The American Express “black” card is legendary among upscale travelers. In order to qualify for the invitation-only card, you have to spend at least $250,000, plus pay $2,500 in annual fees. In exchange, you expect nothing but the best customer service. But that’s not always what you get.
Take the case of Pamela Johnston, who had made reservations at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach through American Express Business Centurion Travel Service, the travel agency that caters to the black cardmembers. She phoned me yesterday to conference me in on a call with Brandi, an agent with Centurion Travel Service, after she learned a hotel reservation for today had been accidentally canceled by Amex.
The e-mail from Brandi explains what went wrong:
I apologize for the frustration and inconvenience that has been caused by this situation. You had booked two room at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach Hotel. On April 8, Gabrielle called to cancel one of the two rooms. The agent she spoke with contacted the hotel directly to cancel the one room. The agent then canceled that room in our system.
This created a cancel message to the Ritz-Carlton South Beach. Their system then canceled the second room per this message. American Express Centurion Travel was unaware of the situation until you had called on April 17 requesting some general information. Currently, the Ritz-Carlton South Beach is sold out, so they cannot reinstate your room reservation.
So why not switch to another hotel? Easier said than done. Pamela explained in a follow-up note:
My original Ritz-Carlton room had a balcony and was $550 a night and through Centurion came with benefits of breakfast daily and lunch one day for two. Now they have me at the Delano for $935 a night but say that I have to book it and then wait four to six weeks to see if they’ll do anything about any cost adjustments.
All of which brings us to the phone call.
So there’s Pamela and Brandi arguing over what Centurion should be doing about this, and I’m conferenced in on the call. I’m not sure who to feel more sorry for — Pamela, who might be homeless in Miami, or Brandi who is now talking with The Travel Troubleshooter.
Brandi says she can’t continue the conversation because she’s not authorized to speak with a journalist. (Amex is notoriously media phobic, and trains its employees to never speak with reporters unless they’re chaperoned by a PR person). So I suggested Brandi connect us with a supervisor.
I’m almost certain that Brandi simply handed the phone to a colleague, who abruptly hung up on both of us.
Case closed? Not quite.
I offered Pamela a few contacts at Amex, and by that evening, her reservation at the Ritz-Carlton had been reinstated. With any luck, she’s checking into her room as this is being posted.
But this entire episode raises a few important questions for all travelers. When travel agents make mistakes, what should a customer expect from them? Should Amex have eaten the difference between the room rate at the Ritz-Carlton and the Delano? Should it have covered her meals, too?
Also, when you pay $2,500 a year to belong to an exclusive club like the “black” card, are you entitled to more than just competent customer service?