When loyalty counts

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I had a nice surprise when I checked into my hotel room in Manchester last week on a business trip.

There was a simple hand-written post card addressed to me, that included one piece of information that took my breath away. It may have taken me over 20 years, but I have now stayed in Marriott hotels and holiday venues for over 600 nights – that works out to an average of 30 days per year away from home!

There’s incredible insight that can be provided by that loyalty scheme across my business, leisure and holiday stays. And when I think back to other key brands that I have used then there’s no single thread of loyalty – I’ve driven multiple car manufacturers, flown with competing airlines, and always chosen cruise holidays based on itinerary rather than specific brands.

So it got me thinking – slightly nostalgically – about how all this loyalty began? It started in the spring of 2001, when I was put forward to do a contact centre project in Yorkshire, helping HMRC (Inland Revenue as they were then known) to build a new contact centre to support the launch of the Self Assessment online service. Yes that really did happen twenty years ago, hands up who can remember filling out a paper form to file their taxes?

As the project would involve staying away from home 3-4 days a week over several months, I wanted somewhere comfortable with good sports facilities, and Hollins Hall near Guiseley was the perfect fit. Marriott had just added a brand new leisure complex to the hotel with pool, gym and a full schedule of Les Mills classes, so I quickly made this my ‘go to’ choice for hotel accommodation whilst on the project.

I quickly moved up through the tiers of the “Rewards” loyalty scheme (now called Bonvoy), so much so that the following year I received an invitation to go and visit Majorca for a three day stay – with car hire thrown in to see the island – at their new Son Antem timeshare complex. It was 99 Euros for me and my wife to take the offer, the only stipulation being that we had to attend a personalised sales presentation.

As this coincided with our 15th wedding anniversary we jumped at the chance, particularly as Louise’s parents generously offered to come and stay at our home and look after our children for the duration of the trip. Don’t worry I remember saying before we left, we won’t buy anything.

Well how wrong was I? We had struggled to find good quality self-catering accommodation for family holidays, and as Son Antem had two bed full facility apartments over looking the golf course each with semi-private pool access, this was a game changer for us. We immediately purchased some weeks, adding an extra week in Florida two years later once we started to see how great for the kids that state was with its theme parks and stunning Winter and Easter weather.

So that meant my Marriott loyalty continued to build up based on both business trips as well as taking holidays through our timeshare stays.

The complexities of timeshare

It’s probably worth explaining how timeshare schemes work – and indeed how much Marriott has had to constantly evolve its offer to stay relevant to it owners.

Back in 2002 it was simple. You bought a number of weeks based on a season, and each year you allocated them to stay at your home resort or put them into an exchange system for a wider choice of multi-brand venues. It’s an annualised inventory system, so once they’re gone, they’re gone – meaning that the earlier you book the better the choice.

In practice we prioritised booking up our holidays a year in advance. When you do project work that’s counter intuitive (as I only know work commitments a few months ahead) but from a work-life balance perspective it worked brilliantly as I always had the next trip away with the family planned. Our holidays became our happy place.

The commercial aspect of timeshare is that you pay an annual maintenance fee to your home resort, which is allowed to go up by inflation each year. For British owners, Spain has always been relatively good value, whereas the US cost of living is much higher which in the early years was offset by an exchange rate at nearly 2 US dollars per pound. Yes really, it was once that high!

Then came the credit crunch years around 2009-10 and the market dynamics changed. No one wanted to buy new timeshare weeks, and many members wanted to offload their ownership to avoid the annual charges. The second hand market became flooded – where resale prices were tiny – and so Marriott did something very clever. They allowed members to give back their weeks to them from which they created a new fractional scheme. This was points based across their whole worldwide resorts, and for existing (and happy) members like ourselves it provided more choice. Now each year, we could elect any of our weeks to be converted into points.

This move was successful because it broadened the usage of timeshare from “you have to go stay at the same resort for 7 nights” to a more flexible element of being able to choose any number of nights using points. Over the last decade more and more options have been added to how you can spend timeshare points – to include cruises and hotel stays – including the ability to move points between years.

The net result is that in 20 years of timeshare ownership I have only failed to use one week of holiday ownership – that’s a 98% occupancy rate using the scheme, which is pretty darn good. But (and it’s a big BUT), it takes a lot of personal planning, research and effort to achieve that value, given the complexity of the timeshare scheme itself. Booking a business hotel is child’s play in comparison. So much so that if had to choose a Mastermind specialist subject then you can guess that ‘getting the most out of timeshare’ would be right up there!

