I was honoured to be invited as a speaker and moderator at last weekend’s PointsU Conference, and it was wonderful to get to meet some of you who have been following the blog. I wanted to write a post to summarize the highlights of the event, both to provide a satisfying wrap-up for those of you who were present, and to show those of you who weren’t able to attend what you don’t want to be missing out on next time.
Friday Evening Reception
Friday's kickoff bash was hosted at the Hotel Clique, an airport hotel located a few minutes’ drive away from the terminal. Things were still pretty lively when I arrived at the evening reception about two and half hours after it began, so I imagine there was a pretty good vibe throughout the night. It was great to meet and chat with old friends and new faces alike. This was my first time getting together with the community since I had started Prince of Travel, so it was always a pleasant surprise when I met readers who let me know that they were enjoying my content.
The reception was only scheduled to run until 9pm, so we all squeezed back into the airport shuttle and headed back to the Marriott In-Terminal Hotel, where the majority of conference attendees were staying. I was also starving at this point, since the food supply at the event had long since run dry by the time I arrived.
It was way past the evening hors d’oeuvres hour at the M Club Lounge, so I grabbed some food in the lobby restaurant together with fellow PointsU speakers Allen Chao and Norman Tan, as well as a few other eager attendees who happened to enjoy chatting travel into the wee hours of the night.
The Showpiece Event
We were up and running bright and early the next morning. Although the M Club provided a solid breakfast, the main breakfast spread at the conference wasn’t half bad either, with pastries, yogurt, and coffee all presented gorgeously. This was only the beginning of an entire day’s worth of outstanding catering by the Marriott YYC.
Patrick Sojka of RewardsCanada kicked off proceedings as the moderator of the Fireside Chat with Laura Cocksedge, Marketing Director at American Express. We learned a few interesting tidbits about the thinking behind Amex’s latest product, the Cobalt Card, including the fact that a team of millennials were actually the main driving force behind the perks, rewards, and marketing of the card.
Does that push the over-the-top "YOU DO YOU" marketing into the territory of irony? I think it just might.
Eventually Patrick opened up the floor to questions, at which point Laura fielded a variety of pointed and proprietary questions, which she expertly sidestepped with the requisite finesse of a Fortune 500 marketing director. So unfortunately, we didn’t get to learn what the future of Amex’s relationship with Aeroplan would look like, nor did we get any insight on the nature of the upcoming combined Marriott–SPG rewards program. 😉
After the Fireside Chat, it was time for the main sessions of the day to begin. There were three blocks of time allocated towards delving into the nitty-gritty of the Canadian Miles & Points landscape, and attendees could pick between three sessions for each of the three blocks. The full schedule was as follows:
I wasn’t on speaking duty for the first session, so I sat in on Hotel Hustle, where Chao, Kendrick, and Allan from Pekflyer walked us through the most rewarding hotel loyalty programs for Canadians and how to get the most out of them.
Topics included status matching, best rate guarantees, and mattress runs. Chao in particularly talked about a time when he was able to stack so many hotel promotions at once that it was hugely profitable for him to stay at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver once every other night last December. Now that's dedication to the craft!
Simultaneously, the Where to Start session helped bring newer members of the community up to speed, while What’s In Your Wallet? taught the ins and outs of chasing credit card signup bonuses.
It was great to see everyone participating actively, both in the individual sessions and engaging with each other during the breaks between sessions. Everyone was certainly eager to “maximize the value” of their conference ticket, and the networking and learning from fellow participants is always a huge part of that.
After a brief coffee break, the second session got underway at 10:30. Although Jayce from PointsNerd and I served as moderators on the topic of Manufactured Spending, this presentation was really all about Norman Tan, the undisputed “King of MS” in Canada.
Norman doesn’t have a blog (yet!), but if you were in attendance, you'll know exactly what I’m talking about. The guy is passionate, meticulous, and extremely well-drilled when it comes to manufactured spending. He’s probably earned over two million points from MS alone, and has flown around the world in First Class countless times.
He told stories of moving tens of thousands of dollars of Royal Canadian Mint coins from the Vancouver boutique right down the street to his bank. He talked about making use of things like mobile device emulators and Benford’s Law in carrying out MS successfully.
Above all, he emphasized the importance of being nice to people – as I’ve discussed in the past, MS is something that corporations and their policies dislike; at the end of the day, however, a corporation boils down to its people, and the “human element” is often what allows for a successful MS method to scale far beyond what was originally intended.
Few will be willing to spend the time and effort to reach Norman’s level of MS, but believe me, if you attended PointsU and got to speak to him, you’ve met one of the most knowledgeable contacts in the game.
