Building loyalty with local experiences

14 May 2014

GHA Discovery is the loyalty programme of Global Hotel Alliance (GHA), the world’s largest alliance of independent hotel brands. With 24 member brands and over 425 hotels globally, GHA has become a recognised platform for luxury and upscale hotel brands.  

Collinson (formally ICLP), talks to Kristi Gole, Director of Loyalty Marketing at GHA about the growth of the business, success of the programme and looking ahead to the future.

Q1. Can you give us the background of the development of the GHA Discovery programme?

GHA is a start-up company celebrating its 10 year anniversary this year, but with shareholders of long established brands and we’re able to leverage that stability. The alliance was founded as a B2B company to allow regionally respected hotel brands to compete globally – and at the same time benefit from economies of scale, technology and process efficiencies.

Our hotel brands quickly determined that a global loyalty product was needed, and after several years of research and investment in technology, the GHA Discovery programme launched in July of 2010. The programme had to work across the multiple independent hotel chains, and be suitable across the diverse cultures and regional expectations of the international audience.

In the past 4 years since the loyalty programme launched, GHA has gone from 12 to 24 brands (plus several more to integrate in the coming months), with new brands being drawn to our loyalty offering. The programme is a huge focus for both our short-term and long-term growth.

Q2. As a group of independent brands, how does the programme help to differentiate GHA against larger hotel chains?

The larger hotel chains have the brand recognition and a generally standard product that guests can rely on. We also offer a guaranteed level of quality and service across hotels in our portfolio, but within hotel brands that are locally respected and at specific hotels that are designed to reflect the culture of each destination.  Our product offering varies from the big chains in that regard, so our loyalty programme had to as well.

We listened to both our guests and our hotel staff in designing the programme. Our customers vary by brand and there is a range of what appeals to each culture.  We conducted focus groups in London, New York, and Singapore to learn what our guests would like in a programme and what would make them stay with us a second or third time. They responded that they did not want another points programme – which is what all our competitors were offering – and that they wanted to be rewarded in ways that made their travel experience more memorable. Their feedback combined with collaborating with over 1,500 hotel associates across our hotels through a global co-creation community resulted in the creation of over 1,000 Local Experience awards, the key reward of our programme available at the elite tiers.

Local Experience awards can be redeemed for a range of activities, from authentic glimpses of local life such as a day at sea with the local fishermen followed by your catch being prepared for dinner, to in-hotel activities with a local flair for business travellers on the go, such as a spa treatment with local techniques.

With the basics of complimentary Wi-Fi, late checkout and room upgrades covered through the programme benefits, the Local Experience awards offered something unique for hotels to offer and for members to be excited about redeeming.

Q3. How do you maintain an ongoing relationship with programme members?

When the programme launched, we invested heavily in establishing a structure for direct mail, with a structure and processes for ongoing global production and fulfilment of welcome packs, upgrade packs and VIP packs. This is an expensive component to maintain, with continual assessment of vendors, print pieces, and fulfilment locations, however reaching a member outside of their email inbox is important to us.

For email communication, we automated key lifecycle messages, refreshing and adding new ones to the mix each year and sending in real-time.  We have built and refined our email marketing strategy on a quarterly basis, and strive for a mix of content with a respectful frequency and personalised messaging to ensure we are continually building the relationship with the member.  

All of our communications are personalised, using segmentation by:

  • Language preference - we currently support 7 languages
  • Membership level - 3 public tiers
  • Enrolling brand - currently 24
  • Geographic attributes
  • Stay behaviour
  • Preferences

While personalisation of communication adds complexity, it’s key to driving customer engagement and is expected. We continually build and learn more about our members through their interactions with our emails, from opens and clicks to which messaging receives the most opt-outs.

Q4. How do you measure the success of the programme?

The first year was focused on operational setup for systems, design and implementation of direct mail and email communications, hotel training and standard operating procedures and internal processes. The key programme metrics that we watched were enrolment numbers and email engagement, as we knew we had to build from the ground up and ensure our database was growing and responding to our marketing efforts.

In year two, we optimised everything we set up in year one. This ensured all aspects were more efficient and smooth internally and for the end customer. In year three we could identify benchmarks and establish more programme metrics - we installed better tracking for our email and web activities, while enhancing our BI reporting.

We were very pleased to see huge increases in the third year of operation: we grew to over 4 million loyalty members and experienced a 77% increase in revenue from direct bookings year-on-year along with 141% increase in award redemption year-on-year.

This year we are honoured to have received recognition across all areas of the programme with industry award wins from Loyalty360, Travel Weekly’s Magellan Awards, Travel Marketing Awards, and Horizon Interactive.

Q5. What’s next for GHA Discovery?

We’re currently focused on redesigning our website and integrating several more luxury hotel brands, hopefully all to launch by end of summer this year. We are also looking at further optimising our structure and processes to allow for future scaling to accommodate our quickly growing portfolio and we are continually assessing how to best recognise and reward our members and have several key elements that we will explore this year.