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Once upon a time, a traveler signed up for your travel loyalty program. They started giving you more and more of their annual category spend. They earned points; they understood your brand; and they lived happily ever after as a loyal travel rewards member.

This travel fairy tale is now about as common as dial-up, Walkmans, and VCRs.

Today, people have more booking options than ever at their fingertips. And marketers must evolve their strategies to meet customers where they are. That’s why it’s time for travel brands to rethink loyalty. Loyalty has become synonymous with points, freebies, and membership discounts. Those benefits drive massive loyalty sign-ups, but the problem is, those same people may also be signing up with every one of your competitors.

Here’s an idea: separate your travel loyalty program from your understanding of retention and customer lifetime value. We partnered with research consultancy Greenberg to understand just how loyal today’s frequent travelers are. Spoiler alert: not very.

Meet the high-value traveler. These travelers have an annual average of seven airline1 and nine hotel bookings.2 They have high expectations for travel — only 21% will sacrifice comfort for a lower price.3 The vast majority — 87% — have status with at least one airline or hotel brand.4 As frequent travelers, they understand the benefits of rewards programs and have every reason to be loyal. But those programs only go so far.  

Loyalty programs are not even one of the top three considerations when choosing which brand to book travel with.5 Customer service is the clear priority (60%), followed by an easy-to-use website (55%) and online reviews (50%).6 Loyalty programs come in fourth, motivating less than half of the high-value travelers (46%).7

The service you provide, across all touchpoints, is more memorable than the points you can offer.

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Unpacking loyalty: Feelings vs. actions

Our research uncovered two different types of loyalty. Attitudinal loyalty is essentially how loyal someone feels. When asked whether they know which brand they will book with before looking for travel, attitudinally loyal people say yes.8 But that doesn’t always translate into consistent bookings. That's where behavioral loyalty comes in. Behavior loyalty is whether or not people act loyal by repeatedly booking with the same brand.9

Attitudinal loyalty relates to how loyal a traveler feels, and behavioral loyalty refers to how loyal a traveler acts. Which group are you speaking to?

When we look at both types of loyalty by industry, we see that loyalty is higher for airlines than hotels.10 That may be due to the more limited choices travelers have for air brands, as many airports in the U.S. have one hub airline. Forty percent of high-value travelers who demonstrate behavioral loyalty for airlines say they primarily book with the same brand because they have the most flights out of their home airport.11

Forty-nine percent of high-value travelers have attitudinal loyalty for an airline (they feel loyal to one particular airline),12 and 53% have behavioral loyalty (they consistently choose to book with the same brand).13 For hotels, only 30% of high-value travelers express attitudinal loyalty to a hotel,14 and only 44% demonstrate behavioral loyalty.15 That’s because attitudinal loyalty does not necessarily create behavioral loyalty, and vice versa.

Imagine someone who is a rewards member of a large hotel chain and has had good experiences staying at its brands. This traveler may very well feel loyal to that chain, and regularly consider them, demonstrating attitudinal loyalty, but they end up acting disloyal when they find a better fit for their trip with another hotel.

Conversely, another traveler may perceive very little differentiation between hotel brands and therefore feel no loyalty, but they may seem to act loyally by frequently staying at the same hotel. In that case, their behavioral loyalty seems to come from convenience rather than brand love. Maybe that brand has locations near this traveler’s offices, or maybe it is at the right price point. Whatever the reason may be, that hotel brand still is not top of mind for them and needs to work to earn their business each time.

Cultivating loyalty with your best customers

Loyalty is a constant choice, and marketers must think about earning both types.

Attitudinal loyalty comes down to what people associate with your brand and how differentiated you are. Is the total customer experience — on-site, on the phone, online — so compelling that people will remember it? Or are you losing customers by not even meeting their basic expectations, say, for mobile experiences? (See how your mobile experience stacks up.)

Behavioral loyalty is a matter of being present, with content tailored to your audience when they need it most, across channels and devices. Is your advertising optimized for channel efficiency or for providing value to your best customers?

Sands China used machine learning to segment its audiences and create relevant, personalized creative for each. For its high-value travelers with an affinity for live events and music, the resort delivered ads tailored to their interests and their intent to travel soon. Conversely, for its price-sensitive travelers who were chasing the best deal, Sands showed its best discounts. These efforts resulted in a 1.5X higher conversation rate and a 2X increase in bookings among the desirable high-value travelers.

This is just one example of how marketers can find, win, and retain their best customers throughout the travel journey. With digital, there are more opportunities than ever to incorporate intent signals, audience data, and automation at the heart of your marketing, as Sands China did. Loyalty may be low in the industry, but the potential for accumulating customer lifetime value has never been higher.

Learn more about how brands are winning loyalty from today's frequent travelers.