Questions Answers

Questions Answers

Choice Privileges is the continually growing loyalty program of Choice Hotels International that currently franchises more than 6,000 hotels, with more than 485,000 rooms, worldwide. We recently spoke with Greg Brown, vice president of Loyalty and Relationship Marketing for Choice. Prior to joining Choice, Brown served as vice president, customer and partnership marketing at La Quinta Hotel Corporation, where he directed their loyalty marketing program. He also spent 17 years with American Airlines in a variety of marketing and finance roles.

InsideFlyer
You recently introduced a new Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card. Can you tell us about some of the benefits of owning the card?
Greg Brown
We are very excited about our new Choice Privileges Visa Signature card in partnership with Barclaycard that launched on July 1. The card offers two free nights and automatic upgrade to Elite Gold status in the Choice Privileges program. Plus, our card provides two points per dollar spent on everyday purchases, while most other cards only offer one point per dollar on everyday spend. In addition, there is no annual fee.

IF
Why did you decide to discontinue the Bank of America co-branded card?
Brown
Our contract term was up and we mutually decided not to renew our agreement.

IF
When we last spoke with you at the end of 2007, you mentioned that Choice Privileges had over six million members. What is your membership number now?
Brown
We have really focused on making our program more compelling and it is paying off in our membership growth. By the time your subscribers read this, we will have 11 million members worldwide, so we have nearly doubled our membership since 2007.

IF
Any new partnerships? Any in the works?
Brown
Our Netflix partnership launched at the beginning of the year, and has exceeded our expectations. We have also seen good results from our LifeLock partnership. We are about to launch a relationship with e-Rewards.

IF
Are there any new ways that members can spend their points?
Brown
We recently added Avis and Budget as redemption options. Costco and our music download store were added earlier this year. In addition, we expanded our Barcelo resort relationship to allow members to pay for the entire all-inclusive experience with points.

IF
Regarding new hotel openings, can you give us information on hotels to open soon as well as where, geographically, Choice is focusing its hotel expansion?
Brown
Choice has properties in 50 states and we are the second largest domestic hotel company in terms of units open with over 4,900 hotels from coast to coast. We are focused on continuing to expand our domestic footprint and among the hotels we are soon opening include a 293-room Clarion at the airport in Oakland, a new construction Sleep Inn & Suites in Houston and a Comfort Inn & Suites in Savannah, Georgia.

IF
Can you tell us a little about Choice Privileges’ social media strategy?
Brown
We were the first in the industry to launch an iPhone booking application. We have an upcoming promotion supporting our mobile booking applications that we will market via Facebook and Twitter. We get great insights from our private Elite member panel, who we reach out to periodically with short, fun surveys.

IF
How have members responded to the addition of the Ascend Collection hotels?
Brown
Ascend Collection hotels are part of a network of upscale historic, unique and boutique hotels. The Ascend Collection hotels have been a great addition to our system. We now have 16 properties in Hawaii, which has proven to be a wonderful way for our members to reward themselves. Additionally, we have another 30 Ascend Collection hotels open in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.

IF
Non-elite members are allowed to book awards within 30 days of the stay (60 for Hawaii and other locations worldwide). Why the short booking window?
Brown
From the day we launched in 1998, we have had a no blackout dates policy for free nights. Most of our bookings occur within the 30 day window. Our Elite members enjoy the benefit of expanded booking windows.

IF
What are some of the most popular awards?
Brown
Free nights at Choice Hotels properties account for the majority of awards. After that, airline miles and gift cards, led by our unique Wal-Mart gift card, are most popular. You may recall we won a Freddie Award not too long ago for our gift card awards. Popular with our Elite members are free nights at our upscale hotels and resort partners, Preferred and Barcelo, as well as our Ascend Collection properties in Hawaii.

IF
Why should a business traveler choose Choice?
Brown
Choice has nearly 5,000 hotels in every state across the nation. We offer business travelers a great value for their stay, with free breakfast, free high-speed Internet and free parking. In addition, with the Choice Privileges program, the business traveler has access to reward options like free nights in Hawaii or at Preferred luxury hotels and resorts. For the frequent traveler who reaches Elite status, there are special benefits and offers that make staying with Choice even more rewarding.

