The First Batch of Alexa Hotel and Travel Skills: Do You Want Any

 

by Robert McGarvey

 

The first batch of Alexa hotel skills is showing up in the Amazon library and the blunt question is: are they worth your time and bandwidth to download?

I am a big Alexa fan – there are three in my apartment, all different models – and have urged its adoption in everything from hospitality to banking.  Sure, I know the privacy concerns and I still say the cure is when you are having a convo you want to stay secret – really secret – unplug Alexa.  Poof, end of concerns.  I have never done that so assume what you will about my life.

In hotels I am very excited about the possibility that, soon, we will get answers not by calling the front desk or thumbing through an often out of data and neglected and incomplete hotel guest services guide, but by asking Alexa.

Alexa, can I have more towels? Will you turn down the room temperature three degrees? Alexa, set a wakeup call for 6 a.m.

At home I use Alexa – and also Google Home (Siri is seriously bad, imo; I never use it anymore) – to give me lots of info (what’s the weather? Will it rain today?) and also to perform simple tasks (turn on the living room light) and play music. I can also ask for BBC news briefs.

There are reasons to be optimistic about voice controls in hotel rooms. Lots of big players – Marriott included – have pilots. At least one third party developer – Volara – has taken big steps in making Alexa real and useful in hotel rooms.

So I was excited to see that at least some hotels now have their own Alexa skills – meaning you go to an Amazon page, click on the skill and the enable button and suddenly you have controls at a hotel.

Or don’t you?

This Hotel Business story really awoke my interest: Red Roof Intros Amazon Alexa Skills Technology.  

What’s important is that it is next gen.  It puts the Alexa hotel skill not only in the hotel room, but in your home and office.  For frequent guests at a particular chain or property, this could be a game changer.

Of course I immediately enabled the skill and got busy asking Alexa questions.

The Red Roof skill did not perform well, by my scoring.  The problem: a limited set of abilities.

I asked where the nearest Red Roof was. It told me to log into the website.

I asked how many locations Red Roof has. It told me over 500, then made a silly joke (“they all are special to me and call me on my birthday”)  It finished by telling me – you guessed it – to go to the website “to find an inn.”

The Hotel Business piece flagged this particular skill, do you have any deals?  So I tried that. It told me to go to the website.

What did Red Roof hope to accomplish with this Alexa skill? Hotel Business has the answer: “As consumers continue to rely more heavily on technology in their daily routines at home, we created the Red Roof skill for Amazon Alexa in the spirit of added convenience and ability to deliver important, decision-driving information directly to current and future guests,” said Kevin Scholl, director of digital marketing and partnerships, Red Roof. “Our technology is living and we’ll continue to add information to best support users based on consumer demand and aim to provide booking capabilities in the future.”

We’ll see about that last bit because the Red Roof skill really, really needs new powers.  It’s a rather lame skill right now.

A more fun Alexa skill is Lake View Country House – in Windmere, England, Wordsworth country. Ask how to get to the house – it even gives bus numbers from a nearby train station! It will tell you what room availability is on a particular date. It will not tell you prices, however, and neither will it accept bookings via Alexa.  But for a one-off country house in the Lake District, it’s a fun skill.

There really aren’t hotel skills much of use on the Alexa skills page.

It’s a better verdict for Flight Finders.

There you’ll find Kayak, United, Korean Air, Heathrow, Philadelphia Airport, and a few more.  They all have some uses.

Also with Alexa skills are travel advice company Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a growing number of concierge type services, and lots of information based skills.

Bottomline: Alexa is getting more robust. Can you truly plan and book a business trip using only it? Not now.  But soon.  Very soon.

Skills have to become much more powerful. But they will. They will.

How cool is that?

But I’m a sucker for anything that lets me dodge calling the front desk.  How about you?

Do You Need Emotional Support at 30,000 Feet?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

First there was the peacock – a purported emotional support animal rejected by United Airlines.  Then there was the emotional support hamster, supposedly flushed down the toilet at the direction of Spirit Airlines crew.  

Question: what gives with all the “emotional support” animals?

Question: Do they belong on flights?

Somehow – suddenly – this topic has become one of travel’s hottest buttons. There are many who say the animals have no place on the plane. There are others who insist depriving them of their animal is cruelty.

Heated words get tossed around.

Sometimes passengers loudly squabble and punches are threatened.  

Where do you stand?

Personally, I can’t see a business traveler traveling with an emotional support animal – if I’m wrong about that, tell me in the comments – but we are all nonetheless impacted by this.

Know this: emotional support animals are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landmark legislation signed into law by George H. Bush. Service animals are but service animals – dogs primarily – “must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”

The US Justice Department specifically pointed out that emotional support animals are not service animals. “Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

It added: “some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places.  You may check with your State and local government agencies to find out about these laws.”

The flap on airlines is not about service dogs – they have a clearcut right to accompany their owners aboard –  it’s about emotional support animals, where, a kind of wild west rules and just about anything can be claimed to be an emotional support beast.  

