Do You Know Where Your Travel Data Are?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

You are your data. That is today’s reality and, increasingly, travel and hospitality providers want your data by the bushel, in order, they suggest, to deliver better, more personalized services.

Do you trust them with your data?  

Of course we already do.  They have our credit card info, airlines have our Known Traveler Number or similar, airlines and hotels alike often have our passport numbers.

But they want more, lots more.

Some travelers are pushing back.  The 2018 IATA Global Passenger Survey found mounting unease on our parts.   Reported IATA: “65% of passengers are willing to share additional personal information (e.g. address of destination, travel purpose, picture) to speed up their processing at the airport vs 70% in 2017.”

Reported TNOOZ: “A drop of five percentage points in consumer confidence when it comes to how airlines and airports  manage their information is notable, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the majority of respondents still wanted to benefit from personalization.”

That is the reality. Fewer passengers today are eager to part with their personal data – but still a majority are ready to do so.

But when provoked we will pull the data plug. Facebook is a glaring case in point.  Pew elaborated: “Just over half of Facebook users ages 18 and older (54%) say they have adjusted their privacy settings in the past 12 months, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Around four-in-ten (42%) say they have taken a break from checking the platform for a period of several weeks or more, while around a quarter (26%) say they have deleted the Facebook app from their cellphone. All told, some 74% of Facebook users say they have taken at least one of these three actions in the past year.”

So users are striking back.

Sort of. 

But we are not necessarily targeting all users of our data.

That vagary arises in a reading of an Eater report on a coffee shop called Shiru that trades a free cup of java when a user tells a lot about him-or  herself. Said Eater: “The cafe, an offshoot of a Japanese chain now open in Providence, Rhode Island, mainly serves students from nearby Brown University. For each transaction, a cashier asks for customers’ names, birthdays, phone numbers, email addresses, majors, and professional interests before serving them their caffeine fix — no U.S. currency accepted (professors are allowed to pay for their drinks with cold hard cash, however).”

Eater elaborated: “Restaurants, be they independent fine dining restaurants or quick-service chains, have long tracked customer preferences via various methods (think of a savvy maitre’d who remembers a VIP customer’s birthday, or a server who automatically brings a patron’s favorite cocktail). But as the restaurant industry grows more competitive and sales growth has slowed, restaurants are resorting to new ways to remain competitive, and obsessively tracking data to figure out what exactly their customers want is a big part of that.”

We are complicit in this. Often.

There’s lots of confusion in the mix.  Reported TNOOZ: “A survey of over 2,000 British travelers, conducted by YouGov for Pegasystems, revealed that 73% of consumers would not be willing to give airlines more personal data for personalized services, while 43% wanted airlines to remember their personal interests and preferences when they travel.”

It’s hard to reconcile that divide.  Except to believe many of us are baffled about how our data are used.

Clarity comes down to simple questions.

How much data are you willing to part with?

In return for what?

There are more questions such as can you trust the company you are turning data over to, will they protect it? With whom will they share it?

My personal belief is that the data I share is no longer in my control and it may wind up in places I wish it hadn’t.

So I usually fill out loyalty program enrollment – which I may well want for the discounts – with bogus info, a bad phone number, for instance, and possibly an errant name.  

Lie to grocers and restaurants is my advice. If you can get the perks you want but part with no real data, what’s to lose?

I can’t do that on airline info, however, because I have to show ID to fly.

Really we are in a bind with airlines and, typically, too hotels which ask for a driver’s license or similar on check in.  

I’ve thought about buying a “novelty” driver’s license.  I’d need a credit card in that fake name too so the hassles mount. That could throw hotels off the scet however.

But we can – and should – limit what data we offer beyond the bare basics needed for a flight and a room.

And I will do that.

Will you?

 

Companies Jilting Basic Economy

 

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Time to applaud: research shows that an increasing number of organizations have turned their backs on basic economy fares.

Two years ago in this space we came out slugging against basic economy.  The basic scam is that, yes, the sticker price is less but because it delivers so much less, many travelers wind up paying more than if they had bought a more conventional economy fare in the first place.

Or their travels are filled with miseries.

My advice then was to urge travelers to push back against any organizational nudging them into basic economy.

I have not personally encountered that pressure and for this I applaud.

But I may not be alone.

I never thought business travelers would do anything but scorn basic economy. But it turns out I may have been too cynical about the corporate  response to it.

Encouraging news is that travel managers are recognizing that basic economy is a scam.  Research via the Global Business Travel Association and Airlines Reporting Corporation says this: “The study reveals a majority of travel programs (63 percent) never allow basic economy and even more (79 percent) configure their booking tool to hide basic economy fares when travelers are not authorized.”

Remember that if your organization wants to shove you into basic economy. Just say no. And stress that the majority of companies have vetoed its use.

