Loyalty Traveler – April, 19 2011

Loyalty Traveler – April, 19 2011

Houston, We Have Relaunch!

The last week of March saw several major loyalty programs relaunch. Club Carlson unifies several of the split personality features of Carlson Hotels’ former loyalty program goldpoints plus. Expedia Rewards untethers itself from credit card loyalty with its own independently viable online travel agency loyalty program that could become a model for the OTA sector. IHG Priority Club Rewards publicized a program relaunch, but actual changes are primarily cosmetic. Mobile apps, logo and Web redesign, and non-hotel redemption options enhance Priority Club’s guest interface attractiveness rather than provide substantive program improvements for better hotel stay awards.

Club Carlson represents four brands: Radisson, Park Inn, Park Plaza and Country Inns & Suites. Minneapolis-based Carlson Hotels with 1,070 hotels worldwide is comparable in size to Starwood Hotels, yet the loyalty program receives scantily proportional social media attention from U.S. frequent travelers. Carlson Hotels has the ambition to expand globally to 1,500 hotels by 2015.

Club Carlson blasts away the Euro-American division of goldpoints plus by discarding the currency discrepancy that vexed international travelers earning 15 or 20 points based on U.S. dollars in some regions of the world and euros in other regions. All Club Carlson hotel stays worldwide now earn 20 points per U.S. dollar regardless of brand or location.

In a bold move, Club Carlson reduced the cost of award nights for the second time in the past 14 months. Top tier Category 6 hotel award nights are 50,000 points in Club Carlson, down from a goldpoints plus 135,000 points high in 2009, while the earn rate increases to 20 points per US$1 from its previous 15 points per euro low.

Club Med and CWT Vacations are new hotel redemption choices for Gold Points, but these options are currently restricted to U.S. and Canada members.

Club Carlson Concierge elite is a new elite tier (30 stays or 75 nights in a calendar year) beyond Silver (10 stays or 15 nights) and Gold (20 stays or 35 nights). Free breakfast, room upgrades and an industry leading 75 percent elite bonus points on hotel stay spend are benefits of Club Carlson Concierge.

Online booking bonuses are uncommon in hotel loyalty programs. Club Carlson offers 1,000 to 3,000 bonus points for online bookings depending on member elite level. These are significant bonuses considering Category 1 hotel nights cost only 9,000 points.

Elite rollover nights is a new feature whereby nights earned in excess of Club Carlson elite qualification tier rollover to the next calendar year. Marriott Rewards introduced elite rollover in 2009, yet after three years still has not made this a permanent feature of Marriott Rewards.

The high points-to-miles exchange rates have not changed and maintain Gold Points position as a top tier currency for converting hotel points to frequent flyer miles along with Marriott Rewards and Wyndham Rewards.

Club Carlson’s lift-off global promotion is one free night after two stays from April 15-June 15, 2011. This offer is limited to one free night. While free night promotions are an expensive proposition, in my opinion, the social media buzz that would have been generated with a four or five free nights limit would have made Club Carlson a launch heard around the world.

Expedia Rewards unique competitive feature is flight, hotel and car rental purchases made for yourself, or for anyone else through your account, earn points. Airline frequent flyer programs only allow the actual traveler to earn miles and hotel programs allow points for multiple rooms but require the member to be one of the room guests. Expedia Rewards Elite Plus after 15 hotel nights or $10,000 in annual spend offers elite member benefits including bonus points, room upgrades and additional perks at VIP Access designated hotels.

Expedia bookings have potential for triple dipping travel purchase rebates with airline miles, Expedia points and credit card points. Expedia Rewards is less generous for hotel bookings. In contrast to airlines, Expedia room booking commissions take away from a hotel’s bottom line revenue.

Therefore, hotel loyalty programs only award points and elite stay credit for bookings through the hotel’s own channels. The value of hotel points and benefits generally outweigh the value of Expedia Rewards, but occasionally the cost savings of Expedia travel packages outweigh the value of unearned hotel points.

Priority Club Rewards announced a relaunch, but the changes pale compared to Club Carlson. Website and membership card redesign and a new logo are cosmetic makeup on a hotel loyalty program that needs cosmetic surgery.

Priority Club conducted three years of research and surveyed 10,000 guests, yet did not conclude the program needs upgrade awards, extended stay award discounts, complimentary breakfast for top elite members and equivalent elite member benefits for award stays as paid stays to make Priority Club more competitive with Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and Starwood hotel loyalty programs.

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