By Nancy Trejos
How loyal are travelers to airlines or hotels? Not much, a new survey by Deloitte says.
Just 8% of travelers surveyed in October by the professional services firm say they're loyal to the same hotel brand. Only 14% say they're loyal to the same airline.
The findings don't bode well for hotels and airlines, which invest millions to attract and reward travelers with their frequent-flier and frequent-guest programs in an effort to attract return customers.
"The current environment for building loyalty really isn't creating long-term sustainable loyalty," says Adam Weissenberg, vice chairman and U.S. leader of Deloitte's travel, hospitality and leisure sector.
Price, comfort and service are driving decisions more than loyalty programs, the survey of 4,000 travelers to be released on Tuesday finds.
When picking airlines, most travelers say they look first at safety, value and whether flights are on time. When choosing hotels, they look at price, whether there's free parking, comfort and location. Loyalty programs rank near the bottom of influencing factors.
"There's been a real erosion in loyalty, and when you think about why that's happened, it is because there's so much more information out there today," Weissenberg says.
Weissenberg says the wealth of information has made it easy for consumers to comparison shop and switch their loyalty for a better deal. Almost 70% of survey respondents say they are members of more than one loyalty program.
Airlines were the first adopters of loyalty programs among travel companies in the 1980s.
They were effective for a time, Weissenberg says. But once one airline and hotel started offering freebies, their competitors followed. "Those were all things that were very easy to copy," he says.
Customers now often complain that it's not easy to accrue or redeem miles and points, or to achieve elite status.
Delta Air Lines, for instance, announced Thursday that starting in January, its SkyMiles members will have to spend a minimum amount of dollars, as well as fly a certain number of miles, to gain elite Medallion status.
Many consumers surveyed say they consider grocery store loyalty programs more rewarding and innovative than those run by hotels and airlines.
But the travel industry insists it reaps rewards from the programs.
In 2011, 8.2% of revenue miles flown on Delta were from award travel, says spokesman Chris Kelly.
In the last three years, United Airlines has made more awards tickets available, says spokesman Rahsaan Johnson. The carrier also has made it easier to redeem miles for merchandise or for experiences that aren't usually for sale, such as a trip to Denver to try a United flight simulator.
"We know that customers who use their miles are more likely to come back to earn miles, so our focus is on giving people more opportunities to use their miles for travel and for things other than travel," he says.
Mark Vondrasek, Starwood's senior vice president of distribution, loyalty and partnership, says that on any given night, more than half the rooms in all the company's properties are occupied by preferred guest members.
Starwood has added perks such as letting elite members check in any time during the day. "It's an investment that we've been very, very focused on over the last few years," he says.
But Weissenberg says travelers are now more loyal to hotels or airlines that reward them in other ways, such as waiving a cancellation fee or sending a birthday bottle of champagne. To offer that kind of personalized service, though, companies will need better technology and training.
"The world has changed," he says. "What worked 20 years ago, 15 years ago, five years ago isn't going to work now."