Podcast #103 — Hospitality is Personal; Tablets Everywhere

Twin or King-Size Lily Pad?

Doing a bit more travel since the last episode, so have more to talk about. First business trip of the year started out great, but quickly deteriorated as weather delays forced me to make quick changes. I update my trip management app recommendations after TripCase released the latest rev of their app, and talk about good mass transit experiences in Portland, OR and Park City, UT. A new behind-the-scenes book on the hotel industry shows how important people are to the travel experience. And the explosion of tablet form factors makes me re-think why I carry a tablet — comparing Apple’s iPad Mini to Google’s Nexus 7.  Here’s a direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

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Here are the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #103:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Great Welcome Basket at Hotel Monaco

    Coming to you from the Hotel Monaco in downtown Portland, OR. It’s been a long time since I’ve broken out the mobile recording kit. And for Jeremy Philips, who back in October, tweeted “I kind of miss the bathroom acoustics…”…

  • I am back on the road again with a mix of business and leisure. Flew into SLC on Southwest for a week-and-a-half Christmas ski vacation in Park City. First time I’ve skied Utah. It was nice, but cold. I’d say the last 5 years of skiing has been over Spring Break in Colorado. I’d forgotten how cold Christmas skiing is. It’d be 8 or 9 degrees when we hit the slopes, rising to maybe 15 in the afternoon.
  • My first business trip of the year was last week to Hartford, CT. I used to fly through there a lot 10-12 years ago. The airport was a dump back then. I was hoping that they’d freshened it up a bit — at least replaced the carpet. The day started great — United upgraded me to first class (milking the last month of 1K status for all it’s worth) and I got waved into the TSA PreCheck line. I felt so lucky, as the old Mary Chapin Carpenter tune goes, I bought a couple of lottery tickets at the first kiosk I saw.
  •  An hour later though, it all started to break up — go pear-shaped as my friends in the UK would say. As airlines have taken seats/capacity out of the system, secondary airports like Hartford have been the ones to lose service. For me, booking this flight at the last minute, there were no direct flights available, so I had to connect. Big risk; breaking my cardinal rule of flying. But I didn’t have another choice. So what do you do? I picked a smaller airport — CLE — to connect thru in hopes of avoiding air traffic control delays. My connection time was over an hour, just in case my first flight was delayed. And I scheduled myself to arrive almost 3 hours before my meeting, building in buffer for delays coming out of CLE.
  • My first two strategies worked — CLE was clear, no delays; and my inbound flight from ORD arrived 15 minutes early. When I turned my phone on after touching down in CLE, TripIt and WorldMate both told me my BDL flight was 40 minutes delayed. Annoying but not fatal because of all the backend buffer I’d allowed.
  • I went straight to the gate to get the story — why the delay? The plane was 2 hrs late leaving CLE because of fog in PHL, and is so now is late getting back to CLE for the BDL flight. Hmmm, this is starting to feel uncomfortable. I lived in PHL for 4 years and I know what a nightmare that airport is. Is the plane on its way back yet? No, it hasn’t landed at PHL yet.  Double hmmm… The departure time has slipped 10 minutes since I touched down. Not a good sign, but still not fatal. I sit down and run some e-mail.
  • Departure time slips another 15 minutes. I talk to the gate agent again. Has the flight left PHL? No, but it looks like it has pushed back. I start checking other options. Nothing else to BDL. I reach back for those 8th grade map skills — what about Providence, Boston, Albany, White Plains?
  • There’s a flight out to PVD. I pull up Google Maps — 90 mile drive from there to my meeting. I look at the arrival time, 45 minutes for taxi, getting off the plane, walking down the terminal, and getting to the car rental place. Would get me to my meeting with 30 minutes to spare. I draw a line in the sand — if the plane for the BDL flight isn’t in the air 5 minutes before the PVD flight starts boarding, I’m switching. The United gate agents were very helpful. They called ahead to the PVD gate, they gave me updates what was going on in PHL… But when I hit my decision time, the plane was still on the ground in PHL and speed-walked to the PVD flight.
  • And as you might have guessed, I didn’t match a single number on my lottery tickets…
  • Bridge Music — Beneath the Skin by Jerry Berlongieri

Following Up

  • OK, we’ll leave the tile reverb behind for the rest of the podcast. Listening back to some of the old episodes, a little of that goes a long way…
  • At the beginning of December, I expanded last episode’s trip management app bake-off into an article for Tnooz, a travel industry website focused on travel technology. In episode #102, I compared the free versions of TripIt, TripCase, WorldMate, and Kayak. The Tnooz article has the same use cases, but drops Kayak for the paid versions of TripIt and WorldMate. The recommendations didn’t change that much — use the free version of TripCase, but for $10, the WorldMate app is not a bad deal either.
  • Trip Management App Logos