Third question: do you want to bring Rover on your next flight?  Dress the part. Amazon sells a nifty Emotional Support Dog Harness for $32.95. It even comes in XL; go ahead, bring that mastiff!

Up until now, it has been relatively easy to bring an emotional support animal on board. That is changing.  Effective March 1, United, for instance, will require documentation for accepting on board an emotional support animal.  The carrier elaborated: “In addition to providing a letter from a licensed medical/mental health professional, customers will need to provide a veterinary health form documenting the health and vaccination records for the animal as well as confirming that the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting.”

United said it carried 76,000 emotional support animals in 2017. That was up a staggering 77% from the year before.

Delta requires that paperwork be filed 48 hours before flying with an emotional support animal.  

Pretty much all carriers can be expected to tighten the rules for emotional support animals.

Delta, by the way, has said it carries 700 emotional support animals daily and the beasts, it said, are wandering cabins, biting passengers, and relieving themselves wherever.

If you think some airplanes have become aviation equivalents of Noah’s ark, you’re not entirely wrong. Snakes, ducks, even ferrets have been brought aboard as “emotional support” animals. Squirrels and rats, too.

Airlines had been hoping the federal government would step in and regulate emotional support animals but that isn’t happening. A federal ACCESS Advisory Committee has been unable to agree on rules governing emotional support animals.  The Dept. of Transportation has said it intends to draft its own regulations but there’s no sign of them.  

So now the airlines are seeking to step into this void.

Given airline past behavior it is impossible to see any of this going smoothly, or even rationally.  That’s just not how they work.

If you want to bring an emotional support animal on board, be sure to have your paperwork in order and talk early and often with the carrier before takeoff. Rules are in flux. Don’t get caught in the middle.

If you are on the plane to do business and the idea of sharing your row with a python makes you nervous, speak up. Tell the flight attendant.  Tell the python’s owner.  Say Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer

But, right now, probably nobody is going to be entirely happy when it comes to emotional support animals. Not those who want to bring them or those who want them banned.  

I don’t blame you if you want emotional rescue – but don’t you know promises were never made to keep?

 

Luxury and the Road Warrior, Not: Where We Really Sleep and Eat

 

By Robert McGarvey

Recent data from Certify, the corporate expense management company, underlines a reality I have known for decades – as have you, probably – but it is one unknown to many of our friends and even co-workers who don’t do much business travel.

You know what I mean. Non travelers always think that business travel means luxury. It is comfort squared.  They seem sure that I regularly bunk down in Ritz Carltons – I remember doing that exactly once on a business trip and indeed I was impressed. That I fly in first class (never but even business class is ever more uncommon today).  That I eat in Michelin starred gourmet restaurants (sometimes but only on my own nickel and never for business).

My travel reality is much more Spartan – but the Certify results say that yours are too.

Certify breaks out results by restaurant, hotel, airline.

We travel much more modestly than many believe.

Big news – a sea change in how we get around – also is in the recent Certify data.  Certify noted that use of ride hailing services by business travelers has exploded.  “Review of the past four quarters compared to 2016 data shows an accelerated shift in corporate travel expenses to ride-hailing services, underscoring the industry disruption and change in business traveler preference. Ride hailing picked up 68% of the overall ground transportation category last year led by Uber and rival Lyft, respectively with 56% and 12% of the total. Uber also claimed 9% of all expenses and receipts processed by Certify in 2017.”

Certify indicated that so far services such as Airbnb have not caught on in a major way with business travelers, in contrast to our embrace of Uber and its ilk: “alternative accommodations with Airbnb have nearly doubled each year in the Certify data since 2014, yet it still represents just under .5% of the lodging category overall today.”  I’m with this. I remain unpersuaded that Airbnb is a business travel accommodation that will be liked by many of us.  

But this is prelude. What really intrigues me is where we eat and sleep, be it ever so humble.

Here are the most expensed restaurants, showing percent of the category captured:

Starbucks: 5.22%, averaging $12.94

McDonald’s: 2.91%, averaging $9.34

Panera Bread: 1.71%, averaging $44.35

Chick-Fil-A: 1.41%, averaging $26.63

Subway: 1.4%, averaging $20.26

 

Our favorite restaurants are these, on a five star scale:

Chick-Fil-A: 4.4

Jimmy John’s: 4.3

Panera Bread: 4.3

Starbucks: 4.3

Chipotle: 4.3

Personally I am all in with Starbucks and Subway, I’m okay with Panera and Chipotle, and, yep, this is about the category and prices of restaurants I expense.  Some of these totals, obviously, have to be meals for several people (you can’t spend $20.26 on a meal for one at Subway, I don’t believe; I spend half that).  

As for lodgings, here is where Certify says we stay:

Hampton Inn: 8.95% of total lodgings, averaging $240.59

Marriott: 8.48%, averaging $272.15

Courtyard by Marriott: 7.4%, averaging $193.11

Holiday Inn Express: 4.63%, averaging $234.64

Hilton Garden Inn: 4.47%, averaging $227.87

Again, yep.  Personally, as I seek to duck early cancellation fees, I have been looking outside the big name brands.  

