Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Life Among the Unicorns
May 5, 2016 -- Standing at the check-in desk after 10 p.m. in an otherwise empty lobby last week, the front-desk clerk delivered what she was sure would be happy news.

"Thanks for being such a loyal customer, Mr. Brancatelli. We've got your executive suite all ready."

I must have pulled a face because she instantly backed away from her station and said: "Is something wrong? Were you hoping for something better? What can I do?"

"No, honest," I replied. "It's just that I'm by myself and I'm only here for a few hours. I appreciate the offer, but I really don't need a suite. If it's not too much trouble, a regular room is just fine."

She returned to the computer, set me up in alternate (read: normal) accommodations and said, a bit quizzically: "If this doesn't suit you, just call down and I'll change it. Whatever you need."

"Thanks," I responded. "I'm sure it's fine. And I do appreciate your upgrade offer."

As I trudged toward the elevator and my normal-sized room, I couldn't help but think I'd be the topic of a little back-of-the-house gossip. I imagined the clerk telling co-workers about the idiot super-elite who turned down one of the best rooms in the hotel.

But I also thought this: Welcome to life among the unicorns, business travelers who generate so much revenue for the travel industry that they cavalierly expect upgrades, then turn them down. Unicorns who dote on their perks, but never seem to be quite happy with the extras that airlines or hotels toss in front of us like so many rose petals.

We've talked about business travel unicorns before and how our outsized buying power makes us coveted customers. We've covered the data that airlines and hotels disclose about our disproportionate financial worth. And recently American Airlines president Scott Kirby explained that only 13 percent of his passengers generate 50 percent of the revenue.

If the numbers are crystal clear, however, the proper care and feeding of business-travel unicorns is not. We're hard to please, have numerous pain points and, most of all, don't move en masse. What I want from my travel providers probably isn't what you want. And it's not the same as the man or woman in the airline seat next to you or the hotel room one flight up.

That's why we're unicorns. We're unique. Each and every one of us. And that's driving the airline executives and hotel bosses crazy as they compete for a greater share of our travel spending.

You can see it writ large as Marriott Hotels struggles to reassure Starwood Hotels elites that all will be fine after the merger due to close later this year.

Several weeks ago, when Marriott made a capacity-controlled effort to mimic Starwood's guaranteed 4 p.m. check-out time for elites, Starwood's best customers were offended. Marriott was forced to hastily issue what it called a "clarification," but was really a full-on retreat. Effective later this month, the Marriott Rewards program now promises to match the terms of Starwood's check-out policy on a guaranteed basis.

Similarly, Alaska Airlines is overpaying for Virgin America, but is concerned about holding onto the fiercely loyal flyers addicted to Virgin's culture of cool. Alaska Air is well-run and much-loved by its own customers, but will have trouble wooing flyers wedded to Virgin's big, white first-class chairs, mood lighting and slightly snarky attitude.

Marketing managers at major travel industry operations increasingly insist the future of loyalty among business travel unicorns isn't transactional, but experiential. Rightly or wrongly, they believe unique experiences will cinch the continued custom of their best buyers.

"It's an attitude, a feeling," one told me recently. "If all we offer is 'stuff,' an upgrade or a freebie, we're saying your business is strictly a matter of dollars and cents. We want to convince you that we're a part of your life, not just a dollar sign."

Of course, several major airlines disagree. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have switched to frequent flyer plans that are based on your revenue contribution. The more you spend, the better customer those airlines think you are.

"That's a cold way of looking at loyalty," one hotel manager retorts. "It says you're only as good as your spend. Ironically, I don't think that encourages you to spend more, either."

If you ask me, neither the transactional nor the experiential adherents have it quite right. I'm not particularly happy at having my dollar contribution being all that a travel provider thinks of me. But I'm not necessarily interested in some company telling me I should be loyal to them because their hotels have cool bars or they invite me to a golf tournament or a concert every once in a while.

The more I talk to business travel unicorns, the more they suggest a third way: Relieve the pain points. The travel industry is most likely to win our loyalty when they don't make our lives on the road more difficult than they have to be.

The problem with eliminating pain points? They aren't the same for every business travel unicorn.

I know a business traveler who always carries his own high-lumen light bulbs because he believes hotel lamps are too dim. Another frequent traveler insists on ordering burgers from room service wherever he goes around the world. Not surprisingly, he's appalled by some of what he receives in countries where hamburgers aren't standard fare.

Want some more pain points? A frequent traveler I know judges airlines based on the quick availability of wheelchairs to take her to and from the gates. Another actually measures the size of his hotel bed and thinks he's being deceived when it doesn't meet what he thinks is the minimum standard for a king-size mattress.

Business-travel unicorns obsess over in-room coffeemakers and the size (or lack of) hotel desks. They scream bloody murder when an airline changes the snacks in their airport clubs. And I know a few frequent flyers who seem to judge the quality of an airline's premium cabin based on the sparkling wine served with dinner.

You may rightly judge these to be first-world problems -- and pretty minor first-world problems at that. But they affect where a high-value traveler brings his or her business and literally billions of dollars are at stake.

And then there's me, the guy who more frequently than not would prefer not to be upgraded to a suite or, for that matter, a big-ass rental car when I'd consciously reserved a nimble compact for zipping in and out of city traffic.

"You're just weird," one airline marketer told me when I explained my no-suites policy. "It's probably impossible to make you happy."

Perhaps. But I'm a high-spending unicorn. If you want my money, feel my pain -- and make sure my frequent-traveling friends get their favorite wines, good burgers and beds with the proper measurements.


This column is Copyright 2016 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.