From what I hear, the simultaneous Paying for Travel and Maximizing Aeroplan sessions also went over pretty well.
Award Search Hands-On
In the third period, I ran the hands-on Award Search session along with Allan, Matt from A Whistle & A Light, and Ari from AwardMagic. The goal was to showcase our preferred techniques for searching for award availability and booking trips with our points – the end goal of it all.
We structured this session in a way such that each of the four speakers would take turns presenting their favourite award search techniques, while the other three roamed around the room helping people plan any upcoming trips they had. The idea was that you could either listen to the speaker and watch as they weaved through the process of booking a complex award itinerary, or consult an expert as they made their way around the floor and fire away with all their burning questions.
I would've loved to have a bit more time to give everyone a crash course of my tips and tricks when it comes to searching for awards, but I did particularly enjoy doing the rounds and making sure I was able to give all the attendees some hands-on advice.
Most of the crowd turned up at the concurrent America the Beautiful session, which delves into how Canadians can obtain US credit cards. Meanwhile, the Diversifying from Aeroplan presentation taught folks how to take advantage of programs such as Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and British Airways Avios.
Experts' Panel & Keynote
Then it was time for the speakers to get together for some good old rapid-fire Q&A. Lots of thought-provoking questions were posed, including one about the biggest mistake we've made as Miles & Points practitioners – I couldn't help but tell the story of that time I let 51,000 IHG Rewards points expire for no good reason. Not my brightest moment!
The floor was then handed over to our keynote speaker for the afternoon, Kevin Crowe from the Give a Mile charity. Kevin told us the story of how his experiences with his terminally ill friend Ryan inspired him to start a charity that uses travel rewards miles – the kind we all know and love – to help fund final visitation trips for those with terminal illnesses and their friends and families.
Since their launch, Give a Mile has redeemed over 12 million miles to fund flights to help connect terminally ill patients with their loved ones, who otherwise would not have been able to afford the flight. For this event, they partnered with the organizers and speakers of PointsU to raise donations, and also to leverage the expertise of the entire Miles & Points community to ensure that the donated miles would be redeemed for great value.
Prior to the conference, the organizers and speakers had already committed to donate 235,000 Aeroplan miles to the charity, and I'm sure that the rest of the attendees helped bump that number up quite a bit. We're all privileged to be able to travel the world on the cheap thanks to the magic of Miles & Points, and it's even more amazing to be able to share that magic with those less fortunate than ourselves and make a real difference in their lives. You can learn more about Give a Mile, and donate if you wish, on their website.
Saturday Evening Reception
Last year, the Sheraton Centre Toronto was a magnificent for PointsU Toronto, treating us to an indulgent night in their club lounge featuring jaw-dropping views of the city skyline. Well, I'm happy to report that the Marriott YYC took it to another level this year, delivering a phenomenal evening reception to bring PointsU Calgary to a close.
Seriously, this was the real deal. The hotel went above and beyond any traditional notion of "above and beyond". Tuna tataki. Risotto balls with truffle cream. A noodle bar with all the bells and whistles. Chicken wings two ways – teriyaki and salt & pepper – which were some of the best I've ever tasted this side of my grandma's kitchen.
Oh and of course – serious kudos to the organizers for pulling this off – the open bar, which kept us well-hydrated until the closing hour of 9pm. I think it's fair to give the Marriott YYC a huge thank-you from all of us in attendance at the evening reception.
Traditionally, while the PointsU event itself helps to imbue people with knowledge, it's always been the afterparties where the bulk of the secret-sharing takes place. (As the alcohol flows freely, so too does the information, I suppose!) This one was no exception, and it was awesome to chat and engage with so many attendees over the course of the evening, trading our tips, tricks, stories, and strategies.
It was far and away my favourite part about the conference, and the proof lies in the fact that after 9pm, the rest of the evening was a bit of a blur as the party carried on in the lobby restaurant and the M Club Lounge! 😉
After a year-long wait since the Toronto event, PointsU came back with a bang. I can't give enough thanks to the organizers behind the conference for putting on such a great event, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what comes out of our little community of credit card crunchers, points pushers, and luxury lovers in the near future.
It was also amazing to be able to put faces to names for so many of my readers who have engaged with the blog since I began writing it. So big shout-outs to Anne, Dana, Danny, Dave & Jenn, John, Heather, Kevin, Mike, Stephen, Ted, and anyone else I may have missed – look forward to seeing you all at the next one!
(photo credits: Jayce, Allan, and Jason Binstock)