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I attended the Randy Petersen Executive Travel Conference on Friday, and I was especially looking forward to the session, The Plastic Fantastic, with senior executives from our favorite credit card companies.

And boy was it good!  They talked about credit card sign-up bonuses, about how well blogs analyze credit cards, about how 30,000 point to 50,000 point cards are the current standard, and how one executive even admitted to having 2 identical airline credit cards from his bank!

Credit Card Panel
The Plastic Fantasic Panel

The panel consisted of:

  • Sonali Chakravorti (Vice President, Membership Benefits for American Express)
  • Bob Daly (Senior Vice President, US Bank)
  • David Gold (General Manger, Partnership, Chase Card Services),
  • Matthew Massaua (Senior Director US Card, Barclaycard)
  • Shane Holdaway (Managing Vice President of US Cards, Capital One)

Randy Petersen moderated the session and did a wonderful job getting the executives to spill the beans by interjecting humor and hiding his probing questions behind friendly banter.

Question:  What keeps you up at night?  Is it your customers or the competition?

This was among the first questions, and the panel may have been warming up, but the answers had the usual corporate non-speak about “bringing your ‘A’ game,” “value propositions” and “amazing customer experience.

But I found it extremely interesting that ALL 5 speakers said that they focus on their customers and don’t think of the competition.

Surely this can’t be true, because the panel members are smart business people working for successful companies, so they have to be thinking of the competition.  There are multiple companies competing for the same business, so a shrewd business person will closely study the competition.  But I suspect that no one wants to admit – especially in front of their peers – that they are kept awake at night by the competition.

I suppose it is similar to how many businesses want to talk about offensive strategy, but no one admits to having (or needing) a defensive strategy.

Question:  Is it part of your strategy to read and study how bloggers analyze credit cards?

All the credit card executives agreed that bloggers are good at analyzing their credit cards and that some provide very in-depth analysis of credit cards.

Sonali from American Express said that bloggers provide trusted information from their readers.  David Gold from Chase noted that there were no bloggers 5 years ago and that bloggers provide a service to their readers.  But he also noted that most of Chase’s customers don’t read blogs regularly, so blogs impact a small (but fast growing) segment.

Bob from US Bank also remarked that bloggers provide service, though he noted that some are more analytical and that some are more like stream of consciousness (which I interpreted to mean long, rambling blog posts).

And Shane from Capital One exclaimed “[Blogs are] huge, Randy!” He admitted that Capital One reads the blogs every day and noted that there is an “upward trend in customer acquisition” from blogs (translation: more folks are signing up for credit cards on blogs).

I suspect that he was NOT referring to miles and points blogs because Capital One doesn’t really have a lot of good travel cards (besides the Venture card which gets 2% cash back on travel and the Spark card which gets 2% cash back on everything).  But Capital One cards are mentioned a lot on personal finance blogs because they don’t charge foreign transaction fees on ALL their cards and because they have a wide range of no-annual fee credit cards as well.

The next series of questions had Randy ask Shane from Capital One a question and then Shane asked the person next to him a question and so on. Question (Randy to Shane from Capital One):  What is the next big thing in credit cards?

Shane said that the vast access to data and the ability to present unique offers was the next big thing.  And that vast amounts of data mean that we (banks) know more about what you (consumer) care about and can tailor offers to you.

This isn’t particularly surprising to me because banks have always had vasts amount of data – data from customer applications, approvals, age, sex, address, zip code, purchase data, etc.  And Capital One has a reputation for being very data oriented in their approach to credit card marketing.

Question (Matt from Barclays to David from Chase):  How do you balance a proprietary currency [like Chase Ultimate Rewards] with partner currency [like United miles or Hyatt points]?

David’s response was very illuminating.  He mentioned that size matters at Chase and that they want to give everyone a choice with different cards.  And if folks want a second card, Chase would rather the person have a Chase card (as a second card) instead of a card from another bank.

His response is very consistent with the growth in Chase’s credit card business over the years.  Chase is very focused on growing their credit card business and have been very successful at it.  Chase is the #1 Visa card issuer in the world!

And Chase is okay with folks having multiple Chase cards.  The problem for travel buffs is that Chase issues many credit cards for different airlines and hotels, so it is impossible to have all the good Chase travel cards at the same time.