I don’t recall spending over $300 on a hotel room in the past four years.  So the Certify prices seem right on.

Here, by the way, are our top rated hotels (on a 5 point scale):

Hyatt 4.4
Marriott: 4.4
Westin: 4.4
Hilton Garden Inn: 4.3
Homewood Suites 4.3

No real complaints about those scores on my end.

Note what’s missing from these lists: Ritz Carlton, Kimpton, all the boutique brands.  We just usually sleep in plain jane, mid priced digs.

With airlines, this is what we fly:

Delta: 20.32% of flights, averaging $396.66

American: 18.68%, averaging $316.55

United: 14.44%, averaging $369.67

Southwest: 11.42%, averaging $274.32

Alaska Airlines: 1.6%, averaging $253.14

 

Your faves aren’t on the top five lists? Here are more extensive results.  

Add all this up and we are flying in coach, staying in one and two star hotels, and we are eating in fast food joints.

Sound glamorous to you?

Of course not.  But next time a friend or family member expresses jealousy about your high flying lifestyle just point them to the Certify data.

Personally I have no gripes about bunking at a Hampton Inn and grabbing dinner at a Subway but luxe they aren’t.

 

The Sad State of Inflight WiFi aka Bring a Book

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

It was 10 years ago that you probably first experienced inflight WiFi and if you are like me you remember that moment with delight.  GoGo rolled out WiFi to a handful of flights on a handful of carriers (American Airlines, Virgin America, Delta, Air Canada, Air Tran Airways and United) in 2009 and, pretty soon, I was picking flights based upon my guess about WiFi availability.

How cool was it to email at 30,000 feet? Very. And, honestly, the speeds just didn’t seem slow back then – in part because users were few.

Meantime, think about today where there’s WiFi in coffee shops, homes, fast food restaurants and – you know what? – it is pretty much ubiquitous. In Phoenix there’s even free WiFi on the lightrail ($4 to ride all day), just about every coffee shop offers it, and so do apartment house lobbies, doctors waiting rooms, and I could on on.

Where we are, WiFi is.

Except on airplanes.

Let’s put aside the issue of how bad – slow, overpriced, unreliable – inflight WiFi has become. There also very real issues around security (or lack thereof), where everybody from crooks to government agencies may be eavesdropping on your keystrokes. We’ll get to that momentarily.

For now what grabs me is that WiFi is very far from ubiquitous inflight – indeed odds are that any given seat will not have WiFi, according to a report from Routehappy. That report says that 43%
of available seat miles (ASMs) worldwide have at least a chance of Wi-Fi on board. Note that hedge – at least a chance. That’s because many planes claim WiFi but it may not in fact be actually working.

That 43% is up from 39% last year – which highlights the slow pace of upgrades.

This means 57% of seats have zero chance of providing WiFi.

US carriers are better than the rest, per Routehappy: “U.S. airlines offer at least a chance of Wi-Fi on 86% of their ASMs, with 85% of ASMs fully rolled out.”  It added: “Non-U.S. airlines offer at least a chance of Wi-Fi on 32% of their ASMs, up by 14% from the 2017 report.”

Now chew on this: “Three carriers now offer Wi-Fi on 100% of their flights: Icelandair, Southwest, and Virgin Atlantic.”  That means many, many dozens don’t. By Routehappy’s count, 82 airlines globally offer WiFi, so that means 79 don’t offer it on all flights.

A morsel of good news is that “13 airlines globally offer Wi-Fi on 100% of long-haul flights: Air Europa, Delta, Emirates, Etihad, Eurowings, EVA Air, Iberia, Kuwait, Lufthansa, SAS, Scoot, United, and Virgin Atlantic.”

Another morsel: “While passengers have come to expect Wi-Fi on large global airlines, many smaller airlines have now begun offering Wi-Fi as well. Air Astana from Kazakhstan, Air Côte d’Ivoire from Ivory Coast, and Air Mauritius from Mauritius are just a few of the numerous smaller airlines that began offering Wi-Fi in 2017.”

Nonetheless, the bad news is that when flying overseas, you have a better than even chance of not having WiFi access.

Despite the rising global ubiquity of WiFi.

Routehappy, by the way, holds out hope for the disgruntled passengers – myself often among them – who no longer even try to use inflight WiFi.  My usual preference is to read a book on my iPad – and I carefully insure the books I want to access are downloaded before I leave for the airport.

At most I will do a fast email session inflight.  But not usually.

But there are glimmers of hope that our increasingly loud kvetching about WiFi quality will be dealt with by the carriers. Said Routehappy: “Best Wi-Fi is now available on 16% of ASMs worldwide, representing a staggering 129% increase from the 2017 report.”  

It defines “Best WiFi” this way: “Fastest Wi-Fi systems currently available, capable of advanced media streaming (whether allowed by airline or not); comparable to a home connection.”

That is good news on first glance but on second what it says is 84% of ASMs don’t have “best WiFi.”

In the 2017 Routehappy report, by the way, it noted that 6% of flights offered “best WiFi.”

