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Talking Points Episode 28: President of American Express Travel, Audrey Hendley

June 26, 2019
25 min read
Talking Points Episode 28: President of American Express Travel, Audrey Hendley
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Access to the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts collection is one of the great perks for being a Platinum Card® from American Express or Business Platinum Card® from American Express card holder. Back in November 2018, American Express announced that booking an FHR stay would earn card holders 5x points when booking through Amex Travel. More recently, in April 2019, Amex continued to improve the FHR perk by allowing card holders to cover all or part of a prepaid stay with Membership Rewards.

The President of Amex Travel, Audrey Hendley, joined Talking Points to explain the details behind this decision. She also shares the benefits of booking through Amex Travel. If you've been thinking about getting the Platinum Card® From American Express, you won't want to miss this episode.

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Full Transcript:

Brian Kelly: Welcome to today's episode of Talking Points. I'm your host, Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, and today we've got one of my favorite people in the business of credit cards, Audrey Hendley, who is the president of American Express Travel. Audrey, thank you so much for joining us.

Audrey Hendley: I'm thrilled to be here with you, Brian.

Brian Kelly: We've had a lot of fun times together.

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Audrey Hendley: You could say that again.

Brian Kelly: I still remember that Stevie Wonder concert in LA. That was an iconic moment, that Centurion concert a couple of years back. That was fun.

Audrey Hendley: That was fun, and we had a lot of sing-alongs together.

Brian Kelly: So Audrey, how long have you been at American Express?

Audrey Hendley: I have been at American Express pretty much my entire career, so I'd like to say over 20 years. But there's a lot of milestones in there. And the great thing about working at American Express is it's a huge, global company. And it's like working for many different companies. I could say that I've worked in the insurance business, the credit card business and now the travel business. And there's a lot of career development. There's a lot of opportunities for people to move across the globe or just across business units.

Brian Kelly: Have you done international stints?

Audrey Hendley: No, I've always been based in the US.

Brian Kelly: I mean, you travel so much. I think you travel more than I do.

Audrey Hendley: I think in the first two months of this year, I calculated that I went around the world more than twice.

Brian Kelly: Oh, my God.

Audrey Hendley: So yeah, I'm on the plane. I'd like to think my office is --

Brian Kelly: You're collecting your points, right?

Audrey Hendley: I'm collecting my points. My office is really one of those lounges in JFK. So it's a fun job. You get to see and do a lot of things and meet a lot of colleagues around the world. Like my job is to deliver American Express Travel to our card members and make membership come to life every day for customers. And to do that, I work with colleagues. I have 6,000 colleagues across the world in 22 countries. And we deliver travel and concierge services to our customers.

Brian Kelly: It's a huge travel agency within Amex. And I think what makes Amex different is that a lot of credit card companies will outsource their travel booking, but Amex, when you call and talk to a Platinum Concierge, that person is an American Express employee, right?

Audrey Hendley: And we work with a lot of different providers for our travel products, but travel is inherent in the DNA of American Express. In fact, that's how we started, as a freight forwarding company. And the travel heritage has grown and grown and grown, and travel is a very integral part of what we do. And, as you know, we talk a lot about the Platinum card, but travel is very germane to that. And there's lots of reasons why people get a Platinum card, but some of them are because of the access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program, the International Airline program, and the card also unlocks lots of perks and benefits when you travel with that card.

Brian Kelly: And let's talk about, so, Fine Hotels & Resorts. So I took the UK team to Gleneagles in Scotland, and the perk was a free round of golf for two people, which was like $600. Gleneagles is one of the fanciest golf courses in the world, and I was like, "Wow, that's a really amazing perk for booking with Fine Hotels." But you also just changed it so that you now earn five Membership Rewards points per dollar booked on prepaid FHR stays.

Audrey Hendley: On the website. Customers enjoy amenities and benefits of perks at over a thousand hotels across the globe. They're not just any hotels. They're carefully chosen. We curate from the best properties around the world. And the perks are things such as early check-in, if it's available, late checkout for everybody after four o'clock, a complimentary breakfast for two people with your stay. As you mentioned, you get a resort amenity. In the example of Gleneagles, it was a round a golf. Other times, it could be a hundred-dollar credit toward food and beverage or spa services. And all of these benefits, we like to say, add up to about $550. The new news, however, is that the program has continued to evolve and get even better. So when card members go onto our website, they can do a variety of things, but one being if you purchase the hotels prepaid on the site, you get five times points, or you could use your Membership Rewards points to pay for your FHR stay, which is great.

