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.
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.