Citigroup (NYSE: C) has developed another perk-laden credit card, in the latest big-bank effort to poach some of American Express's (AXP) wealthy, high-spending customers.
The New York bank, which has been trying to reinvent its credit card unit, held a glamorous launch party for its Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa Signature at the rooftop bar of Hilton's Conrad hotel in lower Manhattan on Thursday. The new card, which carries a $95 annual fee, lets travelers earn rewards points for staying at Hilton Worldwide's hotels. Among the other perks are a waiver of foreign currency transaction fees.
The new card supplements Citi's existing no-fee Hilton rewards card and will compete with two existing AmEx Hilton rewards cards, including a free version and one that costs $75 annually. Citigroup, like its bigger rival JPMorgan Chase, is increasingly trying to out-do credit card specialist American Express, which has long focused on lending to wealthy people who are willing to pay annual fees in exchange for perks like free flights, hotel stays and upgrades.
"We've been a partner of Hilton for a long time … I want to be their only credit card partner, and I'm going to do everything I can to make this value proposition the best one out there for Hilton and for our customers," Ralph Andretta, the head of co-brand and loyalty for Citi Cards, said during an interview at the event.
More subtly, Citigroup and Hilton also appear to be making a play against the American Express Starwood card, a much-lauded rewards card for a rival hotel chain. Prominent personal-finance experts, including New York Times columnist Ron Lieber, have regularly professed their devotion to the Starwood Preferred Guest card; the card-comparison website Nerdwallet.com calls it "our favorite hotel card."
Andretta did not mention the Starwood card, but other guests mingling at the event Thursday boasted that its time as a favorite was limited.
Jeff Diskin, a senior vice president of global customer marketing at Hilton, said the hotel chain and Citigroup had spent two years developing their new card. During a joint interview Thursday, he indicated that Hilton has no plans to offer Citi exclusive rights to issue reward cards for Hilton hotels. But he added that the chain is "very pleased" with the new Citi card, "because it really does provide a super acceleration for ways people can earn points in our hotels and we're positive it's going to be really positively received."
Cardholders, who can start applying for the Hilton HHonors Reserve card on Monday, will earn 10 rewards points for every dollar they spend on Hilton hotel stays, five points for every dollar spent on airlines and car rentals, and three points per dollar for all other spending. People who spend more than $2,500 on their cards in the first four months will earn certificates for two free weekend nights at a Hilton hotel; other perks include the waived foreign transaction fees and "gold" status in Hilton's rewards program.
The card's launch comes a year after Citigroup unveiled a similarly rewards-heavy — and much pricier — credit card for American Airlines frequent fliers. The New York bank hired Jud Linville from American Express two years ago to overhaul its struggling cards unit, and like his former AmEx colleague Gordon Smith at Chase, Linville is moving the bank's credit card lending upmarket. Both banks are trying to follow in AmEx's footsteps, in part because wealthy people are seen as relatively creditworthy and among the only ones spending freely and taking out loans amid high unemployment.
But competing for those customers can also get expensive quickly for credit card lenders, who have to pay for the increasingly rich rewards. American Express and rival card specialist Capital One (COF), which has also been expanding its rewards programs, are increasingly fielding questions from investors and analysts over the costs associated with those perks.
Citigroup has "worked through the economics" of its new card "and it will be profitable for us," Andretta said on Thursday. He would not provide details or say how soon the bank expects it to be profitable, but he called it "very sustainable long-term."
The Conrad, where Citigroup, Hilton and Visa gathered employees, journalists and travel bloggers, is nestled in between the Hudson River and Goldman Sachs's headquarters. The investment bank owns the space-age luxury hotel, which it recently converted from a more prosaic Embassy Suites.