Cathay Pacific’s sweeping changes to its Marco Polo Club loyalty program are a rather mixed bag, with benefits for travellers both in the cheapest economy seats and those frequently flying at the pointy end in business class, or even first class, with free upgrades for the airline’s top passengers.
But with the good, there’s always the not-so-good: Diamond members lose ‘anytime access’ to Cathay Pacific lounges, while the tiers themselves become harder to reach for passengers on the less-expensive tickets or when jetting about on Cathay’s Oneworld airline partners such as Qantas.
Australian Business Traveller spoke with Julian Lyden: Cathay Pacific’s General Manager Marketing, Loyalty Programmes and Customer Relationships Management to understand the airline’s rationale behind the revamp.
Updating Marco Polo Club for modern travel patterns
Throughout the decision process, “we were looking at three things,” Lyden shares.
Firstly, “what we wanted to do with the (Marco Polo) Club from our own internal point of view, then we were looking at the best practices in the industry to make sure we were competitive – and actually, if possible, exceeding what was going on elsewhere.
“Then, of course thirdly, we were engaging with our member base.”
Triggering the overhaul was a realisation that with many new long-haul routes in Cathay’s network – including from Hong Kong to Newark (New York), Zurich and Dusseldorf – “the way members earn status no longer accurately reflects their contribution to the airline,” its website reads.
Transition to Club Points from Club Miles/Sectors
Arguably the most complex aspect of the revised program are ‘Club Points’, which replace both ‘Club Miles’ and ‘Club Sectors’ to determine how you progress through the ranks of Silver, Gold and Diamond status.
Lyden explains that while “the old system did take into account cabin class (such as business class or first class), it didn’t take into account the specific fare class” to differentiate passengers on full-fare business class tickets from those on discounted business class sale fares, for example.
The new system does just that – rewarding higher-paying passengers more than lower-paying passengers – but also provides an opportunity for guests booking cheaper tickets in economy to potentially accrue Marco Polo Club status for the first time.
“We felt that this was a much more balanced approach,” Lyden continues. “The current system of status accumulation was worked out when Cathay was a lot smaller… and so a system – a grid – based on sectors (or mileage) is no longer accurate for everybody’s purposes.”
“We wanted to change the accumulation grid so that we were properly recognising the contribution of the customer.”
Priority boarding: still a Marco Polo Club perk
One privilege oft-discussed during the consideration phase was priority boarding for entry-level Green members, who can currently pay just US$50 to join the program and to use the very same boarding lanes as business class passengers and frequent flyers for an entire year.
During peak times at Hong Kong Airport those priority boarding lanes can realistically become just as long as the general queue, so we asked Lyden how Cathay Pacific plans to better-manage the airport experience for its top-tier guests while avoiding an impact to entry-level Green members.
“That’s one of those ‘watch this space’ things: something that we’re constantly reviewing in order to provide that premium experience for all of our Club members, regardless of tier.”
However, in a first step, the cost of Marco Polo Club Green membership will increase to US$100 in April 2016 – payable by first-time members when joining the program or existing members who fail to notch up at least 100 Club Points in their membership year.
At the other end of the frequent flyer food chain, Lyden would not be drawn on changes to the by-invitation Diamond Plus tier.
“Diamond Plus membership is a bit like the UK’s MI6: everybody knows it exists but we don’t talk about what exactly it involves,” Lyden quips.
Also read: Cathay Pacific overhauls Marco Polo Club
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