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Giving the Customer Experience Wings through Shared Data: Q&A with United Airlines

July 29, 2013

It takes some vision to transform a window seat on a plane to a room with a view, but the latest collaboration in loyalty is doing just that, with the added benefit of bonus points.

The recently announced RewardsPlus program, by United Airlines and Marriott, awards shared perks to each company's elite loyalty members. Specifically, Marriott Rewards Platinum Elite members can experience the benefits of United's MileagePlus Premier Silver status, such as free domestic flight upgrades, Economy Plus seating (at check in), and access to priority security lines and boarding. Members of United's elite tiers above silver (Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, Premier 1K, and United Global Services), meanwhile, gain Marriott Rewards Gold Elite status, which includes room upgrades, free high-speed Internet and bonus points. Plus, beginning in August, all MileagePlus Premier members may transfer MileagePlus miles into Marriott Rewards points.

But what really distinguishes the program is how the combined customer insights will enable each of these two brands to elevate and personalize the customer experience, said Dennis Armbruster, editor-at-large at COLLOQUY.

"Kudos to both brands for recognizing that it is the experience, not miles or points, that leads to authentic engagement,” he said. “Status is highly valued among heavy travelers. Once they experience these status benefits, they are much more likely to consolidate their travel so this should improve the acquisition, retention and consolidation of travel spending."

By combining their analytical resources with their service offerings, United and Marriott are addressing a key need in loyalty: fresh, relevant experiences. Less than half of consumers surveyed in 2012 said they thought companies used their personal information to provide better service, according to research by LoyaltyOne. Sixty-three percent said they would share more personal information with companies if in exchange for relevant product and service offerings.

We were lucky enough to capture a few minutes with Praveen Sharma, United Airlines' vice president of loyalty to discuss the RewardsPlus program. In the following Q&A, Sharma addresses reward customization, the power of partnerships and a perk called Mercedes-Benz.

How did this partnership with Marriott come together?

Sharma: Marriott Rewards is one of the travel industry's most highly regarded loyalty programs, and Marriott's global network of hotels and resorts aligns well with United's global route network. We wanted to partner with Marriott and provide our most frequent elite-level flyers with the extra value and convenience that is important when they travel.

What are travellers seeking today that is absent from loyalty programs? What are the gaps?

Sharma: We listen closely to our customers, and our most frequent flyers consistently tell us they want to be recognized for their loyalty and are looking for a breadth of earn and redemption opportunities; so we are constantly evaluating opportunities to fill that need. For instance, our partnership with Mercedes-Benz USA enables us to provide MileagePlus members with more opportunities to earn miles and receive incentives, when purchasing or leasing select Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Also, we are now piloting a new service at O'Hare International Airport, in Chicago, and George Bush Intercontinental Airport, in Houston, in which we use Mercedes-Benz vehicles to transport our top-level customers with tight connections from gate to gate.

How will you be able to use the combined data to deliver added relevance to United's elite guests?

Sharma: The information we obtain from RewardsPlus will enable us to further evaluate what is important to MileagePlus and Marriott Rewards members when they travel. This will enable us to design programs and customize offers accordingly and further enhance our customers' travel and loyalty experience.

In what ways does this partnership with Marriott enable you to meet the increased demand for personalized experiences?

Sharma: The partnership provides several ways for us to do this. For example, customers can take advantage of the status match for more comfort and convenience when they travel. Also, customers will be able to transfer points into miles for use for air travel and other opportunities that MileagePlus offers, and they will be able to take advantage of the one-to-one transfer of miles to points when making accommodations on the vacation of their choice or when taking advantage of other Marriott Rewards offers.

Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Sharma. Anything to add? 

Sharma: We are always looking for ways to offer customers more of what they want throughout their entire travel experience. Our partnership with Marriott enables us to further expand on the benefits we provide through our MileagePlus program, which offers members more ways to earn and redeem miles than any other U.S. airline loyalty program.

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