When we had our first meeting with Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) marketing back in 2015 they explained that they wanted to make more use of technology to 'surprise and delight' there most frequent customers as well as offer occasional surprises to others. This has taken a few forms:
- Customers have been sent free tickets, although the last ones I received were given in December 2015, I've been told they were put on hold and may make a return again when the new site comes out of beta
- Customers have been sent lounge passes
- Customers have been given £20 upgrade offers for travel during the week
- Customers have been given bottles of prosecco on board
Initially the bottles of prosecco were handed out mainly by crew if they noticed the customers were celebrating something or it was obvious they'd completed an event like the London Marathon.
On-board crew have now been issued with an app that highlights customers that VTEC would like to see recognised. Potential offers of recognition include upgrading a standard class passenger to first class, a complimentary prosecco and snack and presumably a non-alcoholic alternative for those who don't drink alcohol or like prosecco.
One of the things VTEC said they wanted to do was to get more people booking direct so they could recognise their better customers and technology would allow the on-board team to identify them.
In the recent PlatformX presentation it was mentioned that only 30% of people book direct so they only have data on these customers.
Surprise and delight can help improve perceptions of the brand but it's not a way that's going to encourage more customers to book direct or switch from the train to the plane.
VTEC should keep surprise and delight as it's a nice way to raise a smile, create goodwill and positive association for the brand. It'll be good to see them offering extra (personally I'd rather have a few bottles of Hop on Board to take home than prosecco, but I'd appreciate either) for customers identified as having a lot of bad luck with delays recently.
Surprise and delight can't be used to win over customers from other modes of transport (air, road or other rail operators) and won't keep them using VTEC if someone comes up with a better offering. You can't say to people "book direct and you may get a bottle of prosecco or a lounge pass at some unknown time in the future" and it certainly can't compare with the tiers of the British Airways Executive Club with its defined benefits at every level.
Monitoring Twitter I get the impression that many of those who get the freebies like lounge passes and upgrade offers 'for being a loyal customer' aren't actually the highest spenders but those that are relatively infrequent customers that VTEC thinks can be coaxed to spend more. This makes sense from a marketing perspective but has made train travel less appealing for me.
Under East Coast Rewards I knew when I was travelling standard class but wanted lounge access I could buy a lounge pass for points. With British Airways I know travel will progress me through the tiers and silver or above gets you lounge access even on the cheapest tickets. I also know I can use the Avios points I earn on flights rather than just a few quid off things with Nectar.
As I mentioned in the review where I travelled economy class with BA CityFlyer from Edinburgh, the benefits I get with my frequent flyer status made the journey significantly more pleasant. British Airways have a nice lounge in Edinburgh with a range of food and a wide range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (including champagne on request).
It's not unusual for businesses to have a standard/economy class only policy but still allow their employees to choose between the train and the plane. With the train, if your employer books your tickets through an agency you won't even get the small amount of Nectar points or Flying Club miles, whereas British Airways will give you points regardless of how it was booked and who booked it. Until you reach silver status and get access to the lounge you can also consider using your points to upgrade to business class (Club Europe) that comes with fast track and lounge access.
So if you're a regular standard class traveller on the train every trip will be the same, you won't have lounge access by any means unless you get a surprise lounge pass, there's no way to upgrade on-board using points.
For this comparison I'm looking at British Airways as they have a frequent flyer scheme so the more you travel with them the more benefits you get. If your conpany insists you get the cheapest flight possible to any so called 'London' airport you'll not have the convenience of flying to London City but rather one of the airports miles away from London such as Luton or Stansted then I'd suggest taking the train as flying to one of these not-really-London airports can be a complete nightmare.
Flying to Luton or Stansted (when you're aiming for Central London) really is a nightmare.