What else does loyalty require?

Until that card was left in my hotel room, I had no real awareness of the level of loyalty I had obtained. For sure I know that it’s a high status that provides automatic Marriott room upgrades and free breakfasts, but business trips are now so tightly controlled as expenses that I would only choose Marriott if the combination of availability, rate and convenience always applied. Clearly I now know that this has been the case over many different business projects and trips.

Another factor that organisations have to get right to maintain loyalty is not mess up too often. To be fair, the online booking processes (when booking direct with the brand) are pretty bullet proof. Some of the timeshare booking processes can only be done through the contact centre in Cork, which I know requires a lot of patience as the agents navigate across multiple disparate systems to convert weeks to points, and then allocate them to third parties. What you think should take 10 minutes on the phone often takes an hour, but the booking always gets made!

And I also have a Marriott branded credit card – to earn some extra reward points – which is great by way of potential free hotel stays but is managed by a service provider whose fraud department thinks every holiday booking spending I make is a potential crime scene. I’ve lost count of the number of times I‘ve rung up – at the payment stage of an online booking purchase – to tell them yes it really is me trying to book that flight. Even the recent addition of two factor authentication still occasionally fails their checks!

In the round, over all that time, perhaps it’s no surprise where 600 nights have come from. But times are still changing.

Looking ahead

It’s a rarity now for me to stay away on business – my world changed overnight when the pandemic struck to be based remotely. And even last year I did a four month busy client project were I physically met the team once at their Cardiff HQ (even that was a day trip). And this quarter, the new project in Manchester is predominately remote, with just scheduled visits for specific workshops and team days.

Plus our holiday needs have changed. The family is now all grown up – with children of their own – and whilst we have had some memorable stays at Marriott timeshare resorts we now do so many different things that it’s just easier to book direct with the holiday brands (using real money). So 2023 will be our final year in the timeshare scheme, where we are 99% likely to hand back our one remaining week at the end of the year. It’s an easy email based admin process to do so, I don’t even think I’ll have to phone up and speak to the retention team who will try their persuasive best to save me.

My argument would be that the commercial reality of timeshare maintenance fees is that they are now so much more expensive for legacy week based owners like myself. The resorts have created capital funds to carry out 20 year property refurbishments – which adds a surcharge to the fees – plus the add-ons to use the points scheme, and finally the poor current exchange rate. There’s a real decision to be made whether I walk away.

What makes a great loyalty scheme?

So what lessons can be learned from this long – and very successful – story of customer loyalty?

I think the main factor that generates persistent loyalty is initially offering something that can’t be replicated elsewhere.

When I think back to my most recent cruise – to the stunning Panama Canal last December – the big push by the cruise brand whilst on-board was to pre-book a deposit for your next cruise. It was a compelling commercial offer that effectively subsided your onboard spend, and so my wife and I did flick through the online brochure to check things out. But even though the trip was memorable, the staff were delightful and the offer was good, we didn’t buy. Because if we had, then we were limiting ourselves to only using a single company, rather than a ‘whole of market‘ future travelling choice.

I realise now that those early decisions that I made – to stay at Hollins Hall, and to own at Son Antem – provided something that was substantially better than the alternatives then available. It couldn’t be replicated. And having made that choice, and then enjoyed the experience, there was so much more commitment (on the customers behalf) to continue to make that original decision work. I realise now how invested I became to keep things the same – that’s a real sweet spot of loyalty for any organisation to achieve.

A three step process

This all translates into three evolutionary stages that you can use to compare with your own loyalty scheme:

Step 1 – do you have a unique and compelling proposition and do you offer timely incentives to early adopter customers to try out additional services?

Step 2 – having delivered those services well, do you find a way for the customer to make a repeat commitment?

Step 3 – don’t forget to keep a check on the enduring loyalty – monitor the patterns of activity and spot any changes in behaviour that you can react to through offers and incentives

And finally, don’t forget to count. Even when things change, maintain a simple way to measure and recognise loyalty – 600+ times in my case.

Paul Weald
Having worked for some 30 years in the contact centre industry, I have built up a vast array of experience across all aspects of people, process, technology, operations and Customer Experience. The latest innovations - such as customer service crowdsourcing and digital money saving apps - are now making it so much easier to provide new methods of customer engagement using digital communities.

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