American Express – “Support Small Business” (as long as they don’t compete with us)

by Janice Hough on November 29, 2010

American Express has been making much of their “Small Business Saturday,” November 27, whereby they encouraged people to shop at locally owned small businesses, and thereby help the economic recovery.

They’ve been advertising seemingly everywhere, from traditional media to Facebook, and offered $25 credits for cardholders who participated. All the while, they are patting themselves on the back for supporting locally owned and operated businesses.

All well and good, except for one big exception. As anyone who works or has worked for one particular type of small business knows, i.e., independent travel agencies, American Express not only doesn’t try to support these small businesses, they try to put them out of business.

For starters, American Express seriously pushes their cardholders to book with American Express agencies; especially the Platinum cardholders, who tend to book the most expensive travel.

In fact, there is a special “Platinum” desk for these “elite” cardholders to call. American Express markets this as an exclusive with access to top deals and top agents. (Although I once talked to a Platinum agent about a hotel in Milan for my client, and she asked me if it was in France.)

While American Express does have some good specials, many small agencies can match their prices. Those agents who belong to a consortium can often even match the Platinum “Fine Hotels and Resorts” program, which offers goodies like free breakfast, upgrades and early check-in/late checkout. (Signature and Virtuoso are both examples of similar programs, but there are others.)

Moreover, American Express agencies are so tied to preferred suppliers, that generally they will not offer non-preferred alternatives. Period. Even when the alternative supplier might be a good fit.

On a regular basis, I have clients ask about the American Express two-for-one ticketing program. And it IS possible for independent agencies to use the program, but they must jump through all kinds of hoops to make it work, including paying a fee to American Express to issue the tickets. (A fee that according to the rules must be paid by the agency, and cannot be charged to the client’s card.)

Moreover, if a client has any advance notice at all, there are often business class fares that are cheaper for two tickets than one full-priced fare and one freebie (plus tax).

The company also loves to send direct travel marketing pieces to consumers, with many offers that cannot be booked by an independent agency.

Most irritating, however, might be American Express’s current travel ad campaign, which extols the advantages of booking with a travel agent, but only one of their travel agents.

One recent ad that rubs independent travel agents the wrong way features a picture of a couple in Venice. While it implies the travelers had a great time, it says the travelers made the mistake of not booking to get bonus points through an American Express Travel office.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand it’s a free country, and American Express certainly has a right to try to maximize their travel division profits. But it’s a bit disingenuous to broadly claim they are on the side of the little guys.

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  • DonnaE

    I can almost always match the Amex 2-for-1 fares in business class with equal or even lower fares. The kicker, however, is that Amex makes their fares refundable/changeable and the fares I can offer are usually nonrefundable or loaded with fees. I’ve lost several business class tickets to Amex lately.

  • Kelly

    I thought it was interesting that AmEX is having this promotion. I think it may be a way to have more small businesses offer purchases with this card. I don’t know many small businesses that I am able to use my AmEX at. In fact when I ask them if I can use my card there sometimes they give me a funny look or I have been told unless AmEX reduces the fee they charge merchants they will not be offering the use of AmEX at their store. I have been told this more than once! From what I have heard the AmEx fee is one of the highest in the industry, so I wouldn’t be suprised if this is some sneaky way to have people be able to use their card more frequently.

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