There has been progress in bringing “best WiFi” to more passengers globally – but not a lot, not really.

And airlines plan to get us viewing movies and such on this “Best” WiFi – and how good is your cable connection at home when you try to stream a movie on Friday night?

Right.

Don’t expect better even from “Best” WiFi on long, packed flights.  I know I’m not. I saw the drop in inflight quality circa 2012 as more of us discovered it and started using it. Similar will befall “Best” WiFi and it will surely deteriorate.

That’s why for now I’ll stick with my plan to read books on my iPad, maybe make notes in my paper calendar-planner.

How 1999.

But has anything really changed?

Perfect Meetings in Downtown Phoenix (Without a Car!)

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

It’s the season. The downtown Phoenix Convention Center is rocking, the daytime high today will be low 60s (the low was 38 – Phoenix rarely freezes), and suddenly downtown Phoenix is abloom with conventioneers, Arizona State students (there’s a huge downtown campus, a satellite to the main Tempe campus), and the arts venues are throbbing.

Now is the time to discover downtown Phoenix. As recently as 10 years ago it was a lot of dirt. This morning there were, count ‘em, four cranes at work.  Every speck of dirt is filling in, generally nowadays with apartments and condos.

Used to be Phoenix and meetings meant in fact Scottsdale, a separate city.  Scottsdale still hosts meetings (I used to live next to the Fairmont Princess in Scottsdale, a place that is always busy with meetings).  

But my advice is this: cajole your meeting planners to meet downtown.

It’s just so much more fun and, in downtown, you are witnessing the rebirth of an area that had died. There is life downtown, plus extremely good food – Beard award winning – as well as good arts. And you can walk everywhere.

It starts with getting there. Hop the light rail at Sky Harbor, the fare is $2.  Yep. Two dollars.  Or buy an all day pass for $4. Downtown is maybe 15 minutes west of the airport. You could take a cab but why? It’s no faster.

Where to stay? If yours is a convention center meeting you have plenty of choices. A Kimpton, Hyatt (probably the closest), Renaissance, Hilton Garden Inn (in an old bank building), the FoundRe, Sheraton Grand (also very close), Westin, Hotel San Carlos (a historic hotel – read TripAdvisor before booking, comments are very mixed), and a lot more. Whatever you want is downtown.  Well, maybe not a real five diamond property, but there are plenty of choices anyway.  

Was me, I’d stay at the Sheraton Grand – Arizona’s largest hotel with 1000 rooms – mainly because of the convenience. But note: the shopping center across the street is an active construction zone. I walk by it just about daily, can’t say it’s especially noisy, but some might complain nonetheless.  

Where to eat? The must go is Beard award winning Chris Bianco’s Pizzeria,  Eat the Wise Guy pizza ($19), fennel sausage and housemade mozz.  Drink a nice Italian red.  Reservations are not accepted. Singles are readily accommodated at the bar. If the wait is too long, you can also get food in Bar Bianco next door.

Bianco’s eatery is in Phoenix’s Heritage Square, a collection of very old houses a few short blocks from the convention center. Bianco’s neighbor in Heritage Square is Nobuo, where the chef is also a Beard award winner. The food is Japanese and it is clever, delightful.  The tasting menu is $80, for around seven courses.

Next eat at Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva, to me Phoenix’s best Mexican food, from Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. Go with the set tasting menu (there’s a vegan option that is simply outstanding). You’ll eat authentic Mexican foods that will dazzle you with their originality.  Taco Bell this isn’t. The tasting menu – 5 or 6 courses – is $42.  A wine pairing – Mexican pours of course – is around $20.  Technically, this is well within downtown but my advice is to Uber there and back.  Grand Street – where the restaurants its – is a street where many get lost.  

What to do? I’ll tell you my three favorite haunts.

Many weekends in season I am at the Phoenix Symphony (nextdoor to the convention center) where the fare usually is classical music. This weekend for instance it’s Sibelius and Debussy. A night of Mozart and Beethoven is coming up.  Pops are mixed in – a few Sundays ago I saw a Harry Potter film accompanied by the orchestra.  Tickets often are available same day. Prices range from around $45 to a tick over $100. 

The only disadvantage: most concerts play weekends only.

But you still have choices during the business week.  There’s the Heard Museum ($18), probably the nation’s best Native American fine arts museum – with kitschy, wonderful stuff like Barry Goldwater’s kachina collection.  The Heard is open just about every day from 9:30am to 5 p.m.  Go and you will see art that surprises.  

The Heard, by the way, is in “midtown,” adjacent to downtown. It’s an easy 30 minute walk or take the lightrail west to Encanto.  The museum is across the street.

Also go to the Phoenix Art Museum ($18 admission), where I go maybe a few dozen times a year. Closed Mondays. There’s a rotating mix of special exhibits – I loved the Warhol show and was very impressed with a recent exhibition of contemporary Brazilian art.  It’s a manageable museum. You can see a lot in an afternoon.

The Phoenix Art Museum also is on the light rail. Get off at McDowell; it’s right there. It’s maybe a 20 minute walk from downtown.

