Randy Petersen has more frequent-flier miles than most people will accumulate in a lifetime--about 5 million so far. But he doesn't use them for free vacations.
Instead, Petersen, 43, has used the miles to build a small publishing empire and to establish himself as the nation's preeminent guru of frequent-flier programs. Petersen and his company, Frequent Flyer Services in Colorado Springs, Colo., publish InsideFlyer magazine, and he is widely quoted on most facets of the travel incentives industry.
In a recent editorial, for example, Petersen took on Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Contractors Corp., a coalition of large businesses that are trying to get airlines to give corporate discounts to business passengers in lieu of frequent-flier miles. Mitchell has said he believes that employees who travel frequently for corporations would be understanding about giving up their mileage awards.
In the September issue of InsideFlyer, Petersen wrote: "Let's be honest here. It's one thing to completely and blatantly ignore the opinions and importance of frequent flyers; it is quite another story to make generalizing comments with the intent to reflect the thoughts of thousands and thousands of frequent flyers. Thanks, Kevin, but I prefer to speak for myself."
In reality, Petersen is himself a voice for thousands of frequent fliers, who contact his organization with their pet peeves and desires regarding frequent-traveler programs. Hotels and airlines also consult him for suggestions on how to improve or change their programs.
"His credibility factor is strong," said Gordon Lambourne, a spokesman for Marriott Hotels Corp. "He is considered unbiased. He's not a slick marketing person."
Petersen describes himself as "just one of those goofy guys who always read the fine print at the bottom of the ticket."
Such reading paid off in the early 1980s, when he wound up with a free vacation in Hawaii at a time when many people were still unfamiliar with frequent-flier miles. Friends and co-workers starting asking questions about flying for free.
"I got this reputation," Petersen said. Whenever the topic of free travel or frequent-flier miles came up, people would say, "Go ask Randy."
So many people asked him, in fact, that in 1985 he quit his job as a sales manager for a large menswear firm to start InsideFlyer.
"In 1985, there was still some debate as to whether frequent-flier programs were a fad or gimmick," Petersen said. He was convinced they had a future.
Today, in addition to publishing the magazine, Petersen consults for hotels and airlines, offers frequent-flier insurance to protect travelers from carriers going out of business, and is diversifying into on-line information services. His 40-employee company also offers programs for businesses and individuals to help them capture the most free mileage from their travels.
Petersen has a loyal following of "mileage junkies," said Laurie Berger, editor of Frequent Traveler, a monthly magazine published by Official Airline Guides in Secaucus, N.J., that provides a wide range of information for business travelers. It too recognizes Petersen's expertise, and has tapped him as a monthly guest columnist beginning in January.
"If there's anyone's name that is synonymous with frequent-flier programs, it's Randy's," Berger said. "He's been around a long time, and he really knows what he's talking about."
When Petersen started InsideFlyer, there were only about 20 programs to track, he said. Now he monitors about 75 frequent-flier and frequent-stay programs.
He tries to fly the fine line between consumer and industry. The magazine accepts advertising, but Petersen often criticizes policies and program changes.
And though he gets offers of free travel all the time, he spends about $100,000 a year on trips. He pays his way so he can get the same experiences as his readers, he said. "I need to see for myself how the programs work."
He also spreads his travel dollars around, said Ken Heldt, a business associate from Petersen's days in menswear who is now managing director of Frequent Flyer Services. "If he goes somewhere for four nights, he stays in a different hotel each night."
As for the miles he accumulates himself, he rarely uses them. Instead he gives them to employees as incentives or donates them to nonprofit organizations for fund-raisers.
When Petersen is not in the air racking up miles, he can usually be found on the phone. "I talk to 12 programs and about 200 readers a week," he said.
It is this near obsession with being up to date on what is happening in the industry that has garnered him a reputation for being both thorough and fair.
"He's constantly calling and checking on things," Marriott Hotels' Lambourne said, adding that Petersen isn't shy about pointing out gimmicks that don't serve travelers well. "You could credit Randy for helping keep the industry honest. He's helped give programs meaningful value."
For example, in what has become an industry tradition, Petersen publishes his annual "Freddie Awards," which are tantamount to the Tony awards for frequent-use programs.
One of the reasons Petersen has such a strong reputation is that he's been at the game longer than anyone else, said Chris McGinnis, a travel consultant in Atlanta and author of "202 Tips Even the Best Business Travelers May Not Know."
"He got in before there was an objective voice out there and just snatched up the market," McGinnis said.
It's a market he helped create, but it's also one he expects will endure.
"People say frequent-flier miles are like Green Stamps--that eventually they'll go away," Petersen said. "I don't think so. The day you can earn frequent-flier miles buying flowers and eating at restaurants, you know they're here to stay."