Innovation can be a buzzword associated with anything deemed “new,” yet in the world of travel, this can often apply to simple twists on existing features or slightly modified takes on a popular concept.
Then, there are changes that truly mark a brand-new approach. At this year’s TPG Awards, we took the opportunity to recognize several brands that have done just that over the last year.
Here are the winners of our series of Innovation Awards, as selected by TPG’s editorial team.
Innovation Award: Credit Cards
Winner: Bilt Mastercard/Bilt Rewards
It’s not often that we see entirely new rewards programs, and when we do, they often come with restrictions or limitations that pale in comparison to established players like American Express and Chase.
However, the Bilt Rewards program has changed that concept. It took a simple idea (earning points by paying rent) and ran with it. Even though it first hit the scene in 2021, things really took off in the past year thanks to the public launch of the Bilt Mastercard® plus the summer release of the Bilt Travel Portal.
It’s not just the breadth and depth of Bilt’s transfer partners that stands out. It remains the only currency to transfer directly to American Airlines, and recent announcements clearly show that Bilt is not done innovating. You can now earn double points (up to 10,000 bonus points) for non-rent purchases on the first of every month, and it launched a limited-time status challenge with United Airlines in October (since expired). The Bilt card even offers extensive perks as a World Elite Mastercard with no annual fee (see rates and fees). See here for more information on Bilt’s rewards and benefits.
Ultimately, the program became more robust and valuable in 2022, offering a genuinely competitive credit card and points program — and we’re excited to see if more is on the way next year.
—By Ryan Smith
Editor’s note: TPG founder, Brian Kelly, is a Bilt advisor and investor.
Innovation Award: Loyalty
ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY
Winner: American Airlines Loyalty Points
When American Airlines launched its new Loyalty Points elite qualification metric in March, the airline presented American Airlines AAdvantage members with nearly endless ways to qualify for elite status. For many travelers, including much of TPG’s staff, that was intriguing.
At a high level, American redesigned its loyalty program to reward status on everyday purchases. While AAdvantage members had long been able to earn miles from various avenues — American’s suite of cobranded credit cards, the airline’s shopping portal and elites double dipping on Hyatt stays, to name a few — these activities now counted toward elite qualification. As a result, staffers like Nick Ewen and Andrew Kunesh were able to leverage this new approach to reach American status without extensive flying.
By introducing Loyalty Points, the airline has been able to align its revenue priorities with customers who want to earn status. While revenue requirements have been around for a number of years, this entirely new approach of recognizing miles earned from virtually all sources is clearly innovative — and thus deserving of this honor.
—By Kyle Olsen
Innovation Award: Aviation
KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY
Winner: United Club Fly
In November, United launched a grab-and-go lounge concept for United Club members out of its Denver International Airport (DEN) hub, an airport where about two-thirds of United passenger traffic is making a connection. United Club Fly offers members and international Star Alliance Gold travelers complimentary nonalcoholic beverages (including a fashionable coffee bar with matcha lattes) and prepackaged food featuring local Colorado companies like Noosa yogurt.
During my initial visit, I was impressed with several design elements of the lounge, including the faux fireplace that gives a warm, fuzzy feeling and the heavy wooden beams on the roof, which give you the impression that you’re meandering about a ski chalet. United also uses subway-style entry gates, where customers can scan their boarding passes to enter without having to speak with a United agent.
Airport lounge overcrowding is a significant problem, but at major hubs, many passengers may not have time to linger at a club. That’s what makes United Club Fly so innovative — and is leading me to seriously consider getting the United Club℠ Infinite Card so I’ll have a United Club membership that grants me access.
—By Kyle Olsen
Innovation Award: Lodging
SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY
Winner: Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser
At a moment in time when many hotels are trying their hands at being more immersive and becoming part of the destination itself (rather just than a place to shower, sleep and perhaps grab breakfast), there’s one new concept that leaves traditional properties in the (space) dust when it comes to total immersion.
Disney World’s very expensive Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser may be offhandedly referred to as the “Star Wars Hotel,” but that is a significant underrepresentation of what happens inside the nondescript, 100-room building that sits just behind Disney’s Hollywood Studios. A more apt description may compare it to a two-night cruise on a simulated spaceship with plenty of character meet-and-greets and otherworldly experiences. That’s because this journey takes place on a living stage where every single detail — down to your drinks, cabin, shower and in-room droid — are all themed and help keep the story alive 24 hours a day.
While you might think the main draw of an immersive “Star Wars”-themed hotel would be all the cool tech, what makes this property a groundbreaking lodging concept is that it offers so much more than clever effects. It’s an experience unlike any other thanks to the characters you interact with and the genuine emotions enjoyed inside.
