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‘Experiential’ rewards let credit cardholders live out dreams

Summary

Today’s best credit card rewards can earn you golfing tips from Tiger Woods.

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Once your credit card earns you a suborbital space flight, those airline miles no longer have the same cachet. And after a putting tip from golf pro Tiger Woods, cash back seems so … pedestrian.

Welcome to the world of unique rewards for the upper crust.

In 2007, more than 85 percent of U.S. households participated in at least one reward program, including credit card and airline rewards programs, according to data from Aite Group, a Boston-based research firm.

Recognizing that consumers with larger bank accounts have bigger dreams, credit card issuers have gone far beyond cash back and bump-ups to first class. Exclusive credit card rewards from American Express, MasterCard, Visa and others allow consumers to live out fantasies through what the industry has dubbed “experiential rewards.”

What might those fantasy experiences include? For a golf nut, it would be tough to top a chance to watch golf great Tiger Woods play a practice course from a distance of three club lengths. That’s what 82 people — AmEx cardholders and their guests — enjoyed at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pa., during the lead-up to the 2007 U.S. Open golf tournament.

Platinum cardholder Fran Waitr, a consultant based in Woodbury, Conn., was among that group. When his wife selected the exclusive “American Express presents U.S. Open Preview Day” reward from the American Express website as a birthday present for her husband, neither knew Woods would be present.

A Tiger tip

During a round of golf for the cardholders in the morning, “There really wasn’t an indication that anything as exciting as Tiger was in the offing,” Waitr says. Tiger thrilled the group with a surprise appearance. As cardholders shadowed Tiger during a practice round, “He explained the shots and his approach to playing a practice round for the U.S. Open,” Waitr says. A bonus reward:  On the 16th hole, Tiger provided an impromptu putting lesson.

“It was the most incredible thing I had seen available for point redemption,” Waitr says. His wife paid 80,000 points. Had he known in advance that the package included Tiger, they could have charged five times more, he says.

Out-of-this-world rewards

AmEx cardholders who would rather have their heads in the clouds than their feet on the green may swap 20 million points for a ride on a suborbital spacecraft. The trip, a perk offered by the Membership Rewards program, offers several minutes of weightlessness and views of Earth from space.

In the case of American Express’s First Collection, wish fulfillment includes jewelry, watches and travel rewards. For example, platinum and Centurion card members may redeem 384,000 points for on-demand private jet service, or 7.2 million points for a Steinway grand piano. Tack on 10.5 million more points for a year’s lease on a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. Not too shabby.

Meanwhile, Citi cardholders can create rewards in the “Your Wish Fulfilled” program. Once cardholders amass 10,000 points, the direction of their redemption is limited only by their dreams. One cardholder turned 36,800 points into a three-hour limo rental for her daughter’s May 2007 wedding in Felton, Calif.

Yummy points

For Visa, one way to high-end cardholders’ hearts is through their stomachs. Visa Signature cardholders whose households earn $125,000 a year or more have access to Zagat restaurant reviews through a special website. Cardholders also may use the site to book a variety of wine tastings, cooking classes and restaurant reservations.

“You really don’t want a one-size-fits-all plan anymore,” says Mark Shipley, MasterCard’s vice president for loyalty. Reward programs should be tailored to consumers at all income levels, he says. Under MasterCard’s “choose your own rewards” program, users have requested everything from a flight on a Marquee jet (about 1 million points) to an iPod toilet paper holder (about 25,000 points).

Experiential aspirations

Average cardholders shouldn’t assume experiential rewards are beyond their reach —  provided they charge often enough. “You don’t want to have something that’s aspiration but unattainable,” says MasterCard’s Shipley. Shea Long, sales and marketing vice president with Maritz Loyalty Marketing in St. Louis, agrees. “Very often the ‘plain’ rewards programs will have high-end aspirational rewards,” he says.

It has become easier for consumers of all stripes to build their point collections, Shipley says, as more banking products provide points, and family programs offer the opportunity to combine points as a household.

But for the wealthy, points have an added benefit: Frivolity becomes psychologically OK, says Robert Passikoff, founder and president of loyalty and engagement research consultancy Brand Keys Inc. in New York. “When it’s free, when it’s the credit card giving it to you, it becomes acceptable.”

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Published: July 5, 2007

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