    The Usual Suspects

    And then, just to show that no good deed goes unpunished, TripCase launched a completely revised version of their app and website a week after my Tnooz review. Using it during my SLC and BDL (or should I say PVD) trip, I’m revising my opinion southward. The new interface is fine. I’m not sure that it’s better as much as it’s just different — I picked up the new navigation pretty quickly. But I noticed that I wasn’t getting the normal iPhone notifications — I was getting e-mails instead, which you’ll remember from my evaluation in the last episode is definitely inferior to native iOS or Android notifications. And I can’t find in the app or the website how to re-enable them. The paid version of WorldMate does a good job of native notifications. TripCase also seems to have hidden where to manage social media notifications — where to turn on/off trip postings to Facebook and LinkedIn. I have to say that, after this redesign, my recommended solution is a bit muddier. I’d say it’s a combination of the free version of TripIt to push Facebook and LinkedIn notifications, and the $10 WorldMate Gold for managing the day of travel.

  • I had a chuckle a couple of weeks back. I was doing my weekly check-up on the TravelCommons site — going thru the comments caught up in the Spam filter (you wouldn’t believe some of that stuff) and looking at some of the traffic stats like inbound links. I saw a new link, or at least one I didn’t recognize, from FlyerTalk, the frequent flyer forum. Following it back, it was a topic that was started in April 2006 asking for travel podcast suggestions. I was very pleasantly surprised to see TravelCommons listed in the first response. We get bumped in 2007 and again in 2009 with listeners recommending the podcast. Then, what I would guess to be a former listener commented “The content of the Travel Commons podcast is interesting, but the guy’s voice is monotone and metronomically slow.” OK, I’ll take that as a half vote. But then Bob Fenerty jumped in with “I can see that perspective, but I find Mark’s voice soothing and reassuring”. Thanks for the help, Bob. I think the stint in the ‘70’s I did in contemporary Christian radio in Memphis — “You’re listening to the Voice of 1590” — has permanently crippled my ability to be vocally exciting…
  • As longtime listeners like Bob will recall, one of my more nerdy travel hobbies is taking mass transit to the airport. I don’t know why — maybe it’s some weird twist on trainspotting. But even after getting my passport stolen on the train back to Brussels airport last year, I still like to try these things out. I have three criteria for good mass transit to the airport — it’s gotta be clean, frequent, and cheap. Washington’s Metro hits all three while SF’s BART misses on all of them
  • Portland’s MAX Red Line from the airport also hits all three. Clean, reasonably modern trains, though they’re more like light rail trams, so not the fastest things. They run every 15 minutes, so good frequency. And at $2.50 for a ride downtown, they’re an order of magnitude cheaper than a cab. Unless you don’t buy a ticket. Halfway into my ride Monday night, three fare checkers step into my car checking tickets. I had mine, but the woman next to me didn’t. She said that she skipped the fare machine to run to make the train. The fare checker didn’t have much sympathy. She ended up with a ticket and a court date. He told her that if she had a clean record, she’d probably get away with a $60 fine and a day of community service. Wow! All that to save 15 minutes…
  • I also had a good experience with the free bus system in Park City UT during our ski holiday there. We took a cab to and from SLC, but once in Park City, we relied on the bus system to get everywhere — to/from the ski areas (Park City and The Canyons), town center for dinners on the very cold nights…. Clean buses, extensive routes, good frequency, and free. I’m told it’s funded by a piece of the local sales tax. It was certainly a money saver — no rental car, gas or parking costs — and very convenient.
  • If you have a question, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along.  The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — use the Voice Memo app on your iPhone or something like Easy Voice Recorder on your Android phone to record and send in an audio comment; send a Twitter message to mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge music — Bulletproof by Music Inside

Hospitality Is Personal

  • I read Jacob Tomsky’s Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality while in Park City. It’s a fun, easy read. Just looking at the cover, you can tell that Tomsky wants to give us the hotel version of Anthony Bourdain‘s Kitchen Confidential— the flawed insider with a heart of gold giving us a snarky behind-the-scenes tour.

    Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky

  • This tour has two very distinct parts. The first third of the book tells us how Tomsky fell into the hospitality industry and began to make it a career. He finds that having a philosophy degree in New Orleans isn’t an easy way to get a job, and so he takes a job as a parking valet at a new luxury hotel. Working hard and being earnest (which in his case means that he cleans up well and doesn’t try to kill his co-workers), he gets promoted to front desk agent and then into management. The second part of the book is set in a gone-to-seed Manhattan hotel where Tomsky lands, very reluctantly, broke after 9 months touring through Europe and 3 months searching for a publishing job in New York.
  • The New Orleans story is certainly the sunnier of the two; a young man finding his niche in the world and working his way up. Tomsky does a great job of describing the amount of planning and effort it takes for a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons to provide their levels of hospitality. And the biggest target for that effort doesn’t seem to be the guests, but instead the front line employees. Tomsky talks again and again about how amazed the valets and maids are when they’re treated to a pre-opening reception with an open bar, that  the general manager knows each of their names…. Little things, but things that translate into self-respect, pride in their jobs, pride in their hotel, which then translates into a drive to give the best service possible to each guest.
  • If the New Orleans story is about a man on his way up, the Manhattan story is about Tomsky abandoning, bit by bit, the Ritz level of service he was so proud of, becoming more focused on hustling tips than helping guests. As he slides down that slippery slope, the snark level increases… as does a sense of self-loathing. Everyone in the hotel is out for themselves — the managers, the bellmen, the front desk clerks — running their hustles not to serve their guests, but to maximize their tips. Which certainly leads to great service for some guests — but only those liberally spreading $20 bills around the lobby. And again, the tone is set at the top, but in this case, the general manager isn’t trying to deliver the best service; he’s trying to deliver the most money into his and the owner’s till as quickly and easily as possible.  An example that prompts each worker to do the same.
  • I’m not sure if Tomsky meant to show this, but his tale clearly illustrates something we talk about often on TravelCommons — that, in spite of all the technology being injected into the travel experience, the most important bit of the experience is still delivered by people — hospitality is personal. And the two parts of Tomsky’s story show how hard it is to build a team that prides itself on delivering great hospitality, and how easy it is to build a cynical team that’s doesn’t care.
  • Bridge music –Hurt Me So I Can Walk Away by Michael Joy

Tablets, Phablets, and Other Devices

  • One of the most popular pieces of technology being carried by travelers nowadays is a tablet. Walk down the aisle of a plane or a train and you’ll half to two-thirds of the passengers looking intently into one of these flat pieces of glass.
  • It started with people carrying Kindles, and then you saw iPads propped up against seat backs, but now it’s all kinds. I saw my first Microsoft Surface table in the wild (i.e., not in a Microsoft store) a few weeks ago walking through a food court in LGA. It was sorta royalish baby blue, complete with the snapon keyboard. An older guy sitting next to me on the plane on Monday was working on a Samsung Galaxy Note. The 5-1/4 inch screen looked huge compared to my iPhone 5. He had it a couple of weeks and really likes it. The key for him is having enough screen size to run e-mail in a large font so he doesn’t have to pull out his reading glasses, but it’s small enough to fit in his suit coat pocket. The only thing that feels a bit funny, he said, is using it to make a phone call. That big slab of glass feels like it’s covering half his face.
  • I’ve been running a Google Nexus 7 for 3-4 months now. The 7-in screen size puts it between the pocket-sized Galaxy Note and a full-sized iPad. I had run iPads since they first came out — the 1, the 2, the next one after that (the iPad without a number). Like everyone, I thought they were phenomenal devices. But as I traveled with it, I had more trouble trying to figure out how the iPad uniquely justified it weight in my travel kit. I had colleagues who tried using them in place of laptops and as electronic notebooks. It worked just OK for them — the iPad’s e-mail client and calendar app just don’t have the same power as Outlook, and the notes they took with a stylus looked like a kindergartener’s scrawl with a black crayon. Some guys carried bluetooth keyboards, but that seemed like more hassle than it was worth. And then, I found myself getting frustrated with the iPad’s “sandboxing” — certain files are opened with certain apps; you can’t get to the file system like you can on a PC if you need to do something more than an app will let you. It’s a great model that works for 80% of population, but was way too constraining for me. For what I do, an iPad isn’t going to replace a laptop.
  • As a “media consumption device”? iPads are great for watching movies but most of my “media consumption” is reading and I found the full-sized iPad too heavy — both in my hand and in my bag — to be a good e-reader.
  • The laptop/iPad combo had too much overlap, so I started looking at 7-in tablets. I skipped the Kindle — I wanted to do more than just e-read; I don’t have a big investment in the Amazon eco-system, and didn’t want to get locked in further. So I looked at the iPad Mini and the Google Nexus 7. I gravitated toward the Mini — I have a bunch of iPad apps, am deeply invested in the iTunes eco-system… But pricing out equivalent Minis and Nexus 7s, the Mini was almost twice as expensive and, try as I might, I couldn’t justify that delta.
  • The Nexus 7 works fine for what I want — a lot of reading — with the WSJ and USA Today apps, work documents that I cloud-sync from my laptop with DropBox, — watch the occasional movie or video podcast, run Android photo editing apps like Instagram and Snapseed,…. I’ve even done some Google Hangouts on it.
  • One thing I haven’t done is try to make a phone call on it. that’s a lot of glass to lay across my cheek.

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #103
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • Bridge music from Magnatune
  • If you have a story, thought, comment, gripe – the voice of the traveler — send ‘em along, text or audio file, to comments@travelcommons.com or to @mpeacock on Twitter, or post them on our website at travelcommons.com. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to send in e-mails, Tweets and post comments on the website
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