Podcast #152 — Overwhelming Travel; New & Old Restaurant Trends

Latest in Sustainable Food Delivery 

Moving the TravelCommons studios kept me mostly off the road this month except for a quick trip to Nashville, but staying out of restaurants has helped me finally drop the last bit of Christmas weight. We talk about the “earn and burn” strategy for frequent travel awards; answer a listener’s question on how to keep from being overwhelmed when arriving in a new city, and new restaurant trends from the floor of the National Restaurant Association’s big show. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #152:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the new TravelCommons studios in Chicago, IL. The move went surprisingly smoothly — nothing lost, nothing destroyed on the 20-mile trip in from the western suburbs. Have the production bay rebuilt and now trying out the new studio set-up, so we’ll see how this sounds.
  • Which also means I haven’t done much travel since the last episode; just a quick trip last week down to Nashville. But the move downtown meant I had to rethink some of my travel patterns — not how to get to and from Nashville, but how to get to and from Chicago Midway airport. We’ve said before in many episodes, most (all?) frequent travelers are all about optimizing the standard parts of their journey — what’s the most efficient way to get to the airport, when to leave — optimizing the trade-off between sleep and getting to the gate when status pre-boarding is announced. In the old digs, I had a pretty predictable 25-30 minute drive to either O’Hare or Midway, and long-term relationship with a dependable driver. Which meant answering the “when do I need leave for the airport” question was a mindless exercise — subtract 90 minutes from the departure time and send a text to my guy the night before. But now it’s a kinda predictable 60-minute public transit ride or a very unpredictable 35-60-minute Uber/Lyft ride with even more unpredictable wait times and surge pricing, especially when catching a morning flight. Actually, for this 3-day trip, I think it would’ve been cheaper to drive and park, even with the City of Chicago’s latest parking taxes.
  • The Southwest flights between Midway and Nashville were a bit odd because the pilots kept everyone in their seats for the entire flight due to “expected turbulence” – of which there was absolutely none. Though I thought it was interesting that the pilot on our return trip said “We may ask our flight attendants to remain seated so we can fly faster and pick up some time.” It’s an hour-and-20-minute flight, so not too long to stay seated as long as you didn’t drop a couple of beers at the bar right before boarding. But it also meant I didn’t get a chance to use some of the free drink coupons Southwest sent me last month. I should’ve followed the advice of a Nashville Airport billboard that was posted right above the Southwest gate — “Before Wheels Up, Whiskey up.”
  • Bridge Music —  DLDN Instrumental by St Paul