That same research incidentally offered good news about business class fares: “Nine out of 10 (89 percent) [of managed travel programs] allow it occasionally and these policies commonly do so for lengthy flights, international flights or for senior executives.” So ask and ask again if you feel an upcoming flight should be in the front of the plane.

You just may hear OK.

All hope isn’t dashed if your program is among those that nix business class.  “Many travel programs are embracing premium economy fares, which provide extra legroom and other amenities such as early boarding. More than half (58 percent) of policies always or sometimes allow them and an additional 30 percent occasionally allow these fares,” said the research.

And premium economy is plush indeed compared to the alternatives.

The real show stopper however is the snubbing of basic economy and that’s because, over the past 15 or so years, many organizations seemingly have been in a race to see just how low they could get travel costs, and so hotel stays have slid down the value chain and so have airfares.

So my expectauons were accordingly bleak.

The formula, at the big three US carriers, is indeed grimly Dickensian.  At United, it’s a litany of no’s. No complimentary seat selection. No family or group seating.  No fullsize carryon bags unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member. Show up at the gate with a full size carryon and you pay the bag check fee plus a $25 gate check penalty. Exactly one personal carryon that fits under the seat is allowed.  No flight changes, no refunds.

And you board last.

Welcome to the friendly skies!

Delta and American are about as awful.

But just because something is bad doesn’t mean organizational bean counters won’t embrace it. It in fact seemed to me inevitable that, in many companies, basic economy and middle seat passage would become the norm.

Except this time they don’t appear to be.

“It’s not surprising to see many business travel programs shying away from basic economy fares,” said Michael W. McCormick, GBTA executive director and COO. “These fares pose a challenge for travel programs, creating difficulty for spend visibility and comparison shopping when add-ons are factored in. Additionally, travel buyers are increasingly factoring in traveler preference and convenience as they recognize the importance of their role in employee retention and recruitment in a strong economy with low unemployment.”

Bottomline: corporate bean counters are realizing that basic economy may seem cheaper – but often it isn’t.

According to Skift, too, many companies are even opening their wallets a thin crack. Said Skift: “When it comes to add-ons, most policies allow in-flight meals, Wi-Fi access, and extra checked bags.”

But 74% of travel programs do not reimburse for airline lounge access.

And 54% will not pay for early boarding.

But ask and you may get what you want.

Push back and, just maybe, the organizational masters will hear your complaints.  Business travelers travel to make their organizations money, it’s that simple. But wearing us down – on overcrowded flights, in too small seats – is no way to put a refreshed team on the ground.

Insist on that message and, at least sometimes, it will get heard.  Sometimes. 

Just raise the volume to try to make yours one of the ones that get that money spent on better business travel often returns dividends in happier employees.  

 

 

The Ever Changing Airlines’ Goal Posts for Elites

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Imagine you are playing a football game, you score a touchdown, and when next the ball is yours it seems the goal posts are 40 yards farther away.

Don’t imagine, experience a similar reality with airline loyalty programs.

Skift even ran with the analogy in its headline about United’s most recent changes: “United Airlines Moves the Goal Post for Earning Top-Tier Elite Status.”  

For some years, I’ve chided airline loyalty programs as essentially shell games, where the passenger mainly loses. That’s why I’ve suggested sidestepping the programs and getting the essential perks at no extra cost when using an airline branded credit card.  (I carry two and mull picking up a third.)

The latest slap in the face from United reminds me why I’ve decided not to play that game. For the 2019 program year, earning United top tier 1K status will require a $15,000 spend, up from the current $12,000. The mileage required remains the same at 100,000.

In making that move United is matching Delta. American is the last of the big three that retains a $12,000 spend for its executive platinum status.

Airlines are feeling the pain of rising crude oil costs – and at least some experts believe crude prices will double in the next year.  For airlines that’s a world of hurt on profits and those pains will be leveled on passengers, both elite and non elite.

But the maddening thing about the changing mileage and spend goal posts is that even the most loyal passengers feel the pains.

It’s arguable that the most loyal always feel the most pain precisely because of that loyalty which keeps them locked into a particular loyalty program and once you start playing the game you get hooked.

Even when it’s a game you can’t win.

At SFGATE.com, Chris McGinnis hypothesized that a reason United made this move – aside from the simple desire to match Delta – is that the group of qualifying flyers may have become “too large.”

He quoted Luc Bondar, head the MileagePlus program, as saying that United made the change because it wanted to be sure  “the value promise we promise to elite level members is one that we can deliver.”

One way to get there is to winnow the pack.

United also is fiddling with the upgrades earned by elites. It said on its website: “Currently, Premier members earn two Regional Premier Upgrades for every 25,000 PQM or 30 PQS and two Global Premier Upgrades for every 50,000 PQM or 60 PQS after reaching Premier 1K status. In 2019, Premier members will earn one Global Premier Upgrade for every 25,000 PQM or 30 PQS after reaching Premier 1K status, and will no longer earn additional Regional Premier Upgrades.”

