Most of us know that rewards programs can attract a different breed of consumer — one who is interested not just in great dining experiences, but also earning toward an ultimate goal. Even among that group, however, there is a small subset of intrepid diners who take this quest to an entirely new level.
Enter the travel hacker. These global explorers have earning rewards down to a science, racking up points and miles to travel around the world. A “Nightline” story from last April highlighted how one such “travel hacker” used Rewards Network’s dining programs to earn rewards for travel, but he isn’t the only one with this strategy.
Three other rewards-seekers — Chris Guillebeau, Stephanie Zito, and Tyler Tervooren from the Travel Hacking Cartel — recently undertook a “dining dash,” visiting 12 Rewards Network program restaurants in Portland, Ore., in a single day in order to fast-track VIP status in their programs.
We caught up with Guillebeau, Zito, and Tervooren at their third stop, Doug Fir Lounge, to hear more about how they use the Rewards Network program, and to learn how restaurant owners can benefit from it.
Guillebeau started his travel hacking quest many years ago, after working with a medical aid group in West Africa. Now, more than 10 years and 193 countries later, he still travels upward of 200,000 miles a year — often on points alone.
To help others learn his travel-savvy ways, Guillebeau started Travel Hackers Cartel, a pay-for-use service that offers its members deal notifications, tips and tricks, and other tools to help them earn as many rewards as possible.
“We all have to eat,” said Guillebeau. “We should earn points and miles for it.”
This leads him to visit Rewards Network program restaurants at least five times a month, and he’s always finding new places to frequent in his travels. And, because he travels so often, he’s always trying new program restaurants around the country.
For Zito, participating in the rewards program not only gets her the rewards she needs to go on vacation, it also can be an integral part of traveling itself.
“I actually did a big road trip when I moved to Portland a year ago and drove across the country,” she said. “ … One of the things I did was, when going through a new city, I would just look it up on my phone and see what [program] restaurants were around and go to those restaurants.”
And for Tervooren? In his case, it’s as simple as “check[ing] the search bar before I head out for an evening or anything.” In this way, choosing program restaurants for the rewards becomes part of making his dining decisions.
Hacking Travel Hackers
So it’s clear they dine more — and earn more rewards — than the average consumer, but what else can restaurant operators do to take advantage of travel hackers who visit their location?
Travel hackers may be tourists, but they’re much more than “one-off” guests.
Travel hackers may be motivated by their quest for rewards, but they also love a good meal — and will return again and again, even if they’re not local.
According to Zito, even when she’s not at home, she seeks out her favorite program restaurants to visit.
“In St. Pete’s in Florida the local coffee shop, Kahwa, is amazing. I always go to that coffee shop over any other mostly because it’s on the program and it’s good coffee,” she said. “There’s also a lot of great little beach bars, so we always pick our beach bar by the app and whatever’s happening. It’s always great to go in with my dad and we all go to the bar and we’re like, ‘We all want to buy our own drinks!’”
The lesson? Treat every diner as if you’re courting him or her to be a regular — even if you know they’re not from the area. Chances are if they liked the experience, travel hackers will become a “vacation regular,” visiting your restaurant every time they find themselves nearby.
Travel hackers love to share their experiences, so make their experience with you worth sharing.
Sure, your staff might feel a twinge of annoyance when they hear every member of that eight-top wants a separate check, but these “travel hackers” can be worth much more than their tab.
These folks have made a lifestyle out of new experiences, and they’ve built a community of followers eager to do the same. You may see them as just another table, but they see this experience as an integral step toward their next trip — or of the trip they’re already on.
“Together, we’re reaching 100,000 people … interested in living unconventionally, having adventures, and doing things differently, and we’re encouraging them to do this,” Guillebeau said.
A great experience at your location not only means you’re more likely to get exposure only these hardcore rewards seekers can offer, it also means they — and their readers — are more likely to come back the next time they’re in the area. And in the case of constant travelers, returning to the area is bound to happen eventually.
Travel hackers may not always spend a lot, but they’ll spend better (and tip well).
Part of travel hacking is dining out — a lot.
”By default, I find myself going [to program restaurants] more often because I know that I can get the points,” said Tervooren. “And sometimes you’ll tip a little bit better because you know you’re making it up on the miles.”
Travel hackers are looking for places to earn — and earn in great quantities. If you give them an above-and-beyond experience, they’ll reward you and your staff in kind.
“A lot of times, it’s not like you want to go to a specific place, you just want to go out,” Zito said. “And you’re always like ‘Where should we go, where should we go?’ And [the dining program] — it just helps me make decisions.”
Special thanks to Sandi Green for being our on-site reporter!