ArnieSince it's now clear that nickel-and-diming is becoming a fixture in our industry, it's time to bring a bit of artistry to the task. Poor United Airlines had to go through the embarrassment of retracting an attempt to get flyers to pay for food on overseas flights, and their failed attempt not only represents lost revenue; it was a setback for all who work long and hard to raise standards and practices in the still-young discipline of nickel-and-diming.

It would appear that marketers who cut their teeth when it was in vogue to attract customers with more and better service are floundering in this new environment. Their ham-handed attempts at nickel-and-diming raise ire rather than profits, and that's bad for all of us.

Perhaps it's time to review what works and what doesn't.

United's misstep was surprising in some ways, because airlines have been the pioneers of nickel-and-diming in the travel industry. In this instance, I think they simply tried to take a shortcut. They forgot that before the airlines began selling food for the first time, they softened up passengers with a foodless environment. Initially, meals were simply eliminated. So, when food was reintroduced (though at a price), it seemed a downright gracious gesture.

And the introduction of the term "unbundling" to describe charges for things that were once free is both brilliant and sublime. It sounds like a pop psychology term: "You need to lose some of your baggage," a therapist might explain, "but first you must unbundle."

Well, perhaps airlines will want to steer clear of talk about lost baggage.

But one of the first forms of unbundling, it turned out, was to charge for baggage. At this, United demonstrated a tin ear for nickel-and-diming by announcing that a charge for second bags was all about providing its customers with "choice." This left a lot of customers scratching their heads: A choice between paying the fee to check the bag and what? Abandoning the second bag at the check-in counter?

(The term "choice" is to United what "change" is to politicians, and they bandy it about with equal sincerity. The airline used the word last year to defend itself after being caught trying to tempt Mileage Plus members to pay higher fares to qualify for "bonus miles" that, it turned out, could be purchased for less in combination with lower fares. At the time, the "choice" they offered customers was to be stupid or not to be stupid. When "choice" is applied so cynically, it might subliminally remind flyers that they have a choice about which carriers to fly.)

American, on the other hand, recently made me feel good about the fact that they charge people for second bags. While using a kiosk last week, I saw a screen that had recently been added to the check-in process: Because I hold platinum status with AA, a graphic flashed telling me that I could check up to two suitcases for free! I felt a surge of gratitude toward the airline, forgetting for a moment that this had been the case my entire life. Nickel-and-dimers take note: These days, customers will actually feel that they're getting a benefit if you simply maintain the status quo for them.

While American seems to understand the subtleties involved in nickel-and-diming, upon arrival at my destination, I encountered the work of a true novice.

As I checked into the Peabody Hotel for TheTradeShow in Orlando, I was informed that a daily $10 "hotel service fee" would be added to my bill. What would I be getting for the fee? I asked. "Unlimited local and 800-number calls, wireless Internet access, two bottles of water, coffee in the lobby and two trolley tickets."

"How about the fitness center?"

"No, that's another $10."

"What if I don't want to pay the service fee?" I asked.

"Sorry, it's automatic," the woman at reception said. Seeing that I was frowning, she added, "It's all explained here," and handed me a small booklet.

The booklet described the bottled water as "signature Peabody water." I worried initially that the source might be the fountain in the lobby where their ducks swim, but the label indicated that the water had been bottled in Tampa, which I could only suppose is a step up from Orlando tap water.

In the booklet, the $10-a-day fee (which was taxable, I ultimately discovered) was described as providing "value-added amenities." This confused me, since "value-added" typically means that only value, not cost, will be added.

Absent from this list of "value-adds" were the extra roll of Peabody signature toilet paper (yes, its wrapper, like the bottled water, featured the Peabody ducks) and, to give credit where due, the complimentary Sunday New York Times outside my door.

The fact is that business travelers around the world uncomplainingly pay $10 every day for Internet service. I've paid considerably more. Value-wise, the Peabody's "value-added" package is not a rip-off.

But it is mispositioned. When I checked in, all I really heard was "gimme $10 more," and hearing that made me feel nostalgic for insincere "choice."

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].


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