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By creating a virtual currency and allowing its members to enjoy the points they earn locally, Global Hotel Alliance is creating a new travel experience. Interview with Chris Hartley, CEO.


By creating a virtual currency and allowing its members to enjoy the points they earn locally, Global Hotel Alliance is creating a new travel experience. Interview with Chris Hartley, CEO.

Category: Worldwide - - Interviews
Interview made by Guillaume Chollier on 2021-12-24

Based on the principle of airline alliances, the Global Hotel Alliance (GHA) was established in 2004. With over 500 upscale and luxury hotels across 35 brands in 85 countries, GHA is the world's largest alliance of independent hotel brands. GHA has just announced a partnership with Asmallworld AG, the world's leading travel and lifestyle community. From March this year, the two companies will become shareholders in each other.

DISCOVERY, GHA's loyalty programme, which has over 11 million members, has just been enhanced. A virtual currency, the DISCOVERY dollar, has been created and each time a member spends money at a hotel in the alliance, he or she will be able to spend it at will at any of the alliance's establishments.

Classic? Not so much! Discovery dollars can be used to spend a night in a hotel at the end of the world, but they can also be used to enjoy benefits in member establishments located close to home: a meeting room for a professional meeting, a massage in the spa of a partner hotel, an afternoon by the pool with the family, or even a round of golf with friends.

The redesign of the GHA Discovery programme was based on feedback from customer surveys, but also on the observation that travel behaviour and habits have changed as a result of the health crisis. It appears that people are now travelling less far, less long, but more often.

Chris Hartley, CEO of the Global Hotel Alliance explains to the Journal des Palaces the reasons that led to the rethinking of the reward system for member customers. He also looks ahead to the future direction of the Global Hotel Alliance.

Le Journal des Palaces : Why did you decide to completely rethink your GHA Discovery loyalty programme?
Chris Hartley : In 2019, the GHA team conducted an exploratory project and what we called "Big Talks" around the world, where we sought feedback from our members in different markets. Overwhelmingly, they asked us to be more accessible, more generous and rewarding, and more flexible - so that they could achieve elite status more easily and really enjoy what it offers. GHA teams worked on an improved loyalty programme based on this feedback just before the health crisis. Members' ideas, combined with the sudden and lasting changes in travel due to the crisis, gave us a clear picture of how we could better serve our hotels and members. The new loyalty programme reflects not only the feedback from our members, but also the general evolution of travel, which is becoming more local and shorter. GHA DISCOVERY caters as much to the new culture of 'luxury lunch breaks', 'spa afternoons' or 'own city tourism' as it does to members who are going on holiday abroad.

How do you think this new programme is better suited to the guests of GHA member hotels?
GHA DISCOVERY offers members a generous new reward currency, DISCOVERY Dollars (D$), which can be earned and spent on eligible purchases at more than 500 hotels in the collection. Members can also upgrade faster with an additional tier and three flexible paths to upgrade: nights/stays, eligible purchases and number of brands stayed. Most importantly, hotels in the GHA DISCOVERY global collection are eager to welcome members who live nearby as VIP guests with new dedicated local offers. Whether it's a romantic dinner, a spa treatment, an afternoon at the pool, a round of golf or a productive day of remote work, among other things, members can enjoy exclusive access to the hotels' facilities and amenities without a stay. In this way, we are reinventing the role and function of hotels. With the renewed programme, hotels are no longer just places to travel or stay; they are local centres for working, socialising and relaxing close to home, offering members a place to conduct business, dine, meet friends and family or relax.

Why are Discovery Dollars easier to use than traditional miles for your customers?
Our members have spoken, and we have listened. Our extensive market research revealed that travellers are frustrated by the complexity of points and miles and are looking for a more transparent, flexible and lifestyle reward system. GHA DISCOVERY now offers this flexibility, with the introduction of the industry's first digital rewards currency, DISCOVERY Dollars, which allows members to earn points on their first stay and redeem them on subsequent stays for hotel spend, from rooms to restaurants to spas to golf. With frequent local travel the new norm due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, our new programme is more accessible and generous, rewarding members at hotels closer to home. 

How do you choose member hotels?
GHA works with independent, mostly family-owned hotel brands in the upscale and luxury segment with GHA DISCOVERY to compete with the big global brands while maintaining their individuality. There is no selection process per se, rather we look for like-minded brands that do not compete directly with each other and complement the other brands in the alliance, while enriching the choice of hotels for our guests. Independent hotel brands join GHA to leverage the power of its GHA DISCOVERY loyalty platform, which offers them:
- A low cost loyalty solution.
- Fast and seamless integration, with GHA providing the core CRM and marketing technology and platform.
- A global loyalty program that competes with the mega-programs of the world's largest hotel companies.
- Superior technology at a lower cost through a plug-and-play solution.
- Access to a common customer database, enhancing the global reach of each brand.
- Incentive for direct bookings, reducing distribution costs and reliance on expensive third parties.
- A powerful CRM that facilitates and personalises the customer journey.
- A significant increase in the number of bookings at each brand's hotels, while stimulating 'cross-brand' trade, creating new revenue streams at a low cost of sale.

You have both small collections of hotels such as The Doyle Collection and larger groups such as Kempinski, how do you reconcile the different expectations of your member hotels?
We provide services that suit brands with five hotels as well as those with 50. It's just that some brands have more central resources than others, which allows them to do more brand-specific activities, while smaller brands can rely more on the alliance for some of our technologies. We use a shared technology platform to generate additional revenue and create cost savings for our member brands. We also provide a loyalty website and mobile app for customers, as well as an employee portal for programme management. If brands have their own CRM system, GHA DISCOVERY can interface and align with their CRM efforts, ensuring that the loyalty programme's marketing calendar complements the brands' communications. For smaller brands that do not have their own CRM platform, GHA DISCOVERY provides loyalty lifecycle communications and CRM campaigns for member brands.

NH Group hotels join GHA Discovery. Do you have ambitions to integrate other hotel groups in the near future?
With 35 independent brands, GHA is currently represented in 85 countries worldwide. With the addition of the NH Hotel Group to the alliance, GHA DISCOVERY members benefit from hundreds of new properties in South America, Spain, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries. With the merger of the NH Rewards loyalty programme with GHA DISCOVERY in early 2022, the programme will integrate the 10 largest loyalty programmes in the hospitality industry, with over 800 participating hotels from 40 different brands and 20 million members. GHA's global portfolio is continually expanding as existing member brands open new hotels or sign management contracts in new destinations. More independent hotel brands will join us in the future: one to two each year. Our aim is to offer a comprehensive hotel portfolio for a diverse membership database and the expansion of our hotel base gives guests more choice when travelling, knowing that they will be recognised and rewarded in all our hotels. As an example, this month Sun International (South Africa) joined us.

Are there any local exclusivities so that there are not two competing hotels in the same area?
Not at all. Most markets can tolerate multiple hotels, especially large cities or resorts. For example, in Singapore we have several brands and a dozen hotels, and they are all very successful. The different market levels (upscale, upscale and luxury) as well as the business versus resort products allow for further differentiation of hotels in each market.

How do you plan to communicate your programme?
Since we have been communicating about the GHA DISCOVERY redesign, we have seen an increase in opens and clicks, demonstrating that consumers and members are interested in our message, our program and our destinations. This is partly due to a change in our strategy to be less promotional and more editorial in our content, focusing on inspiring our members and consumers.
Customers are individuals who play many roles and have different needs at different times. The challenge - and opportunity - is to develop the framework within which all marketing messages and touch points can adapt and match who they are at that moment, gathering their input as much as possible in the process.
Partnerships continue to be an important factor for us to increase awareness of GHA DISCOVERY and we are working on some interesting partnerships in the future. In addition, we have a number of campaigns planned for 2022 to increase awareness of our programme.

Your alliance status means you don't have to seek profit like other hotel groups and you only charge a 1% commission. What advantage does this have for member hotels that might want to join you?
We are majority owned by our own member brands (Minor, Kempinski, Corinthia and Pan Pacific). So our primary focus is on generating additional revenue for our hotels, rather than maximising profits for the alliance. In good years (e.g. before the pandemic) we make a profit, but historically we have invested much of that profit in improving our products and services, which has improved our performance. The 1% commission you mention is not an actual commission, as such, but it is representative of the total contribution to the alliance on all the revenue that the GHA DISCOVERY programme generates and demonstrates our low cost competitive model. There is no annual fee or fixed charge to participate, so hotels only pay a low and variable performance fee, which makes our business model very attractive and generates a high return on investment for our member brands.

You are also taking an ethical turn. Why are you doing this?
In recognition of the growing consumer demand for more conscious travel, we are working on a special corporate social responsibility programme to help travellers have more meaningful stays. We have started to implement the first initiatives, for example, we will contribute US$1 per booking for bookings made now until 31 December 2021, and made before 30 June 2022. This promotion is applicable to member bookings made on the GHA DISCOVERY website or mobile app. The charities that will receive donations are supported by GHA member hotel brands and encompass multiple causes, including programs dedicated to children, health care and social welfare, environmental protection and animal welfare. We will continue to support local communities and the environment and are working with our brands on many initiatives for 2022 and beyond.

Do you have any feedback from customers on the redesign of the GHA Discovery loyalty programme yet?
It's really too early (two weeks) to give you any feedback since the launch. What we can say is that customers have started earning and redeeming D$, which shows that they are embracing the programme and seeing the benefits and feeling the generosity of the new currency. We hope to have the first formal feedback from customers and the first evaluations of the new programme by the end of the first quarter of 2022.

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About the author

A journalist for 20 years, Guillaume is a fan of exclusive places where comfort, quality of service and gastronomy are combined. All this, tinged with a simplicity and a smile that are the prerogative of the ultimate luxury.

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