Audrey Hendley: A lot of customers have been asking for that over the years. So you can use your points to pay for the whole stay or just use points to offset some of the cost of the stay. So it gives more flexibility and also helps to make the vacation experience even a little bit better when you get all these perks along the way. So it's a pretty valuable program to our customers.

Brian Kelly: So right. Now it's prepaid? I have to ask on behalf of the points hounds everywhere. Because a lot of times, prepaid, it gives a little bit less flexibility, can you roll it out to all FHR stays? Is that in the works? Like if you book a non-prepaid, so you make a reservation and then I pay with my Platinum at checkout.

Audrey Hendley: Yeah. You never know what we're cooking up. We're always evolving the program. I will say the most requested thing for FHR over the years has been: Connect FHR to the Membership Rewards program. So this five times accelerator opportunity has been phenomenally successful, much-wished-for and very successful. And the same, too, with the points redemption option because it just creates more flexibility and people are able to use their points as kind of a currency.

Brian Kelly: A lot of people always think points are just for airfare, but actually being able to use them for hotels --

Audrey Hendley: And the points redemption value is very strong, too.

Brian Kelly: So I've actually booked a ton of vacations through FHR and Amex Travel. If I book at a Marriott, I'm a lifetime Platinum members. So you actually earn your loyalty points and you get the FHR perks. That's what I like about booking through FHR. But what are some of the other perks, like when you book with an Amex Travel? There's protections. Obviously there are so many card member benefits to being a card holder abroad for evacuation and things like that. Like why book Amex Travel over another travel agency?

Audrey Hendley: Our card members are purposeful, intentional travelers. And it's really about the, as we would say, end-to-end experience -- from when you think about going on vacation, to taking the vacation, coming home and figuring out where you're going to go next. And we kind of take that extended view of the vacation purchase. And sometimes you may be just taking a point-to-point air. You may be taking a much more extensive, a more exotic trip. So we like to say that American Express Travel is there as much or as little as you need us. So if you kind of want a point-to-point air, you might prefer to go on the website.

Audrey Hendley: I might be going from here to LA on a business trip. I just know what I need to do. But that same trip, New York to LA, when it involves my family, is a different kind of trip. So I might like to call up and talk to one of our folks on the phone. And our people are experts in the world.

Brian Kelly: So you can call up and be like, I want to go to the Caribbean. And your Amex Travel agents are like ready to go and start asking you questions about what you like.

Audrey Hendley: Yeah. And we'll get you to the person. We have experts, we can get you to the person who's been there, has some experience, can give you their expertise on where they'd like to go, where you'd like to go and what other options might be available to you, and they'll also help you figure out how to get the most from your membership.

Audrey Hendley: So, for example, premium air is very popular, and we have a program called the International Airline Program or IAP, as we call it for short. And it's a benefit for Platinum card members that provides exclusive access to lower fares, premium economy, first or business.

Brian Kelly: This used to be the companion ticket that was then changed into this discount, which I think is even more straightforward, actually.

Audrey Hendley: That's right. A lot of customers like it because it actually gives more flexibility to customers. And it's an international program, goes to --

Brian Kelly: When I fly with my friends, I put them in coach. I don't want to have to pay.

Audrey Hendley: Well, actually, on the new program, we've actually extended the benefits. So we're going to 180 destinations. It's all types of tickets. Refundable and nonrefundable, which is really nice because it gives more flexibility, and you can buy tickets for up to seven people, so you could actually bring your friend with a discount and put them beside you if you would want to do that. And you get 5x points when you book it on the site, and you also get your points with the airline you're traveling with.

Audrey Hendley: So, it's like -- it's a really good value.

Brian Kelly: Plus, I mean, that 5x points, we value Amex points at TPG at about 2 cents apiece. So that's like an additional 10% back in the value of points. How do you see, I mean everyone says, the millennials are the experience generation. Like how has that changed the way Amex operates through the lens of Amex Travel? Or are there any high-level travel industry trends that you're getting your team ready for? Like sustainable travel, and how do you evolve a 6,000-person organization as this travel world consistently evolves?

