Flying Club update

West Coast slashes loyalty benefits

On 5th July 2017 Virgin Trains (the west coast one) decided to make big cutbacks to two of their loyalty schemes while making no changes to those who collect Nectar points.

Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles cut by 50%

An email was sent by Virgin Trains to customers who have chosen to collect Flying Club points you can see the full email here.

The key points from the email are:

  • From 1 August 2017 Virgin Trains will give Flying Club points at a rate of 1 mile per pound spent. The current rate is 2 miles per pound.
  • This rate applies to all journeys taken from the 1st August even if they were booked before this notification.
  • The email is not clear whether it applies also to Virgin Trains East Coast, the only mention that the email was sent from West Coast is the legal information in the footer.

We're still waiting for confirmation from Virgin Trains East Coast as to whether they're following suit, no one in customer relations or social media at VTEC is aware of any changes and we have asked their marketing team for a comment and will update this site when we find out more.

What does seem odd though is recently marketing email from Virgin Trains West Coast have started putting 'West Coast' clearly on the header, but this Flying Club email did not. Below is an example of a recent email that was sent out which clearly indicates it's from the West Coast franchise, as Flying Club is offered by both Virgin franchises they should make the point clearer if it only affects West Coast.

Traveller benefits continue to get worse

Fewer people will know about Traveller but for those that qualified it used to be a very generous loyalty scheme. It was only for their highest spending customers as you needed to travel first class eight times in a 90 day period or have a first class season ticket. There was minimum spends on these tickets so the cheapest advance tickets would not qualify. Some of the benefits included priority parking, priority seating and a free alcoholic drink in the Euston first class lounge but the main reason the scheme was attractive was the free first class travel for two when going away for a weekend. The definition of a weekend was generous, you could travel out on Friday and back on Monday which made them ideal for those who wanted a weekend away. The first cutback they made to the scheme was to stop travelling in the Friday and Monday peaks, this is somewhat understandable but did mean that you could no longer travel straight after work and then on Monday travel back on a breakfast train in time for work.

The change they announced now is that there's no longer any free travel on Friday or Monday which makes the scheme less useful. These changes will be coming in September as the terms and conditions of the scheme require 60 days notice.

For at least one high spending West Coast commuter this may be the straw that broke the camels back. He has been happy in the past to pay a significant premium (around £5k per year) for a first class season tickets but has seen many benefits eroded over time including cuts to catering, removing the quiet coach and the cut backs to the loyalty scheme. He's published his latest complaint to Virgin Trains.

As a gesture of goodwill it would have made sense for Virgin Trains to have not changed the Traveller benefits for existing members until their membership expired. Whatever the rules say it's unfair to promise one thing and then deliver another.

No change to Nectar

From what we can see there's been no change to Nectar earnings announced (although if they cut Nectar earnings it would make them on par with Sainsbury's who cut theirs in 2015), in fact over the last few months there's been an increase in bonus points offered to Nectar users including an offer that was emailed out the day after the cutbacks to the other two schemes.

VTWC sale

So they're offering 1000 points (worth £5) for booking a ticket in their sale where the cheapest fare is £5. Whereas with the changes announced to Flying Club you'll only get 5 miles for the same fare! It does seem that Virgin Trains West Coast is trying to do all they can to push Nectar and neglect those who choose to participate in other schemes.

It's all about the money

The email sent out about the Flying Club changes was signed by Mark Ford, the Loyalty Manager at Virgin Trains West Coast. I was interested in what this job entailed and his LinkedIn profile was the first result on Google. For his current role at Virgin Trains the paragraph about Flying Club and Traveller was interesting:

In Mar’17, successfully defined a methodology to measure the retrospective, incremental revenue from two of VT’s loyalty programmes; Traveller & Atlantic’s Flying Club. This first view of incremental performance since the programmes were launched, will help ensure the right future strategy is delivered, with the potential for significant cost savings.

These significant cost savings must have been what have now been delivered.

But there appears to be no cost cutting going on with Nectar, he was more positive about that:

Optimised the performance of Nectar; developed the strategy, introduced personalised trigger campaigns, and a reporting dashboard which identified new revenue opportunities. YOY drove a 61% increase in the number of customers collecting points, and an 18% increase in incremental revenue.

Now I don't know if a 61% increase in customers collecting points is impressive or whether most customers previously didn't bother but decided to dig out their card for some of the more recent bonus offers. Perhaps if they offered Flying Club customers bonus offers and promotions like they offered with Nectar they'd see a much bigger take up. It's worth remembering that the Virgin Trains customer panel rated their current loyalty offer as poor and so I can't see how these changes can increase satisfaction.

Conclusion

Even if this earning cut doesn't affect East Coast it's still a bad sign for the future direction of recognition within the two companies. Virgin Trains West Coast has offered Flying Club miles for years, even before they partnered with Nectar. The amount of miles you could earn on rail travel never compared to the amount you could earn when flying an airline with a frequent flyer scheme and now it's going to be even less competitive.

Despite being part of the 'Virgin Family' and significantly more valuable than Nectar for those who use Virgin Atlantic it has always felt that Flying Club was always treated as second class to Nectar. It's rare that you get a bonus miles offer for rail spend, whereas Nectar have been offering a number of promotions for both East and West Coast. Even the best Nectar promotions are nowhere near as generous as East Coast Rewards but it's bad that those who chose Flying Club have got very few bonuses, I can't remember a single one in 2017.

Virgin Atlantic has a major competitor, British Airways, you may know Richard Branson is a little obsessed with trying to outdo them. British Airways has the advantage of a short haul route network, you can earn Avios (miles) and Tier Points flying them on domestic routes that compete with both of the Virgin Trains franchises. Surely it benefits Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Trains to work closer together? Give those that fly Virgin long haul a reason to use the train for their domestic trips and give regular Virgin Trains users a reason to use Virgin Atlantic for their holidays.

Even the way Flying Club is integrated with the franchises is confusing:

  • The key rule is you must book on the correct site for the franchise: virgintrains.com for West Coast and virgintraineastcoast.com for East Coast, book on the wrong site and no miles for you!
  • If you're on the West Coast website and try and book an East Coast journey it may offer (in simple cases) to redirect you to the East Coast site
  • This redirect does not work in anything but the simplest of cases so one journey you may be redirected to the East Coast site (and earn miles) other times you may not be (no miles)
  • The mobile app 'Virgin Trains' is west coast so you won't get miles for an East Coast journey booked through this app
  • On East Coast the rule is at least part of your journey must be on Virgin Trains East Coast to earn miles (same as Nectar), on West Coast the rule is the whole journey has to be on Virgin Trains so if you include a connection then there's no miles
  • The new Virgin Trains East Coast beta site 'helpfully' displays a Virgin Trains logo regardless of whether the train is East Coast (earns miles) or West Coast (doesn't). Select the wrong train and you'll get nothing! On routes where both franchises operate (London-Edinburgh/Glasgow) this can cause confusion as shown below.

VTEC logos

So it's a complete mess and a complete contrast to the good old days of East Coast Rewards:

  • Any train ticket, for any rail operator booked on eastcoast.co.uk used to earn East Coast Rewards points.
  • Points were also earned on extras purchased online such as Plusbus and catering vouchers.

Now to get points it's needlessly complicated and the points are much less useful. You would think that if two companies are going to share a brand they would at least try and offer a consistent and rewarding experience!