Insight into loyalty programs at the Randy Petersen Travel Executive Summit

Ever wonder what’s going through the minds of the folks running your favorite loyalty programs? Of course; we all do. Ever think you’d see five of the most prominent program leaders sitting in the same room, taking questions from their customers about what makes their programs work and why they have chosen certain specific policies? Me neither.

Last Friday, at the first ever Randy Petersen Travel Executive Summit, a group of us were treated to exactly that. The heads of Delta, American Airlines, United Airlines, Hyatt and American Express Membership Rewards came together for a question and answer session led by Mr. Petersen, by most accounts the guru of loyalty programs. After discussing the history of the programs (we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the very first one this month) and taking a walk down memory lane it was time to get to the meat of the discussion. Many questions were asked and the program heads were mostly quite responsive, though there were a number of issues where answers were denied in favor of not violating company policy or SEC regulations. Can’t say I really blame them there.

So what were the highlights of the session? I’ve picked out a few of my favorite nuggets and expanded on those discussions.

The "elites" really are

One of the oft-asked and never answered questions about the airline loyalty programs is just how special are the "elite" customers, the ones flying the most miles, really are. And the airlines held firm this time around as well, refusing to disclose the data. But they did give a couple hints as to what the numbers are.

For United Airlines the population of top-tier elites – Global Services and 1Ks – was described as "small six figures" in size. If that’s anything like the way merger partner Continental describes "mid-year" there is certainly plenty of wiggle room there in terms of nailing down what the number really is, but may more specific than the previous non-disclosures. Foland also made it clear that they do distinguish between their frequent customers and their high value customers and that they have many metrics on which they measure those things. Not surprisingly, the two are not always the same folks.

For Delta the numbers were not presented so much based on how many are elite but rather who generates the revenue for the company. It is a very small number of people that really are the High Value Customers for them, similar to the other carriers. The top 1% of customers are responsible for 10-12% of revenue to the company. Expanding that pool out to the top ~3% of customers doubles the revenue pool to about 25%. It drops off precipitously from there, with the bottom 70% of the customers representing only 40% of the annual revenue. It is no wonder that the companies cater to their best customers; they far and away represent more cash.

Mileage expiry is a big deal, except when it isn’t

Jeff Robertson, the man running Delta‘s SkyMiles program, noted at one point that as a company they strive to do what is right for the customer and for the company, even if sometimes that move costs them a little bit of money. In the case of changing their expiry policy for SkyMiles, there is no doubt that the change had some costs, though Jeff also noted that miles expiring represented the single most significant complaint that they received as an organization. And apparently the cost of not expiring them wasn’t so high so everyone wins, right? That’s Delta’s take on the situation.

The other two airline executives speaking on the panel, Jeff Foland from United Airlines and Maya Lieberman from American Airlines, had a different take. They noted that the purpose of the programs is to keep customers engaged with the brand. If a customer hasn’t been engaged for almost two years the expiry is a great opportunity to bring them back into the fold and remind them of the value of those points they’re holding, way better than just holding the points on the book and hoping the customer comes back eventually. Which is better in the long term for the programs? I guess we’ll all have to wait and find out.

It is also worth noting that if the points accrual is so slow that there’s a two year gap in the process, odds are that the points are a bad investment anyways. A customer showing loyalty with such low frequency is likely to be better served financially by simply being loyal to their wallet and buying the cheapest fare available rather than paying extra to accrue miles in a program.

The folks buying miles aren’t who I thought they were

Pretty much every airline now offers the ability to just buy miles outright. During the booking process, at check-in and in various other transactions along the way the opportunities to buy miles are every growing. The problem with these programs is that they are rarely a good value, at least not in bulk. Every now and then it might make sense to top off an account for an award but just not that often.

That’s why I was surprised to hear the great mileage guru Randy Petersen announce (several times over the course of the events) that he buys the miles at the kiosk nearly every time. He’s got tons already and earns them at a blistering pace, and he’s buying more at almost certainly overpriced levels. Even more surprising was a statistic he shared with the group: Over 50% of the folks buying the miles have elite status on the airline they’re buying from. The people who have the most points are also most aggressive about buying more. I just do not understand that.

