A Big Change At Hyatt Reinforces The Difference Between Membership And Loyalty

Last week was a bit of a stunner for me.  I was sitting in a meeting in Des Moines, Iowa.  It was late in the day and I’d been ignoring my e-mail a bit as the presentations stretched on.  We hit a bit of a lull and I looked down at my phone to check e-mail.  Then, I stood up and walked out of the room.

I had received an e-mail that Jeff Zidell, the guy responsible for the Hyatt loyalty program, was leaving the company.  My first thought wasn’t, “What’s going to happen to World of Hyatt?” or “I wonder if this is because of something to do with the recent program changes.”

It was simply, “Sh*#.  I wonder if Jeff’s okay?”

I’m a big fan of Hyatt.  I’m a much bigger fan of Jeff.

The first time I met Jeff was back in late 2010/2011 as best I can recall (jeebus, this sounds like a eulogy).  I was introduced to Jeff and Rene Mizwicki, his lieutenant at Hyatt Gold Passport.  Hyatt was supporting a number of community events, including MegaDOs and the launch of Milepoint.  Hyatt was so instrumental in supporting those events.

Over the next couple of years I would have the opportunity to spend time with Jeff.  In the beginning, I saw an approachable guy running a major hotel chain’s loyalty program.  Approachable isn’t normally something you find in airline executives, at least not if you’re a blogger and all-around travel nut.

But, what really made me want to spend more time with Jeff was his ability to empower his employees and empathize with his customers.  Check out Jeff’s Twitter feed and you’ll find a smattering of conversations with program members/fans.  You’ll also find him quoting posts from others with phrases like, “Empathy is the hard part”, “Who are we seeking to become?” and “Great leaders don’t try to be perfect. Great leaders try to be themselves. And that’s what makes them great.”

I’ve been drawn to Jeff as a leader.  He sets the tone for a program and a hotel chain that has prided itself on delivering on their promises to customers.  Tone is very important when it comes to having far-flung employees consistently provide service.  Along with being a great brand steward, Jeff also set the tone as a great human being.  After all, you won’t see this from just any executive:

 

I can recall a conversation in 2012 where he was speaking to media members.  Somehow, the folks at Hyatt lumped me in that crowd and let me sneak into the room.  Hyatt had just released their co-branded credit card.  Folks were wondering what Hyatt’s next step was in monetizing their loyalty program.

Jeff understood the question and took it in stride.  Driving incremental revenue is the name of the game with travel companies, and pretty much all publicly-held companies.  Jeff’s answer wasn’t what I expected.  I won’t pretend to remember the exact quote, but Jeff’s answer was that Hyatt saw the value of their loyalty program as a way to create greater loyalty with their customers.  They didn’t want to find more ways to sell points.  They wanted to find a way to create stronger relationships with their customers.

Jeff created loyalty at Hyatt.  From his team and from their customers.  I was speaking with a close friend who also knows Jeff.  They said that part of the reason they stayed at Hyatt hotels was because of Jeff.  Another close friend says that he looks for a hotel chain to provide clean, comfortable rooms and great service.  He’ll continue to patronize Hyatt as long as they uphold their values.

Here’s the distinction between membership and loyalty.  I’m a member of many loyalty programs.  That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m loyal.  When you consider how much loyalty has changed over the years, it’s not hard to understand that many business travelers are free agents.  After all, the airline industry has been moving to revenue-based earning structures.  Now, it’s not a matter of how many trips, but how much you spend.

I was a loyal Starwood Preferred Guest customer for many years until I discovered Hyatt.  At first, my relationship with Hyatt was small.  But, as they continued to deliver on a consistent basis, my relationship expanded.

Celebrating My Lifetime Hyatt Status

Celebrating My Lifetime Hyatt Status

Then, I got to know Jeff.  From that point forward, my search for hotels started with Hyatt.  For every trip.  I’m fiercely loyal to the brand, and to the team behind the loyalty program.  When I think of how Jeff engages with members, I’m reminded of Maya Liebman.  She ran the AAdvantage program a few years back, and continues as the Chief Information Officer at AA.  She wrote an open letter to frequent travelers at one point, noting that she assumed we were those kids who took apart our mom’s toasters.  They both share a deep understanding of their customer.  That’s a vital skill in the travel industry.

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a few days now.  Now that I’ve finally written it, it’s way more “stream of consciousness” than I expected.  But, we’ve arrived at my point.  I’m a member of World of Hyatt.  The program is rewarding and I enjoy many of the hotels I stay at.  I’m loyal because of Jeff Zidell.