Noted McGinnis about this change: “That’s good news for those who travel a lot internationally, but not so good for those who like to use regional upgrades to bump up to first from the back of the plane on domestic flights.”

Add it up and what do elites get? Less and less.  That is fact. Loyalty used to deliver a steady stream of upgraded seats and of course a sprinkling of free flights bought for miles.  I have flow to Rome, Berlin, many more places – highly desirable – using miles as my currency.

But the common complaint I hear today is that just are no available award flights on the routes travelers honestly want.

And seat upgrades are harder and harder to come by, mainly because airlines have decided to monetize those seats – selling them, sometimes at bargain prices, shortly before boarding.  

Puzzled about what’s going on here, really? At AirlineGeeks, contributor Thomas Pallini noted, “Even though they don’t realize it, airlines are not rewarding loyal travelers, they’re punishing regular travelers.”

Low level elite status increasingly resembles flying with no status perhaps 10 years ago.

That is why I suggest skipping loyalty and buying a credit card that delivers the perks you want such as early boarding and free checked bag.  

Fair enough, airlines want to reward their most profitable passengers.

For the rest of us what makes sense is stepping outside the system.

I’ll admit, at first it is disorienting to arrive at an airport without elite status.  But you get the hang of it, you do.

By now I’m content with my lot.

Are you?

 

 

Do You Know Who’s Stealing Your Airline Miles?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

The dark web is aflood with stolen airline miles for sale.  That’s the surprising punch to the face in a recent report from Comparitech.

The subhead delivers the message: “There’s a black market for your frequent flyer miles. Stolen frequent flyer accounts and rewards points are a hot commodity on the Dark Net.”

According to Javelin Strategy + Research, in 2017 11% of attacks on existing financial accounts were on loyalty programs. That’s up from 4% in 2016.

According to Barry Kirk, Vice President of Loyalty, Maritz Motivation Solutions, “Every sizable loyalty program was a victim of attempted fraud or hacking in 2017. Those who believe they weren’t simply haven’t paid attention.”

Maritz research says that 7% of us self identify as victims of program fraud.

Left unknown is how many of us are victims but haven’t realized it – probably because a little used account was pilfered.  If we do eventually return to that site, we may have forgotten what our miles total should be and just accept that, well, I must have emptied it out, I forget on what.

Headline winning breaches of loyalty programs are few.  The Hilton attack four years ago comes to mind.

In 2015 United and American admitted their programs had been hacked – but both were relatively small thefts. Some 10,000 accounts were said to be compromised at American, fewer at United.

Yet hackers are continually nibbling away at our stashes of miles and points.

A proof is that brisk dark web marketplace, reported by Comparitech, which observed: “On Dream Market, one of the largest black markets on the dark web, a single vendor sells reward points from over a dozen different airline reward programs, including Emirates Skywards, SkyMiles, and Asia Miles. Going by the handle @UpInTheAir, they sell a minimum of 100,000 points for the reward program of your choice, starting out at $884 as of time of writing (this was probably $1,000 originally, but Bitcoin price fluctuations caused it to go down).”

A rule of thumb is that miles are worth 1 to 2 cents apiece (of course smart shoppers can get significantly greater value and less astute shoppers will get lower returns).

On the dark web, however, the going rate, according to Comparitech, appears to be much lower – often as little as 1/10th of the typical value.

There’s a reason for that. Stolen miles probably will not get cashed in for flights, mainly because of ID issues.  So what are they good for?

Stuff.  

For instance, in 2017, Air Miles, a Canadian loyalty scheme, issued a warning that thieves were using miles to buy merchandise in stores that participate in the program.

In other cases, bolder crooks redeem miles for flights and then sell the travel on websites, often at huge discounts.  See a flight going for half what it’s worth and that’s a red flag for trouble ahead.

How do thieves get most of their stolen miles? Generally by hacking into individual accounts – meaning they figure out your user name and password, or they use a robot to try enough combinations until it stumbles into the proper formula.  It sounds labor intensive but, increasingly, it is automated.

Loyalty programs now are in a fast track mode to contain fraud. According to Maritz’ Kirk, “Until very recently, program fraud was only discussed in hushed tones or dismissed as a non-issue. Now all major loyalty agencies proudly promote their fraud protection tools and process.”

Even so, the burden is on you.  The miles and points are yours and that also means they are yours to safeguard.

How? That’s easy.  Comparitech offered a number of tips, including:

“Shred your boarding pass after a flight.
Never post a photo of your boarding pass online.
Use a strong and unique password for your frequent flyer account.
Monitor your account for suspicious activity.”

