Why Hotel Loyalty Programs Miss Our Marks

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Oracle has weighed in with a data rich report that basically says hoteliers think they know about our loyalties but they don’t know bupkis.  Said Oracle: “We’ve uncovered a surprising divide in perception between how businesses view loyalty programs and what guests really think.”

Put another way: what we have here is failure to communicate.

And that’s at the root of why, so often, hoteliers seem oblivious to what even frequent guests honestly want from their rooms.  

So often hoteliers seem to miss the obvious.  That’s a conclusion from the Oracle data, which explores loyalty programs and also our views on social influencers and hotel tech. It’s a mixed bag of data but the one consistent reality is that we are misunderstood by hoteliers.

What do hoteliers get wrong about us?

Oracle starts off by tossing this hand grenade: “Given the choice to revoke their personal information from hotel brands, more than 80% of respondents said they would. Yet loyalty programs are at the heart of hoteliers’ commercial strategy.”

Oracle said “misconception 1” on the part of hoteliers is thinking we give much of a hoot about their loyalty programs in the first place.  Said Oracle: “Hotels think that guests would openly sign up to every loyalty program…guests are much more selective, only signing up to programs with real relevance.”

61% of hoteliers think guests sign up for every program.  Just 24% of us say we do. Hoteliers think 6% of us rarely join any program. But 30% of us say we rarely do.

Count me in that group who often decline to sign up.  Why bother when there is nothing on offer that interests me?

Hoteliers think we covet the possibility of room upgrades and rolling, 24 hour check in – the kinds of perks doled out to loyal guests.  Do we?

Said Oracle: “Guests, however, are far less engaged in the programs than hoteliers realize.”

54% of hoteliers say their offers to loyal guests are “mostly relevant.”  But only 22% of us say they are. And 39% of us say offers are “rarely relevant.”  But just 6% of hoteliers think their offers are rarely relevant.

Those are wide perception gaps.  And probably the why of our hotel discontents.

The research veers into areas where I might not agree with its findings – do you?  For instance, 37% of us say “Hoteliers used and recommended by social media influencers are more trustworthy than those recommended by celebrities.”

And 32% of us said that social media influencers reviews are more trustworthy than generic customer reviews (think TripAdvisor).  

Are you on board with this perception of influencers – keeping in mind that they work for money and further keeping in mind that the Federal Trade Commission wants their postings clearly labeled as ads.

I’m not putting influencers down, just suggesting that the rush to embrace is premature. Some are very credible. Some aren’t.

As for hotel loyalty programs, what do we want from them? Oracle says – no surprise here – that we want more personalized offers.  In fact 90% say they find this appealing: “Personalized service from hotel staff that understand my preferences and show me relevant excursions, recommendations and offers.”

65% want offers based upon our past purchase history.

86% say they are willing to complete a questionnaire so that offers can in fact be more precisely targeted.

What we are saying is listen to us and we’ll tell you how to make these loyalty programs work better. Will hoteliers listen? That is the question.

As for hotel tech, 87% of us want to be able to check out rooms with virtual reality before checking in. Just 73% are keen to use Alexa or Siri in the room. Count me as a huge Alexa fan and while I own a Google Daydream I don’t recall the last time I fired it up.  I certainly wouldn’t just to “walk” through a hotel room before booking.  Would you?

Add this up and – still – we are left with a divide between what hoteliers think we want and what we truly want.  What’s strange is that hoteliers have a lot of data at their disposal – especially regarding loyal, frequent guests – and yet they just don’t seem to be using it.

That just may be the most baffling reality about 2018 hotels.  They have what they need to know. They just don’t know it.

 

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How Safe Is Your Personal Data at Your Favorite Hotel?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

All of us are atwitter about perceived loss of privacy when it comes to the acres of our thoughts, photos, outbursts that we have posted to Facebook and which, apparently, could be harvested by third party buyers.  

But just maybe business travelers have a much bigger worry that should consume them: the safety of their personal data that is in the hands of the hotels where we sleep.

“Bigger?” Yes, definitely.

