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How Etihad Won My Loyalty in 3 Key Steps

Written by 
Brad Davis
November 21, 2019

As an Australian who got bitten by the travel bug early, I’m used to stopovers. For people travelling to or from Australia, it’s rare to get to your travel destination directly without stopping somewhere for a few hours first.

While the vast majority of Australia’s inbound/outbound tourism comprises of Japan, China, New Zealand and the US, the UK is a very popular flight path. There’s also no shortage of Australians doing Euro trips, and vice versa.

It used to be that airports like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong were Australia’s gateway to the rest of the world. These days, though, you’re much more likely to find yourself spending a few hours in the Middle East.

The Middle East has always been ideally placed to facilitate stopovers for countless international flights, but a lack of infrastructure (as well as various other geopolitical factors) stood in the way.

However, the discovery of oil in places like the United Arab Emirates fostered a rapid rise in prosperity, which lead to a staggering amount of infrastructure being built in a very short period of time… including some of the most impressive airports in the world.

Dubai in 1991 and 2017
The rate in which cities like Dubai rose from the sand after the discovery of oil is staggering.
Image Source: Facebook

A few months ago, my partner and I were looking at one-way flights from Australia to the UK. Generally, a one-way flight for one person booked a month or more in advance sits around the USD $500 mark.

You can pay more if you want to fly from Perth to London direct (a brand new flight offered by Qantas) and you can pay much less if you’re happy to endure a four-day transit on budget airlines that will see you braving tedious 30-hour stopovers in places like Brunei, Guangzhou, Kazakhstan, Moscow and Athens before finally arriving in London as a very confused and disheveled human being.

In my search for a happy medium between these two options, I came across an interesting offer from Etihad Airways. But first, a bit of background info...

The Goal of Abu Dhabi’s Government

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are both cities in the UAE, only a 90-minute train ride apart. Emirates (the largest airline in the Middle East and fourth largest in the world), is owned by the Government of Dubai, hence why the airline flies through Dubai.

Etihad is owned by the Government of Abu Dhabi, and flies through there instead. Both are fantastic airlines, but Emirates is much better known around the world and Dubai is a far more popular travel destination.The Government of Abu Dhabi wants more people to fly with Etihad, and to spend a few days in Abu Dhabi rather than simply pass through the airport.

Etihad layover travel campaign
Image Source: Etihad Airways

The Promotion

For the above reasons, Etihad offer a special promotion where you can enjoy two nights in a nice hotel for free when you book a two-night stopover in Abu Dhabi.

Etihad Airline first introduced this promotion a few years ago. It's clearly working - they keep extending the offer to the point where it’s basically just a permanent campaign now.

In its latest quarterly report, The Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority announced the following hotel statistics for Q3 2019, all of which are an improvement on the same period from last year:

  • 1.3 million hotel guests (up 1.7% from Q3 2018)
  • 69% hotel occupancy (up 4% from Q3 2018)
  • A total hotel revenue of 1.1 billion (up 1.7% from Q3 2018)
  • An average length of stay (ALOS) of 2.5 nights

This last statistic is a good indicator that the Abu Dhabi free stopover promotion is at least partly responsible for the Emirati city’s growing tourism. The easing of visa requirements has also stimulated tourism from countries like Russia, India and China.

My partner and I hadn’t had any intention of stopping anywhere for longer than a couple of hours on our way to the UK, but the promotion got me curious enough to click through to the Etihad website.
Etihad Airline Tourism Marketing

1. This was Etihad’s first step towards securing my loyalty

In fact, you could argue that the first thing Etihad did right was to make sure I saw the promotion in the first place. I’m assuming this was targeted marketing that popped up on my radar in one way or another after I’d initially taken a look at flights from Australia to the UK.

Anyway, the promotion got me onto the website and as soon as I saw the quality of the hotels on offer, the idea of breaking up an otherwise 24-hour transit with two nights in a hotel started to sound very appealing.

We were generally going to pay the same amount to fly with another airline anyway – why not spend two days relaxing in a rooftop pool for free? 