The last is crucial.  Make it a habit to stop into your loyalty accounts at least monthly.

And also make it a habit to change your passwords occasionally, certainly yearly.

One last bit of advice: just don’t use public wifi to access your loyalty accounts. Of course it’s tempting when you are sitting at the airport to put the time to use surfing your airline and hotel websites. Don’t. At least don’t on public wifi. Use a cellphone hotspot instead.

It’s up to you to protect your miles.  Know that and do it.

So Now Do You Trust TripAdvisor?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

TripAdvisor has brought out the megaphones, hired the brass band, and is busily proclaiming that its fraud team has made TripAdvisor reviews a safe place for us to find the information we need to book the right accommodations. It’s a story with a lot of fake reviews, even an arrest.

Should we break out the bubbly?  Maybe not yet.

TripAdvisor crowed online: “Back in 2015, our dedicated team of fraud investigators identified a new illegal business in Italy called PromoSalento that was offering to write fake reviews for hospitality businesses to boost their profile on TripAdvisor. Several Italian businesses forwarded the emails to us, which kick-started an investigation that would ultimately see the person behind PromoSalento sent to jail!”

Tnooz, a trade pub, reported on this outcome: “In June of this year, the Criminal Court of Lecce found the owner guilty of using a fake identity to commit fraud. He has been sentenced to 9 months in prison and will have to pay 8,000 euros in costs and damages.”

Posting fake reviews is in fact illegal in some of Europe.

Question: Is it illegal to pay for fake reviews in the US? It’s not clearly illegal although posting such reviews has and could result in litigation that would be expensive to fend off.

What I can say is that I have seen numerous solicitations to pay writers to create fake reviews. Rates, incidentally, are paltry – often $10 or under. Sometimes $5. 

But for the right writer – particularly in the right low cost country – $5 might be a decent wage for a few minutes work.

Often, too, I have spotted an avalanche of fake reviews posted by hotel staff or maybe their friends.  

TripAdvisor says they have their eyes open for this and they point to their detailed work to hunt down the Italian behind the paid reviews in his country. “Over the course of our investigation, our technical analysis identified and then either blocked or removed more than 1,000 attempts by PromoSalento to submit reviews to the TripAdvisor site on hundreds of different properties.

“PromoSalento attempted to avoid our scrutiny by regularly changing their usernames and email addresses, but our fraud detection processes use a suite of advanced technologies to evaluate hundreds of review attributes such as IP addresses, browser types and even the screen resolution of a reviewer’s device. Based on that analysis, we were able to see a trail of digital and behavioral ‘breadcrumbs’ that led our team straight back to PromoSalento.”

Hold your applause.

What TripAdvisor did is good – that’s obvious – but it also did it to protect its core functionality.  A Gresham’s Law applies online where bad reviews drive out good and so TripAdvisor cannot allows its service to be overwhelmed by bad reviews.

Particularly not when it is all so blatant.

Just a few problems that lead me to be restrained in saluting TripAdvisor.

First, there are many ways to buy fake reviews that probably will sidestep algorithms that hunt for fraud – e.g., paying writers only when their review had been posted by them and gone live. That leaves no trail back to the buyer and, from what I hear, the market for fake reviews remains brisk.

Second, there are – to my eyes – obviously fake reviews generated internally that still pop up with regularity.  TripAdvisor doubtless has algorithms that hunt for fakes. But give a hotel employee a VPN and imagine how many reviews he/she can post.

TripAdvisor itself has warned hotel employees to cool it.  That tells you the problem is bad.

It gets worse, a lot worse.

The bigger problem: TripAdvisor itself has a history of deleting negative reviews that aren’t fake, anything but. They just stung hotel and restaurant employees who insisted they come down.  And they did. Some of those deleted reviews in fact alleged rapes by hotel employees.

That is information a potential guest very much would want to know.

TripAdvisor of course has said its corrected its behaviors, even putting in a badge notification for establishments that may have had allegation of rapes and assaults.

Is that good enough for you?

Know your rights. Congress last year passed the Consumer Review Fairness Act which makes it illegal to threaten to sue consumers or seek to penalize them financially for negative online reviews.  

The FTC has said it will slap companies that ignore the law.  

Personally I want more from the FTC.

But, mainly, I want more from TripAdvisor.  A reliable review site would be a very good thing in the fragmented hotel business – and a marvelous thing for those of us who travel internationally where, in many countries, independents are the only choices.  So there isn’t that same brand promise that guides us to many hotels in the US.

I want TripAdvisor to work.  

I’m just unconvinced that it does.

Ask me again in six months. TripAdvisor just has announced a massive shift into professional content and a move away from consumer created content.  Is that the answer?

Color me skeptical.  A lot of “professional” content is anything but. And these days it proliferates like kudzu. But ask anyway in six months because maybe my answer will be cheerier.

