The unofficial club of 10 premium hotel chains offering co-branded credit cards to their customers has grown by one, with the addition this month of Minnetonka-based Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, whose family of hotels includes Radisson and Country Inns & Suites.

The new loyalty card is a joint venture between Carlson and U.S. Bank, which has been providing banking services to Carlson dating back to the company's pioneering rewards program known as Gold Bond Stamps.

The credit card is officially known as the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card. It upgrades the current Club Carlson program from a points-for-stays program to a points-for-purchases program with a card that carries an annual fee of $65 to $75. One of the key elements of the program is a free night each time customers book a stay.

With similar cards in use by competitors like Hilton, Starwood, Marriott, Hyatt and La Quinta, the Visa launch by Carlson was a necessary evolution of its business model.

Suzanne Riesterer, Carlson Rezidor's chief commercial officer, sat down with the Star Tribune last week to talk about the program.

QIs this the latest version of Gold Bond Stamps?

AYou could call it that. Loyalty is in the blood of Carlson. We're connecting guests and customers to us, and that's how Gold Bond Stamps got started.

QWhy are you offering the branded Visa card now? There already are a lot of credit cards in the marketplace and many consumers are trying to reduce their credit card debt, not expand it.

AWe started the Club Carlson loyalty program 18 months ago, and this is a natural evolution of that. It brings new, innovative ideas. We have the bonus award night that nobody else does. This is for our real loyal guest. It's not meant to be another credit card. It should be used as a major credit card.

QGiven that many of your competitors already offer branded credit cards, isn't Carlson Rezidor a little late to the game?

AWe think it's the right time for the game. We wanted to do the loyalty program first, and the credit card brings an extra benefit that may not have been possible before. We wanted to find out what works and what the guests really want.

And they want free nights as fast as they can get them. Are we late to the party? No, we think we got it right. We got the feedback we wanted. It's a card for everybody. We made it aggressive so guests can build up free-night awards faster.

QHow will you market the program?

AWe'll coordinate our efforts with both U.S. Bank and Visa. We've been working with U.S. Bank for 60 years. The card will be launched this month, but we'll hit the marketing hard in early 2013. We'll do some print advertising, but we're focusing on enrolling members through internal channels such as our hotels.

QWho is your target demographic?

AWe'll start with the current members of our loyalty program. They're the most likely ones who want to continue earning points. U.S. Bank will be able to get to other places, as well.

QMany of your competitors offer similar branded credit cards. Aren't you concerned that you will have to sift through the clutter out there?

AWe have a very distinctive value proposition that stands out and is different. Nobody has anything like the bonus award night where the last night of your stay is free.

QWhat is the upside for Carlson Rezidor to offer this credit card?

AIt drives the loyalty of our guests. We'll reinvest all of the funds we make on the card back into the program.

QDoes this program put pressure on your hotel properties to exceed guest expectations?

ALoyalty is the whole experience with Carlson, and that's what we want to deliver. We want the guest to want to come back. No one wants to come back if you don't treat them well. Our business is like a three-prong stool. First there's the product, then service and finally our ability to help the hotels be profitable and drive traffic.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269