InterContinental Hotels Group's David Canty

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InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) has been ramping up focus on its IHG Rewards Club loyalty program, which now has roughly 120 million members. This holiday season, IHG gifted its Rewards Club members a total of 150 million points as part of a social media-focused promotion. Originally set to run through Dec. 30, the initiative proved incredibly popular, with members claiming the 150 million points by Dec. 10. Hotels editor Christina Jelski recently sat down with David Canty, IHG's vice president of global loyalty programs, to discuss the promotion and IHG's loyalty strategy.

Q: How does this points giveaway compare with IHG Rewards Club's member thank-you efforts of the past?

David Canty
David Canty

A: We generally do thank-you's for our members at this time of the year, but this is the first time we've really dialed up a points offering in a global way and in a way that has a social element, as well. And while this is our way to say "thank you" to our existing members, people can also sign up as new members and receive the credit. We want to welcome people and this is a great way to kick-start an account.

By keeping it that simple, we think that allows us to build relationships that are much stickier over time, and that, in due course, builds loyalty. We're trying to focus in on the member being at the center of everything we're doing.

Q: In addition to building broader brand loyalty, are you leveraging the strength of the IHG Rewards Club to drive direct bookings?

A: We are. All of our members actually get a member-only rate by booking direct. So that rate is your rate, and it's branded as your rate. Whenever a member goes to book on Ihg.com, that rate will surface to the top.

We're also seeing more and more of our members downloading our app, and that also is another important direct-booking channel. The app piece is about bringing loyalty to life in your hand. If you open up the app and just turn your phone sideways, your membership number appears. So if anybody ever asks you for your number, it's right there, easy to find. I believe we're at about 2.8 million downloads this year, and I would say that about 95% to 98% of people that have downloaded the app are Rewards Club members. Also, we're starting to find that our elite members especially are continuously using the app as a booking tool and as a way to interact with the program.

When a member books directly with IHG, he or she will receive all the benefits, and this applies to corporate business bookings made through company travel agencies or travel departments, too.

Q: The loyalty rewards landscape has changed so much in recent years, with more guests expecting to redeem amazing experiences in addition to free nights. How has the IHG Rewards Club evolved in that regard?

A: We try and engage with the members all the time and get their feedback, and I encourage my team when they're traveling to have conversations with people and find out which rewards are resonating with them. We take that type of feedback, and that informs the type of experiences that we want to create.

Initially, we just had events that you could redeem points for, but now we will also allow you to actually bid on curated experiences that you can't just buy off the shelf. So that was based on feedback from members saying that they wanted things like that. And as we develop partnerships, we're listening to members about which partners resonate with them. We've announced a number of different partners. For example, OpenTable is one. So you can earn extra rewards points by booking your restaurants through OpenTable. Or, if you're in one of our extended-stay properties, you can actually earn points by ordering food through GrubHub. We also have a partnership with Amazon Kindle and our members can receive Kindle downloads on a quarterly basis.

Q: Are there any other specific reward experiences or perks that really resonate with members?

A: We do a lot with music, and we're also doing some sports events. The Masters is a big event for us within the golf world. So we do look at different segments of our membership to understand the different types of events that they're interested in. Another one might be a wine-tasting, let's say. Very recently, we had a sailing event in San Diego for our members. We're continuously looking to curate a diverse collection of experiences.

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