IF
Can you share with us some of your personal favorite Choice properties?
Brown
I love our Cambria Suites properties, which are designed for guests who want to take their lifestyle with them when traveling, and feature stylish design with guest suites that are larger than standard hotel rooms. My family had a great time earlier this year at our Jacksonville Beach Comfort Inn, and we always enjoy staying at our Comfort Suites hotels.

Steven Frischling, aka: Fish, is a popular blogger on BoardingArea.com with his “Flying With Fish” blog. He is also a professional photographer, airline emerging media consultant working with large global airlines and founder of The Travel Strategist. His online bio states that “… he grew up at the end of New York’s JFK International Airport’s Runway 4R/22L, which probably explains his enjoyment of watching planes fly overhead.” You can follow Fish at BoardingArea.com/blogs/flyingwithfish. We recently caught up with Fish between planes.

InsideFlyer
What’s on your (travel-related) mind today?
Steven Frischling
Honestly, the top thought on my mind is how All Nippon Airways can explain the rationale between requesting that passengers empty their bladders to reduce weight and reduce an aircraft’s carbon footprint back in October 2009 … and now they have announced they’ll be serving draft keg beer on certain flights. It all seems a bit counter productive.

On a more serious note, I am planning for the extinction of the bmi
Diamond Club. I’ve happily been a bmi Gold for a number of years and around June 2011, it will be merged into Lufthansa’s Miles & More, a
program that does not readily meet my needs as a frequent flyer.

IF
Your bio reads, “Fish has racked up more than 1,000,000 miles since he
started to track his mileage in 2005.” Sounds like you do a lot of traveling. Which airline is your favorite? And why do you consider it your favorite?
Frischling
Of the 1,000,000+ miles I have racked up in the past five years, 420,000 of those were in 2005 alone. More than 300,000 of those miles were on Delta, however Delta eventually left my home airport, Tweed New Haven Regional Airport (HVN) and I began flying the only airline left serving my home airport, US Airways (although I choose bmi as my frequent flyer program).

I don’t presently have a favorite airline. I primarily fly in the back of the plane, my home airport flies only Dash-8 Turbo Props and my two other local airport choices (BDL & PVD) are heavily served by turbo props and regional jets. In these aircraft everything is the same.

For much of my travel I enjoy Southwest Airlines, but their route network is limiting for me and they have no alliance affiliates. For the North American trans-con routes I prefer to fly United, over the Pacific I have had great experiences with Korean Air, in the Middle East I have found Gulf Air to be a great airline for my needs (although it’s been about three years since I’ve done real Mideast travel), over the Atlantic and U.S.

Domestic … I mix and match airlines about as often as I change my socks.

IF
You mentioned bmi Diamond Club, what do you think of the airline joining the Miles & More program?
Frischling
As a member of the bmi Diamond Club I knew that eventually Lufthansa would close out Diamond Club, but like many I closed my eyes and hoped it would not happen. BMI’s Diamond Club was unique, it offered not only excellent benefits but also excellent communications and personalized customer service. I have not encountered any airline with such outstanding service for its frequent flyer members.

The Miles & More program does not match bmi Diamond Club’s benefits, long-term loyalty options and redemption options. I honestly see many of bmi’s frequent flyers rapidly switching to Air Canada’s Aeroplan, however Air Canada offers no status match.

IF
And regarding hotels, which hotel loyalty program do you have the most
points in?
Frischling
I am an airport sleeper. I rarely use hotels. My philosophy is that if
my flight is less than 8-10 hours away I just find a bench, corner, space
under a three-dimensional lighted map sign (HKG T2) and hunker down for the time being.

I know it is almost sacrilegious to InsideFlyer readers and those on
FlyerTalk, but I gave up my hotel loyalty programs. I was HHonors Gold and SPG Platinum, but since I rarely stayed in a hotel more than five hours, I just gave up on hotels.

IF
You were quoted by Forbes as saying, “Your best bet is not to join a
U.S. frequent flyer program.” Do you still believe international programs
are better and why or why not?
Frischling
Much of what I was quoted as saying in the Forbes story was misquoted;
however, I still believe for many U.S. frequent flyers, it is better to seek a program outside the U.S. This is especially true for segment flyers and those who spend much of their time on regional aircraft.

