Travel providers have simplified their loyalty programs to make it easier for agents to redeem their rewards. // © 2015 Thinkstock
Loyalty programs are so universal that it’s hard to remember a time when they didn’t exist. The industry’s first program rolled out in 1981, when American Airlines launched AAdvantage to reward its most-frequent travelers.
Travel rewards programs became the definitive way to select which hotels, airlines and car rental companies to use, but research shows that consumer loyalty to travel brands is dwindling. In 2013, Deloitte released a groundbreaking study that found that consumers were showing a steep decline in loyalty to travel brands.
Travel Agent Loyalty Programs
As travel brands find themselves in the position of rethinking how to attract and retain their most valued customers, they are also reimagining incentive programs targeted toward travel agents.
By offering agents discounted travel, free travel and/or a points-based shopping catalog of merchandise, gift cards and other prizes, brands are hoping to increase agent loyalty.
Despite the potential rewards they offer travel agents, incentive programs can be complicated to track or just not worth the time and energy it takes to enroll. Even when agents have registered for a program, they often get too busy to keep an eye on the rewards they have earned. For some agents, making bookings with preferred suppliers combats this problem.
“About half of Virtuoso’s travel advisors are really diligent about registering bookings and collecting rewards,” said Jennifer Campbell, director of agency services for Virtuoso. “Everyone has a program they prefer, and they’re more motivated to register bookings and collect rewards with those suppliers.”
Sarah Perez, leisure sales manager for the U.S. Southeast and agency networks for Melia Hotels International, understands that it can be difficult to keep track of all the rewards programs available to agents.
“Everybody is busy nowadays,” Perez said. “However, because travel agents work based off commission and rewards, there’s an added benefit for them to tap into the multitude of incentive programs available. Travel agents’ efforts need to be compensated, so why not take advantage of all the rewards out there? They deserve it.”
As busy agents find themselves working harder than ever, travel providers are simplifying their programs to make it easier for agents to redeem their rewards.
In the case of Melia Hotels, which recently launched Melia Pro, a new travel agent portal and loyalty program, participation is tracked automatically, whether agents make a booking directly through Melia Pro, use the brand’s call center, utilize the GDS or even work with a tour operator. The system then credits reward points after the client’s departure, so agents can easily accumulate points.
According to Perez, agents will occasionally forget to redeem their points, but the Melia Pro system is looking out for them.
“In those cases, the system activates alarms,” she said. “Travel agents are aware of when the points are about to expire and when they need to redeem them.”
Collette has also retooled its loyalty program to make it easier for agents to redeem rewards. Its incentive program, available to agents who complete an online training program through Collette University, grants participants an automatic 40 percent discount on the land portion of any Collette tour of their choice.
A new addition awards travel agents a $20 travel certificate for every passenger they book. These certificates, which can be used to defray the cost of Collette fam trips or further discount a Collette tour, are automatically mailed to agents.
“In the past, we heard that many agents weren’t keeping track of the credits, which is why we made the change to the program,” said Courtney Iannuccilli, director of strategic marketing for Collette. “When agents make a booking, they receive the travel credits in the mail, so they don’t have to keep track. All they have to do is redeem.”
While discounted travel can certainly be a tempting perk, for many travel agents there is no finer reward for loyalty than cold, hard cash. And many travel brands that once strictly offered discounted travel rewards are expanding their programs to include cash incentive rewards.
Melia Hotels recently announced that it will soon be expanding its rewards program in order to allow travel agents to redeem points for cash. Classic Vacations, a luxury tour operator that sells only through travel agents, has rolled out a similar change to its Royalty Rewards.
As of 2015, travel advisors who previously could only redeem Royalty points for free travel within the Classic Vacations network can now exchange points for cash.
Aside from rewards and compensation, top-tier loyalty programs can also provide VIP bonuses to clients who book through participating travel agents, creating an added incentive for clients to return to these advisors.
Karisma Hotels & Resorts, a luxury hotel collection, offers agents two distinct loyalty programs, both of which have been recently enhanced to provide more benefits to agents and their clients. Agents enrolled in the complimentary Gourmet Inclusive Agent Rewards can arrange for a welcome letter and an amenity for clients staying at any Karisma property.
For Karisma’s highest-producing advisors, the pay-to-play Gourmet Inclusive Vacation Consultant program offers significantly greater benefits, including yearly cash bonuses.
The elite program, which first launched in 2008 but was recently retooled, is limited to select travel agents who meet specific requirements. The program offers a variety of participation levels, including the newly-created Silver level, which requires a minimum booking of 50 room nights per year to participate. Every year, qualifying Silver-level agents receive a handful of extras, which can be passed along as bonuses to top-spending clients, including upgrades, complimentary spa treatments and free specialty dinners.
Travel Agent Recognition
For travel agents, loyalty to preferred brands can also reap rewards beyond direct compensation. Most leading travel companies offer exclusive programs that recognize top-performing advisors and agencies, and many of these programs provide first-class travel, black-tie events and exclusive insider training programs that help agents stay ahead of the competition.
“We recognize our top achieving travel industry partners with an event every year,” said Dave Ferran, head of sales for Classic Vacations. “This is an opportunity to acknowledge their commitment, loyalty and success in partnership with Classic.”
At Virtuoso Travel Week, a number of awards recognize top performers in the network. Additionally, Virtuoso also rewards members who were recognized by preferred suppliers for their exceptional qualities. While earning industry recognition can certainly make an agent proud, the benefits of recognition can extend well beyond an award certificate or a travel junket.
“Showing agencies that we appreciate their hard work and support is important to us,” Iannuccilli said. “But it also grants extra exposure to an agency and provides an opportunity for clients to see the trust between agents and tour operators. It gives confidence that the provider considers the agent to be not only reputable, but excellent.”
In other words, agent recognition programs help set agents apart as successful professionals.
“Many agents wisely choose to publicize their achievements with the goal of growing their book of business,” said Charles Sylvia, vice president of membership for Cruise Lines International Association.
“Everyone loves recognition and acknowledgement,” Campbell said. “It’s smart for suppliers to reward advisors for their loyalty.”
Tips for Managing Rewards Programs
How can busy travel agents maximize the return on their rewards programs? Travel industry professionals offer their recommendations.
“We always encourage agents to take advantage of the fams we offer. We find it’s easier for them to sell a tour or experience that they have actually taken. Throughout the year, we also offer extra incentives such as Book Your Own Bonus, which grants extra rewards for bookings. Also, Collette offers a Partnership Plus program where we work with agents to get mailings out to their databases to encourage travel. Collette will help with the cost of the program.”
Melia Hotels international
“Enroll and keep a list of all the travel agent rewards programs, along with each program’s corresponding usernames and passwords — these aren’t always easy to remember. Also, make sure to follow up as soon as your clients complete their travels to ensure that your points are credited. I always suggest that agents set up an alarm, especially for any bookings that they need to keep special track of. Clients are different, and they have different budgets and needs, so agents often need to work with multiple suppliers.”
“With so many options out there, be selective about who you book. Advisors should choose to work with preferred partners in their network. It’s important to build strategic relationships and to concentrate bookings with those partners for maximum benefit. Also, be assertive about educating yourself. Find out which suppliers offer these programs and how you can qualify. Few travel advisors are aware of the breadth of programs out there. One way to be proactive: When suppliers visit your office, make a point of asking them about their rewards program.”
“Take advantage of every tool, resource and product offering. Classic Vacations provides tools to ensure customers have a memorable travel experience, which encourages them to come back and ask for more. Everything else will fall into place.”