I was wrong. Eight months ago, I wondered aloud on Moneyweb whether FNB would cut down the number of Slow Lounge visits its Platinum cardholders are ‘rewarded’ with, to two per month in the next 24 months.
FNB announced this week – through a confusing maze of PDFs on its main website and eBucks site – that from July 1, Platinum customers are limited to two free visits per month.
I was wrong; about the 24 months part.
This follows an obvious pattern. A few years ago (as the bank aggressively sold customers on the Platinum account proposition), the number of visits was unlimited. Before October’s ‘overhaul’ of the eBucks programme, having a Platinum account entitled you to six visits a month (two during peak times, four during off-peak). After the ‘overhaul’, it was effectively two visits a month per card (credit and cheque), and you had to meet a number of hurdles (or in bank parlance, ‘qualifying criteria’).
Here’s the real clincher: if you don’t have both a Platinum cheque and Platinum credit card, you get no free visits. Zero.
Also, the access to Slow in the City (opposite the Gautrain station in Sandton), while previously available at R125 per day visit, has quietly disappeared.
But, it gets ‘better’…not only will you be limited to (a total of) two visits per month, access to the Slow Lounges (at OR Tambo, Cape Town and King Shaka airports) is “limited to 90 minutes before boarding time”.1 This is described by the bank as “a capacity management system to ensure that lounge volumes are not in excess of occupancy”. That’s not quite English, but I digress.
If you’re a customer, you should’ve seen the writing on the wall.
The lounges are almost perpetually over-capacity. The corridor which masquerades as an airport lounge at King Shaka has ‘guests’ practically sitting on each other’s laps nearly every night of the week, especially when the two evening British Airways flights are delayed (every other day). Last month, I was warmly welcomed and managed to barely find standing room. And the lounge at OR Tambo in the mornings is even more of a mess.
A cynic might suggest that this (successful) Slow Lounge rewards strategy over the last five years has been a deliberate bait-and-switch campaign by the bank. Get the profitable, desirable customers who’d typically fit the profile of a Platinum account-holder (earning between R350 000 and R749 999 per annum) to switch banks. Reward them like hell to begin with, and then start closing that spigot. Slowly at first. And then very quickly.
I’d probably not go so far, were it not for the bank’s very deliberate plan to syphon off the top end of those Platinum customers into its Private Clients offering (for those earning between R750 000 and R1 499 999 per year). There’s likely marketing-jargon for this, but it’s nothing more than an old-fashioned upsell.
When those eBucks changes were made in October, this Private Clients strategy was already in full swing. Our relationship bankers knew the script: ‘Upset about the limit of four visits a month to Slow? Move to Private Clients – its only a hundred rand a month more, and you get unlimited visits!’
Except from July 1, those same customers who’ve been aggressively sold the benefits of ‘Private Clients’ (effectively the Platinum package from four years ago, now at R345 per month), are limited to four Slow Lounge visits a month. And only if they have both a cheque and credit card (and meet the “qualifying criteria”). Private Clients account holders are also ‘rewarded’ with the 90-minutes-prior-to-boarding limit.
But here’s where FNB’s tactics become questionable… I can understand upselling unhappy Platinum customers to Private Clients in October 2014. What I don’t get is the aggressive selling of Private Clients that I know for a fact2 continued until as recently as the end of May. One of the specific ‘benefits’ that has been sold is the “unlimited Slow Lounge visits” you get on this account. Except now you don’t. And you’re paying R345 (vs R199 on Platinum) from July 1 for the privilege.
So, what can FNB Platinum clients expect in next July’s “The way you earn eBucks is being updated” email? My bet? Slow Lounge access falls away completely.
Perhaps this was a deliberate ruse all along to introduce a competitive private clients product in the gap below those who use actual private banking? This is something FNB has struggled with until now. The typical Platinum customer, myself included, probably shouldn’t get airport lounge access (and arguably never should have). It’s a private clients perk the world over. The problem of course is taking away something that someone’s become accustomed to enjoying for ‘free’. They might even have changed banks for it. But maybe I’m being too cynical?
I’m in two minds about what I should do. I travel a lot and barely get by on four Slow Lounge visits a month. The prospect of moving to a relatively expensive banking product only to have the rules changed again in July 2016 fills me with apprehension. Maybe it’s time to switch?
And if you think these Slow Lounge rewards changes are punitive, wait till you wade through the rest of the eBucks ‘changes’. But, more on that next week…
* Hilton Tarrant works at immedia, specialists in native mobile app and Web development, to contact him: email@example.com.
* He owns shares in FirstRand, first purchased in July 2011.
1 Should capacity be reached, the fine-print says, “FNB Private Wealth and RMB Private Bank customers will be granted preferential access”. And yes, this footnote in itself is fine-print.
2 Nearly every person I know on FNB Platinum who meets (or is even close to meeting) the earnings criteria, myself included, has been contacted about ‘upgrading’ to Private Clients.