On Monday 19 January 2015 just as I was packing up in the office an email with the title East Coast Rewards: message from East Coast, Stagecoach and Virgin landed in my inbox. It was the first official email from East Coast regarding the closure of the franchise. A copy of this email has been archived here.
The first thing we heard was a well respected loyalty scheme was being scrapped from day one and replaced with a joke of a supermarket scheme, this was not a good impression. Quite a few friends and family started forwarding me the same email asking for my thoughts on it and one encouraged me to take this up as a campaign. After all, even though our chances were small, it was such a good scheme it was worth fighting for.
Unfortunately by the time that email was sent out all the paperwork had been signed and they were committed to Nectar, but we hope Virgin Trains East Coast will review their relationship with Nectar once their contract comes up for renewal. After all, two of Nectar's original founding companies (Barclaycard and Debenhams) pulled out from the partnership when they had the chance.
When Virgin Trains East Coast made their initial announcement it was clear that season ticket holders and business travel agency customers were getting nothing and all those booking online would get is either Nectar or Flying Club points. In the weeks after the initial announcement they promised additional benefits on top of Nectar would be forthcoming as well as points for season ticket holders. It's taking a while to happen but the pieces are falling into place, many customers were sent free tickets and lounge passes over Christmas as a thank you and some season ticket holders were also sent free tickets a couple of months ago. We hope that this is just the start and they will continue to recognise their regular customers throughout the year.
We now have a better dialogue with Virgin Trains East Coast and have meetings every 2-3 months with their Marketing Director who oversees the loyalty schemes, we've also met other key people within Virgin Trains East Coast including David Horne, the MD, as well as various other people including those involved with customer experience, catering, customer relations and press relations.
- When the Nectar contract comes up for renewal encourage Virgin Trains East Coast to do something really innovative in the rewards space, ideally it would incorporate all the franchises owned by Stagecoach (South West Trains, East Midlands Trains and the two Virgin franchises).
- In the short term offer what they can on top of Nectar to provide extra benefits to make passengers feel valued.
- Allow passengers to redeem Flying Club miles for upgrades (like you can do on the plane) as well as lounge passes.
- Offer points (Flying Club at least, you can get Nectar on all travel by booking through FirstGroup) on all bookings, make VirginTrainsEastCoast.com the default place to go to book rail travel once more.
Outside of rewards we also want to ensure Virgin Trains East Coast continues to deliver and improve upon the excellent levels of service we expect on the East Coast Main Line and as regular travellers we'll be keeping an eye on them too. On-board we generally have no issues, except when we have the misfortune to get an ageing EMT HST (one of the trains they're borrowing when they're doing the refurbishment). They scrapped the loyalty scheme immediately, so we did worry that everything would change drastically for the worse when the franchise started. Fortunately they're taking a wait and see approach on board and so the service is very similar to what it was a year ago with a few small improvements such as the addition of their new Hop on Board ale, improved first class menus (except on weekends where it remains rubbish, but still better than what others offer on a weekend), the start of a fleet refurbishment and a refresh of the Kings Cross First Class lounge.