Can frequent travelers just write off 2014? We all knew we were abused by the airlines with high prices and lousy service. I guess it’s somewhat comforting to know that analysis of 2014’s data proves us right. I’m not sure there’s much more we can do than enjoy the little things and hope 2015 is better. Once we get to where we’re going, the restaurant food has gotten a lot better and with trends toward local sourcing and flavors, a lot more interesting. We also talk about a couple pieces of hotel industry news — hoping that IHG’s acquisition of Kimpton doesn’t screw up the “anti-chain”, and continued puzzlement as to why Marriott wanted to block your WiFi hot spots. You can listen to all this and more using the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking below.
Here are the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #113:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from the San Antonio Northwest Marriott in San Antonio, TX. Doing a quick down-and-back after the flight cancellations caused by the New York snopocalypse that wasn’t blew up my travel plans for the beginning of this week.
- I tried to get a podcast done over the Christmas holiday, but the eating and drinking and then the sleeping got in the way. Funny how that works. But after my traditional 2 week hiatus from travel, my first trip of the new year — on Monday the 5th — started about right — with an hour departure delay out of ORD. I couldn’t complain too much, though. The plane was there; the crew was there. We were just waiting on the fuel truck which the morning’s sub-zero temperature had slowed down a bit. Frustrating, but understandable. Walking down the jetway, the cold just took my breath away — even in a heavy coat. I can imagine the guys running the fuel trucks needed more than a few warming breaks.
- I was heading down to New Orleans, though were the temps were about 50 degrees higher than Chicago’s single digits
- It is that time of year that you think a bit more strategically about your travel choices — if you can. A bit more interested in making sales calls in Phoenix or San Antonio rather than, say, Minneapolis; preferring United’s Houston hub over Denver for transcontinental connections.
- Or vectoring through airports with good places to pass the time in case of delays. I’ve been connecting through Nashville recently on Southwest and stumbled across an outpost of Tootsie’s, the well-known downtown music joint, as I was walking through Concourse C — complete with live music. And then in the middle of Concourse C — near the walk-by Yazoo City Brewery stand — is another stage with live music.
- Of course, you can have too much of a good thing. Like back in mid-November, United had a piano player in ORD at gate C17 playing Christmas tunes — a 5-tune repertoire that got old real quick during a 45-min flight delay…
- Bridge Music — Indian Blossom by Ruben van Rompaey
- Spelunking through my Twitter feed…
- A couple of weeks before Christmas, I had to swing through New York on a last minute trip and, being near the holidays, the rates were absurd. It was a struggle to get a decent room for less than $300/night. It just amazes me, because I had paid less than $100/night earlier that week in New Orleans. Anyhow, I ended up at a Kimpton Hotel — 70 Park Avenue — in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan. I’ve been a big fan of the Kimpton chain since I set up camp for 3 months in the Hotel Monaco in downtown Portland a couple of years ago. Kimpton’s schtick is to be sort of an “anti-chain” — embracing the quirks of each locale, each building rather than trying to replicate a standard brand experience; what Marriott has done with the refreshed Courtyards — same furniture, same lobby, same footprint in each property. Kimpton makes a big point of being pet-friendly. In Portland, just about every morning I was there, the elevator would open and a dog would walk in (with their owner). Most were reasonably sized, but there were a couple of times some sort of bull mastiff walked in and made for tight quarters. Not a normal experience at your typical Starwood property. Another notable Kimpton quirk is their leopard print bathrobes. Again, a bit different from the typical white terry numbers you get elsewhere. Walking into my room at 70 Park, it was laid out on the bed. I posted a picture to Twitter — and it drew quite the set of comments. They also have some fun loyalty perks, like “Raid the Minibar”. I got into New York late, so the $30 credit 70 Park gave me came in very handy — especially since it was one of the better stocked mini-bars I’ve seen in a while. My only beef is that Kimpton isn’t in many of the place I’ve been going — New Orleans, Memphis,…. I’m lifetime platinum on Marriott and platinum on Starwood, but I always look to stay at a Kimpton property when there’s one available.
- So I was very concerned the next week when I saw the announcement that IHG — the Holiday Inn people — bought Kimpton. One of the blandest hotel chains in existence buys one of the quirkiest. I think the last Crowne Plaza I stayed in was 6 years ago in Joburg, SA. IHG’s last attempt to be hip was the Indigo chain. How many of you have stayed there? I’m gonna be keeping my eyes on this deal. I hope they don’t screw up Kimpton.