Question (David from Chase to Sonali from AMEX): I know that that AMEX focuses on high-end consumers, so how does AMEX Bluebird and Wal-Mart fit into that strategy?

This was a good question because AMEX customers spend the highest (on average) among all credit/charge card issuers.  AMEX customers are wealthy (and I’m pretty sure that they are also older).  On the other hand, Wal-Mart caters to customers with more modest incomes or those who want to save as much money as possible.

Sonali replied that Bluebird is a way for AMEX to be more inclusive and expand their outlook and signals a shift in AMEX’s strategy (translation:  try to get new, younger & less wealthy customers to balance out their existing wealthy, but elderly customers).

AMEX’s annual report and SEC filings acknowledges that 85% of Bluebird consumers are new to AMEX and over 50% are under the age of 35.

But Sonali ended by saying that affluent consumers will always be central to AMEX.

Randy (to all participants):  Is there going to be a [credit card] revolution or evolution?

Everyone agreed that in the short term there wouldn’t be a revolution in the credit card industry.  But Bob from US Bank said that he couldn’t talk about his patent which will catch the industry off guard in ~24 months.

I don’t know if this is typical marketing showmanship or if the patent will really revolutionize the industry.  Having worked in marketing, I’ll go with the first option, but would love to be wrong!

I also interpret this to mean that you also shouldn’t expect a 150,000 mile offer in the near future!

Randy (to all participants):  What’s the next big thing?

Most of the participants said that using mobile phone technology to provide offers to customers on-the-go or developing powerful mobile phone apps would be the next big thing.

But my favorite response was from David at Chase who said that the last real revolution with credit cards was when airlines and hotels made it possible to earn miles and points from credit cards.  He noted that using your phone to get offers or check your credit card balance is hardly a revolution.  And he mentioned that you can expect plastic credit cards to be in your wallet (or purse) for at least 10 more years.

I couldn’t agree more because consumers expect to be able to check their card balances on-line or to get offers on the phone, so it is hardly the next “big thing.”  And I also agree that plastic credit cards will be around a lot longer.  Your phone isn’t going to replace your credit cards anytime soon.

It’s kinda like how the paperless office (where computers and electronics are supposed to eliminate the use of paper) never arrives or how during the dot-com boom folks thought that internet grocery businesses (with free home delivery) would put traditional brick-and-mortar grocery stores out of business.  Ha!

Sonali from AMEX mentioned that connecting buyers and sellers would be the next big thing and that AMEX had the technology to do it.

She didn’t expand on this, but I suspect she was referring to AMEX’s closed loop system (where the bank which issues the credit card and the merchant bank are the same).  This means that AMEX has data for both buyers and sellers and that they are in a better position to mine that data to make it easier for businesses to make customized offers to individual customers.

Randy (to all participants):  What’s more valuable – airline miles or hotel points?

Airline miles won by 3 votes to 2 votes, but the most interesting response was from Matt of Barclays card who admitted to having 2 identical (i.e 2 of the same) airline loyalty card issued by his bank!

He said that having 2 of the same cards made it easier for his large family to travel.  I’m guessing he was referring to the Barclays US Air card, which besides having a sign-up bonus also gets you a companion pass which reduces the amount of cash for families to travel.  It was nice to know that a credit card executive had 2 identical airline loyalty credit cards!

Other Interesting Snippets

The banks look to see what the competition is doing, but they agree that 100,000 mile/point sign-up bonuses don’t make sense for the banks.  But they did seem to suggest that the current bonuses of 25,000 to 50,000 points won’t be going away soon.

Social media (blogs, message boards, twitter, facebook etc.) are becoming increasing relevant to banks.  I suspect that most business owners, around the world, would agree with this.

Banks want to get you to keep the card after the 1st year (where the fee is usually waived) by offering extra points at renewal (like with the Southwest card) and good customer service.

Bottom Line

It was very helpful to get all the big credit card executives (save for Citi and Bank of America) in a room to hear their thoughts on credit cards!

You’re not going to see mega credit card offer anytime soon, but you can expect the current sign-up bonuses to remain as high as they currently are.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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