Amex returns to its roots in acquiring Citi's Hilton cards, adding small-biz perks

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American Express will become the exclusive issuer of Hilton Honors cobranded credit cards in January, taking over the entire portfolio it previously shared with Citigroup.

With an estimated 18 million Hilton Honors cardholders in the fold, American Express is also introducing Hilton's first small-business traveler card and a premium card that stresses luxury benefits and the ability to compile rewards points quickly.

"This is actually our first and longest-standing cobrand card relationship," said Audrey Hendley, head of OPEN products innovation at American Express. OPEN operates as the card brand's small-business product network.

"The essence of what we have done here was to go back into the annals of American Express and tap into our history and expertise, not just on the consumer side but also on the business side," Hendley said.

It was important for Amex to add a small-business-owner travel card into the Hilton Honors portfolio, as the company continues to emphasize its nurturing of small-business accounts through various programs, Hendley added.

The decision to do so was based more on feedback from small-business owners than it was on an economy that has improved for those types of businesses, Hendley said. "We're big in the small-business space, and what we are trying to do is help small-business owners get more out of what they do already," she added.

With Stephen J. Squeri coming on board as the new CEO for Ken Chenault, who will retire at the end of the year, the Hilton card portfolio marks a victory for American Express at a time it could use one, said Brian Riley, director of card services for Mercator Advisory Group.

The card brand continues to try to recover from its loss of the Costco Warehouse card portfolio to Citi, while also dealing with legal battle over its fee structure that is heading to a hearing in front of the Supreme Court.

It is expected to complete details of the portfolio acquisition with Citigroup before the end of the year, or early in January.

"Amex really has to protect its space, after losing a couple of big deals over the past few years," Riley said. "Travel was Amex's core business way back when, and this gets them back to it with a protective play."

The Hilton Honors portfolio carrying the Amex brand will include the standard Hilton Honors card, the Ascend card, the Business Card and the Aspire Card, with the Business and Aspire cards adding the travel and business spend benefits and attached rewards points.

In doing so, the Hilton Honors card portfolio joins other OPEN cobranded portfolios that include three Delta Small Business cards, a Lowe's Business Reward card and a Starwood Small Business credit card.

Current Hilton Honors cardholders with Citi brand cards will receive new Amex cards in January as the exclusivity arrangement takes hold.

"Amex certainly has a lot of competition from Citi and others in the travel space, so something like this is really important to them," Riley said.

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