Audrey Hendley: You know, like I say, travel inventory is perishable. The world is an evolving, beautiful, expansive place. Travelers are squeezing longer trips into shorter time, and they just don't want to get bogged down in the complications of doing all that because they just want it to be simple and they want to be there and they want to get to the experience.

Audrey Hendley: They're willing to spend a little more to get to that, to get that experience. Paying for travel has evolved a tremendous amount. You talk, that's your business, using points for travel. And obviously see that trend, too, which is kind of what was the insight that led us to continue to evolve IAP and FHR in the marketplace. And for us, it's ensuring that we are doing what customers need and staying ahead of their needs and to make sure that we're ideating and innovating what matters most, which is the experience.

Brian Kelly: I took my parents to Tanzania a couple years ago and I got, I think it was actually booked through Abercrombie and Kent, plus there was like a Membership Rewards points bonus for African safaris that summer. Like you don't have tour guides in certain cities, but you'd partner up with the right agencies around the world.

Audrey Hendley: That's right. Not just for tours, but also for what we would call FIT vacations. So a little bit more customized vacations, for cruising, riverboat cruising --

Brian Kelly: Have you ever done a riverboat cruise?

Audrey Hendley: I haven't done a riverboat cruise, but I recently did a big-ship cruise in the Caribbean. I like to say it's like, don't take the notion you have about cruising and determine that's what cruising is. They're really evolving. They're great for family vacations, they're great for getting people together, and they're also a great way to experience the world if you just don't want to be unpacking and packing the bag. So there's a whole world of cruising that we're excited about.

Brian Kelly: Do you do a lot of cruising at Amex Travel?

Audrey Hendley: We do a lot of cruising at Amex Travel.

Brian Kelly: Do you have like a cruise desk, or are all agents kind of trained?

Audrey Hendley: No, we have specialists, so we have a specialist area, who deal with those longer Abercrombie and Kent kind of vacations, as well as cruises, and just the longer trips, the more involved trips. But it rounds out because customers want different things on different types of vacations.

Audrey Hendley: If you think about the trips people take, they do spring break, they do weddings, honeymoons, they do simple trips home. So we need to cover all those bases for our card members.

Brian Kelly: What are you doing in private travel?

Audrey Hendley: We do a lot of private travel. We do private jet vacations, so obviously the jet being a big part of the experience, but also helping customers to see the world in a shorter period of time with a more intimate experience. We also do customized itineraries. If you want to go to Morocco, we can put together a trip, you and 10 of your closest friends, or just you and your partner.

Brian Kelly: And you're able to put it on your Amex. I know a lot of private jet companies when you book, they make you wire, which chills me to my core, when I have to pay.

Audrey Hendley: You're not maximizing your dollar.

Brian Kelly: OK. Let's take a quick pause right now and hear from our sponsors.

Brian Kelly: So how does Amex, like, how do you guys choose? Is there a master of FHR programs, someone on your team that decides? And do you do secret shoppings to make sure they're really up to snuff?

Audrey Hendley: It's kind of like asking you what's the secret sauce of The Points Guy, right? But we do have, in your words, masters of Fine Hotels & Resorts. We hire great people, but people who are passionate about what they do. And we have a lot of very passionate hotel people who also understand customers' needs. And it starts with the selection team. A lot of hotels come to us to showcase their properties, and we actually go and meet a lot of properties.

Brian Kelly: Because if you become an FHR hotel, I assume you're going to get really good clients, you're going to get the right customers into their rooms, which most hotels would want, right?

Audrey Hendley: Yeah, and it's a symbiotic relationship. Like these clients are looking for a good experience, and the hotel, now that they know the customer a little bit better before they even arrive, can make sure that that happens. So it works for both the hotel and for the card member. It's an always-on activity, getting to know hotels and making sure that we're doing the right selections, because it's not just about the hotels or in the properties. It's about what are the travel trends, where are things moving, where are the Olympics going to be? Where are there big world events? What are the emerging destinations? And making sure that we have a diversity of locations and types of properties so that we can fit the needs of the customers depending on the type of trip that they would like to take.

