Travel’s secret societies
–Bert Archer: From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail Published on Tuesday, Dec. 01, 2009
The word “exclusive” is bandied about a lot these days. Most businesses above the level of Wal-Mart use it to make customers feel special – without actually excluding anyone. But a number of travel-related groups, clubs and perks deserve the adjective: They genuinely are invitation-only.
In the airline world, fliers can become members of programs such as Continental’s Chairman’s Circle, United’s Global Services and a nameless group that gets preferential treatment from SAS. Never heard of it? There’s a reason. To paraphrase financier J.P. Morgan, if you have to ask, you’re not member material.
Peter Brown, who used to own an eponymous travel agency in Toronto, has been chasing exclusive memberships and perks since he retired 20 years ago. One of his favourites is Lufthansa’s first-class terminal at Frankfurt, with its 15 kinds of champagne and 20 Scotches, a still-operational smoking lounge and, best of all, drivers to get you across the tarmac directly to your gate.
He recalls a recent flight there: He had a few drinks, and then the concierge introduced him to his driver.
“‘I will push my way through the crowd – make sure you hold on to me,’” Brown recalls the driver telling him as they exited the car to muscle their way to the front of the boarding queue for a flight to Tokyo.
“He took me upstairs to my seat, put my luggage in the bin, asked me if there was anything else he could do,” and then took his leave, Brown says.
Another time, on a layover in Singapore en route from Dubai to Auckland, when Brown tried to check in to the airport lounge, he was taken past the business-class lounge, past the first-class lounge, to something the concierge said was simply called the private rooms: a full-service bar, showers, and noticeably few other patrons. He inquired, and was told that it was just for revenue customers – that is, those who paid full fare for their first-class tickets. “I was about the only person in the lounge most of the day,” he says with obvious relish.
Then there are the credit cards. There is a MasterCard that, to qualify for, you have to be a member of the Qatari and Dubai royal families. (It seems Dubai is not entirely without funds.) It’s made partly of gold and has a diamond embedded in it. There is no public word on the perks, but given that the card costs $350,000, they’re probably substantial.
In Canada, the most lavish offering is the American Express Centurion card. Black and made of titanium, it’s the latest of several selective card levels that started with the Gold Card in 1966. If you have at least $1-million in liquid assets – which about 50,000 Canadians do – and spend several hundred thousand dollars a year on your current AmEx, you’re probably on a list to receive a surprise dark wooden box on your doorstep.
Inside, there’s an invitation to join. The cost: $5,000 to start, with an annual service fee of $2,500. There are hotel perks (automatic top-tier memberships at many chains), car-rental perks (ditto) and a 24-hour worldwide concierge service that can do most anything you want it to do, from getting your tickets to sold-out shows to printing up business cards at your destination while you’re in the air. Mostly, though, it’s about the metallic clink the card makes when you flip it onto the table to pick up the tab.
Still, some companies, fearful of offending other customers, back away from such programs: Real exclusivity excludes, and people don’t like being left out.
For million-mile-a-year travellers, though, collecting such ultra-elite memberships – and even just information about them – can become a passionate hobby. Someone named fishnail recently left a post on flyertalk.com, an online forum for frequent fliers, saying Delta Airlines had just given him something called Executive Partner status. A flurry ensued, with people demanding to know what he had done to deserve this and what they might do to get in. After trading stats and trying to figure out what the unpublished criteria were for this secret society, someone named KCnAtl did some calculating: “The obvious difference is ratio of revenue to miles flown.”
Like those flyertalk keeners, Brown gets a kick out of experiencing things few get to, such as the hot tub at the new Qatar Airlines lounge at Doha. It’s a way to regain some of the thrill travel had before you started doing it for a living, and to get a taste of something approaching the perks offered to a Qatari royal to boot.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Reprinted in entirety from Toronto’s Globe and Mail, original article : http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/travel/travels-secret-societies/article1384551/