Covert Operations: Do Travel Providers Keep Tabs on Us?

The first question I picked out of yesterday’s request or requests comes from Holly.

Do airlines and hotels keep notes on us? And if they do, is that information available to whomever on a flight, with a CS rep or upon check-in?

Not that I’m paranoid or have anything to hide, but I’m just wondering if miles/points whore – nice customer – complainer is ever in the equation.

No. And yes.

Hotels and much better than airlines at individualizing their customer service and getting to know specific guests. And individual hotel properties are much better at this than hotel chains tend to be. But even airlines try to use metrics based on customer behavior to guide the way they interact with customers.

The blunt tool for all of this, of course, is elite status. In some ways that the mass customer method of tracking us and segmenting us into different groups o determine the sort of customer service we’ll receive. You fly a certain number of miles, or stay a certain number of nights, and give your account number each time then the account gets “flagged” based on your frequency. And customer service agents are ‘trained’ to recognize this about you, perhaps thanking you for your loyalty. I certainly get this at the hotel check-in desk regularly, and sometimes onboard.

But that’s not very tailored or individualized, that’s just measuring some generic attributes about your relationship to a chain. You might fly 100,000 miles and do so on deep discount coach fares domestically, or you might buy all international first class tickets. Airlines value the latter customer much more highly than the former one, and they’ve really only just begun to differentiate them.

That said, there are varying degrees which notes can get made and individualization can occur — for better and for worse.

Some individual hotels use social media to research their guests. The more a hotel can get to know you, the better job they can do in customizing the stay. This can be creepy, but if done well it can be cool. On the creepy side back in 2009 I checked into the W Seoul and was directed to a desk where they wanted to take my picture. It was explained they do this with all Starwood Platinums staying for the first time. That way the staff can identify high value guests. Some hotels are much better at putting faces and names together and spreading that information across the staff with a much more discrete process.

Individual hotel properties do get to know their own frequent guests. On a stay a couple of months ago at the Andaz 5th Avenue in New York I mentioned to the staff that I eally liked their coffee. On my next stay at the hotel there was a bag of their coffee beans waiting for me in my suite.

Arilines try to identify high value customers. United got a lot of press when it introduced “Global Services” but the truth is that for years they had a “VIP” program that was much more personalized than the mass market Global Services offering. American has Concierge Key which is about service and assistance during irregular operations mostly. Continental had their “STARS” program before the merger with United. This wasn’t about miles flown, it was mostly about revenue or influence over revenue.

Customer value can be judged in real-time too. American for instance has ‘Eagle’ ratings that they may use to evaluate whether to make exceptions upon request — measuring your economic value as well as their risk of losing you as a customer based on recent disruptions and receipt of complaints.

Notes can be added to reservations. This isn’t about your account and this doesn’t follow you as a part of your ‘permanent record’. Rather a specific reservation might have notes made — you want to make changes, the agent declined to let you, and they might even “document your record” with something like “CUST ADVISED INVALID ROUTING AND ALL CHANGES $150.” When they do that it’s hard to get another agent to make a change for free — or to get the routing you want, even if it’s perfectly valid. But notes like that attach to a specific trip only, not to an account. Once that reservation has expired, you are free to start from scratch and attempt the same thing without much of a trail behind you.

Luxury hotel chains are better at keeping individual customer files and using those notes from property to property. That’s usually likes and dislikes, preferences you may have shared about how you take your coffee, but it can be that you’re a jerk or a heavy tipper. This really isn’t going to apply to your typical Hilton hotel.

But most hotel chains generally don’t have flags in profiles like “take extra special care of this guest” above and apart from their status. And it amazes me that they don’t. The number of bad stays that I have certainly underscores that they’re not looking out for me due to any social media that I may do.

In general, travel providers try to customize as much as possible at least for their highest value customers. But the attempts are usually quite primitive.

Occasionally a very heavy complainer will get singled out and possibly even “fired” as a customer. That’s the case with the Rabbi whose Northwest Worldperks account was closed for complaining too much. His case is headed to the Supreme Court. But that wasn’t due to notes going into his account.

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I have experienced a little of the creepy factor. I was staying long term (25)days at 5 star Taj property in India for work. They kept wanting to meet with me to discuss my preferences and take my picture, but I kept ducking them. I still got over the top service. It also did not hurt that I hung out in the lounge with a coworker who had been there for 6 months so the entire staff knew her.

  2. You may not know the answer to this, but I’ve been wondering about the discussions some bloggers offer about booking trips with extra legs that you throw away at the end rather than traveling them. I fully understand that there are many legitimate circumstances that may interrupt a trip short of conclusion, but some bloggers propose to book these legs intentionally with no plans to fly them from the outset, because some quirk in the system provides for a mileage savings by doing so. Do the airlines track who does that; i.e., fails to fly the full trip booked? If so, the strategy is a much higher risk proposition than if not.

  3. It’s obvious, but there’s no question individual properties (the good ones, anyway) do their best to get to know their most frequent customers. I stay 4 nights a week (3 weeks a month) at a Hyatt House property in Redmond, and the staff all know me by name, all know what room I want and ensure I get it, and know what my needs are and ensure they’re met without any need for me to prompt them. I’ve gotten to know all of them (Ruben, Amber, Emma, Vince, Angie, Elise, and Tim and Scott in management) and they’ve gotten to know me. It makes a frequent hotel destination a home-away-from-home, which is a huge win for the business traveler.

  4. On a related note, there IS lots of data-mining (and potentially data-sharing/-selling, depending on privacy policies and TOS)that happens with many providers of mileage management and itinerary management tools. They offer a convenience, but for those sensitive about such data (and its distribution), be aware of the possible tradeoffs.

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