And that is not to minimize the size of the Facebook mess.  If you want to see how to check what data Facebook has on you – just about everything you’ve done since you signed up – and with whom it has shared much of it – just about anything with a checkbook – read Brian Chen’s NYTimes piece on this.  It’s quite easy to check and, in my case, I got my file from Facebook literally a few minutes after requesting it.  I’m not a terribly prolific Facebooker – your mileage may vary. Did I see anything that made me sick? Nope, but I have always been prudent about what I posted to Facebook, mainly because I understood that the business model of the free Internet services is to harvest user data and sell it to marketers and fellow travelers.  That is baked in. I am not sure there is a way around it. (Read my 2000 interview in MIT’s Technology Review with Google’s founders.)

Back to your hotel worry. Hotel lawyer Jim Butler wrote this: “Protecting guests’ information (and employees’ information) from hackers is one of the biggest business challenges faced by hotel owners today. ”

Hotel breaches have been epidemic in recent years.  Here are many accounts.  

Traditionally the focus have been on theft by hackers of information involving credit and debit cards used at hotels – and bars, restaurants and gift shops have been notoriously porous, so have loyalty programs – but what if the bigger concern is, well, your private info?

You check into the hotel.  You watch four hours of porn (maybe there’s a Stormy Daniels festival?). Drain the minibar’s Scotch.  Get in a loud, verbal argument with security over the volume of your TV. Maybe you go full gonzo and you use the in-room phone call up a local escort service for a little company.

Okay, that’s not you, nor me, but I have known business travelers who have done pretty much all of the above.

Here’s the rub: a good hotelier gets good by noting and collecting guest preferences.  I have a friend who told me he swore by Four Seasons because he personally dotes on very soft pillows, hates wool anything, and doesn’t like a bed covered with decorative pillows. Apparently Four Seasons noted his interests because as he traveled from city to city whatever Four Seasons he checked into knew his preferences and of course if he were forced into, say, a Ritz Carlton, they didn’t. And he grumbled accordingly.

Just how safe is that kind of data?  Could clever hackers find it?

All that kind of data is what data scientists call big data. And big data has emerged as a key to delivering us the personalized services we want without us having to ask.

Understand: credit card data falls under specific federal guidelines. It has to be handled with deliberate care.

That’s not necessarily so regarding guest preference data – big data – and a lot of it is not encrypted, not put under a meaningful lock and key.

Front Desk anywhere, in a blog post, noted: “For too long, the hotel sector has been viewed as a soft target by hackers seeking to steal guest data. While some hoteliers take guest data security seriously, there are still too many operators using inadequate technology and processes to fully protect data.”

Some hotel groups in fact promise to do a good job protecting your data. Here’s the Accor policy : “Confidentiality and security: We will ensure reasonable technical and organizational measures are in place to protect your personal data against alteration or accidental or unlawful loss, or unauthorized use, disclosure or access.”

Word of caution: ask at the hotels where you stay what the policies regarding guest preference data storage.  Be clear: we are not talking about credit cards. We’re talking about bedding and the many other little things that when they are done our way make a hotel stay much more comfortable.

The EU, incidentally, has a get tough attitude about data privacy.  Many companies that do business in Europe say they have brought those policies here.  And maybe some actually have.

If you have doubts about your data, ask and keep asking.

Personally, I want hotels where I stay often to remember me and to provide my preferences unasked. That’s what great hoteliers have always done and today’s big data tools make it easier to collect and share the random bits of information that shape who we are as a hotel guest.

I am all for that, when the data are shared within the hotels where I frequently bunk.

I just don’t want hackers to know what kind of pillows I like. 

Would you?

 

Can You Om Your Way to Airplane Comfort?

 

by Robert McGarvey

 

Can you om your way to happiness at 30,000 feet? Or at least to a state of heightened comfort?

That is the question that popped into my mind when I saw a story in Well + Good headlined, “Finally Airplanes Are Doing Something to Make Flying Less Stressful.”  The story’s pitch: airlines are taking steps to, well, make flying less stressful.

Are they giving us more pitch in coach? Making seats wider? Filling fewer seats? Pouring decent and free drinks? Serving edible – real – food?

None of the above.  Apparently – and Well + Good cites a NYTimes piece as backup – airlines led by United and JetBlue now are offering free access during flights to the popular meditation app Headspace.

Headspace is an entirely sincere meditation app company that has won substantial success as a paid app.  It’s gotten acres of press.  The basic plan is a monthly subscription ($12.99/month, or $7.99/month on an annual subscription) and lots of people praise it.

