When Ritz-Carlton recently announced that it was going to launch a loyalty program, it was no accident that it highlighted partnerships with the likes of Abercrombie & Kent, Vera Wang, National Geographic, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman and promised unique and exclusive experiences offered only through the program.
While some were surprised to see Ritz break ranks with its luxury brethren and offer a structured and overt points-based program, it always seemed more a matter of when and not whether Marriott would extend its popular Rewards program to include its most upscale brand and, more importantly, leverage the infrastructure the corporation already has in place for managing this kind of initiative.
While points may remain for the time being the necessary currency of choice, increasingly the real excitement is being driven not by the opportunity to earn more points, but rather in the creative and unique options that are being formulated with what you can do with them.
The truth is, most people already have their fill of points. In fact, according to a report from USA Today, there are over 17 trillion unredeemed frequent flyer miles (with a real value of over $480 billion) and nearly 89% of all miles are never redeemed. Add in hotel programs and car rental companies, and the numbers truly become staggering. Not to mention that Americans on average already belong to 14.1 programs, yet are active only in a little over six of them.
So, while the world may not be thirsting for more programs or points, brands are recognizing that they can use redemption opportunities to position themselves and connect with their customers in ways that extend beyond free nights and free flights.
More than ever, loyalty programs are searching for ways that they can play a part in enriching how you live your life, extending their halo beyond how you traditionally engage with their brand. Finding more ways to connect with your customers' passions and interests outside of your hotels, airlines and cruise ships allows your brand to take on a distinct voice and personality through a showcase of insider access and the ability to issue "bragging rights" to your customers that they won't soon forget. Plus, there's the added benefit of aligning yourself with other brands whose association can help amp your own credibility and appeal.
Starwood recently offered SPG members the chance to attend a Dierks Bentley after-party. Holiday Inn has let loyalty program members bid on NASCAR driving experiences. And, American Express just invited Cardmembers to enjoy front-row seats at designer shows during New York's Fashion Week.
A walk-on role in a popular TV show. No problem. A Michelin-rated chef cooking at your house. Why not. Playing at center court in Wimbledon or a spring training workout with your favorite team. Of course.
Can a sit-down with world leaders be far behind?
As brands compete in this arena of exclusivity, the bar keeps getting raised ever higher. But the fact remains that consumers' desire to be rewarded with the chance to live their dreams and to share them with friends has never been greater.
In a world of loyalty program sameness, these offerings have the potential to create an air of excitement and can go a long way toward reminding customers that some amazing things can happen when they touch your brand.