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The BILT Rewards Story

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By: Bill Hanifin, CLMP™ |

Posted on February 21, 2024

An executive interview with Dave Canty - SVP, Head of Loyalty & Partnerships at Bilt Rewards

Editor’s Note:

My early experiences in customer loyalty and loyalty marketing led me to encounters with industry O.G.’s, Rick Barlow, Hal Brierley, Don Peppers, Mark Lacek, Steve Maritz.

As the industry transitions to a new set of people who you would admire for their industry contributions and thought leadership, I’ve been searching for names to put into that circle.

One that bubbled straight to the top is Dave Canty, SVP, Head of Loyalty & Partnerships at Bilt Rewards. Dave’s career has spanned notable brands including Starwood, AutoZone, JetBlue, IHG Hotels & Resorts and now Bilt Rewards. He has made exceptional contributions to each brand where he has served, and it was a pleasure to spend a few minutes with Dave in early January 2024. Here are the highlights of that interview.

Wise Marketer (WM): We recently met at the AiConnect Cobrand event in Wilmington Delaware. At the time, you were telling the developmental story of Bilt Rewards. As you shared your background, I was stunned by the breadth of your experience in this industry and wanted you to share a synopsis of that journey with our readers.

Dave Canty (DC): I came to the US from Ireland in 1995 to join ITT Sheraton. At the time, Sheraton was one of the largest hotel companies in the world and they wanted to bring their loyalty program in house. We were successful in bringing both Sheraton Club International into-house and shortly thereafter the company was acquired by an investment trust named Starwood. You might remember that Starwood had also acquired a small hotel company called Westin which had Westin Premier as its frequent guest program.

Barry Sterling, CEO at the time wanted to create a brand-new world class hotel program and that was the beginning of what we now know as SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest)

WM: What were some of your top challenges in that process?

DC: Blackout dates were a big issue for hotel programs at that time, so that presented an opportunity, and we made eliminating blackout dates as part of the new structure a core benefit of the new program. We also built an ecosystem of travel partners and overlaid all of that with a cobrand credit card. Ultimately, SPG became one of the most loved hotel programs in the world.

WM: I imagine that after 11 years with Sheraton and Starwood, the move to AutoZone was a big transition.

DC: Absolutely, but the opportunity to do something significant in the retail sector was too tempting to pass up. AutoZone was the largest auto parts chain in the US, and they wanted to tackle the challenge of customers jumping from one store to another, splitting up their auto parts basket. There was little evidence of loyalty to any of the leading brands at that time.

WM: How did you go about forming a plan for AutoZone?

DC: They had 5,000 stores throughout the United States, and that allowed us to get significant insights from test versus control cells. The results were extraordinary, and we were able to bring AutoZone Rewards to market across the country about 7 months ahead of schedule. The program performed well and generated significant incremental spending across the chain.

WM: Do you recall any key insights that helped you form a strategy?

DC: We observed there wasn’t much differentiation when it came to price but there was definitely brand value to be leveraged at Auto Zone. I remember the CEO speaking about how if you're ever driving down the street and passed an AutoZone store, you were likely to see a lot of car hoods up, and “Auto Zoners” (store associates) underneath the hood, helping the customer solve an issue. That was something you didn’t see at completing brands. There was definitely a customer service element to leverage.

WM: What were your goals with the program?

DC: We wanted to increase the average basket size in the end, we more than doubled that number.

WM: How did your switch to JetBlue occur?

DC: As you can hear, I'm from Ireland. My first experience in the United States was in Boston where I lived for 9 years, followed by the Metro New York City area. The chance to move back to the northeast and create a whole new program in the airline space for JetBlue was very appealing.

WM: I believe you created the first revenue-based airline program in the United States for a major carrier. Did that come with some risk?

DC: Absolutely, it did! We were not only working to introduce a whole new value proposition for one airline, but we were also challenging an industry to reimagine the future of loyalty programs in the airline space. We also had to alter the mindset of the consumer because they're not used to earning a currency that's based on spending versus earning based on miles or segments. I'm happy to say that we see many of the airlines today have adopted a version of this model.

WM: After 8 years with JetBlue, you moved to IHG in Atlanta. What was that opportunity all about?

DC: It was about having the opportunity to influence the evolution of a global program for a global hotel company. Managing five different programs but making them all feel connected. During that time, IHG acquired Kimpton and we were able to reimagine the value proposition for this beloved hotel chain, while also staying true to the Kimpton brand. I also enjoyed the experience of identifying the nuances and what is required to adapt a core value proposition and structure to work not just in the US, but in China, Middle East, and other markets.

WM: How did you get involved with BILT and BILT Rewards?

DC: BILT was an idea that was brought to me by the current founder and CEO Ankur Jain. In everything I've ever done, I've always been interested in the long game, not just a quick win. When I first spoke to Ankur the energy, I got from him was infectious. It made me sit up and listen and really think about whether this was all possible. Something like Bilt has never been done before and it was an opportunity to build a program for a younger generation that is meaningful and relevant in their everyday lives.