- I’m glad Marriott is giving up their misguided attempt to get FCC approval to block individual WiFi hotspots. It’s kinda weird. I can’t figure out why they want to so obviously poke their customers. And it can’t be that much of a revenue thing because they’re giving away WiFi to just about everyone — I’ve been getting it free for a while as an upper tier Rewards member as have everyone at the lower end brands like Residence Inn and Courtyard, and as of the middle of this month, so do all Marriott Rewards members at their Marriott brand. Which seems to be a trend. Kimpton does the same thing. Indeed, if you hit the Kimpton WiFi log on screen and aren’t a member of their Karma program, you’re taken to an enrollment screen.
- Which is important because hotel loyalty programs seem to be losing their grip. In a recent Google study, an increasing number of business travelers say that hotel loyalty programs have less impact on the travel planning this year than last year. The same study also found that most business travelers would switch programs for better perks. Given that free WiFi is one of the most popular perks with frequent travelers, what Kimpton is doing makes sense — and what Marriott tried to do just doesn’t.
- Now, Marriott’s stated reason — it’s all about security, wanted to protect their guests from rogue WiFi hotspots. Very buzzword-compliant — cybersecurity is hot right now. And of course, travelers do need to be careful about which WiFi access points they connect to. Sweden’s Pirate Party pulled a cute prank earlier this month highlighting this. They set up an access point named “Open Guest” at a Swedish conference and over 100 delegates — government officials, journalists, security experts — connected to it, using it for e-mail, web browsing, Skype, eBay, …. just about everything. The Pirate Party logged all the traffic. Are people that gullible — or cheap — or both? Even more of a reason to use your own hotspot.
- The Monday before Christmas, I wrote up the holiday airport etiquette tips from the last episode as a stand-alone blog post. It seemed like a timely post going into the holiday travel season. It was a pretty popular post. Rob, a long time TravelCommons listener and Untappd friend, gave it a nice re-tweet — “A bit brusque, but the best travel tips I’ve read this year”. And he was right. I didn’t sugar coat it a lot — just venting a bit from what I typically see — gumming up the PreCheck line, the Starbucks line, the concourse hallways. Probably not the best holiday spirit.
- But what I thought was in the holiday spirit was a sign I saw on the bell stand of the Minneapolis Marriott — “Br-r-r-r!! It’s cold out! We have warm coats to lend you, available upon request. Please see your friendly bell staff person. Thank you, and stay warm!” I asked one of the bell men how often people take them up on their offer. “Oh, a lot,” he said. Really? What part of “You’re coming to Minnesota in December so dress warmly” do people not get? He just shrugged and gave me that “Minnesota nice” smile.
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- Bridge Music — Afternoon in the Sun by John Williams
2014 Was A Bad Year To Fly
- A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal posted its 2014 airline scorecard. Now, every travel columnist seems to do one of these, but I liked the Journal’s. I apologize to my international listeners, but this scorecard is just focused on the US. And indeed, just the US majors — Spirit and Hawaiian aren’t in the mix, though Frontier, Alaska, and Virgin America are. I posted the scorecard graphic on the TravelCommons Facebook page when it came out; I’ll also put it in the show notes. It scores the carriers across 7 operational measures — on-time arrivals, cancelled flights, extreme delays, 2-hr tarmac delays, mishandled baggage, involuntary bumping, complaints — and then generates an overall rank. The top 3 were Alaska, Virgin America, and Delta. The variability across the 7 operational measures for these top performers was interesting. Alaska, the top overall, had the best scores for on-time arrivals, extreme delays, and complaints, but were 5th out of 8 in mishandled baggage. United, on the other hand, was more consistently the worst airline — ranking last (8th) in 4 measures and 7th in the other 3.
- Which kinda doesn’t surprise me because their customer service just kept getting worse in a sort of cavalierly indifferent sort of way. I get to LaGuardia early one afternoon and want to move up to an earlier flight that’s wide open. That’ll cost you $75 — to move from a full flight to an empty flight. Or the guy who plopped down next to me in the middle seat one day. He originally had aisle seat. Then United upgraded him to First Class. But then, oops, the First Class passenger showed up, so the guy had to go back to coach — except they’d already given away his aisle seat and all that was left was this middle seat. So there he was stuck — with nothing but some shrugged shoulders and a mumbled “Sorry”. You’d think they could’ve given him a couple hundred frequent flyer points, or a drink coupon. Even the most basic restaurant will comp you a dessert if things aren’t right.
- It was entertaining, then, in a twisted sort of way, when I got an e-mail from United the following week offering to upgrade me from Premiere Gold to Platinum for $2,600. With these sorts of scores, you think they’d be paying me — or at least making it something closer to an impulse purchase. But then again, they’re probably looking at my other choices in Chicago — American with an overall score of 7 or Southwest, scoring 5 out of 8. Chicago hub airlines are kinda like Chicago football and baseball teams — fighting it out for the cellar — except without the silver lining of high draft picks.
