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Travel Loyalty and COVID-19: Will Loyalty Prevail?

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By: Mike Capizzi, CLMP™ |

Posted on March 11, 2020

It may seem to be strange that this publication would feature a story about the COVID-19 situation, but travel loyalty is being tested, and that's part of our coverage. The news and warnings of the past few days have certainly caught everyone’s attention. I am no different. I was scheduled to fly to Dublin tonight to take part in the Irish Loyalty Summit and Awards Gala on Thursday. Unfortunately, the event has been cancelled, but the announcement was handled in the most professional of all ways.

Eileen McGuiness and Marian Kelly, co-organizers of the event, issued the following statement:

“You are all aware of the various challenges that COVID-19 is creating for all aspects of our lives. The onus is on us all individually and collectively to be socially responsible in managing risk during this time, hence the difficult decision has been made to postpone the Irish Loyalty Awards 2020 and Summit till a later date in 2020. Reaching this stage is a great achievement for all our Finalists, [thus] it is important they get the recognition and reward they deserve among their peers and the loyalty industry at an event that is not overshadowed by the unpredictability of the situation with COVID-19. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and we are currently in the process of identifying potential new dates later in 2020. Thank you for your support.”

COVID-19's impact on the travel industry

I got the message when I awoke this morning and immediately went to the phone to see what could be done about my travel arrangements with just a few hours left before take off. Although the queue was excruciatingly long, and I got hung up on once, the final conversations cause me to reflect in a loyalty marketing context. 

The two carriers involved, Aer Lingus and Jet Blue, were not interested in giving me my money back, although each said they would for a 15% fee which equaled a lot of money on first class tickets from Florida to NY to Dublin for me and my partner. After some discussions, Aer Lingus said they would gladly waive the change fee, as most other carriers have done, and we re-booked for September. However, JetBlue stuck to the fine print elements of their change policies and insisted on charging us $300 apiece to make the changes required. The combined $600 was worth more than a coach class round-trip ticket from Florida to NY on most carriers. Aer Lingus said it was a Jet Blue thing and they could do nothing about it. Hilton, where we booked our accommodations on frequent guest points, was much more amiable and immediately refunded several thousand points. 

How will the travel industry respond?

The COVID-19 outbreak is certainly having an effect on travel loyalty and the rest of the industry - not to mention the entire world. And how they respond, especially among their most valuable customers, will have a definite impact on best customer relations going forward. Jet Blue may have robbed me for $600, but they have lost a customer for life who is now telling thousands of other loyalty professionals about their greed, insensitivity, and total lack of customer centricity. I wonder what that will cost them? Do they even care?

This morning, I picked up a notice from Mark Ross-Smith, one of my loyalty colleagues in the Asia/Pacific region. Mark posted this letter from Shangri-La Hotels, a luxury resort and hotel group throughout the region. While the action the chain took to reinforce their loyalty to a frequent guest may not seem like much, it is huge in light of the current situation. Hats off to Shangri-La for putting the guest at the center of a bad situation that will surely impact their business in the short term. Thanks to Mark for sharing. 

Finally, another colleague of mine and fellow CLMP, Adam Posner from Australia, also noticed Mark’s post and started a list of ideas that loyalty program managers could do to help their best customers deal with the present situation. Adam’s post is available to all Loyalty Academy group members on LinkedIn or on his blog.

The situation remains fluid on the US side and many more cancellations and disruptions are likely. Will the loyalty marketing industry respond with the trust, character, and reciprocity that best customers respect or will they pull a Jet Blue? Stay tuned!

Mike Capizzi is the Dean of the Loyalty Academy and a Certified Loyalty Marketing Professional™. A frequent traveler with over 2 million miles on Delta alone, he looks forward to calmer days and the re-scheduling of loyalty festivities in Dublin.