Following Up

  • Because the trip to Nashville was personal travel, I used award points where I could — Hyatt for our hotel and Hertz for the rental car. The only reason I didn’t use Southwest points was because I was burning off a $100 customer satisfaction certificate Southwest sent me as comp for one of their 3 delayed flights I talked about in the Travel Interruptus episode a couple of months back. We’ve talked about how to use awards many times over the years. And while the tactics may change a bit, my overall strategy has been pretty consistent — use them rather than save them, or “earn and burn” as some folks say. I know a lot of travelers who save them — hoard them — thinking of them as their travel savings account — or perhaps a badge of honor — “I have 2 million American Airline points” to which I think (and try not to say) “that are going to get you a lot less the longer you keep holding them”. Because  rather than increasing in value by earning interest, they can suddenly decrease in value when United or BA or Marriott or, a couple of weeks ago, Hertz decide to redo their awards charts. And, for all the luvvy words in those announcements about “increasing the value” of their programs, I’ve never seen one of those changes increase the value of the points. At the end of May, Hertz published — without any warning or announcement — a new award chart that increased the point cost for daily and weekly rentals by 11-36 percent. Back in March, Marriott added a new top hotel category with a 42% higher per-night award cost — 85,000 points a night for the properties that moved into the new Category 8 vs. 60,000 points when they were in 7. And most of the properties that got that 42% bump were resort properties — the ones you’d most likely want to use your points on. In November, United will eliminate their award charts altogether, following Delta and Southwest in moving to dynamic pricing. Pick your slogan – “Earn and burn”; “Use ‘em or lose ‘em”. Though I think I like “you deserve a break today” better. Plan a vacation and burn your points before the companies do.
  • Even though  I haven’t traveled much since the last episode, I’ve still been thinking a lot about travel – specifically, laying out our trip at the back half of this month — a week in Ireland and then heading over to Scotland for Claire’s graduation from Univ of St Andrews. I talked in the last episode about wrestling with the Avios website to book our flights, but with that done, I got consumed by packing and moving and unpacking, and sorta lost track of the other reservations that we needed for our week in Ireland. That insight landed on me pretty hard the Tuesday after Memorial Day when I looked at my calendar and started seeing June dates. I got nothing — no car, no places to sleep. And it’s not like the end of June is low season in Ireland. Back in March, in episode 149, I talked about how we dug deep when planning our spring break trip to Brittany — buying guidebooks, scouring web sites, …. But we had never been there before. My planning for Ireland is a lot more impromptu because, back in the early ‘90’s, I spent a lot of time in Cork for business, and while the country has no doubt changed a lot in the past 20-some odd years, I had a sense of what I wanted to see and a bit of an itinerary in mind — spend most of the week hubbing out of Galway, going south to County Clare and north to the Connemara, and then heading over to Dublin for the weekend before flying over to Edinburgh. I found myself spending most of my time spelunking through TripAdvisor. First, in the Ireland forum trying to figure out the right rental car strategy. My default strategy — go with Hertz and leverage my US status if anything goes sideways — wouldn’t work because Hertz has franchised its name in Ireland to another company. Also, rental car insurance seems to be a bit unique there; using your credit card to cover damages like on my last trip to St Andrews apparently requires a letter from your card issuer and is still a particular hassle at the counter. Then there was the sifting through the Manichean universe of TripAdvisor reviews — a bipolar split between 5-star “everything is fantabulous” and 1-star “it’s a complete dump and I’m sure the maid spit in my water glass” write-ups. I tend to the more forgiving end of that spectrum. I don’t think you should slam a place for a problem if you didn’t tell them about it and give them a chance to fix it. I also try to have reasonable expectations; you’re not going to get psychic/transcendent levels of service for $100/night. It took me a solid day-and-a-half of screen time, but we now have a bed for each night and a set of wheels to get us there.
  • Being off the road for a month has helped me drop a nagging 7-8 lbs that I put on over Christmas and until now — 5-6 months later — haven’t been able to drop. We’ve talked in past episodes how easy it is to put weight on when traveling — eating 3 meals a day in restaurants, or worse on the run in airports, makes portion control difficult, as well as eating more vegetables than fries. But even when you’ve chosen, say, the fish instead of the burger, you’re still someone else’s mercy for how it’s cooked. This light bulb lit for me while watching The Chef Show on Netflix over the weekend. It’s a great cooking show. It stars Jon Favreau, director of the Iron Man movies, and Roy Choi, who was one of the first gourmet food truck guys in LA; you’d track them down on Twitter for fantastic Korean-Mexican tacos. These guys worked together on Favreau’s Chef movie a few years back and then got back together for this Netflix series. In the second episode, they’re cooking in Atlanta with Ford Fry at his restaurant, The Optimist. They’re making a Shrimp Toast dish that easily uses over a stick of butter to cook and sauce 5 large shrimp. They joke about the amount of butter and salt restaurants use — “When they say ‘no salt’…,” Favreau asks Choi, Choi responds “…we add twice as much”. And then they add another half-stick of butter to the shrimp pan. I’m sure it tastes great, but it was an “a-ha” moment — how, even when you think you’re ordering healthy, the guys in the back are focused on taste, not counting calories for you.
  • After our move, I’ve cranked through most of the change of addresses, but haven’t yet done my drivers license. But that one will take a little more work because my current Illinois drivers license isn’t a Real ID license — it doesn’t have the gold star in the upper right corner. It’s not a problem right now, but in 16 months from now, October 2020, when the TSA says it will fully enforce the 2005 Real ID act — 15 years later, for real this time, no more extensions or waivers — and so will no longer accept non-compliant IDs at airports. Getting a Real ID license requires more documentation — proof of my Social Security Number and two documents with our new address — like a utility bill or a bank statement, which could be a bit of a challenge now that we get most everything electronically. Now, I could just skip it and use my passport or Global Entry card (if I could find it) instead. But that would mean I’d have to remember to bring one more thing with me to the airport, which is never a best practice. Not critical — I have 16 months to get around to it — though probably not something to wait until the last minute on. The Illinois DMV isn’t the quickest, most nimble organization on its best days. I can only imagine what it’ll be like come, say August or September 2020, when it gets crushed with people without passports looking to swap their drivers licenses before the October 1 deadline.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along — text or audio comment to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or our Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music —  Goodbye Sooner or Later by oldDog

