What Drives Customer Loyalty in the Travel Industry?

What Drives Customer Loyalty in the Travel Industry?


Which travel brands have won your customer loyalty and why? And before you start thinking about which airlines you earn and redeem frequent flyer miles with or the hotels whose loyalty programs you belong to, let me phrase this another way: which travel brands, if any, are you about as loyal to as you would be to a good friend?

Now, you may think that's extreme–to most people, no matter what Stephen Colbert says or what their legal rights are, corporations are not people–but let me explain why I think true customer loyalty in the travel industry is akin to this.

Let's start with what customer loyalty is not:

Customer Loyalty Is NOT Based On:

1. Deals or Loyalty Program Incentives

Ironic, isn't it? I write quite a bit about frequent flyer points and hotel loyalty points. These programs certainly can and do cause members to choose a given airline or hotel in order to earn or redeem miles or points and I got a few folks tell me about their miles and points in response to a question about travel loyalty. But I wouldn't say that's true loyalty, any more than clipping coupons and using them to save money on a product at the grocery store expresses true customer loyalty. A frequent flyer or hotel loyalty program is just a more sophisticated and systematized approach to shift or increase consumer spending based on reward incentives. Important for airlines' bottom lines, given the miles they sell to the credit card companies, but how loyal am I to United Airlines when I collect MileagePlus miles to fly Lufthansa, Swiss or Qatar (no longer a Star Alliance member)?

And as the recent spate of hotel loyalty program devaluations indicate, the “loyalty” they engender tends to dissipate when the deals die. To me, true loyalty would mean staying at a given hotel or flying an airline even when it was considerably more expensive or less convenient to do so, compared to other options.


2. Convenience

I often pick up some items at my corner grocery store. Is that loyalty? Nope, I'd label this as mere convenience. It's right there, so it's easy to pick some items up if I've forgotten them during my shopping at Trader Joe's, which I am loyal to. 

Similarly, if you always take a given nonstop flight on Delta from point A to point B, I wouldn't necessarily call this loyalty. If you're taking it either because it's the only nonstop on that route, the departure time works best for your schedule, or it leaves from the closest airport to your house, that's convenience–it isn't loyalty.


3. *Only* A Great Product or Service

A great product or service is a pre-requisite to loyalty, but I don't view it as sufficient. If you're only buying a product or service because it's good, but aren't emotionally attached to it or the company at all and would switch if given the chance, that's not truly loyalty. For example, my husband agreed that objectively the Lufthansa old first class product he experienced was great, but it didn't connect with him emotionally and he wouldn't recommend it to others. 


True Customer Loyalty IS Based On:

1. Great Customer Service As a Differentiator

Travel is one of the most service-based industries there is, yet unfortunately for the airlines and hotels, typically the lowest paid employees are those on the front lines, interacting with customers: flight attendants and hotel front desk staff. Customers' interactions with these employees often play a huge role in developing or diminishing true customer loyalty.

While it's great for airlines and hotels to focus on delivering a great product and service and minimize complaints, grievances will inevitably arise. It's often these “moments of truth” that act as inflection points, either helping engender customer loyalty because of the compassionate and hospitable way the problem was handled, or making the customer vow to never fly the airline or stay at that hotel chain again. One study found that 92% of customers said that a poor customer service experience decreased their loyalty. 

Certainly some airlines have been great in responding to customer feedback and questions, and quickly. I was amazed when I got a response from American Airlines' Twitter presence, @AmericanAir late on a Sunday evening just a minute or two after posting, and I'm sure some of you have your own positive experiences of responsiveness from an airline or hotel via Twitter or Facebook. While I don't fly much at all domestically, I can definitely say my perception of American Airlines is more positive after such responsiveness. If small queries are responded to quickly, it builds trust that any larger concerns would also be addressed promptly.

Similarly, with hotels, a beautifully appointed room and lushly landscaped grounds is all well and good, but the truly standout 5-star properties differentiate with their people, on excellent service. That's why although my room at the St. Regis Bangkok was beautiful and modern, I can't recommend it to clients based on my experience, which was of poor customer service until I expressed strong dissatisfaction. On the other hand, the Four Seasons Philadelphia doesn't have a remarkable physical property compared to many other Four Seasons resorts around the world, but our experience there even for a brief one night stay was fantastic. The staff without exception couldn't have been more welcoming and accommodating of us and our son, from a warm personalized greeting, plush toy (which my son still adores), balloon for him in the restaurant, allowing us to have something off the menu, and so on. 


2. Emotional Connection to the Brand

We're human, not machines, and emotion matters both in personal relationships and customer loyalty to brands. And just as with personal relationships, often the brands we as customers are most loyal to have a distinctive personality, perhaps even some quirkyness and a sense of humor we identify with. Look at the many who are loyal to JetBlue or Southwest, even without particuarly good rewards programs (at least if you like premium class travel), which both are quirkier, with a more “fun” side to them than the legacy carriers. While I don't fly Southwest (I like to have an assigned seat, thank you) on my JetBlue flights I've noticed some fun verbal jousting from the flight attendants or even from the First Officer, which definitely helped improve the mood of the cabin

On the hotel front, Kimpton's boutque hotel persona appeals to those who want a greater sense of place, may want to socialize with others at the complimentary wine hour, and will go for an animal print bathrobe, and may be traveling with their pet (or want to borrow a goldfish for company).

While it can be harder for the largest travel companies to build an emotional connection to the entire brand, not just particular hotels or routes where the staff are outstanding, it can be done, especially when all staff are empowered and encouraged to provide very personalized service. I can say that after truly personalized service in Singapore First Class, I'm very motivated to fly Singapore again, even though I wasn't that impressed with certain aspects, such as the food and wine.


3. Customer Ritual

Habits are all very well, but to develop true customer loyalty travel companies should, I believe, focus on rituals. What's the difference? A habit could be pure convenience, as in stopping at the closest Starbucks to your office for a latte to get you through the morning. A ritual, on the other hand, is something more exquisite that you eagerly anticipate and savor as an experience. That's not to say it couldn't be a Starbucks drink, although it isn't for me.

A ritual could be daily, such as pouring your favorite wine while talking with your spouse or partner about the day, once a month, when you treat yourself to a massage or other indulgence, or just once a year, for a vacation where you always stay a few nights with your favorite hotel brand.

For travel companies, it can be somewhat easier to develop these rituals with frequent business travelers, given the sheer number of flights and hotel stays they experience, but for luxury operators that appeal to wealthy travelers who may travel less but spend more, the stakes can be even higher. After all, no one “needs” luxury travel, and some of the top luxury hotels don't have any incentive or frequent guest programs, so the emotional connection and pull of anticipated customer rituals have to be that much greater.

Take the “Dom or Krug?” champagne choice for Singapore Airlines, or the way Aman Resorts staff, including the General Manager if on property, present you with a gift from the kitchen and all come together to bid you farewell–these rituals are ones that I looked forward to and continue to remember long after the flight and hotel stay.

Which airlines, hotels, or other travel companies are you loyal to and why?

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