I’m not putting Headspace down.

I’m not putting meditation down.  I’ve personally put in hundreds of hours meditating at Shambhala’s Chelsea space and I have pointed a number of friends there.

No, I am not a meditation basher.

But when I read that United Airlines – that United, of Dr. Dao infamy and the recent death of a little dog — thinks that if we meditate we may be more tolerant of the airline’s gaffes, well, no.  Count me out.

Other airlines also are piling onto meditation, reported Well + Good. BA, apparently, has an inflight entertainment channel that offers meditations.  Swiss Air and Cathay also have offerings.

Let me inject some skepticism. As a veteran of many hours on the cushions at Shambhala I can assure you that – even with excellent in-person instructors leading small programs – it takes a lot of practice to begin to get the hang of meditating.

How does it go wrong? Let me count the ways. The essential issue is that to successfully meditate one must still the mind – in Shambhala’s case this revolves around a focus on the breath – and that just is not easy for a beginner.

It is especially not easy in a stressful situation and flying in today’s crowded coach, with grumpy passengers and not enough space, is a prescription for a stressful situation.

Go ahead, try to hold focus for 10 minutes. You probably can’t. If you get to five when you are beginning, kudos to you. You’re a natural.

Longtime meditators, many of them, have trouble going beyond 20 minute sessions.

How long is that flight, by the way?

Meantime, I’m looking at a 2015 article in Fortune that said “The average seat pitch, a rough measure of legroom, has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has shriveled from 18 inches to about 16 ½.”

Pitch on some airlines has fallen to as little as 28″.

You think meditation will help you with that?

In India, there are holy men called sadhus who are said to be able to meditate for years. Some even master lying on a literal bed of nails (photos here). I suppose that being able to like a bed of nails might be a good prerequisite for a flyer in 2018 coach.

But is that a reason to take up meditation?

Personally, I really, really dislike seeing wonderfully good things – and meditation is one of them – co-opted by companies that deploy them in what looks to me like an attempt to get us to accept unpleasant accommodations.

“Stop your whining and meditate!” That is the only way I can interpret what some airlines seem to be practicing. It certainly is cheaper to shovel a meditation app our way than to actually address the deplorable conditions in coach.

Incidentally, there are many dozens of meditation apps – some free – in both Google Play and the Apple App Store.  Download a few, try them out, make it a DIY project. You don’t need an airline’s nudge.

Here’s a free YouTube video where Shambhala founder Chogyam Trungpa teaches meditation.

Here’s a short how-to write up by Trungpa.

You just may find meditation is exactly the thing for our age of stresses.

As for the matter at hand, can I personally attest that my hours of meditation study have made me a happier flyer?  I cannot.

But an unexpected upgrade to business class still works magic on my mood.

 

Hotels Want To Upsell You – Do You Want to Buy?

by Robert McGarvey

 

Research via PhocusWright pinpoints what the company identifies as a major revenue opportunity for hoteliers – and what may become a major annoyance for us.

Here’s the punchy headline: A $28 Billion Opportunity for Hotels.

I shudder to think how annoying every hotel stay is about to get in an attempt to sell us all manner of ancillary services.

The model – the source of hotelier envy – is that airlines rake in billions selling us everything from beer to snacks, credit cards, and better seats.  Airline estimated ancillary revenues are above $80 billion globally – the top 10 carriers alone took in north of $28 billion in 2017, more than tenfold more than in 2007.

A flight on many carriers in coach increasingly resembles a stroll down Canal Street in Lower Manhattan.  Maybe without the counterfeit gear. But certainly with all the brazen hustle and salesmanship.

Do you want your hotel stays to be similar experiences?

PhocusWright sets the table this way: “[H]otels are increasingly turning toward the sale
of ancillary goods and services to help drive additional revenue. For hotels, the phrase ‘ancillaries’ typically refers to optional guest add-on products and services…. These may take the form of in-hotel ancillaries, such as room upgrades, food and beverage services, additional in-room amenities or spa/wellness/entertainment products offered by the property itself. Alternatively, ancillaries may also include in-destination ancillaries such as sightseeing tours, car rental, transfers or event tickets, typically provided by third parties.”

What do I want from a hotel room on a business trip? A place to sleep, a place to do some work (ideally a desk but I’m flexible – a decent chair and lighting will suffice), good WiFi, probably a lobby coffee shop (or – better still – one outside within a short walk), and that’s about it.