That’s an important distinction.  I’m confident I give Hyatt the benefit of the doubt, because of Jeff.  When Hyatt rolled out their new program a few months ago, I heard from Jeff.  He asked me my thoughts on some of the early reaction.  He listened, offered his rationale on some of the changes, and the discussion continued.  It was an open exchange of ideas.  I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only one who had a conversation like that with Jeff.  That level of engagement is so rare.

Hyatt has a massive task in front of them.  They need to fill the shoes of someone who is so unique, an empathetic leader who surely made his team stronger.  A leader like that makes people want to work with them, to be a part of something.  You could say it’s the difference between a job and a career.

There will be a new head of loyalty at Hyatt.  That person will almost certainly come from outside the team that Jeff built.  That’s a common practice in the business world.  But, there’s still a mission, one that Hyatt needs to work at harder than their competitors given their smaller footprint.  Does this departure result in “mission creep” or a loss of that vision?

World of Hyatt is big change for customers.  This is precisely the time it needs a strong leader that team members and customers can connect with.

I’m left wondering where Hyatt goes from here.

28 Comments

  1. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Jeff. However, my time as a Diamond member of the superb HYATT program, has certainly been enjoyed because of how he set the quality of the stay experience and interaction with guests. The standards set in recognising my business was something much appreciated. I decided 3 years ago that it was going to be a HYATT stay, no matter what, if there was something in town.
    Then WOH came about. No matter how I try, I cannot find 60 nights, over the course of a year, within such a minute footprint. I recently spent 3 weeks in Spain and was then heading on to Italy for another week. Sadly zero properties other than the PH Milan. 27 nights and not a single property within 370 miles.

    As an SPG Gold, through both SPG cc spending and AmEx Plat., it was a no brainier to use the new Marriott/Starwood umbrella. Thanks to Dia Wesley Adams blog, I also learned about and so signed up for, the 9 stay Platinum challenge. I need one more stay and will satisfy it next week. Platinum from there on out.
    Having stayed at an assortment of brands during the trip, I was pleasantly impressed by my upgrades and and most of the properties. Especially impressed with the AC brand and would favour it in a head to head, with HP.

    I do have a few more trips that will afford me at least another 50 nights this year. No matter how I try, qualifying under the current WOH rules, without a mattress run, is not going to happen. In fact the chances are very good that this year will be my final dollars spent with Hyatt, since lesser status with them is hardly incentive enough.

    Too much to hope that Jeff is heading for Marriott and improving that culture.

    1. I wouldn’t hope he is going to Marriott until we find out if WOH was HIS idea or merely forced on him by above. If his idea, God help us if he ends up anywhere else.

  2. You obviously have to wonder if the negative changes that came with the new program were contrary enough to his nature that he just decided to move on to a place more in tune with his values. If so, it’s pretty ominous for the vast majority of loyalty members. It can’t have been fun for him to defend a program that he probably didn’t like.

  3. His leaving Hyatt has been reported extensively and it seem that the bloggers feel the most pain that he is leaving Hyatt and are boohooing about it the most. Why? Probably because they benefited the most from his openness and communication with that community. Us regular folks are on the fence about his departure as no one knows for sure if it was Jeff who came up with the pile that is called WOH or if the changes and implementation of it were dictated to him from above. If he was merely the messenger than I wish him all the best in the future. If he thought up WOH then I say good riddance.

    1. Christian, I’ve seen him have a very open level of communication with plenty of folks who weren’t bloggers. I’m in the same boat as you, though. I’m not sure how much of these changes were Jeff’s idea versus others. But, I do think you’ll find the other loyalty programs spell out changes that are along the lines of what Hyatt has done. The only reason I think Marriott hasn’t acted yet is because of the SPG acquisition.

  4. 1. That logo
    2. Those tier names
    3. Ripping the 1k point check-in bonus
    4. Achievement bonus nights that expire practically before you can open the email
    5. 60 nights vs 25 stays

    If he had anything to do with the above then what is there to really say ?

    Ps – if you and all the other bloggers are so bff-tight and elephant teary with/about Jeff, then how come not ONE blogger can categorically say whether he left or was asked to leave ? For however well you all thought you knew him, he obviously didn’t feel the same way if nobody has any idea to what extent WOH was his. Not snark Ed, just observation.

    1. I think it was confirmed on FT that he did indeed initiate the departure. However everyone in management jobs knows that terminology can be negotiated as part of a termination as well if both parties don’t want to look bad.

    2. TruthMaster, love the handle! Most of the changes benefit a heavy business traveler like myself. So, I’m not as upset as some folks about the changes. I don’t find your comments snarky, but I can’t add anything to why Jeff is leaving.

    3. Well, okay. I can add one thing. There’s no way that the selective few of us who are value-junkies are enough to drive decisions at a chain. I’d be surprised if most customers even know there was a big change to the program at this point. I still have people asking me if SPG merged with Marriott.

