What if loyalty depended not on points but on points of view? If repeat business hinged not on reward nights but on rewarding experiences?
The travel world is filled with programs that are built on Pavlovian models: Stay at my hotel, fly my airline, take my cruise, and you will be rewarded with free travel, upgrades, amenities and Group 1 boarding.
Your pocketbook, ego and desire for convenience are all beneficiaries.
These aren't bad incentives to induce repeat business. But if a hotel, airline or cruise line suffered a catastrophic blow, would loyalty program members repay in kind? Would they open their pocketbooks and go out of their way to help?
It did happen for at least one travel company. On the evening of Nov. 8, Tammi Leader Fuller, who runs Campowerment with her 82-year-old mother and 30-year-old daughter, was on a wooded hilltop in Malibu, Calif., overlooking the ocean. She and her staff of 22 were preparing to receive 160 women the next day who had signed up to "reignite their lives" by attending a 72-hour mix of traditional camp activities and life-coaching workshops.
A former television producer who covered live events for NBC and CBS for 34 years, Leader Fuller had built a women's and corporate retreat business on the belief that actual wellness involves much more than spa treatments.
"Wellness isn't just about disconnecting with a hot stone massage," she said. "It's also about helping people connect."
She used her production skills to train experts -- best-selling authors, TED-talkers -- to craft 75-minute interactive sessions that could spark profound discussions and provide context for attendees to examine their lives. With topics ranging from entrepreneurship to caring for aging parents, the goal was for attendees to leave with a road map for a better future.
To make the experience even more meaningful, Leader Fuller believed it would be crucial to create a strong sense of community among attendees.
She remembered that her experiences at overnight camp were important to her own development and saw it as a model format to simultaneously create interpersonal bonds and transform individuals.
As a result, she said, attendees "may hear a life-altering message and, two hours later, compete in a pie-eating contest."
On the mountaintop that day in November, Leader Fuller recalled recently, the wind was approaching "Wizard of Oz" strength. As a former news producer who had frequently found herself moving toward hurricanes when everyone else was fleeing them, her instincts told her it was time to leave. She was concerned that a tree might blow down and block the road.
She and her staff piled supplies into a shipping container and made their way down the mountain, planning to return early the next morning to prepare to receive guests. But at the bottom of the road, a sheriff's officer told them the Woolsey wildfire was closing in and that evacuations were underway.
The staff immediately texted and emailed all attendees to tell them the retreat was canceled, catching most before they had boarded flights.
Leader Fuller had indeed done a good job of creating a sense of community, and upon hearing the news, many of the women who had signed up went on the company's Facebook page to learn more. About 60 women either lived in the Los Angeles area or had arrived in L.A. early, and someone suggested on Facebook that they try to meet somewhere. In response, another woman volunteered her house.
The group, including Leader Fuller and some presenters, met for breakfast and ended up staying through dinner. During that period, they received word that the camp, and Leader Fuller's business, had been reduced to ashes.
A discussion began around what happens when things don't go the way they're supposed to, and the group said they wanted to help, perhaps with a GoFundMe campaign. Leader Fuller demurred, but the group reminded her, she said, that "what we talk about is being able to lean on each other and receive support."
In the end, she agreed.
Within 24 hours, $20,000 had been raised. The total as of press time was more than $70,000 (some sending donations outside GoFundMe), with 425 alumni sending amounts ranging from $10 to $1,000. Just as important to Leader Fuller were the 2,000 notes of support she received on social media, via email and on handwritten cards.
She's planning a "rebirth" retreat in Running Springs, Calif., from March 22 to 25 to accommodate those who had booked in November. In the meantime, she launched a two-week "Campowerthon," a series of daily, live workshops facilitated by experts on the company's Facebook page.
"We want to let people know we're not going anywhere," Leader Fuller said. "We'll continue to share our programs even as we rebuild our foundation."
Though all her equipment is lost, Leader Fuller can still lease campsites she's previously used in the Poconos and Ojai, Calif., and she is looking for a replacement site near Malibu.
Campowerment, incidentally, pays travel agent commissions. Most travel advisers understand that their repeat business -- loyalty to them -- is bolstered by their ability to obtain upgrades, amenities and special attention. But as Leader Fuller has discovered and experienced advisers know, the deepest loyalty comes from something much more profound: connecting clients to the people, places and experiences that can change their lives.