From the moment you arrive via a transport that lifts you into “space” to evenings spent watching jumps through hyperspace from your bed to the climactic finale, you will feel as if you’re directly in the “Star Wars” universe. It’s a reimagined take on the traditional hotel experience that truly is innovative, as you won’t find anything like it anywhere else.
—By Summer Hull
Innovation Award: Cruises
Winner: Viking Cruises, The Hangar
One of the fastest-growing segments of travel right now is expedition cruises to polar regions. Offered on small, hardy cruise vessels that carry their own landing craft, these voyages offer a chance to see things that most people never get to see, from massive penguin colonies in Antarctica to roaming polar bears in the Arctic. But, until now, they’ve been a tough sort of trip for anyone with mobility issues to plan, as the landing craft that expedition ships use to take passengers out on polar adventures can be difficult to board.
Enter Viking Cruises, which has come up with an innovation that is destined to truly transform the polar cruise experience for a wide swath of older and less mobile travelers. On Viking’s two new expedition cruise ships, Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris, passengers with mobility issues can board a specially designed excursion boat from the comfort and safety of an enclosed marina that is inside the ship and shielded from wind and waves — an industry first. The boat then exits the ship via an 85-foot-long slipway.
This approach offers a welcome departure from the traditional way of boarding an excursion boat from an expedition ship, which involves stepping through a small door at the side of the vessel to step onto a boat that’s already exposed to the elements and bobbing in the waves.
The enclosed marinas on Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris, called The Hangar, give passengers the opportunity to explore on and below the water’s surface in new ways, too. Because The Hangar can accommodate more equipment accessible indoors, cruisers can check out their surroundings via kayaks, Zodiac boats and even submarines (amazingly, for no extra charge), offering increased accessibility for an experience that was previously difficult for many.
—By Gene Sloan
Innovation Award: Travel
ASHLEY ONADELE/THE POINTS GUY
Winner: Malama Hawaii
Like many travelers, I’d canceled trips in 2020 and was hoping to make them happen sometime in the future when travel returned to more normal operations. But as I kept up with world events, I was intrigued by news of dolphins returning to Venice, Italy, and Australia‘s Great Barrier Reef healing itself after years of overtourism. It got me thinking seriously about sustainable travel and how I would traverse the globe differently after COVID-19.
One place on my mind was Hawaii, a trip I’d planned on taking but had to cancel at the height of the pandemic. Hawaii had shuttered its borders and took a careful, measured approach to reopening as conditions improved. Using the temporary pandemic closure to reassess tourism in the Hawaiian Islands, the Aloha State set in motion a drastic new approach to tourism that would promote better behavior and more respect for the islands’ lands from visitors: Malama Hawaii.
Centered around the concept of “caring for, protecting and preserving” the Hawaiian Islands, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Malama Hawaii campaign has invited visitors to give back through volunteer opportunities since launching in 2021. In exchange for their time participating in various projects focusing on everything from sustainable farming to wildlife preservation, travelers receive a free night at participating hotels on Kauai, Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and Molokai. The program now counts more than 50 hotels and resorts among its participants, including some of our favorites like the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa and the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa.
After partaking in a Malama Hawaii beach cleanup during a family trip to Kauai earlier this year, I feel more inspired than ever to find ways to leave a smaller footprint and give back to the places I visit. Other tourism authorities around the world could greatly benefit from implementing similar innovative programs that encourage responsible, sustainable tourism.
—By Ashley Onadele
Innovation Award: Family Travel
Winner: Hilton connecting rooms
As soon as my daughter was born, my strategy for booking lodging changed dramatically. Vacation rentals became top of mind for the extra space they offer, as my experience (as well as that of other TPG staffers) found that securing connecting hotel rooms was hit-or-miss.
Then, Hilton changed the game. Last year, the hotel chain announced the ability to guarantee connecting rooms at the time of booking across all its participating brands. This has been a game changer for families, especially now that international travel is largely back.
I had the opportunity to test this feature for the first time last month, as I booked connecting rooms at the Hilton Frankfurt Airport for two nights before flying home from my family’s annual Thanksgiving jaunt to Europe. For a modest premium over a single, standard room, we booked a pair of connecting rooms (one with a king-size bed, the other with two twins). Much to our surprise, we were even upgraded to a connecting suite upon arrival thanks to my Hilton Honors Diamond status.
Because of our experience, the Hilton Honors website has become one of my first stops when searching for accommodations — and I’m looking forward to using this feature again for our spring break trip to Egypt next March.
—By Nick Ewen
Many brands launched innovative initiatives in 2022, but the seven highlighted above stood out in the minds of TPG’s editorial teams. From rethinking airline elite status to overhauling the lodging experience to increasing accessibility, these travel providers took steps to think outside the box over the last year — and took home an innovation award as a result.
That said, 2023 is nearly upon us, so it remains to be seen whether these efforts continue — or if new winners are named next year.