to the United States. Or would there be a raft of regulations, safety and environmental obstacles in the way to make it impossible?

Anyone care to weigh in with thoughts?

Caribbean Tourism: Calypso … or Cataclysmo?

Palm TreesWhen it comes to the travel and tourism industry, the Caribbean seems to have it all: Exotic locales, yet not far from home … a “live and let live” culture that outdoes even Las Vegas or New Orleans in its breezy permissiveness … an area blissfully free of terrorism or other nasty intrusions of the “post-911” world.

And yet, the 2008 financial numbers are in on the Caribbean tourism industry, and they’re not pretty. According to PKF Hospitality Research, hotels across the Caribbean experienced a 16% decline in profits in 2008. And the prognosis for 2009 doesn’t look any better.

The downturn is having a major negative impact on most Caribbean economies, because in this region, “tourism” and “the economy” are essentially one and the same.

How are hotels and resort properties responding? By offering all sorts of special incentives and package deals. Or course, that’s what hospitality properties are doing all over the world, so the law of diminishing returns comes into play.

Many hotel and resort development projects are being shelved, too. PKF Hospitality Research counts as many as 51 of 105 development projects in the region that have been mothballed for the foreseeable future.

Is a turnaround in sight? If there’s to be one, it won’t be known until next year. Most of the region’s tourism dollars are brought in during just three months of the year — January through March.

In 2009, of course, that three-month period just happened to parallel the very worst part of the global downturn. So, based on that very low benchmark, most observers are expecting — hoping — that early 2010 will turn out to be “Calypso Season” rather than “Cataclysmo Season.”

Skyscraper Graveyard

apartment-buildingBook TowerOn a trip to Detroit a few days ago, my family and I stayed downtown in one of the city’s newly renovated grande dame hotels. The 1920s-era Fort Shelby Hotel, now part of the Doubletree chain, reopened last December after being closed for more than 25 years. It’s a jewel of a property stuck in the middle of one of the most depressed cities in America. Reportedly, a whopping $80 million was spent on its renovation.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Just up the street is the even more palatial Westin Book-Cadillac, which was the world’s largest hotel when it first opened in 1924. It, too, stood vacant starting in the early 1980s, miraculously avoiding the wrecking ball before being rescued in a $200 million+ renovation and reopening this past October.

So what will help fill the rooms of these showcase hotel properties? If a flood of reservations actually materializes, it will be for the myriad lawyers, accountants and government officials descending on the city to pick apart General Motors and Chrysler Corporation.

The city of Detroit can’t seem to catch a break. First, there’s the real estate crisis that has seen property values plunge even faster than the national average. Today, the city’s median home sales price is below $10,000, which has to be the record low for a major U.S. city.

Next up, the spectacle of dilapidated infrastructure, a dysfunctional school system plus governmental corruption, nepotism and favoritism run amok – all culminating in Detroit’s mayor being sent to prison.

Now comes the implosion of Detroit’s auto industry that has sparked the nation’s renewed attention on the crumbling city, including human-interest television reporting and lurid photo essays like the one just published in Time magazine.

Sadly, this is Detroit. Riding the People Mover, the 2.5-mile monorail system that loops the perimeter of downtown, one can peer into the second-story levels of building after vacant building. It’s truly a metaphor for the entire city … and a peepshow for the rest of the nation.

Is there a natural bottom? The investors in Detroit’s old hotels seem to think so. But you have to wonder, would those investors have moved forward with these initiatives knowing what they know today?

It was photographer and social commentator Camilo Jose Vergara who suggested more than ten years ago that the empty skyscrapers of downtown Detroit be preserved in their current state as a memorial and monument to a vanishing industrial age. Of course, the city government leaders were horrified at the idea and objected loudly. But really, what other use could they possibly come up with for these relics – silent and stark reminders that a city once the nation’s fifth largest has shrunk in under 50 years to less than half its former size.