You want more? Stop in at Bitter & Twisted for craft cocktails.  Step into St. Mary’s Basilica, the oldest Catholic church in Phoenix (across the street from the convention center).  See a play at the Herberger.  See a show at the magnificent, restored Orpheum.  

The list goes on. There just is so much to do in central Phoenix.  And in the winter there is no better city for walking.  

 

Delta Is Betting You Will Pay Your Own Money for Better Seats. I’d Bet You Won’t

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Delta Airlines is betting big that you will dig into your own pocket to pay to upgrade your seat – and they say they took in $80 million last year after they allowed customers to upgrade after purchase.  

They also say they will begin allowing passengers to pay for upgrades with miles.

Are you on board with this?

The problem of course is that many employers and clients simply refuse to pay for upgraded air.  When I began in the workplace 40 years ago, the standard policy – at two of my first employers – was that if a flight was over 2 hours, they would pay for first class (business class had not yet caught on).

But now I have exactly no clients who will pay for upgraded air. To anywhere. That means if I’m flying from Phx to Sin, it’s in coach.  For maybe 21 hours.  Ouch.

If I want upgraded comfort, it comes out of my pocket.

Same for you probably.

Delta insists we are opening our own wallets.  

Are you?

I cannot recall ever paying my own money to upgrade air seating.  Never. I do recall many cases where I used miles to buy upgrades but I rationalized it with the thought that client X had in a way bought the miles because I earned them on flights paid for by X and if I used them on another flight for X, all was right with the world.

I am not sure I am entirely correct about that. But it’s how my brain worked.

And mine is a brain schooled in travel by hardened 1970s road warriors who were sure it was a sin to spend one’s own money on a business travel.

Thus my deep hesitation to pay for a better airplane seat.

Indeed, I still cannot wrap my mind around paying actual cash, from my pocket, for a better seat.  I just will not do it.

Will you?

Skift, by the way, reports that Delta will generate two receipts.  One for the base fare, one for the upgrade. The idea is to hand in for reimbursement the base fare receipt and thus dodge any hassles from bean counters.

Skift also quoted Delta’s president this way: “the goal is to avoid ‘driving to the bottom’ by selling an airline seat as a ‘commodity.’ Instead, it wants to attract “people who are discerning who want to buy premiums and products and services.”

But wait. Airline seats on US carriers are “commodities” and are fungible.  Telling me they aren’t is presupposing massive gullibility on my part.

Interesting, however, is that per Delta’s CEO – as quoted by Skift – the carrier a few years ago sold 15% of its domestic first class seats (the rest were given out to folks like me, typically for no payment at all). Now Delta sells about 50% of its upfront seats and it wants to sell more.

CEO Ed Bastian added this: “One of the reasons why we moved into the paid upgrade opportunity, not only does it allow customers to provide certainty by being able to buy the experience, but we also have a very good product in our Comfort+, which we didn’t have in the past, so that for many of our loyal customers that were unable to upgrade, they now have a place where they can actually have an enhanced experience, versus prior years where you’d be in the main cabin.”

I’m still not in.  I long ago decided I could handle the six hour discomfort of flying from LAX to EWR in coach – it’s not that bad.  Really. I don’t eat the food upfront, I don’t drink alcohol on business flights, and I don’t want to sleep on domestic flights. I don’t do any of that in coach either, but so what?

So I can get what I want, at a cheap price, from coach.

Why would I spend my money to get a slightly upgraded experience upfront?

My answer is that I won’t.

What’s yours?

When I see subheads like this – from CNBC “Passengers are opening their wallets” what I smell is airline spin. Say it’s so loud enough and often enough and it just may be believed.

But not here.

Are You Less Safe in an Uber?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Blunt question: do you feel less safe in an Uber or Lyft than you do in a properly medallioned taxi driven by a properly licensed taxi driver?  The National Limousine Association is betting that you do – at least that you will after seeing its fear provoking TV ads.  

The pitch is that ride sharing drivers haven’t been drug tested or thoroughly background checked.

But licensed taxi drivers are both, said the National Limousine Association.

Ask the passengers of John Worboys about that. A black taxi driver in London – thus a certified possessor of “the knowledge” – in 2009 Worboys was sent to prison for sexually assaulting at least 12 women, usually after drugging them in his cab.  He is said to have been one of the most prolific sexual assaulters in UK history. Over 100 women stepped forward and accused him.  Police believe his victim count could have exceeded 500.

Closer to home there is Sherman Jackson II, owner and operator of Sherman’s Safe Ride in Butler County, OH, who was charged with sexually assaulting two Miami University students. (Jackson denied the accusation.)  

In Washington, DC, Yared Geremew Mekonnen, a taxi driver, was arrested for raping a passenger who, incidentally, had fallen asleep in the backseat of Mekonnen’s cab. When she awoke, she said he was raping her.  Mekonnen too denied the allegation.

In Chicago, a taxi driver was arrested for raping drunk Loyola students, according to claims by the prosecutor.  

The list could go on. Travis Bickle isn’t the only criminal taxi driver – there are plenty of deviants in real life.