I have never bought spa/wellness/entertainment products from a hotel, at least never for myself.  I have never bought sightseeing tours, not on a business trip (in London, yes, on vacation).  I have never bought event tickets.  And I generally seek to avoid hotel f & b, unless I am very pressed for time.

Color me a bad candidate for upselling.

What about you?

PhocusWright, which surveyed a large number of consumers, said that in fact we are eager to buy ancillary products and services.  “A substantial potential market currently exists for both in-hotel and especially for in-destination ancillary products and services. Two types of on-property offerings – dining at the hotel and early check-in/late checkout – are the most popular services that consumers would be willing to pre-book from hotels. However, guests are also open to purchasing a diverse range of alternative, externally provided products and services, including museum/attraction tickets, sightseeing or other tours, event tickets and transportation.”

I read that and am speechless, almost.  Very, very few hotel restaurants are so busy that it requires advance booking to snag a table and what’s hard about making one’s way to the Metropolitan Museum in NY or the Heard in Phoenix? A few museums make advanced booking highly desirable – I’m thinking of the Uffizi in Rome but we simply booked ourselves online a few days before.

*If* a ticket is hard to get – think Hamilton when it was Broadway’s darling – I would gladly have tipped, generously, a concierge who could have delivered seats, but PhocusWright seems to be talking about hotels acquiring easy to come by ducats and marking them up.

Who needs that?

PhocusWright continued: “Facilitating the pre-booking of in-destination ancillary products and services clearly represents an interesting opportunity for U.S. hotels. Eighty-one percent of respondents indicated that they had participated in a bookable in-destination activity during their last trip. The most popular of these activities were day trips, excursions and sightseeing tours (42%); visiting museums, galleries or cultural attractions (30%); and outdoor activities (28%).”

Mind you, iSeatz, which sponsored the research and just a few days ago replayed it on Tnooz, insisted that “the majority of business travelers surveyed are very interested in purchasing either on-site or off-site extras. The research also identifies business traveler segments and details the preferences on when, where, and what extras business travelers are interested in buying.”

Really?

iSeatz continued in Tnooz: “many business travelers are interested in booking products such as trip cancellation insurance (45%), high-speed wi-fi (41%), parking (41%), transportation options (23%), and museum/attraction tickets (25%) at the time that they are booking their stay.”

Nah. I just don’t buy this, and I don’t see business travelers buying much on this list. Okay, I can in fact see business travelers purchasing late check out or early check in, room upgrades, and airport transfers.

But most of the upsells are just annoyances.

That’s why my hope is that hoteliers bury this report and ignore its findings.

But – shudder – I doubt they will.

 

Bleisure and Your Travels

By Robert McGarvey

 

New research from Expedia owned business travel management shop Egencia says that we like bleisure add ons to business trips – kind of, sort of, maybe.

We’ve lately been bombarded with trend reporting – paid for by hotel interests? – that has insisted that bleisure  has been cresting, especially with Millennials, and for some years I’ve wondered just how accurate this reporting is.

I’ve also wondered if any of this is at all new.

The Egencia research throws light on this.

Understand, I have long personally added leisure in connection with trips to cities that especially interested me in that moment such as New Orleans (and its long recovery from Katrina) and Chicago (where I made a tour of deep dish pie purveyors and grew to like them, but not as alternatives to thin crust pie, just as something different) and Washington DC (which I have liked as a town since I lived there 45 years ago).

I also strongly believe that a little “bleisure” is just the right touch to just about every business trip. See below. But what I’m talking about doesn’t involve extending stays and adding room nights.

That’s from where I sit. What’s the actual fact?

Egencia waded into this to find the statistical realities.  It surveyed 9000 business travelers. And it has some real insights into bleisure.

One finding resonated with my experiences: “Destination location is by far the biggest factor in determining whether or not to take a bleisure trip, with 30 percent of North America business travelers prioritizing location.”

A fun location, the company said, is the #1 reason to extend a business trip.

Agreed. There are towns I have been to a lot on business and have never spent a second more. Las Vegas, for instance.  Houston is another example.  I’ve traveled to both, a lot, in the past decade and like them fine but haven’t seen any reason to prolong the trip.

