Visa International announced plans to introduce Visa Infinite, a premium card for global travelers.
Approved last week at a board meeting in Buenos Aires, the card is the latest in a high-stakes game to attract some of the most affluent of bank customers.
American Express Co. has always held the lion's share of the super- premium market with its platinum card. MasterCard International brought out its new entry, the World card, in October 1997.
Visa offers platinum cards worldwide and the upscale Signature card in the United States. Visa Infinite is "positioned to be a new and different type of global premium card," said Una Somerville, executive vice president of current products and services at Visa International.
The card is geared for the wealthiest 1% to 5% of consumers in each country, Ms. Somerville said. This population "tends to be very similar as you look around the globe-they're active, they're affluent, technologically savvy, and looking for a consistent set of services as they travel to different parts of the world."
Visa Infinite's distinguishing characteristics will include a Web site available only to cardholders, with information useful for making travel plans. A concierge service will help fulfill requests through the site.
Visa also has signed up several dozen merchant partners that will post news on the site about special offers and discounts. These include Ritz- Carlton Hotels, Avis Rent A Car, Galeries Lafayette, and Burberry's of London.
No banks have signed up to issue the card yet, Ms. Somerville said, but "we think that many of the banks are going to target private banking customers" with it.
An American Express spokeswoman said that Visa Infinite "doesn't sound that different" from Visa's Signature card and that it will not pose much of a threat.
"Concierge, special services-those are longtime benefits of our platinum card," said the spokeswoman, Judy Tenzer. "There have been many new entries to the (premium) marketplace, but there has yet to be one that comes anywhere near what our platinum card offers."
Ralph Bianco, MasterCard's senior vice president of global product management and development, called Infinite "another 'me-too' product."
"We are definitely not surprised to see that our competitors are paying more attention to this important category," Mr. Bianco said. "MasterCard launched an upscale program two years ago" with platinum and then the World card.
Mr. Bianco questioned Visa's strategy of introducing both Infinite and Signature, saying they would seem to serve overlapping constituencies. "Frankly, I don't really understand that from a branding and product management perspective," he said.
Frances Dale, president of Entandem, a credit card consulting firm in Sterling, Va., said Infinite sounds like an international counterpart to Signature.
"One of the things about Signature that does make it very competitive with American Express is that the issuer must work out disputes between the cardholder and merchants," said Ms. Dale, a former Visa executive. "That addresses something that Amex has done for a while that the bank cards have not been able to address."
Ms. Dale suggested Visa might eventually merge Infinite and Signature "if they're serving the same market."
Michele Turkel, president of Spectrum International Consulting Corp. of Scarsdale, N.Y., said it was "about time" for a product such as Infinite, because "the world is shrinking."
"That niche of high-income folks is not being adequately served," said Ms. Turkel, who does consulting work for Visa International. "We always talk about having to do something special for our best customers-that's Marketing 101."
Ms. Turkel predicted banks would embrace Infinite because "issuers love being the first to market a new product in their marketplace."
Visa said the card has a shiny silver design that will be the same across all markets. Merchants and services connected to the product will evolve over time.
During more than a year of product development work, research on consumers indicated "that they are looking for time-saving services that give them tangible value," Ms. Somerville said.