Overwhelmed By Travel

  • Cristine Danielson, a long-time friend and first time listener, asked me after listening to the last episode “I’d love to hear how you get acclimatized to a new city from the moment you leave the gate. I always feel overwhelmed”  That pulled me up short. I had never really thought about it that way. I’ve been traveling heavily coming up on 35 years; I’ve been traveling longer than I haven’t. I started when I was too young and seemingly indestructible to know any better, and now, I have enough travel experience, routines, rhythms  — patterns I called them earlier — and status that, even when gutting through Travel Interruptus, things seem more inconvenient than overwhelming.
  • One of the most important things for me is having enough money in my pocket to handle what could come my way. At the end of the last century — the 1990’s to be exact — I was doing a lot of bunny hop trips through Europe — Sweden one day, Switzerland the next, then Germany, then the UK …. This was pre-ATMs, pre-Euro, pre-mobile phones, and for many places in Europe, pre-widespread acceptance of credit cards. Truly the travel dark ages. So, my routine would be to exit Customs, head straight to the Currency Exchange, and cash a $100 American Express travelers check so I would have enough local cash for, say a coffee and a cab. Having that cash in my pocket settled me a bit; maybe gave me a sense of some control, no matter how illusionary it might be. Today, I head straight for an ATM instead of the Currency Exchange and, as I said a few episodes back, make sure I have a “full house” of credit cards — a Visa and MasterCard from different banks, and an Amex. And it’s not just when I’m out of the country. Even in the US, I’m a lot more comfortable traveling when I have 5 or 10 $20’s in my wallet.
  • After my wallet comes my phone. Modern travel is all about the smartphone app — is my plane on time, where’s the hotel, what train line do I need? My whole Travel Interruptus tale would’ve been much worse than “inconvenient” without smartphone connectivity. I wouldn’t have been able to tweet at Southwest customer service, I wouldn’t have been able to find a decent hotel in Paris when the train delays made us miss our flight home, I wouldn’t have been able to book that God-awful expensive Uber that got us to CDG just in time to make our flight. Back in the last century, I would’ve searched for a pay phone, pulled out my phone card, and rung up the travel agency. Even today, if I’m ringing up a travel agency instead of doing it on my own, when was the last time you saw a working pay phone?
  • Those are the mechanics of travel, but what about fitting in to the place you’ve arrived? I talked about how business travelers especially tend to float above everything in a “travel bubble”. You walk out — of the plane with enough status, otherwise baggage claim — and find someone holding a sign with your name who’s job is to give you a bottle of water and whisk you past the things that might be disconcerting, overwhelming. When that bubble pops, unexpectedly, and drops you into the day-to-day reality of the place you are; that decompression can be overwhelming.
  • The closest I came to an overwhelming experience was not arriving in a place, but trying to leave. A colleague and I wrapped up our day in Pune, India and were flying home from Mumbai that night, but on different flights; his leaving a couple of hours earlier than mine. For some reason, the person arranging our trip had us taking cars from Pune to Mumbai instead of flying. Well, OK. It wasn’t a bad drive — actually a bit scenic — right until we hit Mumbai traffic. We get to the international terminal, we pull our bags from the trunk, and make our way thru the general chaos of people and push carts and food vendors to the entrance.  We both have our itineraries out and ready for inspection. My colleague goes first — the officer looks at it and waves him through. I hand over my itinerary and follow my colleague. Except I can’t. I can’t go into the terminal; I’m too early. I’m now back out in the chaos with nowhere to go — our car is long gone, I have no idea where Mumbai Airport is in relation to anything — is there a hotel nearby. I don’t have a working mobile phone to ring anyone. I’m just standing around, with hundreds of other people trying to get in, or saying good-bye to someone trying to get in, or waiting for someone to come out. I walked up and down the sidewalk in front of the terminal, looking for something — a phone, a bench. I find a door. I look in — it’s a lounge for people waiting for arriving passengers. There’s a big plexiglass wall separating baggage claim. But more importantly, it has seats, is air conditioned, and has a restroom. I walk in — except I can’t. I need a ticket. Where do I get that? Back out and around the corner. I find the ticket window. It’s a couple hundred rupee — $2-3. I reach into my pocket and pull out my last bit of cash — a 500 rupee note. Things got a lot less overwhelming.
  • Bridge Music —  Test Drive by Zapac