  5. Ed, I agree with you. I think the world of Jeff (not World of Hyatt, ha ha). I was also shocked when I heard the news last week. I have no idea why he’s leaving (left) Hyatt, but I will continue to support him. I believe in things working out for the best, and am confident (or at least very hopeful) that something very positive will come from all of this.

    I am bothered when I read about people trashing him – but that’s 50% free speech, and 50% flyertalk.

    He’s a good runner. So, he and I have decided that he should try to break the 2 hour marathon barrier and become a professional runner.

  6. I have heard you, and many others talk about what a great guy he is……..

    I also remember participating and reading the disastrously bad AMA on reddit where loyal hyatt customers became mere participants in a membership program.

    1. Paul, I think they were way over their skis on the Reddit chat. I wouldn’t judge him on one bad decision by marketing folks to push out a message on a channel that didn’t fit their purpose. I’m not the only one that thinks he’s a great guy. There’s good reason behind that.

  7. Me and my family would like to thank Mr. Zidell for the following:

    – “The Big Welcome” Sweepstakes in 2009
    – FFN promo
    – double status credits for night stays 2009
    – Hyatt 20% discount certs at Costco
    – the numerous challenges for Diamond and the many status matches
    – Breakfast for up to 4 guests (Diamonds)
    – Unlimited suite upgrades even when there was no DSU availability
    – etc. etc. etc.

    Back in early 2009, I participated in Hyatt’s “The Big Welcome Sweepstakes” becoming a Hyatt Gold Passport (HGP) member for the first time and was selected as a winner of one night stay at any Hyatt property worldwide. In July 2009, I had a visit to Bangkok and used this free night … WOW! I was blown away by the great treatment, the room, and other amenities. I was given 4 one hundred Baht F&B vouchers by the concierge who I never met before to use at any hotel outlet. I tried to pay for these vouchers to no avail as he refused to take my money saying that they were not for sale. The butler service for continental breakfast from 6-10 AM was a great benefit for lowly Gold members such as myself at the time. Those are very small gestures but good enough to get my loyalty. That winter I did my mattress run (using the Costco certificates) and got my Hyatt Diamond status plus earning 9 nights at any Hyatt plus around 50K HGP points … and the rest is history.

    Thank you Mr. Zidell and thanks to all bloggers for the heads up about the promos, shortcuts, and hacking loopholes!

  8. Few know if World of Hyatt was his idea. However, he will always be known as the guy who took the program from first to worst.

    Message to whoever takes over:
    Send a message: “We heard you.”
    Make immediate changes:
    Bring back the Diamond amenity on arrival.
    Take if from 60 nights required to 50 nights.
    Get rid of the stupid tier names

    And bring them back with a rerun of the greatest promotion ever:
    Faster Free Nights

    1. Oh and if I could win Powerball this weekend that would be great too! If it was his idea and they are suffering I would anticipate some reversals or corrections but then again who knows.

  9. Good article Ed. Jeff’s departure is a sad day for all Hyatt loyalty members. We will all miss him, & as you said, not just because of his efforts on Hyatt’s behalf, but for the good man he is; for that, I wish him well in his life & future endeavors. Who knows, maybe Google asked him to come back!

  10. Just heard the news about JZ’s exit, I believe I’ve stayed about 5+ years at Hyatt’s around the world and along the journey Jeff dropped me a line about something and then we started communicating on LinkedIn. The timing around the WOH roll out may be beyond coincidental, but wherever he moves with will certainly find themselves an excellent senior marketing executive, who stays very close to his customer base. A lot of push back from friends here in Asia whom are Lifetime Diamond, they thought the new tier names were silly (they are) and their footprint just isn’t large enough to increase minimum nights. Still, their club lounges at Bangkok, Taipei and Grand Hong Kong have got to be experienced to be believed, we’ll see how the GH Manila does when they open shortly.

    1. David, I really do enjoy hearing stories about people that connected with Jeff in the way that you and I did. I’ll be keenly interested in where he ends up. And, I need to knock out some more of those Asia properties. I really enjoyed GH Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

  11. Jeff was my Client when he ran AAdvantage. In addition to knowing how to treat loyal travelers, he was very fair and motivating to his business partners. It feels to me like he’s made a positive mark on the entire travel industry. Maybe he’ll return to the airline side of the business to lead its next evolution.

  12. Thanks for writing this. I, too, am a fan of Jeff’s and worked for a partner/supplier of Hyatt’s Gold Passport program for many years before retiring recently. Jeff was terrific to work with; always open to ideas and always an insightful contributor in a brainstorm. He never acted like a superior, rather always a member of a broad team who sought to do the Hyatt customers and the Hyatt brand
    well. Jeff is a pro and I have no doubt he will succeed in anything he chooses to do. Best wishes Jeff!

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