My wife and I recently attended the 2018 Freddies Awards for loyalty programs. The winners and losers were both predictable and confounding depending on the award. Some made perfect sense while others left the room gasping. Which ones made sense and which didn’t, more importantly – why?
Winners: Le Accor, Southwest, Norwegian?
For those not in the loop, the Freddie awards are given to the best in travel loyalty programs for hotels, airlines and credit cards. The voting is open to the public and this year 4.4 million cast ballots for three regions, the Americas, Europe/Africa and Asia/Oceania. Some of the winners of categories this year made sense and some did not. It’s the absence of many carriers that spoke louder to me more than the winners. Take a look at the list of the winners from the Americas and another for Europe.
Take a look at the winner for Best Elite Program, American Airlines. I was a big fan of the program but recently left. Up until last year, I think they really did have the best elite program but now, there are few differentiators from Delta and United.
Alaska, who continues to award status and miles based on distance flown and without revenue requirements, didn’t make it into the top four. Southwest was a close second but they offer next to nothing for elite benefits. Logic would suggest that if American, with all of their millions of elite flyers, partners, and global reach were finalists then it goes to reason that their peers would be just as close. Delta and United didn’t crack the top four. In fact, Delta made the top four in just one category and United never made it to the finalists in any category. Southwest won every other category in the Americas airline category with the exception of the 210 award (awarded to up and coming programs).
Marriott cleaned up too. They took home every category for hotels with the exception of two going to… MGM, one of which was the 210 award. It should be noted as well that the 210 awards are the only ones that are not determined by the 4.4 million Freddies voters. Marriott won – not SPG. Let that sink in.
The other two regions had similarly beguiling results. Europe & Africa airline awards were split between Norwegian and Aeroflot. The hotels were dominated by Accor (four wins), Marriott and IHG each with a single win, IHG taking home the 210 award. Asia/Oceania seemed a little truer to form with the hotel category splitting six awards among four chains, Accor (2), IHG (2), SPG with Taj taking home the 210. Airlines in Asia/Oceania were mostly awarded to Virgin Velocity (4) with Emirates winning Best promotion and Saudia Alfursan taking the 210 home.
Some of the Results Make Sense
SPG, Hyatt, and Alaska are premier programs with smaller footprints. It’s a volume issue to a certain degree which is why the major programs like American, United, and Delta should win the categories and frankly, this is why I think American did in part. The volume issue is exactly why the Freddies hand out a 210 award, as Gary Leff said at the event it’s handed out to programs “to watch” – the ones that may not have the volume of votes, but have some of the highest scores. Their customers tend to rate the companies the highest but they just don’t have enough customers to compete on a larger scale.
So when Hyatt and SPG don’t win but Marriott does, some of that could be down to footprint. Except when it isn’t. For the years 2013-2016 Hyatt won Best Elite every year in the Americas. People loved Gold Passport – I loved Gold Passport (RIP). When they changed the program late in 2016 requiring in some cases 140% more nights to qualify for top tier status, the voters penalized them and have not forgiven them for their actions. SPG won every voted category in 2017 for Asia and Best Elite program in Europe. In one year (the year they began integration with Marriott) they went from six Freddies to one in 2018.
It seems the voters are punishing programs when they feel they have made adverse changes. That resonates with me as I have said that Hyatt went from my #1 program despite their small footprint to fourth – maybe I re-qualify and maybe I don’t. From a must-have to could do without in 18 months.
Southwest winning the Americas is logical for the other categories. Do they have the best redemption ability? Yes, yes they do. If they have a seat to sell, you can use your points to buy that seat at a rate of 78 Rapid Rewards points per dollar of the fare. Best promotion/best credit card were both a result of their exceptional Companion Pass offer last year that enables a lot of people to travel for less. Best customer service? Sure, they aren’t dragging people down the aisle and they rap through the safety announcement. Why not? Virgin Australia has a similar following in Asia/Oceania though they couldn’t be bothered to attend the event so a Delta representative collected their trophies all night.
Some of the Results Make Sense
Marriott, who for the purposes of this award year were separated from SPG, cleaned up. This supports my volume argument, they have a huge program, but so does Hilton. Last year I compared the first quarter bonuses from the chains. I loved Hilton’s 2k Every Stay, Everyday promotion that made every customer an equal opportunity benefactor. If you stayed 10 nights a quarter you did well, if you stayed 50, you did really well. But Marriott Rewards best promotion, really? Even if you disagree with my selection for Hilton, I don’t think anyone would say that Marriott’s MegaBonus was the best in the business. Except of course, the voters.
How about Le Accor in Europe/Africa and Asia/Oceania? It was a running joke how often the Le Accor rep was on stage. In some cases, she was still getting her picture taken from a previous win while they announced another award for the chain. At one point, I think she was instructed to stand next to the stage. I asked some fellow bloggers at Boarding Area what they thought about this afterward. I suggested that maybe I needed to learn more about the program since their following is so significant. But Summer of Mommy Points pointed out that their rewards consist of €20 discount vouchers per 2,000 points and that there really isn’t much to write about. She’s dead right. The chain has a big footprint, some 3700 hotels worldwide but there isn’t much to the program. Are their customers that loyal or is something else afoot?
What became clear to me, and from other interactions including attendees that were neither travel writers nor associated with the programs, is that some of the programs are just better at marketing the Freddies to their customers. I know that American has heavily marketed the awards and voting to their customers during voting season, but also showcased their award on airport screens throughout the year. How does Aeroflot beat out Lufthansa, British Airways, and KLM/Air France in Europe? Gary Leff mentioned their fantastic rates on upgrades to business class tickets using miles – that could be it. But it doesn’t seem likely to me. How does Norwegian win Best Promotion and Program Of The Year? Marketing. Can anyone tell me what that promotion was and if they took advantage of it?
Maybe it’s because as both a reader of many travel blogs and a part-time writer of one, I am trapped in a bubble that insulates me from what’s really going on outside of the huge programs. But I don’t dispute most of the categories Southwest won, I voted for them in a couple. I hold Avianca miles and think they have made some great strides as a program, the 210 award is fitting for them.
However, I can’t for the life of me understand how IHG won Program Of The Year in Asia. Accelerate is a great promotion (they won that too) but how does the chain compete with SPG, Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton? The Best Elite program went to SPG in Asia, so it’s not down to member numbers and if so, wouldn’t Hilton rank higher as the only hotel chain that offers free breakfast to Gold members and also has a huge footprint. IHG hates their top-tier elites – how did this happen?!?
What do you think? Did the awards make sense? Which was the best fit and which the most beguiling?