My point: bleisure always has to be seen as a contextual choice.

Egencia has still other, rich data. A key finding: “Twenty percent of business travelers have foregone adding leisure portions to their trips because of how it may look to their employer. ”

That is, will your bosses think you’re a slacker if you add on a few days to a Phoenix trip to enjoy spa treatments at some of the country’s best?  If you think your boss will see you as a mooch, you’ll go straight home, suggested Egencia.

Egencia offered a qualifier: “Proximity to the weekend may minimize that perception, with nearly one-quarter of respondents saying this impacts their decision.”  Sure. When a meeting ends Friday midday – quite common with many conferences (although most attendees evacuate Thursday evening, in my experience) – what’s the harm in extending and returning home Sunday night?

When the meeting is a Tuesday-Wednesday affair, we have problems.

Another issue in my experience – not explored in the Egencia data – is the role of an at home spouse or partner. Do you really want to go out on the town in the French Quarter while your partner sits at home watching PBS re-runs?

Proximity to family, by the way, was cited as important by 16% of Egencia respondents in making bleisure stay decisions.

Either way, we are doing a lot of bleisure, said Egencia: “68 percent [of respondents] take at least one bleisure trip per year.”

74% of us are planning or considering a bleisure trip in the next six months, said Egencia.

20% made adding in bleisure a resolution for the year.

Is this a generational thing? Naw. The reality is that Millennials, increasingly, carry a bigger share of the business travel can. But that age group has done so, certainly since the 1970s.  Nothing has changed. Baby Boomers had such decisions to make in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s just that the word “bleisure” didn’t exist.

The choices did

Last advice which is my own bleisure prescription: always build in at least one personally important thing on every business trip. That can be a muffuletta at Central Grocery, a visit to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, a walk through Central Park in Manhattan, a noon Mass at St. Mary’s Basilica in downtown in Phoenix – whatever catches your interest.  I have not always done that (let me count the trips to Las Vegas) and I regret at least some of those missed opportunities (not so much involving Las Vegas).

But I firmly believe that doing one personally important thing on every business trip makes those trips that much more satisfying. It doesn’t require adding on a weekend, just making a half hour for a noon Mass or a similar amount of time for some gumbo and a beer at Emeril’s.  And you don’t need a poll to know this is the right thing to do to add a dash of pleasure your life.

 

 

 

Will TSA Search The Content of Your Electronic Devices on Domestic Flights?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

The ACLU has now filed suit against TSA, claiming that agents are searching the devices of domestic travelers.

“Domestic” is the key word.  For some years, the US government – along with many foreign governments – has searched devices owned by international travelers.    That’s handled by US Customs and Border Patrol agents and, in 2017, searches were in fact up 60% from 2016.

But the total number of searches in 2017 hit only 30,200.  Customs, by the way, has a clear right to search such devices – only diplomats are excepted – and it can search people arriving or departing, US citizens as well as foreign nationals.

About 80% of searches are on devices of non US citizens.

And, really, not many people are searched.  0.0007 of international travelers in 2017.

Domestic travel searches of devices is an entirely different matter.

And I know many very senior executives who sometimes travel with highly confidential documents – pertaining to merger and acquisition targets, for example – who would freak out if they feared their documents might have been scanned in a TSA search. And maybe they could have been.  

There’s a lot we just don’t know about domestic data searches.

For what it’s worth, TSA denies it conducts searches: “TSA does not search the contents of electronic devices,” a TSA executive told The Guardian.  

ACLU has a different perspective.  “We’ve received reports of passengers on purely domestic flights having their phones and laptops searched, and the takeaway is that TSA has been taking these items from people without providing any reason why,” staff attorney Vasudha Talla told the Guardian. 

One fact: I personally don’t give much of a hoot if TSA wants to search my devices. Not personally. But I do care a great deal if civil liberties are trampled upon and, per the ACLU, that’s exactly what is occuring.

The ACLU staff lawyer, in a press statement, elaborated: “TSA is searching the electronic devices of domestic passengers, but without offering any reason for the search,” said Talla. “We don’t know why the government is singling out some passengers, and we don’t know what exactly TSA is searching on the devices. Our phones and laptops contain very personal information, and the federal government should not be digging through our digital data without a warrant.”