Or maybe not.

 

What Happens When TSA Mangles Your Bag?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

It’s a traveler’s nightmare. Something is stolen from your checked bag – it’s almost always the good stuff too such as jewelry or a slick camera – or maybe the bag and its content simply are demolished and what you retrieve at baggage claim is scrap.  Then what?

Surely you’ll be made whole, particularly when your gripe is with TSA, a federal agency, not an airline.

Hah.

An NJ.com story’s headline tells you what to expect: Good luck getting money from the TSA for your lost, damaged luggage.  

New data via Dorian Banutoiu – which looks at 16 years of claims, 2002-2017, is just as grim.  It shows that of 218,000 claims, 101,000 were denied, 9000 are pending, and 83,000 are marked paid.

The NJ.com research crunched data from only the 15 busiest airports – Newark included – and it found that: “Of the 34,127 claims filed at these airports from 2010 to 2017, almost 41 percent — or four out of every 10 requests — were denied. In contrast, about 26 percent were approved for payment or settled for a lesser amount. About 13 percent were under review, and the rest had been canceled.”

In the LA Times, reporter Hugo Martin – drawing on TSA data mainly from 2016 – concluded this: “Of the TSA claims that are resolved, 54% are denied, 24% are approved in full, 12% are settled for an amount less than what was requested and 10% are canceled or closed out for other reasons.”

Martin continued: “The most common items lost or damaged are bags, cases, purses, clothing, computers and accessories and jewelry.”

That’s right, the good stuff.  Nobody wants to take my 20 year-old LL Bean toiletry bag, please.

Martin added: “Jewelry, cash and camera equipment are the items rejected by the TSA at the highest rate, at least 70% of the time.”

The data also show that claims made at checkpoints are far more likely to be approved than are claims involving checked baggage.  That’s bad news because NJ.com data show that 75% of claims involve checked baggage. Just 24% are at checkpoints.

The average settlement amount over the past 16 years is $199.

Curiously, according to Travel Pulse, “If you are filing a claim, you are more likely to get repaid if you file it in the first half of the year, according to the data, which found that there was a lower average of payments approved in the second part of the year.”

NJ.com added: “Critics say the TSA takes an overly harsh approach, often claiming it can’t find evidence that it was responsible for the loss or damage. And the agency continues to deny the problem of theft at airports, they say, though there’s few other explanations for the losses.”

Theft, according to NJ.com, is the biggest issue: “About 60 percent of all the claims at these airports related to property loss.”

Some airports have so much theft that occasionally local police issue warnings, as happened not long ago at Orlando.  

Some grumbles about TSA are genuinely macabre, such as an NFL player’s complaint – with photos to prove his point – that TSA spilled his late mother’s ashes in his bag.  

Particularly interesting in the NJ.com data dump is its tally of which airports are most likely to see claims denied and the big winner – by far – is Las Vegas/McCarran where 56% of claims are denied.

The best airport for these matters is San Francisco where essentially all claims are approved.

Newark Airport, for what it’s worth, came in just behind San Francisco, approving roughly 65% of claims.

How not to become a victim? That’s easy. Never pack anything of value in checked baggage. Clothing, maybe. But jewelry, electronics, etc., nope, do not think about it. Carry it on. Or leave it at home.

Also, report any losses as soon as detected, ideally within 24 hours.  Procrastination will work against you.

Some passengers are also buying GPS trackers for their luggage – although there’s no clear connection between tracking a bag’s whereabouts and stopping theft of particular content.

The bad news of course is that, in coach, the battle for the overhead bin is as fierce as ever, as a USA Today headline shouted.  That forces many passengers to check bags and that triggers many possible miseries.

There is a cure. My advice regarding valuables is if you don’t need it, don’t bring it.  Personally I travel with an old Chromebook – not worth $100 – and if it went missing I’d shed no tears.  I bring no jewelry.  Nothing of any real value. Haven’t in some years.

Spartan? I suppose. But very, very practical in today’s travel marketplace.  

 

 

 

Sustainability, Business Travel and You

 

By Robert McGarvey

87% of us want to travel sustainably, said a recent poll via Booking.com. But more of us fail than succeed.  39% said they always or usually travel sustainably. But 48% of us admit we fail.

Business travel is a substantial offender. Said pwc: “Business travel remains our single largest source of carbon emissions, and – as we’ve continued to reduce our emissions from energy – has grown to around 80% of our total carbon footprint in 2017.”

Most big businesses would have to say ditto. Where their pollution is biggest is in travel.

The prime offender of course is air travel:  it amounts to 70% of our total emissions, per pwc.

The more I dig into sustainability and business travel, the more questions and concerns I have.  Suddenly sustainability seems a life or death issue.

One look at starving polar bears ought to persuade you that this stuff is serious, it is way beyond a crunchy granola fear.