After checking a few online reviews to confirm this offer was legitimate and worthwhile, I was convinced.

It took some juggling and rearranging, but eventually we found a booking that would see us landing in Abu Dhabi early on a Tuesday morning and flying out mid-afternoon on Thursday.

As soon as we booked and paid for the flights, I was redirected to a hotel booking site that offered me about 10 luxurious Abu Dhabi hotels for the two nights that we’d be there.

luxury hotel offer

In the spot that usually says how much each hotel would cost for the chosen nights, they all said “$0”.

We chose a hotel, entered our flight details upon booking, and immediately received an email confirming that our hotel was booked, and that we wouldn’t need to pay a cent for our stay.

The idea is that the Abu Dhabi government reimburses the hotel for our two nights’ stay. Why would the government do that? To encourage travelers to stay in Abu Dhabi for a few days rather than a few hours, and thus boost the city’s tourism.

With consumers placing an ever-increasing importance on experiential rewards over discounts or products, this sort of promotion is much more likely to entice a customer than, say, a discounted upgrade to business class.

Obviously, this strategy only succeeds if the amount of money that tourists spend on the city’s attractions, restaurants and other businesses outweighs what the hotel stay would have cost them. Generally, a tourist is far more likely to splash out during their stay if they haven’t paid for accommodation.

In our case, this strategy most definitely worked on us…

Along with the booking confirmation, Etihad sent me a string of emails highlighting all the tours and attractions we could enjoy a heavily discounted ticket to, simply by presenting our boarding passes.

Abu Dhabi pass discount codes
Image Source: Etihad Airways

After seeing some of the incredible things to see and do in Abu Dhabi, my two days relaxing by the pool idea immediately changed to two days of sightseeing.

2.     This was Etihad’s second step towards securing my loyalty

Etihad successfully converted my free stopover into a mini holiday, where I would ultimately spend quite a bit of money enjoying myself in the UAE capital. On top of already spending USD $1000 on our Etihad flights, we were now quite happy to spend more money at businesses that Etihad held partnerships with.

Once we arrived in Abu Dhabi, we breezed through customs to find our luggage already waiting for us, picked one of about a thousand taxis waiting out the front of the airport and arrived at our hotel about six hours before check-in.

We were hoping to leave our luggage in a store room so that we could go exploring for a few hours and come back to check in when the room was ready. Instead, we were told the room was ready, and we checked in at 8am.

After a nap, we jumped on a Hop-On-Hop-Off bus (something I’ve never done in my travels, but it made sense for Abu Dhabi because the city is so spread out).

Louvre Abu Dhabi. Image Source: The National

Our boarding passes had earned us a pretty generous discount as promised, and there was zero confusion over the promotion; the girl at the ticketing box knew exactly what was going on.

We visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and a few other attractions, using our boarding passes to receive a discount on our tickets.

Again, we had no issues with people being unaware of the promotion or needing to refer to supervisors or anything like that.

3.     The ease of redeeming our rewards was Etihad’s third step to securing my loyalty

My partner and I had a fantastic time in Abu Dhabi. We didn’t have a single problem with bookings, we got to explore a city we hadn’t planned on visiting, and we were even allowed to check in early to a nice hotel that we weren’t even paying to stay at.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Image Source: CNN
“While Step 1 made us customers and Step 2 upsold us, the fact that Etihad managed to over-deliver on its promise of a wonderful customer experience turned us into brand advocates.”

Our seamless experience is a testament to the effort Etihad has put into making sure all of its partner businesses have trained their staff on how the promotion works, from the hotels and restaurants to the tours and attractions.

This collaborative effort requires a lot of cooperation, and in the case of the two-day Abu Dhabi stopover promotion, they’ve absolutely nailed it.

Since our trip to Abu Dhabi, we’ve been raving about our experience to friends and family.

Step 3 is where Etihad turned us into loyal customers and brand ambassadors; and I can confidently say that the next time I’m flying back to Australia, Etihad will be my first choice for flights.

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