Net Buzz

BOSTON (06/05/2000) - At a cookout Saturday, an IT executive told Buzz he has been harried by planning the logistics of a departmental meeting that will bring colleagues from across the country and Europe to a swanky area hotel. The exec doesn't hold out much hope for the meeting's usefulness - it's his boss' baby - but there is a silver lining:

Most of the associated expenses, you see, will land on my friend's corporate credit card.

"You wouldn't believe the frequent-flier miles and hotel points I'll be getting out of this," he cackled.

Such an anecdote should thrill the entrepreneurs behind WebMiles.com Corp., a customer-rewards startup that launched its site, www.webmiles.com, earlier this year.

"People do all sorts of crazy things to get frequent-flier miles," says Jennifer Case, vice president of marketing at WebMiles, which has attracted an impressive $41 million from investors such as NBC, Patricof & Co. Ventures and Maritz Inc.

Those people doing the crazy things have spoken clearly regarding what works when companies are ladling out goodies to build brand loyalty: "Never mind the trinkets and T-shirts. We want free travel."

So think of WebMiles as a cross between the airline frequent-flier plans and customer-loyalty programs such as "Membership Rewards" from American Express Co. However, one accumulates WebMiles points not by enduring coast-to-coast red-eyes, but by buying goods and services from a 50-plus-member network of WebMiles-affiliated sites, including Borders.com, Dell.com, Disneystore.com and FTD.com, as well as old-world merchants such as Nordstrom and Toys "R" Us.

Purchases made with a WebMiles MasterCard also earn reward credits; a double-dip if made from an affiliated merchant.

As with frequent-flier miles, WebMiles are redeemed for free air travel. The difference - and this is the startup's trump card - is that WebMiles can be redeemed for unrestricted tickets on any airline.

Case says WebMiles will also differentiate itself by letting participants earn free travel faster than other rewards programs.

WebMiles intends to make money by selling the points wholesale to merchants who in turn will distribute them to customers.

The unrestricted tickets should prove popular. And that pile of cash - $34 million of which was landed after the e-comm shake-out began - should give WebMiles a running start on building its brand, especially since NBC's involvement will help with the TV ads.

But no matter how rosy a picture the company paints, the WebMiles accumulation rate is likely to prove disappointing . . . unless, of course, you happen to be planning your company's next off-site meeting.

Speaking of air travel, a reader who prefers anonymity offers this observation about plans to put Internet connections on planes:

"I get edgy when it's proposed that someone will place a TV/Internet monitor in front of the face of each airline passenger [on a seat-back] that serves as a cushion in case of emergency," he writes. "In low-speed runway crashes or during turbulence, the passenger can swing forward on the lap belt to smash the display with a human face. This will work wonders for insurance companies, lawyers and plastic surgeons, but not much for travelers, especially babes in arms. Has any ethical person thought this through, or does profit overcome all?"

Interesting point, although I see airline food as a bigger risk.

Question: Might the U.S. Federal Communications Commission consider this "domestic slamming"?

Mrs. Buzz recently switched our long-distance service from AT&T Corp. to MCIWorldComSprintWhateverThey'reCallingItThisWeek. She did so without notifying her husband, or, dare I say it, seeking his permission.

A formal complaint to the FCC appears unnecessary, since she swears we're getting a better deal.

Of course, that's what they all say.

You'd like to slam me, too? The address is buzz@nww.com.

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