I watched the movie “Up In The Air” last week.  It starred George Clooney as an ultra-frequent flyer, who is obsessed with accumulating airline and hotel perks.  His character traveled 330 days a year, and he described the 35 days a year when he was home as “the worst days of the year”.

His character achieved the highest status levels with several travel companies.  He was treated well by them.  But his status didn’t do anything for him at home.

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I notice status.  I think many of us do.  There is a reason why certain objects are called “status symbols”.

Airlines notice this.  Every airline has a frequent flyer program.  And several years ago, they realized that they needed to band together in “alliances”.  There are two major alliances that I know of (Star Alliance, led by United), and One World (led by American Airlines).  Delta leads another called SkyTeam.

Hotels do the same thing.  Individual hotel chains (Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, etc.) started “frequent stay” reward programs.  Then they started hotel alliances, and now there are programs like Hilton Rewards, Marriott Rewards, Starwood, etc.

Every car rental agency has a program, but to be honest, I’ve never accumulated enough points to earn anything at all.

All of these travel companies have “status levels”.  They all seem to use the “silver/gold/platinum/diamond” levels.  The higher your level,  the greater the rewards.

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Why do travel companies do this?  I think they realize that people dislike travel so much, and that any perk that makes customers feel better will be appreciated.

But an unintended consequence of these perks is that people who don’t receive them get annoyed.  There is a scene in the movie Up In The Air where George Clooney gets into a special line for his hotel check in.  A lady in the long “regular check in” line yells at him because he has escaped the queue.

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Travel companies aren’t the only ones who do this.  All of the most popular stores in the U.S. have some type of “loyalty program”.  Many people have a collection of small key fobs on their keychains, with all of their loyalty cards.  I know someone who has 30 of them.

I am fascinated with what companies do with these programs.  We shop at a supermarket, and belong to their program.  Every time we ring out our groceries, we receive specialized coupons, which are based upon our purchase history.  Our supermarket knows what type of razors I like, and what type of shaving cream I use.  I receive coupons for those brands.  Clever marketing….

Casinos do the same thing.  (Confession- I haven’t gambled in a casino since the 1980s.  But I do have a friend who works in a casino).  They have rewards programs that use something that looks like a credit card.  The casino knows exactly when you arrive, how much you spend, what you like to play, and what you like to eat and drink.

Credit card companies started issuing special cards several years ago.  Certain cards convey a certain status.  If you have the right card, you may be eligible to purchase concert tickets before everyone else, or to cash in points for exclusive experiences and consumer goods.

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It isn’t just the service economy that caters to loyalty and status.  Consumer goods do the same thing.  Every car on the road has a company symbol on the back, and most have the same symbol on the front.  Check it out the next time you’re on the road.  There is a reason that Ford puts the blue oval on the back of every one of their cars. They do it so that you notice it.  I notice it.  I play a game sometimes when I’m driving- I try to name the brand of every car that I see, within 1 second of seeing it.  For an extra challenge, I try to name the brand of cars behind me.

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Why do we do this?  Why is this status stuff so important to us?  I think about this a lot.

I think that status programs give us a false sense of importance, in places that are impersonal.  We climb onto airplanes and sit in seats that someone else was sitting in two hours ago.  We climb into hotel beds that someone else was sleeping in 6 hours ago (yuck).

In order to make these experiences feel a little bit less painful, companies have tried to make the experiences feel more personal.

We struggle with impersonal experiences.  I hear people say “Do you have ANY IDEA who I am?!”  That usually happens in places where people have no idea who they are.  And don’t care who they are.   Airports and hotels are very impersonal places.

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Unlike George Clooney in the movie, my favorite times are those times when I’m home.  I don’t need status programs or loyalty cards to know where I am most important.

It’s not up in the air.  It’s down on the ground at home.

Hal