8 ways for elite status perks to remain relevant during the pandemic

Jul 22, 2020

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If you’re a frequent traveler, odds are that your elite status has been extended another year — without stepping foot on a plane or spending a night in a hotel.

Though status has been extended, what about the associated perks? Many will find that they’re not valuable in the age of the coronavirus.

If companies really want to engage with their travelers, they should consider adopting relevant travel perks now. After all, as Mark Nasr, Air Canada’s VP of Loyalty and eCommerce said at the Skift Loyalty Forum, “loyalty matters a whole lot less now. The focus is really on safety and security.”

Of course, safety should — and does — trump everything else. It’s the number one priority, regardless of your status. Airlines and hotels have all adapted their operations during the pandemic to promote a healthy and safe environment for staff and guests. And that’s commendable.

But, if airlines and hotels could differentiate on perks related to safety — without compromising on it for any traveler — perhaps they could convince their most loyal customers to get back on the road sooner and remain committed to the brand in the long run.

As such, here are eight ways that elite status perks should adapt in the age of the pandemic.

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Upgrades to…coach

Some airlines are capping the capacity of their flights. Others like American and United aren’t.

Though it’s unclear exactly how much safer it is to have an empty middle seat, more space is certainly better than less.

And that’s why, as an elite, I used to love getting a complimentary bump to first class. But when I return to the skies, I’m going to be less concerned about flying in first and more worried about securing an empty seat.

United first class (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Sure I could buy a second seat on AA or UA, but it’d certainly be nice if these airlines allowed elite to redeem upgrades for extra space in coach. I’d certainly consider burning some United PlusPoints for an extra economy seat.

There should never be a price associated with safety, but in an age where the planes can’t be completely private, the airlines should give elite members new ways to buy up for a little extra personal space.

Related: Why I declined first-class upgrades during the pandemic

Elites can always board last

I’ve never been a fan of being the first to board.

Even though elites are traditionally invited to preboard, now’s not necessarily the time to take an airline up on that offer.

To minimize exposure to others, many carriers have implemented back-to-front boarding. Likewise, metered, front-to-back deplaning is becoming the new normal.

In addition to inviting elites to preboard, it’s now time to let them also be the last to board. That way those who are concerned about limited overhead space can be one of the first on the plane, and those who aren’t as worried can get on later.

Related: You may never board a plane the same way again — because of coronavirus

Fill rooms that have been vacant the longest

Think about an airport hotel. Most stays are just one night. That means that there could be seven or more people in your hotel room in a given week.

Though traditional cleaning procedures have been enhanced, I’d love to know when the last time someone occupied my hotel room. And if I had a choice, I’d certainly choose one that has been vacant for the longest.

Elites should be given that preference option.

Related: Why you might not get housekeeping service during your next hotel stay

Ground floor room, please

Before the pandemic, I’ve never voluntarily chosen a ground floor room. Now, I’m doing the exact opposite.

I’m avoiding elevators and taking stairs when I can. While the pandemic rages on, hotels should consider dedicating some of their ground floor rooms for elite members looking to maintain as much social distancing as possible.

Elite members have always been given higher floors with nice views or the option to be close — or far away — from the elevator. Now, the top room choice might just be a low floor.

Ground floor room at the Park Hyatt St. Kitts (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Could the ground floor become the new floor reserved for elites?

Surprise and delight

Personalization has long been a big theme of loyalty programs. But now, when you’re flying, there’s something comforting about knowing that the airline or hotel is looking after you.

Take it from TPG’s editorial director Laura Motta. On her recent Delta flight, she writes that “the flight attendant even came up to me as I was getting settled, thanked me by name for choosing Delta and mentioned how long it’s been since I last flew. It was hugely impressive, and a good way to start the flight.”

Most top-tier members aren’t traveling as frequently as they did. Small acts like the one Laura experienced will go a long way in building long-term loyalty during the pandemic.

Related: What’s it like to fly during a pandemic? We compared four different U.S. airlines

Lounges with reserved space

Airport lounges are slowly starting to reopen. With modified food and beverage options and capacity limitations, they won’t look the same as before.

For safety, most of the unique amenities like showers and family rooms will be closed.

But instead of closing conference rooms and phone booths, perhaps they could be reserved for top-tier elites or international business-class passengers on a reservation basis.

Phone room at the Amex Centurion Lougne in Miami (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

After all, the super-premium American Airlines Flagship Lounge and United Polaris Lounge network remains closed, so this could be a great way to differentiate the standard club experience.

Related: 6 ways airport lounges are improving — and 1 way they definitely aren’t

Extend validity of certificates

Some airlines and hotels have been more generous than others about extending the validity of expiring certificates.

With cases rising across the country, travel isn’t bouncing back anytime soon. Why not offer another round of certificate extensions now?

Sure there’s breakage with these certificates. If they go unused, travel companies can reduce their liabilities. But loyalty is a long-term play, and how hotels and airlines act now, during the worst of times, will be remembered by many of us for years to come.

Related: Is it time for another round of extensions for airline and hotel travel certificates?

Breakfast served in-room

There’s nothing that screams “elite member” more than a free hotel breakfast.

But with many restaurants and buffets closed, hotels are starting to redefine the free breakfast. At some properties, it’s been boiled down to a bag of packaged bars and hard fruit. At others, food service has been suspended completely.

Kempinski Mall of the Emirates Dubai room service (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

Though some individual properties go above-and-beyond by offering elites breakfast via in-room dining, now’s the perfect time for brands to adopt a company-wide policy offering breakfast in bed for elites.

It’s not only safer, but it’d sure get elites excited about their next stay.

Related: How to get free hotel breakfast

Bottom line

The coronavirus has changed the way we live. That includes how (and if) we travel, and many of the traditional perks associated with elite status.

To remain relevant during the pandemic, travel companies should consider adapting their elite status benefits. Things like upgrades to extra coach seats and reserving lounge space for elites are just some of the ways to reward frequent travelers

Loyalty is about remaining relevant. Airlines and hotels that can do that now will be best positioned to survive and thrive post-pandemic. 

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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