New and Old Restaurant Trends

  • Last month, I hit the National Restaurant Association’s annual show in Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center. If you need reminding of how big the restaurant business is in the US, this show is huge. I was interested to see what’s new and what has stayed the same since the last time I went, 4 years ago.
  • What’s new – Walking the aisles, I was immediately struck by the number of booths showing delivery containers. They were everywhere. Talking to a couple of vendors, they said some hotels are seeing huge growth in Doordash and Grubhub deliveries eating into their restaurant and room service revenues (all puns intended). And since they’re seeing it being driven by the new generation of new travelers — the Millennial and Gen-Z travelers — they think it’s more of a trend than a blip, yet another revenue stream lost to traveler technology — like when they lost long-distance phone calls to cell phones, and then pay TV revenue to PCs and iPads running Netflix and YouTube. So many hotels, especially the lower end ones, are dropping food service altogether. But this collides head on with sustainability concerns — the growth in delivery means a growth in styrofoam containers and plastic bags. And so I’d walk past, say, two booths back-to-back — the first selling traditional containers; the second pushing compostable paper and bioplastics. These new containers looked good; except when I tried to use a paper straw on a frozen margarita sample that someone pushed on me. That was a complete fail.
  • Also saw a number of established ethnic food companies trying to branch out into new/hotter ethnic spaces. Kronos, for example, is one of the main companies selling Greek gyros meat. In their booth, they were sampling gyros, but also new chicken al pastor and Korean barbeque products. Cultural appropriation or trying to stay in business by catering to those darn Millennials and Gen Z’ers. I dunno, but a Kronos guy told me that 90% of their business still comes from gyros. Which kinda rang true when I looked at which sample booths had the longest lines — hot dogs from Vienna Beef and Nathan’s and grilled cheese sandwiches from Tillamook Cheddar.
  • That being said, there were a lot of vendors selling Asian products — primarily Japanese and Korean — continuing the trend I’ve seen at the show. Digital is still big, but the focus seemed to have shifted from smartphone apps to \ interfacing with those delivery services — updating menus and getting orders automatically into their point-of-sale systems — and more efficiently managing social media. I saw a Yelp booth for the first time at the show. It was a good-sized booth — nicely carpeted, with tables full of phones running their app. But it was pretty empty — mostly populated by Yelp employees. Gave me a good idea of how the restaurateurs were rating Yelp’s booth.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #152
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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