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COVID-19’s Impact on Travel Has Shifted Consumer Loyalty Needs

(London, UK) Perceptions of loyalty points and miles redemptions has shifted in the wake of COVID-19. The lack of opportunity to travel since the beginning of COVID-19 is eroding the appeal of travel-related benefits from UK loyalty programmes. According to Auriemma’s latest research, 76% of credit cardholders enrolled in a loyalty scheme prefer to use their loyalty rewards for non-travel benefits. Meanwhile, only 35% of programme members intend to use their points or miles for travel-related benefits in 2021.

But how has this change in behaviour been impacting loyalty programmes, and how quickly, if at all, will these patterns return to previous norms?

The large volume of unused loyalty points mean high levels of financial exposure for brands on their balance sheets, which can cause a serious headache for company CFOs. Brands with loyalty programmes which are modelled heavily around offering travel redemptions, such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Hilton Honors or Marriott Bonvoy, are at the highest risk in this scenario. As evidenced in April and May 2020 when Hilton Honors sold $1 billion Honors Points to American Express, and Marriot Bonvoy sold a similar $920 million points to American Express and JP Morgan Chase to build up much needed cash flow and reduce their points liability. This is only a temporary fix, however, and with travel restrictions still in place one year later, the problem of over-exposure persists for brands.

Some loyalty schemes have expanded their partnership approach to maintain member engagement and relevance. IAG Loyalty’s recent partnership with Nectar in January 2021 allows the direct  transfers of points between the two schemes providing low value redemptions to BA Executive Club members, also demonstrated with the launch of Virgin Red in November 2020 and its partnership with Greggs. Despite the apparent strengths of these partnerships, they can present poorer value to consumers which will test the theory as to how viable they are in the longer term, once travel restarts.

There remains hope as Auriemma found that 55% of consumers still enjoy earning travel rewards through their loyalty programme or credit card, many with plans to redeem these for travel-related benefits as soon as possible. With the continued effectiveness of UK’s vaccine rollout and the subsequent easing of restrictions, a return to travel could be around the corner.

“Now is the time for issuers and loyalty programmes to focus on member and cardholder engagement,” says Kate Morgan, Head of International Partnerships at Auriemma Group. “As consumer confidence in the ability to travel rises, the appeal of redeeming hard-earned points for bookings should, too. We have seen that delivering relevant, personalised offers and marketing is key, along with cancellation options that give customers the assurances they need to complete the booking process.”

While foreign holidays remain less of a certainty than domestic travel this summer, the airlines face a larger challenge than hotels who have a greater ability to turn the focus inwards on UK stays and vacations. Premier Inn owner Whitbread, UK’s largest hospitality company, is bracing for strong summer demand.  Nevertheless, as most hotel programmes exist without the cushion of commercial partnerships with non-travel-related loyalty schemes, the reopening of UK hotels might be the only opportunity for a profitable 2021.

“The nation eagerly awaits more clarity on the government’s foreign travel policy beginning on 17th May 2021,” says Kate, “and fingers crossed it is good news for the travel industry and the thousands of employees within this sector.”

Survey Methodology

Cardbeat UK

This Auriemma Group study was conducted online within the UK by an independent field service provider on behalf of Auriemma in November 2020, among 845 adult credit cardholders. The number of interviews completed is sufficient to allow for statistical significance testing between sub-groups at the 95% confidence level ± 5%, unless otherwise noted. The purpose of the research was not disclosed nor did the respondents know the criteria for qualification. The average interview length was 21 minutes.

About Auriemma Group

For more than 30 years, Auriemma’s mission has been to empower clients with authoritative data and actionable insights. Our team comprises recognised experts in four primary areas: operational effectiveness, consumer research, co-brand partnerships, and corporate finance. Our business intelligence and advisory services give clients access to the data, expertise and tools they need to navigate an increasingly complex environment and maximise their performance. Auriemma serves the consumer financial services ecosystem from our offices in London and New York City. For more information, call Kate Morgan at +44 (0) 207 629 0075.

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