Wyndham Hotels experiments with new guest reward: Bitcoin – American Banker


A chart of bitcoin’s value, even for one hour, looks like a Richter scale readout along an active fault line — though for Bakkt that doesn’t harm the asset’s appeal as a rewards perk. If anything, it enhances the appeal.

“Even with the volatility we’re seeing in the market there’s broader adoption from consumers and businesses, and there’s an uptake in acquiring digital assets,” said Sheela Zemlin, chief revenue officer of the Atlanta-based Bakkt.

Bakkt recently signed a deal with Wyndham Hotels & Resorts to integrate Wyndham Rewards with the Bakkt platform, opening an addressable market that includes 50,000 hotels, resorts and rentals globally, with 87 million enrolled members. Bakkt in late June also debuted a virtual Visa debit card, allowing consumers to use bitcoin and cash balances in stores, online and across Apple Pay and Google Pay’s footprint, covering retailers, supermarkets, transit and other categories.

The Wyndham integration, which is expected to launch this year, allows users to convert loyalty currencies such as points to cash, bitcoin or discounted gift cards. Bakkt users can also pay with points within Bakkt’s merchant network.

Wyndham is addressing a trend to improve the options for earning and redeeming rewards. Starbucks, for example, recently updated its incentive program to add more payment options without having to preload a gift card, as well as more support for digital wallets; Starbucks was also an early customer of Bakkt. There is also momentum for cryptocurrency rewards. Quontic Bank and NYDIG in late 2020 launched a card that pays 1.5% in bitcoin back for each debit card payment.

“We’re looking to allow members to use and earn reward points in different ways,” said Geoff Crossin, group vice president of loyalty and partnerships at Wyndham Rewards, adding internal research has found consumers are more likely to use the loyalty program if there are more options.

The debit card and Wyndham contract capped a busy spring for Bakkt, which operates a digital currency exchange as its core business. Since launching a digital wallet to combine bitcoin and other digital assets at the end of March, the three-year-old company has stacked a series of products to support incentive marketing and payment processing.

An April partnership with digital payment company Cantaloupe is designed to support cryptocurrency payments and incentive marketing points across Cantaloupe’s network of unattended retail clients. Another Bakkt digital wallet upgrade in June allows Bakkt users to send bitcoin, gift cards and cash to any user, not just those using the Bakkt app, a move designed to spread digital asset transactions to broader social circles.

“We want to make digital assets accessible to the masses, to use digital assets like rewards and loyalty points, whether it’s spending on merchandise or exchanging points for bitcoin to share and send to family members,” Zemlin said.

Cryptocurrency suffers from price swings, and the most recent volatility was extreme even by bitcoin’s standards. Bitcoin recently fell below $30,000 after reaching a high of more than $64,000 in April. Dramatic daily valuation swings have often resulted from events as benign as Tesla CEO Elon Musk either purchasing bitcoin, or making a joke about cryptocurrency on television.

There have also been regulatory moves that highlight the uncertainty of bitcoin trading and its valuation. U.K. regulators have banned the Binance exchange following the exchange’s withdrawal of an application to register with the Financial Conduct Authority because it did not meet anti-money-laundering requirements. Governments in China and India have long pushed restrictions on cryptocurrency.

Regulators in the U.S. and Sweden are also signaling tighter controls. Michael Hsu, the acting comptroller of the currency, in early June told U.S. regulatory agencies to set up a “perimeter” to regulate cryptocurrency, reports the Financial Times. Stefan Ingves, the governor of Sweden’s central bank, said stricter regulations are on the way because the crypto market has become so large it’s drawing consumer interest, according to Bloomberg.

Bitcoin’s reputation for volatility and its potential risk for money laundering have long hindered its use as a form of payment. Most cryptocurrency payment products involve a conversion to traditional money before the transactions. Some use stablecoins, which tie a digital asset’s value to a traditional currency.

Writing for American Banker, Felix Shipkevich, a principal at Shipkevich PLLC, said there is a future for digital assets in incentive marketing, but “between the volatility of certain digital currencies, paired with conversion rates, you don’t want to be losing money or creating regulatory problems.”

In an interview this week, Shipkevich said if the reward is decentralized and tied to market fluctuation, there could be a major upside or downside. “Until we have some regulatory clarity regarding these decentralized rewards, it’s buyer beware,” he said. “You can wake up and find a diminished value.”

Wyndham did not address bitcoin’s volatility specifically, but pointed to the general popularity of cryptocurrency and a desire to provide consumers a crypto option among a larger menu.

“We want to meet members where they are and allow them to do whatever they want with the rewards,” Crossin said, adding that regardless of how consumers choose to convert points, providing more choice will increase the value of Wyndham Rewards points.

Bakkt argues it supports a variety of currency types for incentive marketing, and this provides flexibility. “Crypto and bitcoin are not the only things you can acquire,” Zemlin said, noting that gift cards are another option.

There is also a potential benefit from crypto’s volatility, particularly if the consumer views the “cash out” for the loyalty points to bitcoin as an investment more a means of payment. Square, for example, has used bitcoin trading to drive revenue as crypto has become more mainstream.

“Various types of cryptocurrency can improve loyalty programs,” said Rick Ogelsby, president of AZ Payments Group, adding when the crypto is issued for free to consumers, the volatility can provide a benefit as it provides upside to the recipient.

Additionally, cryptocurrencies are generally transferrable, Oglesby said. “These features can provide an added bonus versus traditional loyalty programs that issue fiat currencies or points that can be used towards future purchases at a set rate.”

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