Friday, April 13, 2012

The new perks of first-class travel

(Reuters) - During a recent trip to Colorado, jewelry designer Alicia Mohr planned another vacation from an unusual spot - a hot tub at a Starwood hotel, where she is a platinum-level preferred customer.

Enjoying some beer with her husband and some friends led to a spontaneous decision to travel to Munich for Oktoberfest this fall. To make plans, Mohr simply called the private concierge that comes with her coveted platinum status. Quicker than you can say "oompah," they had guaranteed suites at a hotel at the entrance to Oktoberfest. "And we paid with points," Mohr says. "It doesn't get easier than that."

Hotels, airlines and other travel service providers are trying hard to win the loyalty and dollars of sophisticated and extremely lucrative road warriors like Mohr and her strategy consultant husband, Chris, who book a combined 100-to-150 nights a year in hotels (Starwood, whenever possible), racking up points and perks along the way.

Airlines are succeeding in getting business travelers to upgrade. Small businesses spent an average 5.8 percent more on first and business class tickets in last year's fourth quarter than they had a year earlier and big companies spent 8.8 percent more, outpacing the growth in economy tickets, according to American Express Business Insights.

High-end hotels haven't seen the same growth, according to American Express, but that doesn't mean they aren't trying. Eighteen percent of hotels surveyed at the end of 2010 by the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Foundation said they have a club floor or lounge, up from 10 percent in 2004. Eighty-nine percent of those hotels classified themselves as luxury or "upper upscale." Sheraton announced that it has spent more than $100 million upgrading 120 lounges worldwide.

Here is a round-up of some of the more interesting and helpful perks you can take advantage of if you have the money or points to travel first class.


New York-based Garde Robe has found a way help travelers avoid packing and schlepping suitcases to the airport.

The company, which is expanding this year to include Florida and London, stores a portion of its customers' wardrobes for them. Before a trip, a customer chooses items from his online "closet" to be shipped anywhere in the world. When he heads home, a valet retrieves them so they can be cleaned and pressed for the next time.

One-quarter of customers are business travelers who keep a stash of suits, pants, business dresses and shoes, the company says. Mastercard and Neiman Marcus' customers can cover the fees, which start at $350 a month plus shipping and dry cleaning, via certain rewards programs. Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan offer the service as perk to their executives.


An "upper class" ticket on Virgin Atlantic earns you VIP treatment at Heathrow in London. It starts with a limousine ride to the airport and a guarantee that you'll get from curb to lounge in 10 minutes.

A Virgin "host" meets your car, checks you in and handles your luggage while you pass through a private security check. Then you can cool your heels with spa services, workspaces, dining options and multiple lounges for catching a pre-flight nap. Not that you'll have to wait long. The service lets you check in only 45 minutes before departure, even for international flights.

Similar door-to-plane services are available through other airlines and airports. At several Asian airports including Singapore's Changi, the Jetquay program provides expedited VIP check-in and exclusive lounges plus extras such as a personal shopper and valet parking at prices that start at about $65 and run to more than $1,100.

Upscale hotels have gotten in on the act, too. At the Peninsula Beverly Hills, where room rates begin above $500, airport transfers ($100) include access to a LAX concierge and his multilingual staff who meet guests at the curb or gate to help with whatever might ease their departure or arrival. "Our job is to set the tone for their hotel experience when they arrive, and to leave them with a fond memory of it when they leave," says concierge Jimmy Bardolf.


Book a "diamond first class" ticket on Etihad airline (about $9,000 from Abu Dhabi to London and $15,000 from Abu Dhabi to New York) and you have access to an "in-flight chef" who will prepare dishes on board from an extensive array of options, including breakfast options like salmon lox or eggs any style and a steakhouse-inspired "grill" menu as well as the expected Middle Eastern fare. Moreover, you get to decide when you want to eat, a handy plus on Etihad's long-haul flights.


Marriott is another chain that has been investing in its lounges. In Chicago, platinum- and gold-level preferred members have access to an executive lounge that includes 60-inch televisions, access to a conference and media room, a dedicated concierge, complimentary breakfast, afternoon snacks, evening hors d'oeuvres and special events such as wine tastings. Other guests buy access to the lounge for $60 a night.

Similarly, a room on the "club" or suite floors at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore comes with access to a lounge that offers free champagne breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails and canap├ęs, free meeting space and teleconferencing services, all with stellar city views.

Other hotels are finding high-tech ways to deliver high-touch service. At the Plaza Hotel in New York, The Berkeley in London and the OPUS Vancouver in Canada, guests are handed iPads when they check in. At the Plaza guests can use the iPad to order room service or print their boarding passes.

At the Berkeley, concierges map out personal recommendations for things to do, see and eat for guests in the top suites, which start at about $2,000 a night. At Hotel32, a boutique hotel within the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas, guests can use their own iPod Touches or the hotel's to reach out to their "suite assistant" with special requests.

Here's one last perk that's unique and potentially quite fun: Guests who book a suite at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel in California ($750 to $3,600 per night) can borrow items including the trendiest belts, necklaces and cocktail purses from a lending closet that's stocked by the legendary Fred Segal store nearby.

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