I also could quickly assemble a collection of cases involving Uber and Lyft drivers. Absolutely.

My point is that the National Limousine Association is just plain ignorant if it believes it can make a case that passengers feel less safe in an Uber than a licensed taxi and that they should feel less safe.

In many cases, by the way, ride share drivers are former taxi drivers who say they make more money with the ride share outfits. At least that’s what I have heard from a number of drivers.

Understand: I personally drove a taxi, off and on, in Boston and Cambridge, Mass.  I had hackney licenses issued by both towns. As I recall, the vetting – conducted by the city issuing the license – consisted of taking my fingerprints and running them through an FBI database.  

 

In Phoenix, where I now live, getting a taxi license apparently involves providing a criminal background check.  

I am not anti taxi driver.

But I am also not anti Uber driver.

I am against inflammatory ads that hope to stoke groundless fears however.

Look, background checks aren’t that hard.  Recently, I offered myself as a volunteer in the Catholic Church in Phoenix.  I learned that volunteering requires watching a “Safe Environment” video and filling out a fairly extensive personal history as well as providing three or four personal references and agreeing to a criminal background check.

That may seem a lot but given the Church’s recent history it quite clearly is necessary.

If I can do that much to serve as a volunteer, surely ride-share drivers can do similar.

At Uber they do in fact – which makes the National Limousine Association argument that much more baffling.

Lyft does too.  

Also, with Uber and Lyft your ride is logged by the computers.  There’s a record of the route and time. That’s more than usually documents a taxi ride.

I am not saying that therefore your safety is guaranteed in an Uber ride – or a medallioned yellow cab. Use your wits. If you feel unsafe, get out.  Don’t doubt your instincts.

But very, very probably all will be well, no matter which transportation mode you choose.

Oh, one last slap at the National Limousine Association. A few years ago I was a passenger in a licensed Journal Square, Jersey City taxi where the driver’s license was prominently displayed. I look at such things, probably because of my personal background.

In this case, the photo caught my eye because it was an entirely different person!

And I’m supposed to feel safer in a taxi?

That ride proceeded without incident by the way.

They almost always do.

 

Say Goodbye to “Do Not Disturb” Signs at Hotels

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

The Orlando Sentinel has the, well, deeply disturbing news about the apparent demise of “Do Not Disturb” signs at four Disney Florida hotels, with the door left open to expanding the policy to more hotels.  

The paper reported: “The tighter security measures come months after an Oct. 1 shooting in Las Vegas, where a gunman shot from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay casino-hotel tower and killed 58 people, wounding hundreds more.

“Disney declined to say whether the shooting prompted the change for its policy but said it made the decision for a variety of factors, including safety, security and the guest experience.”

Excuse me but this is even clumsier than the typical hotelier response to out of the normal events.

Other hotels – see below – are beginning to hop aboard this trend.

It makes no sense and, for many of us, it represents a substantial inconvenience.  I say that because over the years I have heard from many dozens of business travelers who routinely pop the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the room door when they check in and it stays there until they check out a day or two later.

Of course if a stay is longer just about all business travelers will surrender to the need for fresh towels and a bit of buffing up of the accommodations and will take off that sign – but as soon as housekeeping has done its job the sign goes back up.

Some business travelers have complained to me about the theft of personal electronics from their rooms, iPads especially – and it’s a rare inroom safe big enough to hold a full size iPad. Others tell me they suspected somebody had fiddled with their computer or maybe sifted through papers – looking for intel on a competitor?  Still others just don’t like the idea of a stranger having private time with their belongings even when that stranger is an employee of the hotel.

These business travelers will just love Disney’s new “right to enter” policy which replaces “Do Not Disturb” signs with “Room Occupied” signs and explicitly gives the hotel a right to enter daily

If you have a problem with this, Disney told the Orlando Sentinel it will discuss the issue with concerned guests individually.

Lots of people will have problems so Disney better be prepared. When travel blogger Gloria Atanmo surveyed her Facebook followers, 55% said they would rather housekeeping not tidy their rooms.  Mainly for privacy reasons.

A problem with this new Disney policy – just one of many problems – is that it sets on a collision course the desire of housekeepers to clean an unoccupied room with the desire of many business travelers to never let their unoccupied room be entered to safeguard their own privacy and security.

Many hotels of course have a policy of not allowing housekeepers to enter a room when the guest is present, I hear because of concerns over incidents where guests have sexually harassed housekeepers. These are very real issues and the housekeepers have my full support.  

But there is no plain path to satisfying both the housekeeper desire for security and the guest’s desire for security.

Let’s go back to the Stephen Paddock incident. Apparently on at least two separate occasions hotel staff helped Paddock bring gun stuffed bags up to his room via the service elevator.  

Then, too, alert staff surely might have noticed that Paddock was bringing a lot of luggage into his room. That alone would have been worth a visit by security.

But that does not mean that every guest needs to have his.her room inspected for security purposes on a daily basis.

