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Field report: The Loyalty Academy Conference

On March 2, the second annual Loyalty Academy Conference took place at the Marriott Harbour Beach Resort and Spa in Ft Lauderdale, Florida. This year’s theme: frictionless loyalty. With loyalty practitioners from 16 countries gathered together to discuss removing friction from customer relationships, the discussion ranged from how to apply trend-watching to your own organization to an Oxford-style debate on the future of points-based loyalty program. It was a spirited day of learning, sharing best practices, and challenging the conventional wisdom.

By Rick Ferguson

The day began with opening remarks from Customer Strategy Network chairman Mike Atkin welcoming the delegates to the conference, hosted by the Wise Marketer and the Loyalty Academy. Keynote speaker Rick Ferguson [Editor’s note: That’s me], CEO and Editor in Chief of the Wise Marketer Group, followed with a wide-ranging discussion of the nature and definition of business friction, a discussion of trend-watching in business, and the importance of leaving some friction in loyalty systems to encourage active engagement.

Maritz Motivation Solutions VP Barry Kirk followed by leading a discussion on the intersection – or “collision,” as he called it – of loyalty and customer experience management. Using his 4D loyalty matrix to illustrate types of loyalty ranging from the mercenary to the cult-like, Barry demonstrated that loyalty marketing remains an essential component of delivering a differentiated and personalized customer experience across both digital and analog channels.

“The loyalty program becomes the frame through which best customers view their entire customer experience,” Kirk said.

Wise Marketer contributing editor Nick Chambers next led a discussion on mobile loyalty by illustrating both the promise of loyalty marketing to drive mobile payments adoption and the roadblocks hindering mass consumer adoption. Chamber’s conclusion: a new wave of mobile loyalty innovation is on the horizon.

“What the successful players will all have in common is the ability to offer a great customer experience that is both frictionless and highly relevant for customers in its use,” Chambers said.

Choice Hotels’ Jamie Russo followed with a case study of removing organizational friction illustrated by the relaunch of the Choice Privileges loyalty program within a hotel company that is 100 percent franchisee-owned. The key to selling the program internally, Russo said, was convincing all constituents involved -from the franchisees themselves to the company CFO – that “the customer journey is more than just [the journey of a franchisee’s] personal customer – [we had to sell the program as] critical to the success of everyone else’s customer [as well.]”

Remaining in the hospitality space, the agenda then delved into the challenge of removing financial friction from loyalty programs with a case study from La Quinta Inns & Suites VP Dave Sims highlighting the recent relaunch of the La Quinta Returns program and its industry-first Redeem Away program that allows Visa cardholders to redeem Returns points at the point-of-sale on a variety of everyday purchases. Adding more value and liquidity to program currency while simultaneously reducing program liability should pay dividends for La Quinta.

CSN Chairman Mike Atkin then led an engaging panel discussion on the future of coalition loyalty programs that included comments from Grace Kennedy’s Tricia Martin, Kickback Rewards CEO Patrick Lewis, and KULA CEO Alan Goldstein. The panel discussion illustrated the evolving nature of the coalition model, with non-traditional coalitions such as Grace Kennedy Value Rewards in Jamaica, Kickback Rewards in the US, and American Express’s Plenti program gaining momentum over traditional grocer-led coalitions.

The day’s final session delved into the future of currency-based loyalty programs in the age of the customer. rDialogue CEO Phil Rubin led off with a keynote speech on Loyalty 3.0, in which he challenged loyalty marketers to reinvent customer loyalty programs to move beyond the mere transactional exchange of points for rewards to a future in which programs focus on engagement, relationships, and relevant dialog.

“Customers are loyal to brands, not marketing programs,” Rubin said. “Loyalty is the pinnacle of engagement. It’s brand love, affinity, connection and advocacy. True loyalty is a brand relationship, built on mutual understanding and value. It involves relationships, and it cannot be bought.”

The day wrapped with an engaging, Oxford-rules debate on the relevance of points-based loyalty programs. Moderated by Wise Marketer COO Bill Hanifin, the debate featured Phil Rubin arguing the “Con” position – that points programs are no longer necessary or relevant – and Maritz Motivation Solutions’ Nicole Harris arguing the “Pro” position – that points programs are still essential and the most effective tool available to foster profitable behavior change.

Using audience participation to illustrate how important points programs were to the audience members, Nicole carried the day with a decisive debate win – even as she and Rubin agreed that essentially both sides were right. Points programs are still a valuable tool, but Rubin’s argument that points alone are no longer sufficient to win true brand loyalty resonated with the audience.

All told, the second annual Loyalty Academy Conference was an engaging, thought-provoking, and discussion-filled day that found all delegates leaving the cocktail reception on the beach looking forward to next year’s conference. Watch this site soon for an announcement of the date and location of the third annual Loyalty Academy Conference – we hope to see you there.

Rick Ferguson is CEO and Editor in Chief of the Wise Marketer Group.

  • rDialogue: The Future is Now - Loyalty 3.0