Here’s the idea that frightens many business travelers: “The simplest way to cut emissions caused by travel is to avoid it,” said pwc.  

Yep.

I am a product of a time and a work culture where a possible trip produced quick assent: sure, I’ll go.  It could be a convention in Chicago, an angry client in Washington DC, a prospective new client in Los Angeles, or a speech in Boston. It didn’t matter. Sign me up.

Now I am beginning to question every trip: is it necessary? Can I do it via telephone?  

When the impact of business travel was mainly on my time, I shrugged off the time burdens and said sure.  Now – increasingly – the impact seems to be on the planet itself and that is a much bigger issue.

A bonus: traveling less is also good for our personal health.  The evidence is strong that a heavy travel load is bad for our bodies.

That’s another reason to really question our trips.

Do you remember when it was common for a big company to send a few hundred junior execs off to a conference center to spend three or four days learning, say, Lotus 123 or WordPerfect? That was the norm and, for many Boomers, it seemed fun.

Millennials, who today are carrying the bulking of the business travel load, aren’t buying the rationale of that trip, mainly because they know that they could learn new software perfectly well at their desks – with no new carbon hits such as are associated with those those trips of yesteryear to learn new software.

Oh, I also vividly recall a story told me by the VP of HR at a Fortune 100 company where, in the mid 1980s, as a junior exec, he was sent off to one of those trainings where he in fact learned Lotus 123. Just one problem.  When he returned to his office, he still did not have a computer and by the time he got a computer a few years later, he didn’t remember a thing about Lotus 123.

But he did tell me that under his leadership the company was minutely scrutinizing all planned educational meetings – and he hoped to eliminate most.

That’s a harsh reality. As I look back I see a lot of trips that I now see as unnecessary.  

I am a fan, incidentally, of big, glitzy, high energy sales conferences – they pump up attendees in ways that won’t happen when you sit at a desk and watch a video of even a high impact speaker like Tony Robbins.  In person just is more powerful.

Small meetings where intimate exchanges happen also can only be in person.

But a lot of business travel remains a product of habit, of how we have always done business.  And maybe it’s time to rethink.

Right now, hotels are tripping over themselves to announce they will no longer use plastic straws.  Some also are replacing individual toiletries with bulk dispensers. Many others encourage us to use towels and sheets multiple days.

So what?

All those steps are good as far as they go but they don’t go far and if you never use a plastic straw again in your life it will have zero impact on polar bears.

We probably shouldn’t be in that hotel room at all.

What really matters is flying only as necessary.  Using public ground transportation. Walking is better still.

Always ask, is this trip necessary? Really?

What’s the lowest carbon impact to get this business handled?

The encouraging reality is that more of us are genuinely asking those kinds of questions and acting accordingly.  The old days of “sure, boss, I’ll be in Houston tonight, no prob” are over. Maybe we’ll go to Houston, maybe we won’t, and what’s new now is that we’ll carefully assess the alternatives. When flying is the better choice, off we go. When it isn’t, home we stay. And that’s a better reality. For us and for the planet.

The 20% Travel Ripoff

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Can you do basic arithmetic? Do percentages? Of course you can and, in fact, we learn in fifth and sixth grades how to compute simple percentages in our heads. Quick now, what’s 20% of $100 – or 20% of $250?

Sure, you can do the math. But now some MGM resorts in Las Vegas – notably Aria, Bellagio, and my once personal favorite, Vdara – will tack on a 20% upcharge when you get a massage, facial, haircut, and similar.

Bellagio, on its website, explains the upcharge: “For your convenience a 20% service charge will be added to each spa and salon service received. A portion of the service charge is dispersed to the spa and salon staff members who served you and the remainder is an administrative fee. Additional gratuities are at your discretion.”

The LATimes, in reporting on this, quoted an email from company spokesperson Brian Ahern: “Our employees go above and beyond to provide the best possible service, and it’s important that they receive recognition for a job well done.”

What?

A coerced tip somehow counts as “recognition for a job well done?’

When a masked man puts a gun in your gut and takes your wallet, is this recognition for a job well done?

It’s Vegas, baby.

But it is nonsensical.

It’s picking my pocket to let the employer underpay its employees and why, by the way, is the customer hit with an “administrative fee” when paying a tip?

Don’t ask, there is no answer.

The trouble is that what starts in Las Vegas often spreads, like a bad disease, across hospitality.  Consider resort fees.  Sure, a few Las Vegas hotels shun the practice but most slap a fee – $39 per night at Vdara and Bellagio, by the way – and you got me what you get in return.

Across America, many, many more hotels – some in cities – have climbed on and now impose “resort fees” or “urban amenity” fees mainly as a way to hike room rates without actually hiking room rates.  But that $99 hotel room has become $129 and the culprit is the resort fee.

