Remind consumers that it is still safe to travel and highlight the benefits of travel. It is important to focus on safety, but not at the expense of customer experience. People still want to have an enjoyable trip (especially with prices skyrocketing) so travel providers need to still focus on top-notch experiences
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Kelly.
Brian Kelly is the founder and CEO of The Points Guy (TPG), the leading voice in loyalty programs, credit cards, and travel. Kelly has grown TPG to be a powerhouse travel and lifestyle media platform that reaches over 10 million unique monthly visitors around the world. By connecting the financial aspects of booking trips with the excitement of travel, Kelly has found a unique way to reach his audience through his supercharged personality, deep industry knowledge, and extensive worldwide travel.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the 90’s I started using loyalty points because my dad was a road warrior, and it allowed our family to take amazing vacations every year, for almost free. And then when I became a road warrior, working for Morgan Stanley in 2007, I realized I could be banking tons and tons of points from my corporate travel and corporate card use. And I parlayed that into a blog in 2010, just for fun — never in a million years did I think that it would become what it has. But, you know, I did know that everyone has points and not everyone knows how to use them, so The Points Guy set out to just give really snackable and serviceable tips for everyday people to live better and travel better using their loyalty points.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I would have to say our charity work with PeaceJam — I’ve had many “pinch me” moments. We work with Nobel Peace Prize winners through the organization PeaceJam, I’m their global ambassador, and we put on youth conferences around the world — in Guatemala, Ghana, Libera, South Africa, and East Timor. And so, we get to travel around the world with Nobel Peace Prize Winners, bringing them to these youth conferences. And I’ve been able to meet so many people who have changed the world — from Betty Williams, who helped end the troubles in Northern Ireland, to Leymah Gbowee, with whom I’ve developed a very close friendship. She helped end the Liberian civil war, by bringing together women of all faiths. So, I think the business side of things is great, and traveling to the Maldives, etc. but what is most unique to me is the good that we’ve been able to do using our platform. And believing that travel can change the world.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I would say I was a moron with credit. In college, I spent more than I was making, didn’t really understand the fundamentals and got myself into credit card debt, and just kind of put my head in the sand. I had a Verizon bill that I forgot to pay and just thought that it would kind of go away… Well fast forward years later, my credit score was terrible, and I slowly was getting it better and better, but it wasn’t really until The Points Guy took off that I could actually pay off my credit card bills. So, it was kind of funny that my points blog about credit cards, helped me get out of credit card debt. And I would just tell anyone if you’re going to be in credit card debt, do not — no matter under any circumstance — don’t accrue debt to get points. Because the interest you pay will negate the value of any of those points.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I would say I’ve definitely had lots of help along the way. When The Points Guy started to become profitable through affiliate marketing, there was like a 90-day delay. So, I had quit my job at Morgan Stanley and my parents gave me a $10,000 loan to just pay rent and be able to function until that money hopefully came in. luckily the check did end up clearing, but my parents have been huge, huge supporters of me along the way. And as I said, my dad is my idol — he is the original “points guy.” And being a road warrior and us bonding over that is what allowed me to maximize when it was time for me to become essentially what he was doing.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
I’m most proud of the TPG App, which is the first app to really track all major loyalty programs and give your net worth in points. Most people are busy and don’t have time to read tons of blog posts on how to use points, so we’re building technology that makes it easier. We’re working towards a platform that will allow you to connect all your miles and points and we’ll tell you where you can go and how you can do it, so I’m very excited about the TPG App and how that’s going to evolve in the future.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
The pain point I’m trying to address is that these programs are complicated! Airlines have partners, credit cards have transfer partners — it can be dizzying and that’s what we’re trying to automate with technology. If you have Amex points and want to go to Paris, there’s a ton of different options, but which ones are actually the best? And that’s what we’re trying to solve for, without having to make people sift through tons of different blog posts. And I do believe this will disrupt the status quo when people realize, ‘oh wait, I can get incredible value from credit card points, and I should really change the credit cards I’m using to ones that actually reward me. Versus you rewarding the credit card companies.’ You can win against airlines and credit card companies and hotels if you know how to play the game.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
So COVID has completely upended travel… I think the biggest thing right now is that we’re not out of the woods and new variants will come about and we need to learn how to live with COVID. One example is CLEAR, which helps you get to the front of the line at airports and stadiums. They are now pivoting into the travel pass and verified — there’s a lot of fraud if you just show a printed test, so I think there’s going to be a lot of technology around verifying COVID tests and vaccinations. We saw the same thing with the express spas in the airports turning into rapid testing centers that can give travelers rapid turnaround tests, so they can travel.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
I absolutely love scuba diving; I love to be in the water — I do love the Maldives and I love flying Emirates first-class or Qatar business class to the Maldives. And just disconnecting! Being on a speck of sand in the Indian Ocean and getting to explore the underwater world and catching up on sleep and reading a book on a sofa during a tropical rainstorm is my idea of heaven! Although I’m an avid horseback rider and I do like to ride when I travel. One of my future trips — top of my bucket list — is horseback riding in Patagonia!
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Absolutely! Wellness is a huge part and I do struggle with it because no matter what, travel can be exhausting, and when you add the stress and the unknown of COVID, it really does take a lot out of you. I recently went to Ecuador and the week I went there is when Omicron started happening and your stress naturally increases. We all heard stories of people getting stuck places during the pandemic… What if you get this new virus? Do you have to hotel quarantine? Can I get home? That’s on top of mind of a lot of people and how I get over it is just educating myself, not panicking, reading the fine print. A lot of people unnecessarily panic because they don’t read the fine print, or they just listen to what someone said. You know, you don’t need a PCR test the same day going home to the US, a rapid antigen test will work. And yes, sometimes agents don’t know the rules, so printing out the rules whenever you’re traveling to another country or coming back to the US is always helpful. Just equipping yourself with the knowledge from the source can help, at least somewhat, bring down those stress levels.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things the hospitality industry (i.e., airlines, cruises, hotels, car rental companies, etc.) can do to keep bringing people back for more?
1. Give customers flexibility and waive fees/penalties and points expiration
2. Be transparent with safety and how they are managing Covid19
3. Help their customers navigate rapidly changing Covid testing requirements and make it easy to get tested reliably and affordably
4. Give consumers the ability to do as much as possible online (like change flights/ cruises etc.). With a shortage of frontline employees, it’s critical now more than ever that travel providers provide more ability to change travel online
5. Remind consumers that it is still safe to travel and highlight the benefits of travel. It is important to focus on safety, but not at the expense of customer experience. People still want to have an enjoyable trip (especially with prices skyrocketing) so travel providers need to still focus on top-notch experiences
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At The Points Guy, we believe points and miles can do more than just take us to faraway destinations — they can make a life-altering impact on those around us. The TPG family is dedicated to finding philanthropic organizations that share our vision: to make the world an inclusive, safe, and peaceful place for everyone.
Since 2017, we have raised more than $3.5 million and donated over 40 million miles. Some of the organizations we partner with:
- PeaceJam paves the way to better opportunities for future leaders.
- Rainbow Railroad finds a safe space for those who are unaccepted.
- Make-A-Wish brings dreams to life for children who need a little magic.
- The National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists all open doors for diverse and passionate writers.
- The Ali Forney Center protects the LGBTQ+ homeless community from harm.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I truly want to create a platform where people can donate loyalty points. Some airlines have these programs, but they’re very disjointed and far disconnected from the charities. And there are billions and billions of dollars in unused loyalty points expiring every year, so to be able to harness that in an easy-to-use way that allows consumers to see the impact that they’re having, I think that could trigger a massive amount of good in the world.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!