WM: What is the essence of the BILT value proposition?

DC: BILT was created to address a major problem in the United States, which was how to keep the dream of home ownership alive for a younger generation – and to help make that dream a reality.

Rent is the largest outgoing expense for most people and after many years, people are no closer to owning a home. We wanted to see if there was a way to reward good behavior on rent and at the same time introduce a reward system that allows people to get something back. In the process, we wanted to learn what renters are passionate about, especially this younger generation, one of which is travel. That is why we built a partner ecosystem that allows you to travel the world just by paying your rent.

WM: Who did you build the program for?

DC: As mentioned earlier, we initially focused on Gen. Z, but we also recognized that Millennials and Gen X would be interested in the benefits. Right now, our core demographics are between 24 and 34, and with a median age of about 29. The average income is about $147,000, so these are high achieving young professionals. We want to be a resource for people joining the workforce and be part of their journey. We are very focused on the local community and with Bilt neighborhood rewards we’re rewarding engagement and spend with the local merchants in your neighborhood, whether it be dining, fitness, laundry, cafes, etc.

WM: What were your first steps getting BILT off the ground?

DC: We identified the nation’s top real estate owners, developers and property managers and presented the idea as a loyalty program for them. We enable property owners to not just provide incentives for renters already in their buildings, but also to attract new residents into their buildings by offering them BILT points and offering them a way to continuously earn rewards. This real estate group is now referred to as the BILT Alliance and it accounts for over 3.5 million units across the United States.

WM: Maybe I’m not understanding the entire picture, but as you are rewarding people for paying rent and positioning them for future home ownership, doesn’t this jeopardize your core customer base?

DC: Not at all. I am delighted to have people achieve home ownership and if BILT is partly responsible for them achieving that and being part of that journey, then we have achieved a big objective. Remember that I mentioned the “long game”? When we help people own a home, I can guarantee you that the customer is going to be the biggest advocate for BILT. That will be part of their story, right? I think it is incumbent upon us as kind of guardians of any loyalty program to ensure that we're fulfilling not just our overall vision for the program, but also our promise to the customer, at the end of the day every program should deliver value and be true to their vision, we do that by rewarding rent and local spend.

WM: What else did Bilt have in its core offering?

DC: On top of earning what is now listed as the most valuable loyalty currency according to The Points Guy and Bankrate, we’re allowing people to build their credit score and in doing so, saving them potentially thousands of dollars down the line when they want to initiate a mortgage. Previously, rent wasn’t reported to the credit bureaus, and it is obviously the biggest expense most people have each month. We report on all three credit bureaus at no cost to the Bilt member.

WM: Any concluding thoughts on BILT as we wrap this up?

DC: I genuinely believe BILT is a lifelong loyalty program. From the moment you pay your very first rent payment all the way to home ownership, BILT is part of your journey, but we are also relevant in between. We want to celebrate all the little milestones throughout your life, whether it be a personal milestone, a dining experience or fitness journey or even traveling the world, and in turn be relevant in your daily life. With BILT neighborhood rewards, we’re bringing together local merchants with our members. With or without the BILT credit card, people can continue to be part of the program. We are building a resource for this younger generation to help them have a richer and more fulfilling life.

WM: Across these varied experiences, what observations can you share about loyalty marketing as an industry and the challenges it faces?

DC: It is always important to close the gap between people on the loyalty side and all other areas of the business (Finance, Engineering, Marketing, Executive) even those in revenue management. I learned this working for the airlines, but it applies across the board. You need to start bringing these groups together and get alignment for the brand to win longer term.

Making the revenue management and finance people feel like they are part of the journey made sure that all the needs of the enterprise were well served. And once you form the right relationships internally, you can achieve anything. Working at the hotels, we had a similar need to incorporate franchisees, owners, and other stakeholders into the planning process. Creating this cross-functional alignment is important.

WM: What about Web3 and Loyalty?

DC: I feel like Web 3 has had so many different iterations and, while I haven’t lost faith, I sometimes lose confidence in my understanding as to what it is and what it’s going to be? By the way, there is so much opportunity there, but it has to get further sorted out.

WM: Anything else?

DC: We’ve been talking about improving customer experience for a while and only a few brands have solved that puzzle. The most important thing I would say to anybody who's thinking about building great customer experience is to get out into the field. By speaking to your customers and listening to them, you can create something to test. If they like it, you can work on scale. To me it's all about keeping it simple.

WM: What is your advice for the rest of us navigating loyalty for our individual brands?

DC: I would say, be brave. Don't look at what everybody else is doing, unless you think you can completely reimagine it for the better. Think about it from the perspective of what do you want your program to be able to deliver? Why are you doing it? What is the problem you're trying to solve?

When you figure that out, lean into it and don't be afraid to learn from it. Even at BILT, we found things that needed to change after launch and fortunately we were nimble enough to adjust it. Loyalty managers need to be brave about being true to their convictions.