Right now many frequent flyer programs are engaged in a race-to-the-bottom. Not all programs, but quite a few of them. For those in the U.S., the clear benefit of a non-U.S. program is lounge access at no cost. Lounge access is what initially drove me to abandon simultaneously being a US Airways Platinum and United Airlines Premier Executive and become a bmi Gold.

Once I got past the lounge access I found many foreign programs superior, and I eventually gave up my Delta Platinum to join Air France-KLM Flying Blue … although Flying Blue’s current program is not ideal for my needs and I am exploring other SkyTeam options.

IF
What’s your pet peeve when it comes to frequent flyer programs?
Frischling
Pet peeve … the complete devaluing of some programs, such as the US
Airways program. On US Airways it seems everyone is an elite … even if
they were not near achieving status. Two or three years ago everyone
somehow popped into Gold, now US Airways is giving way Silver status if
you buy a pack of bubble gum (okay, not literally, but you get the point).

IF
What benefit of frequent flyer programs do you find most valuable?
Frischling
Honestly, it’s lounge access. I rarely fly with checked baggage so baggage isn’t an issue for me; with online check in I have no need for the “Elite Line”; and since most of my flying is either on regional jets, short haul or over-the-water international travel I don’t have the ability to upgrade to a higher cabin class … and United Airlines does not auto-upgrade elites to their Premium Service (PS) flights between JFK and SFO/LAX (my most frequented U.S. domestic route) … upgrade options are almost useless for me. So for me, it’s lounge access.

IF
Do you spend your miles, or do you tend to hold on to them?
Frischling
I burned my miles down to almost zero for work a few years back and
donated the remaining miles to a few charities. I believe if miles aren’t being used they should be donated, but I understand why some people save them for the long-term benefits of having them.

IF
Can you share with us one of the best ways you’ve ever used your miles?
Frischling
Donating my miles to charities that had a better use for the miles than I did.

IF
We noticed you’re an iPhone/iPad fan. What are some of your favorite apps for frequent flyers?
Frischling
Oh my favorite apps. I can almost hear Julie Andrews singing “These are a few of my favorite things.” The top of my list, as a complete travel geek, would have to be LiveATC. The LiveATC app, much like listening to LiveATC.net, allows users to listen to the Tower and ATC live. Interestingly I spent a few hours on the ramp at SFO while
photographing a story on United Airlines at the end of June and used LiveATC to track aircraft options to shoot for the story.

For the iPhone, a top app I really love is iFlyPro. iFlyPro offers a lot of tools for travelers from flight status to airport maps–it’s just a really nifty app that I find myself using time and time again. For a bit of travel whimsy, I also like using PS Mobile (Photoshop Mobile) on my iPhone. As a photographer, I have been using Photoshop since the early 90s for work, but on the iPhone it’s just a lot of fun.

For iPad travelers, new apps are being released all the time, and not one “travel” app really stands out. The app I use most frequently is FilterStorm … which is like a version of PS Mobile on steroids, or a watered down version of the pro version of Photoshop, but I love it for editing photos on my iPad. I recently took a complete trip with all my camera gear for an assignment where I left my MacBook Pro home and completely relied on my iPad for editing and transmitting photos.

From a business standpoint, I use the Financial Times iPad app (FT Mobile Edition). I think it is the best newspaper on the iPad. I love the interface and ease of use of the app. For entertainment on a flight (or while sitting in the doctor’s office, or wherever) Flight Control HD is an addicting iPad app (and iPhone app).

IF
And finally, can you give the budding travel photographers out there one or two tips for taking a good photo?
Frischling
Honestly, everyone shoots differently, everyone sees the world differently. The most important thing to remember, and it’s a cliche that is true, the best camera you have is the one that is with you.

When shooting photos remember simple rules, such as:
– Learn basic exposure.
– Learn how to use your camera, even point & shoots can be controlled.
– Avoid placing your subject dead in the middle of the frame.
– If the subject looks far away in the viewfinder, it won’t look closer in the photo.
– If the composition doesn’t look good in the viewfinder, it won’t look better in the photo.
– Turn your flash off! Your flash won’t help you light the Eiffel Tower, it’ll just mess up your exposure and give you a poorly exposed image.
– Get an anti-theft strap, such as the PacSafe Carry Safe 100.
– Don’t pass up photos assuming you’ll get them later, you’ll regret it.
– If you have a lot of gear, resist the urge to carry it all. You don’t need to!