Now, Las Vegas has decided we are too dumb – or cheap – to tip their salon and spa employees and, oh wait, isn’t it the employer’s job to compensate employees?  Not the customer’s?

It’s Vegas, baby.

A few years ago I ran across a spa in Arizona that hit customers with an automatic 20% tip and when I asked the company president what possibly justified this, he took offense. Didn’t I see that he was providing his spa customers with a convenience? Doing the math for them because, presumably, they are too blissed out by the spa treatment, or maybe just too stupid, to do a simple calculation that most 12 year-olds can do in an instant.

Johnny, what’s 20% of $120?

Jane, how about 20% of $160?

(Hint: just multiply 2 times the first two digits and, bingo, you have the sum.)

I am and have been opposed to mandatory gratuities – anywhere from cruise ships to spas.

I also, some years ago, drove a taxi and gratuities made or broke my night.  If I got stiffed by too many fares, I cursed them and I went home with a lot less dough than I had hoped for.

I understand the importance of gratuities.

But I resent it when they are shoved down my throat.

I am okay, by the way, with Danny Meyer’s campaign to end restaurant tipping and instead build tips into the prices for food shown on the menu. Of course I’ve eaten at enough Meyer places to believe his staff will deliver good service without the promise of a possible tip, or the withholding of one – and the difference between what Meyer believes is right and what MGM is forcing on customers is that Meyer shows one price, tip already built in, whereas in the hotel business there’s a service price and then, by magic, a service charge is tacked on so that $100 haircut now is $120.

With Meyer there is no chicanery. That’s the difference.

Automatic “gratuities” by the way seem rampant in the spa world and you have to ask: why is management so cheap that it won’t pay its employees adequately and why are customers so passive that they go along with this extortion?

Maybe what starts in Vegas really should stay in Vegas.

Would You Pay for Business Travel Upgrades Out of Your Own Pocket?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

New research via Travelport slapped me upside the head so hard I  thought of Mo Howard and believed I was having a Three Stooges moment. Except, apparently, this is reality.

According to Travelport, 55% of us will pay for travel upgrades out of our pocket. This includes better seats on planes, WiFi, and hotel rooms.

The research also underlined how we have in fact become a nation of wimps where 69% of us say we always comply with our organizations’ travel policy. Another 26% say they “frequently” comply.  Meaning that just 5% commonly go rogue.

Color me mistaken.  In the past I have laughed at airline beliefs that we’d pay for seat upgrades – I am apparently wrong.

(I was right, though, in railing that we had become a nation of wimps. Sigh.)  

As for what we told Travelport we’d pay for with our own dough (or frequent flyer miles), 49% said a better airline seat.  52% said a better hotel room. 50% said upgraded hotel WiFi. 50% said upgraded rental cars. Only 19% said there’s nothing they would pay for.

How about you?

I’ll admit I have occasionally used miles to buy upgrades – but I’d earned the miles flying for a specific client and was doing another trip for them and have decided to spend some of those miles for a business class seat.  Taking the sting out of this is that I know the CEO and I know he complies with his company’s coach only policy – but he pretty much never flies coach because he too spends miles. He’s also United Premier 1K so the airline gives him plenty of perks.

But he didn’t ask me to live by rules that don’t apply to him so I have been okay with spending miles on trips for him.

But I can say I have never spent money – mine or a client’s – on an upgraded hotel room (they are fungible to me) and I have never spent money on a rental car upgrade.  Never.

As for hotel WiFi I rarely use it – I consider it hideously unsafe and use cellular hotspots instead – so I’m not buying an upgrade on that.

My policy – going back to my earliest days on business trips and taught me by my bosses – is that if it is legitimately travel related the company should and will reimburse.  If it’s not, forget about it. And there isn’t a lot of gray in that equation.

In those days you could and should bill for a copy of the Wall Street Journal bought at the airport. But not for a Playboy or Mad Magazine.

I also can only think of one time when a client challenged a travel expense and, honestly, I had carelessly passed on a receipt to a secretary who had typed up my invoice. Not her fault. My fault and the client was right to challenge it.

But when it’s needed for work, the employer or client needs be paying for it.  No questions about that, so my policy is to push back against policies that defy my principles.  

Usually, too, my experience is that these are easy wins.  Ask and you get.

A lot of us apparently are no longer asking.

A sliver of good news in the Travelport data is that 90% of us say we are permitted to keep miles and rewards points we earn on business trips.  And I do wonder about the 10% who apparently kick them back into their organization’s coffers.

Also, many of us now use airport expediting services.  43% are in TSA Pre. 33% are in Global Entry. 31% are in Clear.

Often, employers paid for such services.  Just 17% said none of them. (15% said they belonged to none. It’s not clear if many of those 15% work at organizations that don’t reimburse.)