On a business trip I typically travel with one carryon bag and one laptop case.  Most business travelers I know travel equally lean.  I scarcely have space to smuggle in a small bag of pretzels and a Diet Coke, no less an arsenal.

Why – exactly why – would my room warrant a daily visual search?

We all understand the panic triggered by Paddock’s mass killings on the Strip, just as we all felt the horrors of the 30+ murders at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai in 2008, killings perpetrated by two gunmen inside the hotel.  

Definitely hotels need better but also smarter security.

What Disney is implementing is neither. Let’s hope it doesn’t spread.

Now Hilton has climbed aboard.  Reported USA Today: “The McLean, Va.-based company is now suggesting that a team member alert a security or duty manager if a Do Not Disturb sign or light has been in place on a guestroom door for more than 24 consecutive hours.”

Hilton is a smarter take on this issue.  Not brilliant but much better than Disney.

What might hotels do better? It starts with training the front desk staff to be alert to unusual levels of baggage going into a room.  It may be harmless. The guest may be smuggling in warehouse-bought party supplies to circumvent paying for room service provisions for a soiree, for instance.

Ditto for training security staff.

Most hotels have a policy for dealing with longterm display of a “Do Not Disturb” sign by a guest but, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, there is no industry standard. Post Paddock just about every hotel chain has scrambled to come up with an effective, coherent policy. But as the Disney fail shows, it’s not easy.

Personally, by the way, I am much more concerned about meth labs at hotels than I am about snipers – there just are a lot more meth labs and they can explode, catch on fire, and otherwise endanger the lives of unwitting guests in the same hotel.

That’s also why I say again it starts with being much more aware about what guests are bringing into their rooms as they bring the stuff in.

Not the next day when they hole up behind a “Do Not Disturb” sign.

 

 

Just Say No To Hotel “Urban Fees”

 

Would you pay a $25 “urban fee” to stay at a hotel near Times Square?

The question is not academic. A growing number of hotels – many clustered around Times Square – are dinging guests $25 extra per night in an “urban fee,” modeled on a resort fee of course.

On the list are Hilton New York, Marriotts around Times Square, even Le Parker Meridien.

When a staffer at the UK Independent called Marriott to inquire about the fee, here’s what they learned.  “A member of staff said it was a fee reflecting the hotels’ proximity to a ‘tourist attraction,’ that it was specific to Times Square, and that none of the other Manhattan hotels charged a fee.”

Do we have to put up with this?

The urban fees are in fact not new. As far back as 2013, Reuters noted that urban fees were showing up at some hotels.

It’s not just Manhattan either. In San Francisco, some 34 hotels charge an urban fee, up from just three in 2016.

What do you get for this fee? Not much. Usually hotels point to allegedly “premium” Internet access, maybe gym access, possibly a local newspaper, probably local phone calls – and, really, this is just stuff I don’t want or use and before it was usually free.

Even some hotel executives know such fees are hinky. At a recent conference, co sponsored by Hotel Business,  Bob Habeeb, CEO of First Hospitality Group, said: “I think the tricky thing with resort fees or amenity fees is they’ve got to represent a real value for the consumer and not be just a veiled play for ADR. During the waning days of the Obama administration, the FCC called Katherine Lugar [the CEO of AHLA] and said we’ve been looking at the way your industry uses these amenity fees as a backdoor way to collect unspecified and undisclosed revenue, and I think we’re going to look at this.”

Habeeb added that in the Trump era pressures from Washington appear to have lessened. But he added: “It’s inevitable that consumers are going to push back if these fees don’t represent something that they can find value in. It’s a great idea to have little packages people can buy into and enhance their experience, but you’re on slippery ground when you start talking about charging a fee for things people perceive should be part of what they paid for in the first place.”

I am on record, for some years now, as a loud opponent of  resort fees.  They are just a way for hoteliers to sneakily grab your money.

Resort fees in some locations have crept up over $50 daily.  I am not against hotels charging more – we live in a capitalist society. What I am against is showing one price as the daily rate and then adding on taxes and fees that can significantly raise the daily rate.

Hotels love fees. In 2017, NYU professor Bjorn Hanson estimated they’d rake in around $2.7 billion in fees and upcharges.

Hanson, incidentally, has stated that hotels are doing a better job of plaininly disclosing fees.  “Some fees and surcharges are sometimes unfairly called ‘hidden’ or ‘surprise,’ but disclosure on websites, confirmation emails, ‘tent’ cards in guest rooms, room service menus, and guest service directories continues to increase in the nature of the disclosure. In interviews for this update, the issue is more about unpopularity of fees and surcharges rather than fees and surcharges being ‘hidden’. One of the reasons for the sense that some of these fees and surcharges are ‘hidden’ or ‘surprise’ is because the categories are often established and the amounts are set hotel-by-hotel rather than by brand, and both can change frequently.”

The bad news: as hotels have gotten better at disclosure they also have dug in their heels about erasing them. Used to be, four or five years ago, if you made a ruckus at checkout about the resort fee, poof, it disappeared. Not so fast anymore, frequent travelers tell me.