Rand Silverman bid over 1.7 million Continental OnePass miles to win Continental Airline’s online auction for a trip of a lifetime to see the eight wonders of the world. As the vice president and regional manager for an architectural and construction consulting firm, Silverman accrued his cache of miles through domestic business travel and takes around 150 to 200 trips per year. He and his wife flew in business class and were given private tours at each destination. His trip included visits to the Roman Coliseum, Taj Mahal, Petra, Great Pyramids of Giza, Great Wall of China, Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu. The statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro was being repaired so his trip to Brazil was rescheduled for later this summer.

InsideFlyer
Of the eight wonders of the world, which did you most enjoy seeing?

Rand Silverman
Tough question–they all had unique qualities. The most impressive were the two that I was the least interested in initially, Petra and Machu Picchu.

IF
The trip included business class on Continental and Star Alliance carriers. Which airline did you think offered the best business class?
Silverman
The best was Singapore Airlines; Continental and United were next with Lufthansa also being nice although I did not like the way they board a plane. It was like “All aboard, NOW!” You didn’t ask, but LAN (I don’t think that they are a Star Alliance carrier) in Peru was nasty–truly a flying bus. I have always considered Southwest as being the bus of the skies, but they at least clean the planes between flights. On LAN you have to brush the food off your seat and the floors are covered with trash. My wife dropped her compact on the floor and decided just to get a new one at our next stop, rather than retrieve it.

IF
Do any of the Starwood Hotels that you stayed at stand out as being particularly nice?
Silverman
The ITC Maurya in New Delhi, Westin Beijing Financial Street and Sheraton Amman Al Nabil were very nice; but the Tambo del Inka in Urubamba was WOW! On the other end of that spectrum (I know you didn’t ask) the Le Meridian Pyramids should be razed and the Westin Regina in Cancun is in severe need of an extreme makeover.

IF
How were the private tours?
Silverman
Having never before traveled to sightsee as we did on the trek, I would never have even thought about using a tour guide. I just assumed that they would be associated with large groups. Now, I cannot imagine doing it without a guide. They add so much to the experience by providing all of the historical background information and getting you where you need to be and bypassing the long lines. Also, the benefit of a private driver and airport luggage/customs relieves a large amount of travel related stress. All were very knowledgeable and professional and the only glitch we had was that the one in Egypt showed up over two hours late, which cost us the time we had allocated to see the Egyptian Museum.

IF
How long were you gone and how much time did you have at each of the eight destinations?
Silverman
We left on May 9 and returned on June 1. We were gone for 24 days and typically had 2.5 days per location, which was a little tight. If a flight was delayed, it cut into our rather limited available down time. The sites well outside of the city like Petra, Taj Mahal, Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu added travel time.

IF
Would you recommend this trip to other travelers? Why or why not?
Silverman
Yes, although I would recommend that you add about four or five days to the trip so that you can see a little more of the cities visited. There is a lot more to each location than the Wonder, and all of the guides added places that they thought were special; Mount Nebo’s Shrine to Moses in Jordan was personally very moving. I added tours of the Vatican and the Forbidden City to the agenda, which to me were must-see locations.

IF
Is there any place that you would like to re-visit?
Silverman
Italy–there is so much history–and the food!

IF
Overall did the trip meet your expectations?
Silverman
Exceeded any expectations I may have had. This started off (in my mind) as a “this might be fun” type of trip. I didn’t know anyone that had seen all eight wonders, and being the focused OCD-type person that I am, I could get it done in one shot. I now have a much deeper appreciation of different cultures, history and the events that have shaped mankind. That said, I also now realize how blessed I am to be an American and live in this great country!

IF
Do you have any plans to use your remaining OnePass miles?
Silverman
I never really travelled abroad since I travel so much for business; however, I now have places I want to visit. I would like to see Paris, Barcelona, Venice, Shanghai and Istanbul, while my wife is now talking about seeing the remaining five of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World (we have seen the Grand Canyon and will see the Harbor of Rio de Janeiro) so those OnePass miles will probably get used.

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