Speaking with Gary Leff during a break he related similar tales, including one US Airways Chairman’s Preferred member who buys the miles on every single trip. Sure, he gets some awesome reward redemptions out of the deal, but at what price? Then again, if you’re willing to pay the $4500 cost for the trip and points are the right way to find that price point, why not?

Loyalty programs are sortof a zero-sum game, but it is still possible to win

One of the questions asked of the panel was how it is possible that there are loyalty programs can provide value to the companies as well as the customers. All of the loyalty programs are obviously trying to drive revenue to the company so it is hard to have a situation where everyone can win. Indeed, at the macro level the programs are more or less zero-sum efforts – some customers are going to profit and some will not but overall it will still be a benefit for the programs.

Jeff Foland perhaps summed it up best:

We want our currency and elite status to carry more value for the member tomorrow than it does today. We have to do that against the backdrop of running a fiscally responsible company.

So what does that mean? Well, for starters it means that they really do want some customers to have a chance at winning. It also means that when the good arbitrage situations arise that the customers can exploit there is a pretty good chance that the airlines are going to be closing them up in search of that "fiscally responsible" effort.

There has only been one incident in recent memory that resulted in points (the "currency" Foland is referring to above) actually increasing in value. It doesn’t appear that there are any similar changes on the horizon. So to make sure that the currency value increases it is important to pay attention to the trends in the industry and to make sure you’re redeeming the points, not just accumulating them.

Other bits

There were a number of other interesting things discussed, from the future of lifetime status recognition (unsurprisingly United and American were quite tight-lipped on the topic) to how issuing a credit card can help Hyatt drive heads in beds, their core business focus. Oh, and apparently LOTS of folks like redeeming their Membership Rewards points for toasters and other housewares; such a horrible value.

Neither American nor United would comment on any possible changes that may be coming with their lifetime status levels though Ms. Lieberman did note that the ranks of elites on American are somewhat swollen due to their easier accrual policies. No particularly useful information on what the changes are going to be, other than that they’ll provide plenty of notice and communicate them effectively should anything happen, but otherwise mums the word there.

Delta noted that perhaps the biggest challenge they face from a loyalty program perspective is not the merger of Continental and United, but rather that of AirTran and Southwest. The latter represents a sea change to the competition landscape in Atlanta and the new Rapid Rewards program, part of a trend towards rewarding spend more than miles, is a huge part of that change. What it means for SkyMiles or passengers in Atlanta will be fun to watch in the coming months.

Ultimately I must say that it was a great event, both for the information shared and the networking opportunities in the room. Whether with other travel writers (Ben from Today In The Sky and Brian from The Points Guy were two of the bigger names there, along with Gary Leff who was one of the hosts) or rubbing elbows with the executives who make the decisions about how the programs actually operate, it was a great day for meeting new folks and extending existing relationships.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I suspect the elites who are buying lots of miles at inflated prices are using them for first-class long-haul awards (esp transpacific). First-class tickets are still more expensive in cash than in bought points. Remember that elites are more likely to get the dates they want and have fees waived for these tickets. Lifetime elites are even more likely to do this, since they no longer have to worry about flying a minimum number of paid-for miles each year.

    Just because the people spending the most on bought miles are elites, however, doesn’t mean that the majority of elites think this is a good use of money. It really depends on your personal situation. My longest flights are usually JFK-LHR, and I do all right in economy so long as I can book an exit row or other preferred seat as determined by SeatGuru.

  2. AA’s ominous “maybe we’ll change it… and maybe we won’t” attitude to their elite program is disconcerting, especially when it comes to lifetime status.

    1. The vague answers may sound bad, and they certainly don’t instill a ton of confidence, but what are the other options? She could have said, “We are not changing the program,” and then any change ever would result in an uproar. Or she could have said, “We are changing it but I cannot provide any details,” which would be suicidal from a PR perspective. Or she could’ve announced what the changes are. This certainly was not the forum for that and she knows it. She’s a very smart woman and she knows what she’s doing. Expecting her to say something that will get her in trouble with the company policies or the SEC is a rather misguided expectation.

      To the idea of folks buying lots of miles to redeem them, I doubt that has any negative impact on the bottom line. At the rates they are selling them they’re quite happy to keep churning them out just as fast as folks will plop down their CC. Remember that the airlines do not pay each other the published fares on award redemptions; they have more reasonable settlement rates. So just because the award you got priced ludicrously high doesn’t mean that’s actually what the airline was paying.

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