This holiday season, give your margins a break while giving your customers something more exciting than a few bucks off.

The holiday season is a time of giving. And loyalty programs help restaurants give back to their best customers, in addition to enabling critical data capture that drives incremental revenue from all customers—not just VIPs. With restaurant margins tighter than ever, discounts can no longer be the primary promotional tool for restaurant marketers. This is especially true when considering customer engagement strategies for loyalty members or high-value customers, who are typically inclined to make purchases and spend more regardless. With non-discount rewards, you can share the holiday spirit with your top guests while driving more value from your entire customer base without deep discounts.

Here are 10 ways savvy restaurants reward their customers without relying on discounts that can serve as inspiration for other brands this holiday season.

Reveal a “secret” menu available only to top-tier customers

For a prime example of a restaurant doing loyalty right, look at Velvet Taco. The restaurant launched a new secret menu bringing back six of their most loved weekly tacos features, or “WTFs” as they like to call them. The menu is only available to their top-tier loyalty members—their highest spenders—which makes the program feel extra exclusive. Plus, it creates an exciting incentive for other customers to climb to top-tier status. After launching their hidden menu, Velvet Taco saw 13 percent of their loyal customers spend more to reach the higher tier threshold necessary to access the special menu.

Lean into digital experiences for loyalty members

The holidays are the perfect time to lean into experiential marketing. As friends and family gather, offering unique digital experiences can garner even more impressions and eyes on your brand. Bigger brands are already bringing exclusive events to the digital space with multimedia in-app campaigns. This summer, McDonald’s launched exclusive content, performances, and food items for app users. During this non-discount reward extravaganza, McDonald’s even sold coveted LTO merchandise, an ideal holiday gift for super fans.

Collaborate with another brand to drive fun and engagement

Offering access to exclusive merchandise is a proven way to drive engagement. All the better if you can involve a high-profile brand and drive a desired behavior at the same time. Earlier this year, Wingstop created an exclusive merchandise collaboration with Nike for their “Lemon Pepper 1s”—a limited-edition Air Jordan sneaker with each design element tailored to Wingstop’s signature flavor and branding. For a chance to win, fans had to register for the restaurant’s loyalty program, “The Club,” and comment or reply to posts on the brand’s social media channels with the hashtag #LemonPepper1s. Collaborations are the gift that keeps on giving because you share with your customers an exciting campaign while introducing your brand to a whole new audience.

Launch a new item or flavor early for loyalty members

Juice bar chain, Nekter, made their new PB&J Trio available to their loyalty program members first in an exclusive offer through their app. This allowed Nekter’s app users to try new menu items before they launched to the rest of Nekter’s customers. Whether it is pumpkin spice or peppermint, holiday flavors are always sure to excite customers, so why not give loyalty members early access? It’s a non-discount perk that also gives your operational teams a chance to test and learn with a “soft launch” approach.

Invite VIPs to skip the line.

Earlier this year, Thanx launched Access Pass, a bespoke non-discount reward similar to NFTs, that brands can customize to offer unique perks to guests. One of the most exciting and universal use cases is perfect for the holiday shopping rush. Create an Access Pass for your most high-value customers to skip the line. With this perk, you show your best customers that you appreciate their time as well as their patronage. Best of all, since these customers have demonstrated elevated spending behaviors, you are making sure you can accommodate your core revenue-driving consumers.

Encourage app downloads with an enticing sweepstakes

This year, Red Lobster celebrated 2/22/22 with a sweepstakes offering one winner the chance to win $22,222, and 222 winners the chance to win 222 My Red Lobster Reward bonus points. Each app user automatically received an entry and their subsequent dine-in and to-go orders earned them additional entries throughout the week. Campaigns like these drive app downloads (and therefore loyalty membership) as well as purchases. A holiday sweepstakes doesn’t have to include a huge prize. What is most important, is that the giveaway is distinct and on-brand.

Entice with intriguing giveaways

Thanx operator Evergreens, the Seattle-based salad and grain bowl concept, is offering ‘12 Days of Giveaways’ this holiday season. Customers have the chance to receive experiential rewards such as a wine-tasting experience with five friends by winning an interactive game or visit the Evergreens mobile app to search for a hidden code for the chance to be 1 of 5 customers to win a $100 Evergreens gift card. All 12 giveaways are available to any Evergreens customer. This is a great way to engage non-loyalty members and entice them to download your restaurant’s app.

Attract loyalty sign-ups with a signature menu item and birthday offer

Kneaders Bakery, the award-winning fast-casual bakery and cafe chain out of Utah, revamped its loyalty program this year to include redeemable points for over 30 different rewards items. By simply signing up for the loyalty program, Kneaders’ customers receive a free chocolate mousse dome pastry. One of their most popular perks is their automatic free pastry awarded to loyalty members on their birthday. The brand has several non-discount rewards, such as secret menus and special events, planned for the future and will most likely unveil them to customers in 2023.

Offer exclusive merchandise to VIPs

Holiday shoppers are always looking for the perfect gift. Take advantage of the shopping season by offering special merchandise to your best guests. Go beyond the typical T-shirts and have fun with your offerings. Portillo’s, for example, offers everything from ornaments to branded crocs. Have a special sauce? Consider bottling it for purchase so that your customers can always have a little bit of your brand, even at home.

Host a high-profile VIP-only event

The holiday season is the time for soirees of all kinds. Last year, Taco Bell hosted a Cantina Celebration in Times Square for New Year’s Eve. The catch? The only people on the invitation list were their top-tier “Fire” loyalty members. Consider hosting a VIP happy hour or tasting dinner for your best customers. But as Taco Bell demonstrated, special events do not have to be limited to just full-service restaurants. Super fans are just as passionate about their favorite quick-service and fast-casual brands. As long as the event experience is uniquely tailored to the brand, a special event can be the perfect way to give back to guests.

This holiday season, give your margins a break while giving your customers something more exciting than a few bucks off. Instead, push targeted loyalty benefits and creative customer engagement opportunities to drive greater value for both you and the guest. 

Emily Rugaber has spent her entire career in the tech industry working across a variety of industries, consulting with large companies including Target, Nestle, Virgin America, and SAP on business intelligence projects aimed at mining data for actionable insights. As the VP of marketing at Thanx, Emily leads with deep knowledge and understanding of loyalty trends, innovations, and best practices for enterprise restaurant brands. Emily is the author of Thanx’s Loyalty Disrupt newsletter.

Expert Takes, Feature, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations