Coronavirus and Your Next Conference: To Go or Not?

By Robert McGarvey

I am getting a question I never thought I’d be asked: Is it safe to go to a conference- from a public health perspective? Sure, we have heard concerns about terrorism and criminality that sometimes prompt attendees to question when they want to go to another conference, trade show, or similar.

Now I am hearing: Is a public conference suddenly an unsafe place because of health concerns? Note the cancellation of Mobile World…in Barcelona!

Start here: just cross off any conferences you are slotted into in China.  Very probably the organizer will cancel anyway. Panic about Chinese meetings and shows, even ones in Beijing (around 600 miles from Wuhan, the apparent epicenter of the coronavirus) and Shanghai (maybe 450 miles distant), is feverish.  Air carriers are cancelling all flights to China and the whole country – which is about the same size as the United States – is becoming a giant no-go zone.

People are also telling me they won’t go to Bangkok or Singapore for conferences.  

Asia events are easy to figure: the answer is do not go.

It’s the rest of the world where there are questions – even events at home in the US, where there have been exactly zero deaths attributed to coronavirus as of this writing.

Yet panic is rising, at a level I do not recall ever seeing in the US or Europe.  Sure, there was anxiety around SARS in 2003, an epidemic that hopscotched globally, infected perhaps 8000 and killed maybe 800.

But coronavirus – right now, today – is terrifying a lot more people.  Surgical masks are selling out globally, even though the CDC advises not wearing them and evidence is scant that they do much to prevent spread of a disease like coronavirus.  People are stampeding to try to cancel cruise bookings, an industry that has had horrific quarantines of vessels.  Airline flight crews are threatening not to fly. And entire countries are blocking entry of people arriving from China and/or Chinese passport holders.

We haven’t seen exactly that, ever, in our lifetimes (the 1918 flu pandemic is one that rivals the current disease in terms of panic but it killed maybe 50 million in a much less populous world, compared to low five figures for coronavirus deaths – and experts say flu is presently killing more than is coronavirus).  

Right now what we have is ignorance that fuels hysteria.  We just do not know that much about coronavirus, China is typically opaque and it’s not clear what to do to avoid the disease (other than – obviously – don’t go to China).  

But CDC, WHO, and other world health organizations are on this.  I am optimistic that we will soon – probably within days – know how the disease spreads, maybe even what caused it in the first place. And then the search for cures commences.

That brings us back to our central question: events and us, what to do?

The answer depends upon your optimism regarding science and coronavirus. If, like me, you think researchers will get a tentative handle on it within weeks, go ahead and commit to conferences certainly in the spring.  You may want to hold off on attending big meetings this winter – again, we know little about the disease and that dictates caution in attending large gatherings and spending time in places with recycling air such as planes.

What if we don’t know what we need to about coronavirus within, say, a month? Then you know what hit the fan – in this case, raging fear – and it will get worse, more events will be canceled, and probably we will all sit home for many, many weeks to come.  Meaning more decisions will get made for us.

My advice: make flexible reservations with the right to cancel without penalty and, no, not many actual shows will allow that – airlines and hotels do of course, for a premium price; pay it – but my guess is that events sign ups will lag for months to come and many will be welcoming walk ins through this year. It is going to be a very slow year for meetings – use it to your advantage.

Me, I am still planning – happily – on several spring meetings. Have I booked anything yet? Nope.  No need to.

Hang loose. Now is the time to do it.

Why Hoteliers Suck at Tech

by Robert McGarvey

Just one quotation in a Hotel Management “think” piece on hotels and tech (“HM roundtable takes look at transformative technology“) tells us all we need to know about why hotels so often fumble tech innovation and play catch up, perhaps for decades.

I give you in-room phones, in-room TVs with content to sell us, lame and unsafe hotel WiFi, unreliable room key cards, resistance to voice controls, and the list goes on and on.

Why is the question.

Mike Mueller, president of Wyndham’s Super 8 brand, pithily tells us exactly why: “Mike Mueller, president of franchised economy brand Super 8 by Wyndham, observed it’s often difficult to get buy-in from owners on new technology. ‘We have to prove out that the investment is going to have [a return on investment] before we ask somebody to make that investment. So, we spend a lot of time thinking about how do we introduce new opportunities at our hotels that guests are willing to pay more for? Because if they’re not willing to pay more for it than we shouldn’t really be doing it,’ said Mueller. “

That’s saying if we can’t monetize it we ain’t doing it.

I don’t mean to pick on Mueller. I’ve heard exactly the same from various senior hotel execs, generally off the record. Mueller is on the record so he gets the bullseye on his back. But know that he is just one of many singing the same sad song.

Here is how miserly hotels are regarding security: “Data from Statista presented to the Business Travel Association’s winter conference in London revealed food and hospitality companies had only invested an average £1,080 in internet security during 2019 – the least compared with 11 other sectors including construction and education.”

Dead last. How it did the industry get to this woeful state?

Because most hotel groups are “asset light” – meaning they manage but don’t own their properties – they must persuade the owners to spend on upgrades and owners, they say, don’t want to open their purses unless they are told the ROI. No ROI, no spend.

So it’s our fault hotel technology sucks because we won’t pony up for better. So they seem to say.

Let me ask you: are you willing to pay more for secure hotel computer technology so that your personal information is not feasted on by hackers – and hackers have been pillaging hotel data for years, including that of Wyndham’s guests?

Of course you aren’t willing to pay more because the safety and security of your data that is entrusted to a third party such as a hotel should be accepted as obligation on the part of that third party (a bank, a retailer, and of course a hotel).

Even giant Starwood suffered a breach of its guest reservations system that apparently began in 2014 and lasted at least into 2018.

And little operations too have been breached – the Trump hotels for instance suffered three breaches in as many years.

Let me ask you this: do you feel your data is safer today at a hotel than it was a half decade ago? I do not. Hotels simply do not have the appetite to aggressively spend on combating hackers – and we are the victims.

The hacks keep happening.

That’s not the only for instance. A few years ago I bluntly asked a very senior hotel executive – this was a personal conversation, not on the record – why his hotels’ wifi sucked. It was so bad I couldn’t imagine anyone using it. He agreed. But he added there was nothing that could be done because the owners were not willing to spend on upgrades.

I hear the same about the key cards that fail – not our fault, owners won’t pay for mobile door locks.

I have to wonder if part of the popularity of Airbnb with many consumers is that some of those owners are investing in 21st century technology.

The reality is that most of the tech investments I personally make don’t have a significant ROI. But they do make my life a bit easier. Do I need an Alexa or Google device in every room in my home? Nope. But they are there because I like the convenience of asking for a light to be turned on or for a weather report.

I’d like same in my hotel rooms but, no, I’m not willing to pay extra for it.

I invested in Google mesh to upgrade my home/office WiFi because I wanted the speed. Is there an ROI? Maybe, maybe not. But I sure do like the speed.

The bottomline for hoteliers is that technology nowadays is a necessity. In 1970 would a guest pay more for a room with AC? I doubt it. In 1950 maybe. In 1970, nope. He/she just wouldn’t book a room in a hot place that didn’t have it.

That’s the real message for hoteliers to smack owners with: spend on technology or lose guests. Deliver fast WiFi, strong cellular signals, mobile door locks, voice controlled lights and drapes, and all the rest of the cool stuff I have in my home.

Or I will go elsewhere for it.

I won’t pay more for it. I just won’t pay anything when it’s absent. I’ll stay elsewhere – and I believe so will increasing numbers of guests.

Upgrade or perish.

The Future of Airport Rides May Be Decided In Phoenix

By Robert McGarvey

The Phoenix City Council just blinked – which means that Uber and Lyft which had threatened to pull out of Sky Harbor Airport, the 13th busiest airport in the US, will continue to drive passengers to the airport and away from it. They had said January 31st was there last day at PHX. But they are staying. For now.

Trust me, this is just the beginning of the story. We are nowhere near the end and there’s no reason to rush because the ending is likely to be unhappy.  And what happens in Phoenix may well shape what happens in airports around the country as cities desperately seek new ways to balance their airport budgets. Historically, cities have dinged taxi companies with airport fees and that worked well – until suddenly the taxi businesses collapsed as Uber and Lyft rose.

Which has cities like Phoenix scrambling for new ideas.

Like a hefty fee on Uber and Lyft rides.

Which did not sit well with the ridesharing companies because, remember, they have their eyes on lots of towns. Not just Phoenix.

So when the city came up with its big new fee — $4 on ever trip, in or out of the airport, by a ridesharing company – the ridesharing companies vowed to pull out. 

Those new Phoenix fees seemed a quick way for Phoenix to secure its airport transportation cashflow which, right now, teeters on the edge of collapse. Per Phoenix New Times, “Currently, airport officials say, taxis and ride-share companies are only covering about $9 million of the $26 million needed to maintain and operate Sky Harbor’s ground transportation system.”

What stopped those new fees is that the Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed suit and, after the city talked with the Arizona Supreme Court, it opted to delay implementation of the fees pending the court’s ruling on the constitutionality of the fees.

Brnovich claims the fees are unconstitutional.  “I think it maybe dawned on the mayor and other Council folks that this is really serious, and it was not only an unconstitutional tax, it was dumb,” Brnovich told KTAR FM’s Arizona’s Morning News.

He pointed to Proposition 126, passed by Arizona voters in 2018, that banned new taxes on services as prohibiting the ridesharing fees which he said amounted to a new tax.  

The back story is that taxi traffic at the airport plummeted 42% between 2015 and 2018.  Taxi companies, by the way, would pay $1.75 per fare under the new rules. Why so much less? Because they contribute less to traffic congestion at the airport, per the city, they can’t pass those fees onto consumers, and they operate under extensive regulation, says the city.

Uber and Lyft account for 80% of the commercial traffic at Sky Harbor – which put a bullseye on the services.  The city did offer a discounted, $2.80 fee for rides that begin and end at the Sky Train depot rather than at the terminals. But most rides would incur the $4 fee.

Is that anti-consumer? Maybe, maybe not. That’s because taxi fares generally are higher for consumers – although the Uber and Lyft surge pricing can raise those prices higher.  But much of the time taxi fares are dearer than fares with Uber or Lyft.

Nonetheless, Uber and Lyft said no way to to the proposed fees. Uber explained why it would exit Phonix before paying them: “Our riders and drivers should not be treated as a piggybank to fill the Airport’s budget holes. This fee unfairly penalizes those who rely on ridesharing to get to or from PHX by asking them to bear a disproportionate share of costs associated with the Sky Train. On behalf of the riders and drivers who rely on Uber, we cannot accept a partnership that unfairly burdens our shared passengers.”

Basically, Uber and Lyft decided to play chicken with Phoenix and Phoenix – because of Prop 126 – blinked.

For now.

What happens next? My guess is that the Brnovich position will prevail, that the AZ Supreme Court will tell the city it cannot impose the fees on ridesharing companies as it had proposed.

But the City Council will come up with a different way to extract money from passengers of ridesharing companies. Probably they will make it stick because the airport needs the money and ridesharing ventures are a well heeled target.

Very probably, if Phoenix prevails airports around the country will hungrily explore ways to grab more income out of every rideshare. Pretty much all of them have seen taxi revenues shrinking and – in their minds – the logical place to make up the difference is whacking the rideshare companies and their passengers.

Where do I stand? Personally I don’t take Uber to the airport. I ride the light rail which stops in front of my apartment and costs $1. It’s about as fast and it lets me off at the Sky Train station.

Family members however often use Uber to Sky Harbor and sometimes I pay, using a $15/month credit for Uber that Amex gives to Platinum Card holders. The fare ranges from $8 to $12, plus tip (generally $2).  

Add a $4 fee to those fares and it’s a 50% or 33% increase.  

Presently there are no fees on drop offs. The fee on a pick up is $2.66.

Sure losers in this brawl, no matter how it shakes out, are the drivers. I don’t see a brightening future for taxi drivers – many of whom already have shifted to driving for Uber or Lyft.  Why? Driving a taxi is hard, low paying work, a reality documented in a Boston Globe three-part Spotlight report from 2013.  I drove a taxi in Boston and Cambridge in 1970-73 and it was just as bad then. Nothing has changed apparently, and that is why some drivers who have access to a vehicle that would be acceptable to Uber or Lyft prefer that route.  The pay maybe is no better for an Uber driver but very probably the working conditions are a bit better.

Make no mistake, rideshare drivers earn low wages and drivers have very little ability to pressure the companies who listen to investors, not workers. It is a grim outlook.

But the other losers in the deal will be the passengers who use rideshare or taxis to get to the airport. Fares and fees will go up.  That seems inevitable. If there’s a single, loud, unavoidable message in this it’s that the cost of getting to the airport in a car is going up. Maybe by a lot.

That will be true in Phoenix and probably in many other cities around the country as anti car sentiments rise, anger at congestion increases, and politicians decide to stick it to people who ride in cars, maybe especially to airports.

That’s my guess about the ending to this story.

We can hope I am wrong.

Cybersecurity in 2020, Roadwarrior Edition

By Robert McGarvey

Now is the time to take stock of our defenses and I’m not talking about pickpockets and hotel safe thieves. What I mean is guarding against cybercriminals who, unfortunately, prey on business travelers particularly – everywhere from coffee shops to airports to hotels, even whole foreign countries.

A few steps will keep your data safe on the road and it is vastly more valuable than the devices themselves. At least in my case where I usually travel with a five yearold Chromebook, somtimes an iPad Air 2 , neither having much value. The Pixel 3 XL phone has a little value but not much. A suggestion: always travel with disposable tech gear that you won’t miss.

It’s the data that I am concerned about because a criminal could feast on my financial accounts and maybe find a way to monetize data gleaned from emails and documents, many thousands of both on my devices.

Here are my steps towards safe travels.

Countries That Spy on You

Whole countries? You bet.  Visit China and you will hear that the “Great Firewall” means you cannot access Gmail and lots of other websites. You will also hear that, psst, use a VPN – only certain vendors pass muster and the list is a changing target – and you will be able to surf to Gmail, Facebook, you name it.

But you have to wonder: is the Chinese government monitoring that VPN traffic and do they have keys that decode it?

Know too that high level security consultants – with clients inside the Beltway and on the highest floors of Fortune 100 office towers – urge their clients to bring a clean computer and a clean phone, no business data on either, and to never access sensitive information while in China because your devices will be copied on your travels.

Not might be. Will be.

Maybe not the gear of Bob Schub, average citizen, but if there is a reason to think you might have interesting info on your computer or phone know it will be copied.

Do not bring your every day business computers or phones to China. Don’t.

China is not alone. Here’s a map of the world with nations that heavily monitor Internet traffic highlighted. There are places you might not go – Saudi Arabia – and there are places you might go that monitor at least some traffic (Russia, Turkey).  Know before you go and, when in doubt, use clean devices when traveling overseas.

Password Protect Your Phone

At least once a month a friend or neighbor asks me, what do I do, I was traveling and I lost my phone?

Sometimes they say it was stolen.

It doesn’t matter.  You probably will never see it again.

Know this happens, take steps now to protect yourself.

Set up Find My Device (Android) or Find My iPhone in Settings.  Now. When you lose a device it may help you find it and – crucially – it may let you wipe the device which means erasing all personal data.

Also, lock the phone, with a PIN or biometric, in Security (Android) or TouchID and Passcode (Apple).  That simple step will keep most criminals away from your data and, in most cases, they only want the phone hardware anyway.

The data is more valuable than the hardware but most criminals are grab and run small change crooks and that’s the good news.

Just take the two simple steps above and, yes, you can cry about losing a $1000 piece of hardware but at least your data and bank accounts will stay safe and that is what matters.

Never Use a Public Phone Recharging Station

You see them in airports, also at meeting venues. Don’t use them.  They are a fast track to getting hacked. It’s tempting. Your phone is beeping for juice.  Just let it die. Or always carry a plug when on the road, as I do. Often there are two in my bag.  They do get forgotten in hotels, a spare is a good idea.

Don’t Use Public WiFi

Never, don’t.  That means no public WiFi at airports, coffee shops, and definitely not hotels.

You say you are protected because you use a VPN.  Good luck with that (read about China above). Know that there are known vulnerabilities in consumer facing VPNs and there also are vulnerabilities with enterprise grade VPNs.

Personally I sometimes use Google’s VPN on a Google Fi phone when accessing the Internet but generally I am reading the news or checking a website and if that traffic is hijacked, so be it.

My preference is to create a cellphone hotspot and access the Internet via cellular data networks. A few clicks in setting and you are in business.

You really think public WiFi is faster and of course it usually is cheaper? There is one safe way to use public WiFi – read the next step.

Use a Secure Cloud Based Browser

When on the road and accessing sensitive data via public WiFi, I use Silo, a remote browser that processes all data remotely, in the cloud. (Here’s a paper on the technicalities.) It then transmits an encrypted display of the data to you so you “see” the web page but any computing functions have occurred in the cloud, at a remove from your computer.

There are other remote browsers.

Whichever you use, know that when you look at a page with toxic code, no prob, the bad stuff happens in the cloud. Not on your computer.

And eavesdroppers – who often listen in on public WiFi sessions – will only see an encrypted data steam that won’t mean a thing to them.

That’s five steps. Take them and there’s no guarantee of data security on the road. But you can know you are taking steps to secure your phone, your computer, your Internet traffic. And that puts you in a safer place than 99% of travelers

Shove Off, Bud – or That Will Be $30: Hotel Revenue Management Gone Bonkers?

By Robert McGarvey

The San Francisco Chronicle headline tells the story: “Lingering too long over breakfast? At one Nob Hill hotel, that’ll cost you $30.”

Phil Matier reports that “They say talk is cheap, but talking too long could cost you a bundle this week at San Francisco’s swank Fairmont Hotel, where lingering too long over breakfast will add an extra $30 an hour per person — plus tax — to the tab.”

Joe D’Alessandro, the head of San Francisco Travel, explained it away as “premium or congestive pricing.”  He added that airlines and hotels all do it.

Uh, well, no, they don’t.  What they do is “revenue management” where a room costs more in peak season and an airplane seat costs more in peak season.  But the lunch on the plane in coach does not cost more in peak season (and, please, let’s not give airline mandarins any ideas). And a mocktail at the hotel bar doesn’t cost more in peak, either.

The trigger for the Fairmont charge apparently is the J. P. Morgan Healthcare Conference at the Westin St. Francis, apparently one of the city’s biggest conventions. Attendance is estimated to be around 9000.

The only available room at the Fairmont for the night I checked – a Queen Queen Room – was priced at a breathtaking $1549.

The same room, a week later, was priced at $503.

Incidentally, breakfast at the Fairmont during the J P Morgan week involved a minimum $50 per person plus an 18% service charge and taxes.

And the $30 tab for overstaying is hit with an 8.5% city tax.

What do you want to scream about first?

But first: I know I have walked into a busy Peet’s Coffee on Market Street in San Francisco, ordered a coffee, and as I picked it up noticed every available seat was occupied – often with no sign of a coffee cup or food near the person who, frequently, was tapping away on a laptop. And I have wanted to scream, move along, bud, real customer wants the effin’ seat.

I have not screamed that. Yet. But I make no promises about the next time.

So I understand the restaurant desire to move customers along, to hustle them out the door to make room for new customers. Restaurants in fact have all manner of tools and tricks they use to move diners along and a surcharge isn’t usually one of them.

I also know that Uber surge pricing – where rates may double or triple or more over typical fares – has given all of us an object lesson in revenue management on the fly.  

So maybe it makes sense to wave a $30 penalty flag – and hope it doesn’t have to be actually collected from anyone.

And I have long advised anybody who asked to avoid some big meeting cities during peak conventions.  Here’s a list of some of the biggest. Prices just are surreal during many of them and often restaurants, even taxis and ride shares are stressed by the volume.

Sure, the people who live and work in San Francisco have to be there, even during the big conventions. They have my sympathy.

But back to the Fairmont and its $30 fee for overstaying breakfast.

You know what, the Fairmont allots 90 minutes for the meal – that’s without a surcharge – and I cannot remember the last time I spent that long at breakfast. Not even ones that are more about a meeting than eating.  

Count me as okay with the $30 fee, tho I suppose I wish we all just knew when we had occupied a table long enough and moved on voluntarily.  Maybe that is no longer possible.

I am more irked by the tripling of the room rate.

The $30 dawdler fee is avoidable.  The extra $1000 for the room isn’t if you want to stay at the Fairmont the week of the conference.

The solution? Stay elsewhere.

Was me I’d stay at the Claremont in Berkeley –  $437 per night during that J. P. Morgan shindig across the bay and, by the way, it’s also a Fairmont.

Problem solved.

2020 Meetings Trendwatching: Vegans Hopping? Teetotalers Stomping?

By Robert McGarvey

If the futurists are right, business meetings are about to change.  The latest trend report from af&co is out and this trend watcher is so right on even the New York Times cites it as the source for insights into what we’ll be eating in 2020.  And they are making predictions that speak to a transformation of what we eat and drink at meetings and conferences.

Personally I expect to see brawls at meeting I attend. Why?

According to the Times: “‘There is a sense that the rose-colored glasses are off,’ said Andrew Freeman, president of AF&Co., the San Francisco consulting firm that for 12 years has published a food and hospitality trend report. This year’s is titled ‘We’re Not in Kansas Anymore.’

“‘The world just feels different,’ Mr. Freeman said. ‘The labor market is tight, the political landscape is a mess. All of us are trying to navigate it.’”

The company in its press release on the report added: “The greatest challenge facing the industry is that the tried and true isn’t gaining traction in the same way and operators must find new ways to reach and engage with guests in a constantly changing world.”

Ready to eat and drink different?

According to af&co. There are many trends coming down the culinary highway – Laotian food rising, porridge has its day, and culinary mashups (Mexican-Korean for instance, already popular in Los Angeles) are rising –but two trends stand out as especially shaping our travels and what we do on the road.

Are you on board? And know we will all have to confront these trends in 2020 – two of the biggest trends in fact directly challenge the way I was taught to travel on business and that involved martinis (Manhattans were an acceptable substitution) and, always, steak for dinner (permissible to not even nibble the overdone veg served with the big hunk of beef – they are decor, aren’t they?).

Brace yourself for the first 2020 trend: veganism.  

No real surprise.  This has been percolating for a good half dozen years and now, apparently, it’s about to have its turn under the spotlights.  Said af&co. “Vegan cuisine has entered the mainstream; just don’t call it that (it’s plant-based!). No longer an obscure subset of vegetarian, well-established restaurants and brands known for indulgent, craveable foods are entering the action. It isn’t just about animal welfare, but about what’s good for the environment and what’s good for us, without sacrificing flavor or presentation.”

Agree or disagree?  

The second trend and another direct shot at my travel instructions when I first hit the road: going sober, ditching the booze.  Explains af&co.: “SPIRIT OF THE YEAR: NO SPIRIT. We’re not just ‘sober curious,’ we’re getting serious about our non-alcoholic drinks! It’s important to offer enticing, highly curated beverage options for those who choose to avoid alcohol but still want to partake in the celebration. Restaurants and bars are upping their offerings with an inclusive bar program and we expect to see many more pre-bottled and canned spirit-free cocktails in the grocery aisles as well. Just don’t call them mocktails – we’re talking zero proof, N/A, spirit free, and non-alcoholic drinks.”

Meeting planners take note: cocktail receptions are so Mad Men (and that was set in the 1960s, wasn’t it?).  

Are you ready to join the Sober Curious movement?

It’s no longer an academic question. My bet is that in 2020 people at an evening reception at a meeting will look at a martini swiller the same way they would look at the bloke who lights a cigar at the event.

And very probably those people will be as horrified by the fellow who slices into a bloody hunk of black and blue steak and chews with loud gusto.

Should I just put my rollaboard in storage and declare my unavailability for 2020 travel?

Well, no, because the strange irony is that nowadays I mainly eat a plant-based diet – not vegan but mainly veg and fruits and little meat.  Vegan strikes me as too limiting but with a bite of cheese, maybe even the occasional dab of butter and the very occasional pasta Bolognese I am fine with what I eat. The era of thick steaks nightly on the road is over.  

I am also okay with the switch to non alcohol drinks (and in fact am elbow deep into the 2020 Dry January movement and successfully completed Dry January last year too).

I cannot recall the last time I had a martini or a Manhattan.

Color me on trend.

What I am waiting to discover is how on trend the meeting and conference organizers I encounter in 2020 are. I am not optimistic – but that will make observing the scene all the more fascinating.

Will we have food fights at the breakfast buffet with angry attendees hurling pork sausage links at the organizers?

Will sober curious meeting-goers attack the bartenders at the next reception and demand mocktails?

We will see and I bet it will get interesting on the road this year as meeting realities lag behind attendee demands.

Talking Centurion Blues in Phoenix

By Robert McGarvey

It was on a recent trip through Sky Harbor in Phoenix that I recognized how much I have come to like American Express’ Centurion Lounge. Its absence, due to a delayed opening at Sky Harbor, drove the point home.  

I had nowhere to go.

Priority Pass had bupkis in Phoenix. It had lost access to The Club (it had also hosted BA passengers during certain hours), which was a pleasant enough if thoroughly non descript club. Usually quiet however and that’s a plus.

On this recent flight I was flying Southwest and it doesn’t operate its own lounges.

I was tempted to go to the under construction Centurion Lounge and just look at the thing but, on second thought, that seemed creepy.

So I bought a bland torta at an airport eatery and sat in the din of Southwest’s boarding gates – a process that still, understandably, confuses occasion SWA pax – and I meditated on how long it would be for Centurion to open at PHX.

The good news: AMEX, acknowledging it missed its November opening date, now says the Centurion will open at PHX in December.  It hasn’t by mid month, I see no firm date announced, so I am not holding my breath. But I am not flying again this year and I remain confident that the Centurion will open at PHX in January.


People tell me the airline lounges are much improved – I hear that often now.  My own visits to airline operated clubs this year have found same-old, uninspired lounges. But one was a United Club in Terminal 2 at PHX and that whole terminal is slated for demolition.  Folks there are ghosts going through the motions and how can you blame them?

Nonetheless, there’s rather wide agreement that US based carriers have never gone full out to create lounges that compete at a global level and while I will use free carrier lounge passes when I have them, I am not buying them.

And although I can access Delta lounges when flying Delta – via an Amex Platinum card – I just don’t fly Delta enough to have a comment.  But bet that if the Centurion delay persists I will rethink that. Delta appears to have made an effort to produce a decent lounge in Phoenix and my next PHX flight may well be on Delta.

It all depends on the Centurion Lounge at PHX.

Sure, I know Amex has cut back on Centurion access.  Used to be often I stopped in the Las Vegas Centurion after landing there and now no can do.  Access is limited to cardholders with a departing flight within three hours.

But such limitations had to come. The Centurion lounges were at risk of being destroyed by their own popularity and maybe they still are. Here’s a recent report: “On a recent trip, I entered the American Express Centurion Lounge at San Francisco International at about 3:00PM. There was a line to enter the lounge and most guests seemed to be traveling alone. I waited about five minutes to enter, only to find there was not a single seat available. Not a single seat anywhere in the lounge! I waited 10 minutes!”

I’ve heard similar from fellow travelers but so far haven’t personally experienced severe overcrowding in a Centurion Lounge.  Crowding – you bet. But not so thick it made me want to flee out into the terminal.

Then, too, Amex knows it has crowding issues and it also knows that the Centurion Lounge is a prime cardholder perk (especially as Priority Pass seems ever less useful, at least on my domestic travels).  Are they working on fixes? You bet. That’s no guarantee there will be fixes but there is hope.

And the parade of opening Centurion Lounges grows – in 2020 look for JFK, LAX, LHR, Denver and Charlotte. That brings the total to 15.

Will I join the “why bother with clubs” crowd that seems to be growing in number? On a recent trip through SFO I didn’t bother hunting for a club – yeah, there’s a Centurion but in a distant terminal from the one I was routed through – mainly because I cut down on my time at the airport.

But I don’t see that becoming my norm.  Not just yet. And so I am counting down to the opening of the PHX Centurion. I just hope it meets my expectations.  

The Airplane Wi-Fi Rip Off

by Robert MGarvey

Inflight wi-fi does not work. Don’t believe me. Believe Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta, who in a stunning September interview at the Economic Club of Washington derisively referred to GoGo as “No Go” and elaborated that when usage of inflight wi-fi goes above 10% of the passengers, the “performance starts to erode.”

The interview snippet is here, under two minutes and a must listen if you are a regular inflight wi-fi user.

Bastian added that the system inadequacy is why the carrier charges for wi-fi (which he indicated should be free: “I’m a firm believer that we need to make Wi-Fi free across all of our service and we are working towards that,” he said). If it were free now, however, everybody would use it and it would crash, said Bastian.

This is the bit I love. Therefore, carrier logic is charge for it, fewer of us will use it, and, yeah, the performance is middling, but at least it doesn’t crash.

Got that?

By that logic carriers should charge for the poor coffee they serve – maybe it would be a little better if fewer of us ordered it? Nah. That makes no sense.

But neither really does this argument that constraining usage with a fee for a poor wi-fi product results in a somewhat better product.

And it may not even be secure. In 2016 a USA Today reporter wrote about an inflight wi-fi hack he experienced. In 2017, SmarterTravel published a piece hedlined, Why You Should Never Use Inflight Wi-Fi. The core argument is that all public wi-fi systems have vulnerabilities (hotels and airports definitely included) and wily hackers will figure out ways to penetrate inflight systems.

Bad performance, possible insecurities do not add up to an enticing offering.

We all agree on this. The 2019 J.D. Power airline survey concurs. “The one area where both traditional and low-cost carriers can still improve, however, is in in-flight services. It continues to be the lowest-ranked factor in the study, as many airlines still struggle with in-flight entertainment, connectivity, in-seat power and food service,” said Michael Taylor, Travel Intelligence Lead at J.D. Power.

Mind you, Delta nickels and dimes us for No Go. Rates start at $16, special pre-flight pricing, for 24 hours of service in North America. Global access is $28.

Most carriers charge about the same. Here’s a round-up of pricing on many carriers.

And yet the service is seriously flawed.

Even though it has been around for a generation.

Inflight wi-fi dates to 2000 – that means the 20th anniversary is next year and it still sucks.

In recent months I have been flying more than I had been, mainly short trips (the longest has been Phoenix to Chicago, round trip), and I have not used the inflight w-fi once. Before boarding I make sure I have downloaded several Kindle books and so I turn the plane into a mobile reading room. It’s more enlightening than doing email, which had been my inflight ritual, but it also has proven less exasperating than wrestling with inflight wi-fi inadequacies.

Experts tell us that airlines are making steady improvements in inflight wi-fi, that on some carriers it’s not as awful as we say. Probably that’s true, just as we have seen steady improvements in cellular coverage and signal quality over the past 20 years, there may have been real improvements on a few carriers.

But I am simply not broadly optimistic about inflight wi-fi. Not near-term. Carriers, supposedly, will invest north of $100 billion in inflight wi-fi upgrades by 2035 and this has many giddy with the possibilities – but that is 16 years from now and I do not see making predictions about technology that distant to be a smart move. Maybe it will be much better in 2035, more likely it will be entirely different, but what good will that do me on my next flight this month?

Absolutely no good at all.

But I thank Mr Bastian for telling me I am right that inflight wi-fi indeed sucks. And when next I am asked why I don’t use it anymore, I’ll simply send a link to his comments, QED.

Sustainability vs Hotel Housekeepers, Taking Sides

by Robert McGarvey

The big push is upon us: hoteliers now are loudly asking us, even offering bribes, to forego housekeeping services. The selling point: it’s good for the environment.

The subhed in a recent New York Times piece sets out the argument: “Besides a worker shortage, demand for ‘green’ practices and technology are shifting the ground under a job that has long been tough to fill.”

If this weren’t a family friendly venue I’d turn up my volume and go into a four letter word rant. There just is so much that makes this attack on housekeeping cringeworthy.

Pitting the environment against the hospitality workers at the bottom of the food chain is plain cruel. Regular readers know I flirt with flygskam, flight shaming. I believe we need to be conscious of how our choices impact the environment. But it’s just wrong to tell me I am harming the environment because I want my room cleaned and, no, I don’t need the sheets washed and probably don’t need fresh towels but I do like the trash emptied and the room straightened up. How’s any of that hurting the environment?

You know what does hurt: attempting to persuade me to join in denying employment to needy, vulnerable workers and we know they are needy and vulnerable because they are in jobs few want.

When a job is tough to fill, there really are only several possible causes. The working conditions are bad. The pay is bad. Hotel housekeeping scores high on both fronts. Sexual assaults, for instance, remain a problem. Housekeepers also have high rates of workplace injuries, per labor union Unite Here. It cites research in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine that says housekeepers have a 50% higher injury rate than other hotel employees. Why? Per the union, “In most hotels, a housekeeper must clean 15 or more rooms per day. To meet this quota, she often skips breaks and works off the clock. It also is increasingly common for her to have luxury beds with heavier mattresses and linens, triple-sheeting, duvets, and extra pillows than in years past. Other add-ons, like coffee pots, spa robes and floor-to-ceiling mirrors, can make a housekeeper’s job of cleaning a room even more difficult and time-consuming. “

As for the pay, the NY Times says the average hourly rate for housekeepers is $12.19. It also says that the majority of us do not tip – in fact two out of three don’t.

So now we know why there’s a shortage of applicants for housekeeping jobs.

Of course there also are whispers that historically many housekeepers had irregular paperwork but with the current federal crackdown on undocumented workers that practice is much less common. I cannot state this as fact but many will tell you it’s so.

And so now hoteliers want to keep up downward pressures on housekeeper pay by persuading us that we are doing good for the environment by turning off housekeeping – which of course also means that the more of us who do so the fewer housekeepers need to be employed.

Beware the hotelier with a bribe in hand. Trade pub Hotel News Now splashed out this hed on a recent story: “How hoteliers incentivize guests to skip housekeeping.”

Like what? Marriott’s “Make a Green Choice” awards guests 250 Bonvoy points for each day a guest skips housekeeping. Onemileatatime pegs the value of a Bonvoy point at about 0.7 cents, which puts the Marriott offer at about $1.75.

Many other large groups also offer loyalty points for passing on housekeeping.

Other hotels are offering f & b discounts or freebies, like a free coffee.

Not exactly persuasive bribes, are they?

And then there are the housekeepers, quoted in that NY Time story, who said that in many cases when a guest skips housekeeping services they may have to work harder to catch up with the deferred sanitation when the guest checks out. “When the rooms are very dirty, we use more water, more scrubbing, stronger chemicals,” a San Diego hotel housekeeper said. “It’s very hard because we have a lot of pressure to clean the rooms on time.”

Let’s be honest here. The gain for the environment when we skip housekeeping services is minimal.

Let’s rephrase the question with the environment out of the equation. Are you comfortable taking money out of a housekeeper’s slender pay packet and putting the money in a hotelier’s wallet?

That’s what it is about. And, no, I’m not down with that.

Can Business Travel Make You Nuts?

by Robert McGarvey

The other penny just dropped when it comes to the health consequences of frequent business travel.

We have known for some time that lots of travel impacts our physical health. A story in the NYTimes in November 2017 reported: “Doctors at organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the International Society of Travel Medicine say they are hearing of a range of health problems in frequent travelers, from insomnia and weight gain to viruses. ”

You bet. So many of the frequent travellers I know don’t exercise enough, eat badly, drink too much booze, and, for sure, this translates into a panoply of unwanted health consequences.

A 2018 Harvard Business Review article put it this way: “we found a strong correlation between the frequency of business travel and a wide range of physical and behavioral health risks.” Frequent travelers are more likely to be obese, to have high cholesterol, even to have a cardiologist on speed dial (and, yes, I have a cardiologist so I am not pointing fingers).

But you read this article’s headline so you know another penny is about to loudly land on the floor. Correct. And we are not talking just burnout which, incidentally, is a not uncommon byproduct of a lot of business travel. Some of us just quit because we cannot or will not tolerate the pace.

Data grows that some of us also are suffering significant psychological stresses because of so much travel. According to Skift, “Mental health is making up a rapidly growing number of calls to risk management companies, with stress-induced symptoms of anxiety and depression as one of the top issues travelers report. International SOS, perhaps the largest medical assistance and security company worldwide, fields 4.5 million calls a year, with about 40 percent involving issues of mental health.”

That number – 40%, four in ten – has to grab you. If I had been asked to guess how many traveling employee SOS calls involve mental health issues, I would have said in the single digits. And I would have been very wrong.

Life on the road has built in stresses. For instance: lack of routine which, for me certainly, is the biggest problem. That and difficulty sleeping in a strange bed. Even though nowadays I eat fine and drink little or no alcohol when I travel, I drink way too much coffee, in part because of that poor sleep, and my fitness routines are on hiatus.

Maybe you too.

Understand, researchers say that the amount of business travel needed to trigger significant adverse psychological impacts is huge – around two weeks monthly which is 120+ nights on the road yearly.

How much does a lesser travel load impact us psychologically? That’s a research question waiting for an answer.

Experts however say the truth may be much worse than we think. Dr. Robert Quigley, a senior vice president at International SOS, told Skift that the 40% number cited earlier is just the iceberg’s tip. “When I say 40 percent, that’s what we know of. I’m going to guess that the number is actually much higher than that because people are reluctant to reach out for assistance because of the stigma that’s still associated with a mental illness, and the fact that they’re uncomfortable declaring that they may have a problem, which, which is (a) sad case of reality, but that prevails in this mobile workforce community.”

What should you do about this if you are in the crosshairs? About now in a column I usually offer up a fast solution and sign off. I can’t here and that’s because business travelers who are suffering psychological distress deserve more and better. See a psychologist. Talk about what bugs you. Explore if it’s time to reorder your work so that you can travel less (and I know several people who have done exactly that in the past couple years).

If you are not comfortable using an employee assistance program, I get it. Spend your own money instead. But get help – at least explore if you need to get help.

Bottomline: if you are feeling very down and you travel a lot, just maybe there’s a causal relationship. And just maybe seeing that causality is how to begin to feel better.