SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli

Business Travel: Secret Societies

(PBNJ Productions/Corbis)
By Joe Brancatelli Business Travel
Tuesday, November 4, 2008; 10:32 AM

A few years ago, I dragged my carcass into a swanky Hawaiian resort, presented my credit card, and watched the front desk clerk turn ashen after entering a few keystrokes into her terminal.

"Who are you?" she asked.

Confused and exhausted after more than 20 hours of flying from London, I answered prosaically: "Joe Brancatelli." Then I tried a lame joke: "It's a common Hawaiian name."

"No, I mean, who are you?" she repeated before turning her monitor toward me and pointing to my guest profile.

Next to my name were six V's in front of V.I.P., about a dozen stars and the capitalized notation: "Maximum upgrade. Triple-A amenity. Alert G.M. and P.R. on arrival."

"I've never seen that," said the clerk. "You must be one important guy."

Obviously, I ain't. But I certainly didn't complain about the gigantic oceanfront suite or the cornucopia of fruit, flowers, chocolates, cookies, and red wine. The ultra-deluxe treatment was a perk from the hotel's public-relations woman, an old friend who'd convinced me to fly halfway around the world on short notice to give a speech.

You and I don't normally get V.V.V.V.V.V.V.I.P. attention. Only a select few rate: Celebrities, politicians, royalty, financial masters of the universe -- and the ultra-frequent travelers who are ushered into the unpublished, unpublicized, hush-hush secret societies operated by the airlines, hotels, and car-rental companies.

Think you're the cream of the crop because you fly 75,000 miles a year on Delta Air Lines and have reached the Platinum Medallion Level of its SkyMiles frequent-flier program? Think again. There's a secret level above that called Executive Partner. Continental and United Airlines have unpublished, über-elite tiers too. InterContinental Hotels' Priority Club program has a little-known level called Royal Ambassador. And Hertz Car Rental has a secret society so exclusive that one of the company's long-time executives didn't know the color of the card (platinum) or how many renters had one (fewer than 10,000).

The perks conferred on members of these über-elite groups are lavish. Delta's Executive Partners, for instance, receive a private telephone reservation line; front-of-the-line priority for upgrades and standby travel; free car rentals and special frequent-flier program awards; and elite status for a companion traveler. If you're lucky enough to score one of those platinum Hertz cards, there are no lines and no schlepping onto buses at the airport. Hertz has a car waiting at the curb when you exit the terminal, and you're chauffeured to your departure terminal when you return the vehicle.

Other common benefits offered to secret travel society members: unmarked private lounges at major airports; free minibar access; unlisted phone numbers to reach the chief executive's office; free golf and tennis outings at fancy resorts; and more swag (luggage tags, terry robes, fancy pens) than any traveler could ever use.

Two members of Global Services, the unpublished, kid-gloves level of the United Airlines Mileage Plus program, have different ideas about which perks matter most. Michael Anisfeld, a 250,000-mile-a-year international traveler based in Chicago, says the "best part of being G.S. is absolutely being at the very top of the upgrade list, ahead of the 1Ks." (1Ks are travelers who fly 100,000 miles in a year and have reached the top of United's published elite scale.) Anne Strianese, a Global Services frequent flier based in New York, appreciated the personal attention and assistance she received from United employees when a recent arm injury restricted her mobility.

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