The Brancatelli File



October 6, 1993 -- Let's share a sad secret about business travel: The marketers who sell travel services all too often have no idea about the life we live on the road.

Consider, for instance, a basic like long-distance calling and a new service from MCI and American Express. They'd like you to make long-distance calls using the MCI network and they'd like you to charge those calls to your Amex card.

All things being equal, that's not a bad idea. Unfortunately, this new service requires business travelers to punch in 36 digits and a personal identification number, which entails as many as six more digits.

Thirty-six digits and a PIN code? Just to make a MCI long-distance call with an Amex card?

Most business travelers hardly have time to grab a cup of coffee on the road. So why would they mindlessly station themselves in front of a telephone, dutifully punch in MCI's 11-digit phone number, wait for a tone, pound out the ten digits of the number they are calling, wait for another tone, and then enter their 15-digit Amex number and their PIN code?

I tried this on Monday as I was passing through Hopkins Airport in Cleveland. Discounting the time it took me to drop my carry-on bags and fish out my wallet, it required one full minute to dial all those numbers and wait for all those tones.

It's tempting to dismiss this digital dance as a rare marketing misfire from two firms that otherwise have a pretty firm handle on what business travelers need. Unfortunately, it is indicative of how travel marketers misunderstand business travelers.

Nothing--not airplanes or hotels or rented cars or portable computers--is more important to business travelers then the telephone. It's the lifeline to the office, the contact point with clients and the only link home.

Yet phone companies and their marketing partners too often complicate the life of business travelers with services like 36-digit calling-card routines.

The real problems began three years ago. That's when AT&T, the nation's dominant long-distance carrier, radically changed its card, which for decades had been the coin of the realm for phone-dependant business travelers.

Remember the good old AT&T Calling Card? It was incredibly simple to use because the card number was nothing more complicated than your area code, telephone number and a 4-digit PIN code. Everyone knew their own phone number, so making a credit-card call was a breeze.

But AT&T abandoned that card in 1991, primarily for marketing reasons.

In place of the good old AT&T Calling Card with its easy-to-remember number came a new card. It had the same number of digits as the old card--fourteen--but they were randomly chosen ones Suddenly, no business traveler in America knew his or her calling-card number.

AT&T also failed to tell business travelers about the switch. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that about one in four AT&T customers were never told about the change or issued new cards.

Although AT&T officials stoutly defend their decision to change from their old card, the company is beginning to address the resentment caused by the switch. Last month it began promoting the AT&T Personal Choice Calling Card. It allows business travelers to choose their own calling-card number. "Nothing," the company's ads promise, "could be easier to remember."

But the Personal Choice card doesn't allow business travelers to go back to using their own area codes and phone numbers. That's because AT&T limits to nine the amount of numbers you can choose.

MCI and Sprint, the nation's next largest long-distance companies, don't offer much more help.

When they aren't promoting 36-digit calling plans, they do issue proprietary calling cards based on a business traveler's own phone number. Because of technical realities, however, accessing the MCI or Sprint long-distance networks from public pay phones usually requires entering at least five and as many as eleven additional digits besides the calling-card number.

Short of carrying pockets full of change, what's a business traveler to do?

One solution: Call your local phone company and get one of their calling cards. Their cards are still based on your own area code and phone number.

Using a local company's card isn't without its own problems--you may be charged an exorbitant fee for a call by an obscure long-distance company--but at least you'll be able to make a call without spending your life in front of the keypad of a pay phone.

The slump in business travel has forced SAS Hotels to eliminate Royal Club executive floors in about half of its 33 hotels. Royal Club accommodations have been replaced by Business Class rooms, which have less elaborate amenities and cost about 15 percent less. Wyndham Hotels is giving special perks to business travelers until December 31. Besides free room upgrades, the chain is awarding double miles in the American AAdvantage frequent flyer program, a car upgrade from Hertz and a one-class upgrade on American Airlines. Continental Airlines is dropping its service to Australia and New Zealand, but Air New Zealand will fill some of the gap. Beginning November 1, Air New Zealand will add 1,200 seats a week on its routes between Los Angeles and Auckland.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times business section.

Copyright 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.