On 1st March 2015 Virgin Trains East Coast took over the running of the InterCity East Coast franchise from the imaginatively titled but extremely rewarding East Coast. The biggest change at the start of the franchise was the removal of East Coast Rewards which was the most generous loyalty programme in the UK and replaced it with a choice of Nectar or Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Our comparison chart shows what a poor alternative Nectar is, as for Flying Club it's a better option if you also collect Flying Club points from other sources but if your only source of points is rail travel you'll also find that scheme less that ideal.
For those of you that are new to our campaign, before Virgin took over the franchise, we were aware that there were plans to scrap the rewards scheme and replace with Nectar. We have been campaigning since Virgin took over to try and get them to reconsider the loyalty schemes on offer for customers as Nectar simply doesn’t cut it.
There were over 670,000 previous rewards members, yet none of them were consulted about replacing the existing programme. Quite simply, when the bid went through, the loyalty scheme was not properly considered which is why so many customers were unhappy about this. Virgin have listened to us and since we began the campaign they know that they need to take customer loyalty more seriously and we continue to work with them to push for better customer recognition.
Despite the lack of rewards there's a lot of positives. The biggest commitment to improving customer relations was the announcement that they're bringing customer services back in house after East Coast outsourced it in 2011. Hopefully this will improve response times and offer more personal responses. They also plan to have updated systems in place for customer relations to be able to identify high value customers so we hope recognition will improve once all this is rolled out. Rewards for season ticket holders and business travel agency bookings still have not been rolled out but we've been assured they're still in the pipeline but are taking longer than expected as it's dependent on the roll out of their new systems.
Other recent developments are the refurbishment of the first class lounges and the refurbishment of the fleet. It's the first time in over ten years that most of the lounges have had a refurbishment, National Express made cutbacks and East Coast never undone them (except in London) so the lounges were well overdue a refresh. For those in Peterborough they've arranged a lounge in the Great Northern Hotel across the road from the station and they're looking at lounge provision in other stations along the route that don't have a lounge.
Other new additions were the Hop on Board ale, improved first class evening meal menus and a new wine selection in first class. The most important thing is staff morale is still high, David Horne (MD of Virgin Trains East Coast) made an effort to meet as many people as possible even before the franchise started and it's meant that the on-board teams continue to deliver the good service they're known for. When National Express took over morale dropped quite quickly and was only restored when East Coast replaced them.
Whatever happens the next year is going to be interesting. We'll be around to keep an eye on things and try our best to make sure on board standards are maintained or improved as well as keep pushing for better rewards.
What about Nectar?
We believe signing up to Nectar was a mistake, but looking at the press releases shows that the agreement with Nectar was made at the bid stage before the current management team was appointed. This means that it's likely that they're unable to get out of the agreement easily so it's important that we keep the awareness up at how poor Nectar is (it's not just poor for travel rewards, it's poor overall). Hopefully we can stop any new rail franchises making the mistake of going with Nectar and get Virgin Trains East Coast to drop the scheme at the earliest opportunity.
We've looked at other companies such as Barclaycard and Debenhams who adopted Nectar and dropped it because it wasn't working out for them. None of the companies who've ditched Nectar have admitted that signing up for Nectar was a mistake presumably due to their contract with Nectar. Just because Virgin Trains East Coast don't say anything bad about Nectar doesn't mean they're happy with the decision.
We will continue our efforts to show how Nectar is a poor deal and also highlight better options to Nectar for earning rewards in other areas.