So how can you avoid the new urban fees? For starters, just don’t stay at hotels that charge the fees. There may be three dozen San Francisco hotels that charge an urban fee, but there are around 500 hotels in and very near the city that don’t.  The odds are with you.

As for Manhattan, mainly the urban fee seems to be found near Times Square – and whyever would you want to stay there?

Many, many hundreds of Manhattan hotels don’t charge an urban fee so if you stay at one that does it is on you. Just don’t.

The point: it’s up to us to avoid the fees we don’t want to pay.

Most hotels on the Las Vegas Strip now charge a resort fee. Most hotels in Scottsdale do likewise. Ditto Hawaii.  There just are places where it’s tough to duck a resort fee so we will pay it and grumble.

Urban fees are different. They are at a handful of properties and if we skip those properties – maybe even posting that a reason is the urban fee – hoteliers may get the message that this is one fee too far.

It’s up to us to just say no.

Sharing Your Hotel Room With Alexa

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Amazon has sounded its intentions loudly: it really, really wants to see its voice controlled artificial intelligence device Alexa (aka Echo) in tens of thousands of hotel rooms, pronto.

I am all for this. It’s an easy way to make my every hotel stay a little more comfortable. 

I am aware of concerns about Alexa’s potential to spy – dealt with below – but I am not deterred.  I want such gear in my hotel rooms.

I’ve been an Alexa user since early 2015 and have also supported its penetration into banking – Capital One has had a live skill for many months that I’ve used and liked.  Presently I own an Echo, a Dot, an Echo Look, and I recently added a Google Home mini.  I’ve gotten into asking my devices for the information and actions I want. It’s a whole lot simpler, and more accurate, than me typing into a cellphone.  Exactly that is why, suddenly, big tech powerhouses like Google and Amazon have plunged into voice controlled devices

And I can imagine dozens of uses for Alexa in my next hotel room, if only it’s there.

For sure, Amazon wants it there. In a recent Amazon Web Services conference in Las Vegas, Amazon executive Werner Vogels noted that Wynn is rolling Alexa out to its many thousands of hotel rooms and will let guests use it to lower the blinds, turn on the TV, turn on lights, adjust the temperature, etc.

I can already picture myself waking up in a Las Vegas hotel room and asking Alexa for the day’s weather.  Also my calendar.  I can get news headlines read to me.  And, yes, I’d definitely use Alexa to open and close the blinds (a continuing struggle for me in Las Vegas and only in Las Vegas, I can’t explain why), to adjust the room temperature, and to turn lights on and off.  No more learning curve for the inroom technology.

And with Alexa, there really is no learning curve. Just preface any request with: Alexa. That tells the device you want something. Then ask. Sometimes it won’t know the answer but Alexa confesses ignorance and moves on to the next question.

Concur, the big corporate travel manager, has also integrated an Alexa skill that will let travelers ask for their itinerary – and that’s often a question on my mind. “Alexa, when’s my flight today? Where am I going?”

Skift reports that Alexa is in trials with Marriott, also Best Western.  Skift elaborated: “At Best Western Plus Hawthorne Terrace, the Echo device greets guests on arrival in the room. Guests can ask it for services like more towels or ask it for the hotel’s recommendations on places to dine locally by cuisine and time of day.”

Hotel Management, in its reporting on the Hawthorne Terrace deployment, said: “The new device acts as a gateway to all the local happenings in Lakeview East, the vibrant neighborhood where Hawthorne Terrace resides and encourages them to ‘Live. Play. Stay. Like a local,’ which is Hawthorne Terrace’s overarching purpose.”

In Nyack, NY Dream Hotel Group has put Alexa in rooms at its Time Hotel. 

A big player in this niche is Volara, a third party that helps hotels build out customized skills and that’s key because to be truly useful, the Alexa in my hotel room has to have knowledge about the room, the hotel, the city that I don’t readily have.  

Particularly cool is that Volara – and doubtless competitors – can build in answers for Alexa, what’s the WiFi password? What are the fitness center hours? When does the restaurant open for breakfast? Can I get towels brought to my room?

Work through the many demos on the Volara demo page and you get a sense of how useful this will be.

Think of it this way. You could call the front desk with all your questions. Or you could ask Alexa. Which do you believe will be faster? More accurate? I know my answer.

A frightening question: can Alexa spy on you?  The answer seems to be yes.  Sort of.  Definitely it has the potential to hear everything said in its range and, theoretically, could transmit it to others.  Is there proof this has happened?  Not that I’m aware of but I would say that if I were having a hush-hush, on the QT convo with Jeff Bezos, I’d be surprised if he didn’t unplug Alexa before he got into the nitty gritty of his plans for throttling WalMart and making the Washington Post the nation’s best newspaper.

Do likewise. If you are having a sensitive discussion in a hotel room equipped with Alexa, unplug it. How hard is that?

When you’re done talking, plug it in and within a minute or two it’ll be ready for new questions and commands. It’s really that simple.

This is one hotel in-room technology revolution I am all in with. Color me impatient: I want it now.

 

12/9 – Changed “she” pronouns to “it,” per reader suggestion.