29% said employers reimbursed for TSA Pre. 28% say similar for Global Entry.  23% said likewise for Clear.

Every employer should pay for one such service for employees who travel on business. That is blatantly obvious to me.

A hot button question in the research is: would you let your employer use GPS tracking to monitor where you go when traveling on business?

Understand: it doesn’t bother me that Google knows where I go (I am a Fi subscriber). It also doesn’t bother me that many rental car companies now use GPS tracking.  

But 25% of us say we would definitely disagree with an employer policy of using GPS tracking on us. Another 21 % say they would “somewhat disagree.”

28% like the idea. 17% “somewhat” like it.

Talk about divided opinion.

As for me, I’m not going to take a position on GPS tracking for others. I am okay with it on me. But I won’t insist others think likewise.

It’s a gray area.

But in my mind there should be no divided opinion – no gray area – about reimbursement for business travel related expenses. If it’s a legit business expense the company needs to pony up.

 

 

 

What Travel Apps Are On Your Phone?

 

By Robert McGarvey

A new Oracle report came as a wake-up call for me.  Said Oracle: we are using a lot of travel apps. Quite happily.

At first I snorted at this and then I recognized that, increasingly, I personally am making considerable use of apps – just not travel apps so much.

Should I do a rethink?

I do use Headspace and Mondly (language learning), pretty much daily on my Pixel phone. Google’s Fit is my daily companion as it tracks my walking and meditation. I use SeatJunky often (hunting for free seats at cultural events).  Of course I use Facebook on my phone, also a couple of banking apps and PayPal. The list could go on. But the point is just that, definitely, I make growing use of phone apps.

Five years ago I used pretty much no apps with any regularity but apps have crept into my life.

But not travel apps so much.

The Oracle report tells me to rethink that.  

According to Oracle, “Branded restaurant and hotel apps are very popular; almost a quarter of global consumers have at least one hotel or restaurant app on their mobile devices.” The exact number of consumers who use the travel apps, per Oracle, is 23%.

Those who use them use them often, too. Said Oracle: “Branded restaurant and hotel apps are being used weekly; 70% of the hotel/ restaurant branded app users say they use those apps at least once a week.”

For point of comparison, we use mobile banking apps more – but travel apps are surprising strong.  Here is data from a Federal Reserve study: “The Fed survey found that 43 percent of all mobile phone users with bank accounts had used mobile banking in the previous 12 months, up from 22 percent in the agency’s 2011 survey. Among mobile banking users with smartphones (cell phones with internet connectivity), 53 percent with bank accounts used mobile banking in the previous 12 months.”

As far as travel apps go, once we use one, we seem open to using more.  Oracle added: “Once consumers engage with branded apps, they’re open to using several; two thirds of the consumers using hotel or restaurant apps have at least three of them on their devices.”

A last bit from Oracle: “Branded apps are more popular than third party ordering apps – only 20% of global consumers have an app for a third party aggregator.”

It’s the last in fact that surprises me. I do have, and have used, HotelTonight, OpenTable, HipMunk, and a few others.

As for branded apps, I have on my phone Uber (used a lot), United, American Airlines, Delta, My TSA, and, nope, not a single hotel branded app.  I also have no restaurant apps. And I’ve never used the airline apps.

Maybe it’s my age.  Said Oracle: “Only 9% of consumers aged 55+ have a restaurant or hotel app on their mobiles, compared to 31% of millennials.”

I’m in sync with this however: “20% of global consumers have at least one app for a food delivery service on their devices.”  In my case it’s Ubereats, also Amazon Prime Now (which I have used on several occasions). Which puts me in line with this Oracle finding: “28% of global consumers said that they have paid for food and drink from an app on their mobile devices at least once.”

It worked fine for me, by the way.  I just don’t order much takeout food and so haven’t had a need for the apps anyway.

You are sitting out hospitality apps? Oracle said a lot of us do.  “43% of global consumers say that they do not use hospitality apps.” This also is age influenced.  “70% of the 55+ generation do not use apps in any way, compared to just 26% of millennials,” according to Oracle.

Tell you the truth, however, I am now downloading more travel apps and will begin using them because I am getting very accustomed to using apps (like Headspace) every day.

That’s the reality of mobile: the more we use it, the more we use it and, suddenly, we see the convenience of having what amounts to a mini computer in our pocket.

Then too, the power and ease of use of all mobile apps is much higher than it was when the iPhone launched 11 years ago (or the apps we had on our Palm Pilots before then).  

My advice: download three or four travel apps and, probably, you’ll begin to find utility and, no, I’m still not downloading any hotel apps – and year ago research from business intelligence firm L2 dismissed the lot as junk.  As for airlines, here’s a roundup of the best.  And here’s PCMag’s roundup of the best in all categories.

Happy downloading.