Brian Kelly: Upgrade when available. When you sign on an FHR hotel, how do you explain like what this really means? Do you encourage them to upgrade as high as they can or do you actually not encourage that? Because if someone gets a suite in Hong Kong and then their expectations are all of a sudden, oh --

Audrey Hendley: Well, kind of like the secret sauce of the hotel program, but there's a very copious process of making sure that we are clear with the hotels what it means to deliver the experience to the customer. So under no terms, would we tell them not to upgrade a customer or not to upgrade them too much. What we would just make sure is that our card members understand that upgrade when available. We are always making sure that the card member gets the benefits that we promise and that there's good management around how the benefits are fulfilled.

Brian Kelly: And I always get the FHR card, and I admit I always mean to fill them out, but I don't. Why do you encourage people to fill out those forms? Do they get read, and how is that feedback used?

Audrey Hendley: We love getting the surveys back. A little-known, unknown secret is that I actually read every single one of those cards, personally.

Brian Kelly: Uh-oh, now that I know that ...

Audrey Hendley: I'm going to read a comment from you one day. But I copiously listen to card members' phone calls so that we can just understand where processes need to be fixed, where there's room for enhancements in the product.

Brian Kelly: Because hotels can get kicked out of FHR, right?

Audrey Hendley: Selection is an ongoing activity. And making sure that we're honoring the promise. So we use those comment cards to even help the dialogue with the hotel. Individual properties, not just the brands.

Brian Kelly: And you also manage the concierge program. So I've been a Business Centurion member for years now, and Ray, my concierge, is awesome. He's incredible. Because even the Platinum concierge, you can now text. Have you seen a lot of people adopt that program ever since you added that?

Audrey Hendley: Yeah. Ask Amex. It's great. Yeah. Customers can go on and pretty much ask any question. And with robotics and AI, we have to figure out how to answer some of those questions automatically, as well as obviously bring our people into the conversation, as well.

Brian Kelly: You get to travel all around the world. What countries or destinations do you go to that you absolutely love and will continue going back?

Audrey Hendley: Well, of course I have to say Ireland.

Brian Kelly: Ireland, yes.

Audrey Hendley: That of course would be one of those destinations on that list. I think anywhere that feels a little foreign or exotic, any of the Asian countries because it feels like, OK, this is different and I gotta hunker in.

Brian Kelly: When we're talking about hotels, Asia gets service and luxury. I mean, you can go to a mid-priced hotel, like a mid-tier brand in Asia is like sometimes five-star in the US.

Audrey Hendley: It's just there's so many places to go. There's so many places.

Brian Kelly: Where haven't you been that you're --?

Audrey Hendley: Where haven't I been?

Brian Kelly: Have you done Maldives?

Audrey Hendley: No, I haven't. I'd like to go to Maldives.

Brian Kelly: Oh, you've got to.

Audrey Hendley: On the list this year, we're going to go to Mykonos, actually over the summer. I haven't been there. I don't know how I haven't been there.

Brian Kelly: Beautiful island.

Audrey Hendley: Yeah. Earlier in the year we went to Morocco. I just came back from Italy from a business trip for a recognition for some of our employees. And then, because I have colleagues all over the world, I do spend a lot of time visiting our offices to get to know our people but also to understand how we're delivering to our customers. So that gives me the opportunity not just to experience a place but to work there. So which also brings different cultural nuances and you just learn so much. Like it brings up your diversity filter a lot. You really have to learn how to do business in different ways. But there's one thing in common is that we're all people, we all enjoy food, we all enjoy experiences. Customers want to see the world. And it's a very easy way to get around the world, is to travel and talk to other people about their travel experiences.

Brian Kelly: Yeah. I firmly believe that. The more we travel, people want the same things. We all want ... People are born to love. We all want a good meal. And we all want to feel safe and secure. So the more we meet people around the world, you realize we're all one.

Audrey Hendley: Yeah. And it's funny you should say that about the safe and secure, because in times of trouble, we can help you. Or if the unexpected happens, we can help you. And it's just a phone call away or even a click away in some cases.

Brian Kelly: And it's even now in an airport, you know the Centurion Lounge. Amex has a physical presence during your travel experiences, as well.

