Airport Loyalty Programs: Tapping into Consumer Behavior

July 31, 2013
Consumers are addicted not just to their smart devices, but they are also fanatical about accumulating points, tracking cash back bonuses and rewards, as well as the perks associated with loyalty programs.

Loyalty programs have been around for more than a century and today, primary reward programs can be found in just about every business and market sector – including airlines, hotels, airports, banks, restaurants, and supermarkets.  Secondary programs can be found everywhere else. Now pet stores, grooming services, local coffee houses and even thrift shops are luring customers with offers, rewards and perks to incentivize them to spend (more and more).  Consumers are addicted not just to their smart devices, but they are also fanatical about accumulating points, tracking cash back bonuses and rewards, as well as the perks associated with these programs.

The concept is not new. The first trading stamps were introduced in 1891 by the Blue Stamp Trading System, where stamps affixed to booklets could be redeemed for store products. The Sperry and Hutchinson Company was the first third-party provider of trading stamps for various companies, including dry goods dealers, gas stations and later supermarkets.  S&H Green Stamps, as the company was commonly called, opened its first redemption center in 1897. Customers could take their filled booklets of "green stamps" and redeem them for household products, kitchen items, and personal items.

Fortunately, we no longer have to lick stamps and paste them into booklets because we have the latest technology at our disposal to alert us of double point offers, track of our purchases and points, and enable us to peruse the desirable prizes for redemption. 

In the last few years, airports have started to embrace the concept of loyalty programs to drive business, engage customers and gain a competitive advantage. Some airports have started their own programs, while others have joined the growing trend to engage, retain and reward their customers by partnering with Thanks Again, LLC.

Founded in 2009 and headquartered in Atlanta, Thanks Again links members of the most popular rewards programs to airport parking, airport concession operators and local businesses to stimulate commerce, loyalty and customer value. Thanks Again enables frequent travelers to automatically earn extra rewards such as airline miles when they shop or dine at over 170 airports and 25,000 "neighborhood" businesses in North America.

Gainesville Regional Airport is an excellent example of an early adopter airport with the launch of their Road Warrior Club in 2008. They report it gives them an advantage over other Florida area airports. Membership in the club allows passengers to register online each time they fly for the chance to win 20 or more free prizes and gifts each month. Currently, there are nearly 1,000 members at an airport that carries 300,000 annual passengers. Key benefits of the Club include relationship building, encouraging loyalty from both frequent and not so frequent travelers, and forming stronger bonds with the businesses that donate prizes.  Other than nominal administrative and staff time, the airport says the program costs them nothing to operate.

Burbank's Bob Hope Airport is the latest airport to announce it has established a loyalty program. As the first airport in the state of California to adopt an airport-wide loyalty program, passengers who spend money on food, parking or shopping at the airport earn points toward airline and hotel loyalty programs. Burbank, like other U.S. airports, signed on with Thanks Again, which is simple for passengers to use.  They just register their existing credit or debit cards online and the program links the cards to one of several airline loyalty programs or the Hilton Honors program. For every dollar a registered consumer spends at the airport, they can earn one mile on their airline loyalty program or two points on the Hilton hotel program.

According to airport spokesman Victor Gill, “We have to come up with innovative ways to give us an advantage with fliers."

If your airport is considering offering a loyalty program to help achieve your business objective, here is an excellent research report that provides insight into this consumer trend.  Here is an excellent recent survey entitled The 2013 Maritz Loyalty Report™ which sheds light on the state of loyalty programs and the attitudes and mindset of American consumers.  According to the report, there are five significant themes that emerged:

1.            Consumers love loyalty programs and a majority of those surveyed were enrolled in 7.1 programs.

2.            Communication plays a significant role in program membership experiences, and 90 percent reported they want to receive communications from the programs.

3.            Personalization versus privacy is a fine line that determines the success of a program. Consumers want to be treated as individuals, without having their privacy violated.

4.            There is a strong connection between personal values and program values. The more closely aligned personal values are, the more members are satisfied.

5.            Programs differentiate themselves on secondary drivers, since popular programs performed similarly on primary drivers.   

Read the complete report here and to evaluate how these emerging themes findings can apply to your airport’s business strategies.  As airport marketing becomes more assertive and strategic today, seeking new ways to engage consumers and build loyalty with travelers requires innovative marketing campaigns that consider the latest innovations in loyalty programs.

My next column will address the emergence of architectural and retail “super hubs” at airports which create city-wide marketing opportunities for these iconic, modern showpieces.

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Agnes Huff, PhD, has more than 25 years of experience providing specialized strategic public relations and marketing, crisis management and business consulting to a diverse group of clients in the aviation industry. In 1995, she founded Agnes Huff Communications Group (AHCG) an integrated marketing and PR consulting firm headquartered in Los Angeles. Clients include national and international airports and airlines, government entities, travel and tourism organizations, and transportation companies, among other high-profile industry clients. She welcomes feedback and will respond to comments at [email protected]. More information on AHCG is available at