- If you really think about it, 2014 was an awful year to fly. The airlines finally got market discipline; through acquisitions — Delta buying Northwest, United buying Continental, American buying US Airways (or was that the other way around) — they got the oligopoly working which pushed up prices and utilization — high fares and crowded planes. Add to that the consistent ratcheting down for the base level of services — unbundling — charging an increasing amount for bags, change fees, pets, children traveling alone, decent seats.
- All this while the actual experience got worse. The Wall Street Journal article gives data to prove what we already knew — we’re paying more for less. US airlines cancelled 66,000 more flights in 2014 than in 2013 and lost or delayed 2.1 million bags, a 17% increase. Which explains the 26% increase in complaints filed with the US Dept of Transportation. Not surprising, then, that American’s CEO told financial analysts and press during Tues’ Q4 earnings call “We are not asking our customers to be happy with anything.”
- We can always hope that 2014 will turn out to be the bottom. That the newer planes the major carriers are buying will mean fewer mechanical delays and fewer cancellations. That more profitable airlines will stop demanding givebacks from their employees, which would mean much more pleasant flight attendants and pilots, and more enthusiastically productive mechanics and baggage handlers.
- Until then, I’ll be try to be happy with the little things — the unexpected first-class upgrade on my United flight down to San Antonio. The nearly empty mid-day flight from New Orleans to Chicago. The flight attendant told us we could change seats when we wanted, but nobody moved. We each had our own rows. The early arrival into Nashville that changed a tight connection into a leisurely stroll with time to catch a beer between gates. I’ll enjoy these little things, hoping that the bigger things get better in 2015.
- Bridge Music — Arsenal is by The West Exit
Restaurant Trends Go Local
- So while the trip to where you’re going has gotten more miserable, odds are the food is a lot better once you get there. Every year I go to the National Restaurant Show looking at dining trends because frequent travelers have to eat and it’s typically in a restaurant.
- One of the interesting trends, though, is the expansion of what a restaurant is. At the most recent NRA show — that’s National Restaurant, not Rifle, Association — there was a good-sized section devoted to food trucks. And depending on where you’re traveling, you’ll see more and more of them in the wild. Of course, food trucks are old hat in places like Manhattan and Center City Philadelphia. And in Portland, I’m not sure you can really call them food trucks — the ones set up in downtown parking lots don’t look like they’ve moved in years. But elsewhere, they’ll touch down outside of office building or universities around lunch time and offer up some very cool/innovative and often locally-unique food that’s provides some nice variety.
- Which ties into another big trend — the shift to local — locally-sourced fish, meat , vegetables; locally-made beer or spirits, house-made pickles and charcuterie, …. Which is kind of a throwback. If you think about the 70’s and the 80’s, big franchise chains expanded in the US and then globally, pushing out standard menus with the same dishes everywhere. Now the good side of this was it took the guess work and the risk out of picking a place to eat. No surprises — which is both good and bad. If you stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken along the road or took a client out to a Morton’s Steak House, you knew what you were going to get and you could reasonably expect a certain level of quality. But you weren’t going to discover anything new; get anything unique to where you were visiting. That’s OK when food is fuel — I want to stop being hungry. It isn’t when food becomes something more — an experience, an expression of place, which it is now with these hyper-local trends. Yes, when overdone, it can feel like you’ve somehow slipped into a bad Portlandia episode, but when done right, it can make you happy you gutted out the lousy flight to get there.
- One trend I keep hearing about, but I don’t really see much in travels, is using tablets and smartphones to replace menus and servers and checks. Every year at the NRA show, there are rows and rows of vendors showing iPad menus and smartphone apps that allow diners to order, split the tab, and pay without seeing a waiter or a bartender. I’ve seen these in the wild exactly twice — an iPad wine list at Restaurant Revolution in New Orleans. And it was actually kind of intrusive — lighting up the face of the reader in an otherwise lower lit dining room. And at a restaurant/bar in MSP where the bartender reached over to do the ordering for me. Now this is different from alternative payment methods — touch-and-pay with Apple Pay or using a bar code on the Starbucks app. Those are just different ways to end the transaction. What I don’t see, in spite of 2-3 years of trend hype, is a move in a restaurant to self-service ordering or paying.
- Indeed, if anything, I see a move to more interaction with service staff with seemingly more folks taking full meals at the bar — your server, the bartender, is never further than 6 ft from you and, on a slower night, is good for a little conversation. I guess if I’m coming to a place for local cuisine made from local produce, I’m not sure why I’d want to skip talking to the local people.
- Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #113
- I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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- Bridge music from Magnatune
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