Audrey Hendley: Yeah, that's right. And it's just that feeling of, even when I'm far away and in a little bit of a different location, a little bit out of my depth, that somebody is here in case I need some help. Real life story. When we were in Italy last week, my colleague lost her wallet. She called up American Express, and when she checked into the hotel the next day, her replacement Amex card was on the concierge desk. But she called customer service. As a card member she called, not as an employee. She called American Express, I've lost my card, here's who I am. They got her the card the next day. So that's an unexpected thing to happen. But American Express had her back. She was on with her vacation without the worry and she was in good shape.

Brian Kelly: I just want to end, you're an inspiration. And in the industry, one of the most powerful females. What are some of the tips you give to people who want to get into this industry or even travel industry now, because you are in travel industry?

Audrey Hendley: Well, I think with anything, it takes a village. It's about the people you work with, the colleagues you work with, the team you build, your friends, your family. And I think the important thing is when you're, let's say you're looking to get into a new area, new industry, is like, draw on all of your friends and colleagues. Figure out what you need to do and embrace the advice they've got to give you.

Brian Kelly: Because you went from working on small businesses as a core client within Amex, now to consumers and small businesses and travel. I mean it was a pretty big jump. Was that you raising your hand, "I want to do this," or is it like you just say yes to the different opportunities that come to you?

Audrey Hendley: A little bit of both. A little bit of both. I think you have to have the self-confidence to be able to take the leap. You think you have to put it out there that you want to take the leap. But I have a passion for travel. Like I ... many years ago, I actually did work at American Express Travel, running marketing and partnerships. So I always kind of knew that I would like to go back to, if I could, lead the travel organization, but the experiences that I've kind of garnered over my career have gotten me ready. Running product management or running new customer acquisition, you learn all kinds of things like the analytics to run your business, how to bring in business partners to help you solve business problems that you may not be able to do. And all those skills are still very relevant in the job that I do today.

Audrey Hendley: And you just get a new way to apply them to the problem we're working with. But I am very fortunate to have a very strong team, and that's where I get a lot of joy in my job, if you will, is developing the team and bringing people along and challenging ourselves with new things and bigger problems to solve and thinking for bigger goals. And it's the people that make all the difference, and it's the people who are delivering the experiences for our card members. So as much as I care about it, I really care about it for my entire team.

Brian Kelly: And that was cool, you brought a lot of your top performers to Venice, right? Wasn't that the celebration?

Audrey Hendley: This was our top performers, people who've delivered and over-delivered for our customers. And it was really around learning, development, and celebration, and food, as you will when you're in Venice. But recognizing how everybody leans in, everybody has to learn new things, new technology, new infrastructure. We're really digitizing our business. We call it "high tech meets high touch." So bringing in technology to enable our front line to just continue to meet customers' anticipations. And so we recognize that type of effort on the leadership side, and it's nice to be able to recognize people.

Brian Kelly: Two quick final questions. So what are your jet lag tips?

Audrey Hendley: Just get on with it. It's like a mindset sometimes.

Brian Kelly: Can you go to the gym? Like when you land somewhere?

Audrey Hendley: I can go to the gym, I can go to work, I can change out of my skivvies and into my work suit in the bathroom in an airport and get to work.

Brian Kelly: You just go to do it.

Audrey Hendley: I just get on, I just get on with it. I kind of feel like it's a mindset.

Brian Kelly: Do you run on cold brew, like I ... Or a coffee like I do? Or do you try to limit that?

Audrey Hendley: Yeah, I drink coffee, but I also take a lot of multivitamins when I'm on the road. Vitamin D.

Brian Kelly: Final, window or aisle seat?

Audrey Hendley: Aisle. I think I like a quick exit.

Brian Kelly: And with that, that concludes this episode of Talking Points. Thank you so much, Audrey Hendley. It has been a pleasure and it's exciting to see the things that you're doing to improve Amex Travel and I'm excited to work with you.

Audrey Hendley: My pleasure. Thanks. Lovely to see you.

Brian Kelly: That's all for this episode of Talking Points. Thank you so much to our guest, Audrey Hendley. And also thanks to Christie Matsui at The Points Guy, my assistant, Caroline Schagrin, and Margaret Kelley, the two best women in TPG podcasting. Thank you.

Featured image by The Savoy in London, an Amex FHR property. (Photo courtesy The Savoy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.