This interview is part of our Moving Forward Blog Series, where we ask major brands how they’re adapting to changing consumer expectations from a loyalty perspective post-pandemic.
While the past year has been challenging for retailers everywhere, coupled with a massive shift toward e-commerce, some brands found the pandemic framed a new perspective around customer loyalty.
One brand that took the brunt of the pandemic is Global Hotel Alliance.
As the world’s largest alliance of independent hotel brands, Global Hotel Alliance faced immediate challenges after the pandemic hit.
GHA’s 11 million loyalty program members were unable to travel.
GHA officials regrouped and planned how to keep its DISCOVERY loyalty program relevant, but also make it more rewarding and flexible for their members.
In the current program, DISCOVERY members immediately start to receive benefits from their first stay, such as exclusive Member Rates, complimentary Wi-Fi, and bottled water. Then they can enjoy enhanced benefits including room upgrades, late check-out, and more comfort-enhancing perks and experiences as they progress through the tiers.
We caught up with Kristi Gole, VP, Head of Transformation at GHA, and here’s what she had to say about:
- The challenges GHA faced from the pandemic.
- How GHA resolved those challenges and revamped its DISCOVERY program.
- Redesigning the new GHA DISCOVERY loyalty program.
- Customer loyalty goals
Jim Tierney: Since the pandemic started in the U.S., how has GHA viewed customer loyalty and how has that approach been impacted by consumer behavioral change across the board?
Kristi Gole: Loyalty is our core offering at GHA, with our core product being the DISCOVERY loyalty program that is shared across our 35 hotel brands with over 500 hotels in 85 countries.
We have 11 million loyalty members who largely were not able to travel over the past year and a half, and we had to pivot to ensure we stayed relevant and valuable to them.
Pre-pandemic, most of our business came from international and business travel, whereas we had to shift and focus on local and domestic travel, as well as expanding our product offering.
While the focus was previously on hotel stays, our hotels saw the opportunity to open their facilities to locals, offering ‘work from hotel’, ‘virtual school from the hotel,’ pool access, beach club access, etc., which really gave our members added value and drove traffic to the hotels, resulting in incremental non-room revenue.
Jim: Listening to your customers is a top priority. What are your biggest challenges now and in the future regarding customer loyalty and retention?
Kristi: Agreed and we have been working on a full program redesign driven by customer feedback and co-creation.
Our biggest challenges have been largely pandemic-related.
It has been exponentially more complicated to plan and implement and soon train and rollout a new program due to reduced resources, hotel closures, constantly changing conditions and forecasts, and geographic sensitivity as some countries or regions are recovering faster than others.
For psychographics, some customers are eager to travel as before and even ‘revenge’ travel, while others are more cautious and expect more precautions to be taken for them to be comfortable. Content personalization was a focus area across industries in years past, but there are added dimensions now to account for.
For customer classification, we knew our customer before, but some key segments may no longer exist due to so many factors (key example: business traveler who used to take 20 trips/year internationally may only take five trips a year now and only domestically, while doing the rest virtually).
New customer segments, however, are emerging or growing and we need to be prepared to cater to them (key example: locals taking more staycations, resorts being more of a focus than city-center hotels).
Regarding retention, time will tell if our previous travelers stay with us again when they start traveling again.
What we have seen is not only continued engagement in our communications, but an increase in opens and clicks, which is a great sign that they are still interested in our message, our program, and our destinations.
And this is partly due to a shift in our strategy to be less promotional and more editorial in our content, focusing on inspiring our members rather than selling to them currently.
Jim: Can you talk about your GHA DISCOVERY loyalty program, what’s involved in the redesigned version of it, and your loyalty plans with the NH Hotel Group?
Kristi: We started the journey in 2019, doing a six-month global exploratory project where we spoke with customers across regions to understand their pain points with loyalty programs and learn what they really want most when they travel.
We then validated certain elements with a large subset of our database and constructed a new value proposition.
We’ve since been working on bringing the new program vision to life, fully transforming everything across our business, the program, and its delivery (systems, marketing channels, etc.).
We’ve been in discussion with NH Hotels for some time and they played a significant part in the program redesign, as they are moving to our program in early 2022.
With NH Hotels joining (adding their 360 hotels to our collection), we together will become one of the top 10 largest loyalty programs in hospitality, which is incredibly exciting.
Jim: How will this impact customer loyalty at GHA moving forward?
Kristi: We’ve designed GHA DISCOVERY as a more rewarding, more generous, and more flexible program that is also simpler than competitors’ programs, which customers will appreciate and should result in more program engagement and contribute to long-term loyalty.
Jim: As GHA slowly emerges from the pandemic, what are your customer loyalty goals?
Kristi: While we grew accustomed to double-digit growth year over year for the past decade leading up to the pandemic, we now will be happy to get back to our 2019 figures and grow again from there!
For commercial goals, we’re using 2019 as the main benchmark with estimates of what percentage of the previous numbers we think are possible to achieve, though much of that remains outside of our control due to varying restrictions by market that are still present and a significant impediment.
For marketing and CRM goals, engagement has been more of the focus as opposed to revenue generation, and that will continue through this year.
It’s interesting how GHA adapted its focus after the pandemic started, from international and business travel to local and domestic travel.
During the pandemic GHA seized an opportunity to open its facilities to locals, offering services such as work from hotel, virtual school from the hotel, pool access, and beach club access. This gave its members added value.
And working on GHA DISCOVERY, a full loyalty program redesign fueled by customer feedback and co-creation.
GHA officials realize that, for customer classification, some key segments might not exist anymore due to various factors related to the pandemic.
But they see new customer segments emerging and they are preparing themselves to cater to them.
GHA is a great example of a successful company that was thrown a curveball by the pandemic, adapted to the realities of it, and listened and learned what direction to pursue from its program members.