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Thai mobile carriers tempt customers with glitzy prizes

Discounts, parties, fancy co-working spaces on offer to high-spenders

True Corp. provides high-end co-working spaces for customers who spend a certain amount.

BANGKOK -- With its glittering ceiling and luxurious furniture, TrueSphere could easily be mistaken for the kind of nightclub only the A-list get to enjoy.

The co-working space run by True Corp., Thailand's second-largest mobile carrier, is not quite that exclusive, but it is only available to customers who spend 3,000 baht ($90.55) or more a month.

As the market saturates and the competition gets increasingly fierce, the quest for dominance in Thai mobile services has descended into a battle for retention.

Growth appears to have ground to a halt. After years of expansion, the total number of subscribers to the country's top three wireless carriers took a downturn in the April-June quarter.

Now, the country's main operators have resorted to offering more and more upscale services in a bid to protect and expand customer bases.

True Corp. has announced plans to nearly triple the number of TrueSphere locations to 22 by the end of 2018. Seven of the eight existing spaces are in Bangkok and 120 million baht will be spent on building new ones in other major cities like Phuket and Chiang Mai.

High-spending customers also get Black Cards, a premium reward scheme entitling them to special benefits. As of August, there were some 300,000 Black Card holders, up 76% from a year earlier. The carrier aims to increase the number to 500,000 by 2020.

True Corp. has grown rapidly by leveraging the resources of its parent organization Charoen Pokphand Group, the country's largest conglomerate.

The company overtook Total Access Communication to become the No. 2 player in the market in terms of subscriber base at the end of March and had increased its lead by the end of June.

The intensifying challenge from True Corp. has forced leading operator Advanced Info Service to act.

The company's AIS Serenade loyalty program offers discounts at restaurants and movie theaters which get more generous with the size of a customer's monthly bill and length of subscription.

The program also organizes special events where loyal customers get invited to parties with celebrities.

The total number of subscribers to the top three carriers stood at 90.27 million as of the end of June, down 470,000 from the end of March.

The decline represents a major shift in market trend after years of steady growth, even after the penetration rate surpassed 100%.

The big three providers will spend a combined 4.5 billion baht this year to enhance loyalty programs and lock in customers, according to an estimate by a local newspaper.

As the country's population ages, growth prospects for the market look increasingly bleak. Which carrier comes out on top looks set to hinge on how many high-spending customers they can each retain.

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