As far back as July 2017, TSA in fact did issue some details in a press statement:As new procedures are phased in, TSA officers will begin to ask travelers to remove electronics larger than a cell phone from their carry-on bags and place them in a bin with nothing on top or below, similar to how laptops have been screened for years. This simple step helps TSA officers obtain a clearer X-ray image.”

Notice the phrase:  “similar to how laptops have been screened for years.”  I recall the days when , occasionally, TSA would ask a traveler to remove a laptop from a bag and boot it up. I recall sidelining a computer with a bad battery because it couldn’t reliably perform that chore.  I doubtless grumbled…but it didn’t bother me particularly.

What about today? And the apparent entry of TSA into device data searches? The ACLU suit fingers the hottest button: “the federal government’s policies on searching electronic devices of domestic air passengers remains shrouded in secrecy.”

Thus the ACLU suit.

ACLU, by the way, said it had previously filed Freedom of Information Act demands for data from TSA but the agency had ignored those filings.

The US Customs and Border Protection has issued a detailed, 12 page report on its search of devices of international travelers.  It’s extensive and if you have questions, probably the answers are in this January 2018 document.

TSA, by contrast, is opaque.  Per the ACLU suit: “TSA has not made publicly available any policies or procedures governing searches of electronic devices, especially those held by passengers engaged in purely domestic air travel. As such, the public is unaware of the legal basis for TSA’s searches of electronic devices of passengers not presenting themselves at the border and flying on a domestic flight. Further, the public is unaware of TSA’s policies and procedures for advanced or forensic searches, in which external equipment is used to search, examine, or extract data from passengers’ electronic devices and SIM cards. And the public has no knowledge of TSA’s policies and procedures relating to seizure of electronic devices, retention or destruction of data resident on those devices, or use of the device to access data held on a ‘cloud’ or elsewhere.”

Question: if you have a confidential document, how can you shield it from TSA? I’m guessing if it resides in the cloud, not on the device, you might be good to go. But that’s just a guess.

Question: do you need to start carrying sanitized devices on domestic flights – and that’s been the advice of corporate security for international travelers for as long as I’ve covered the space.

There’s just a lot savvy business travelers need to know to keep organizational secrets safe – and right now we just don’t know all we need to know to make shrewd decisions.  Maybe the ACLU suit will shed the light that’s needed.

At least we can hope.

 

We All Lose When AA Sells “Basic Economy” Seats on International Flights

 

When I first saw the headline that American Airlines planned soon to roll out its barebones basic economy fares on international flights, I shrugged with haughty indifference: I’d never buy a seat that came without the ability to actually pick the seat so what does this matter to me?

A few days later the horror set in: I will be impacted powerfully. So will you.

Watch just about every carrier pile into this. Delta of course has offered basic economy to Europe for some time.  United now is saying it will be on board with this later this year. Of course all the legacy carriers want to combat WOW, Norwegian and any other no frills carrier with an eye on US international routes. And they’ve decided basic economy is the card to play.

Basic economy international is trending.  And now that I get what’s going on, I want to scream.

Okay, if you fly upfront, none of this much impacts you. But I hear of fewer and fewer organizations that pay for upfront seats, not even on international flights. Sure, I think that’s pennywise (especially with ever better sleeping possibilities upfront) – but I am not and never have been a corporate accountant so nobody on the highest floors is listening to me about this.

And all the rest of us now have to wrestle with Basic Economy’s spread into international travel.

AA spells out the rules regarding its international basic economy here.  There are changes from the US basic economy” fare, notably passengers to Europe do get to check a bag, gratis.  International basic economy passengers also get to use the overhead bin, unlike AA domestic basic economy passengers.

Here’s the one big difference between “Basic Economy” and standard economy for international travelers: “Seat assignments: Free seat assignments are made automatically when customers check in. Customers flying trans-Atlantic Basic Economy can purchase a seat assignment at any time.”

That means they can’t pick a seat when they book the flight a few weeks, or months, out.

Why this impacts us is that – I’m sure you do likewise- when picking a seat I study the seating maps and occupancy, looking especially for empty middle seats next to the aisle seat I always pick.

Often I’ll review my choices a day or two before travel.

Now I have no way of knowing if I have the right seat because middle seats will fill in as the basic economy passengers check in and many of them, count on it, will check in not long before boarding.

My entire system for picking slightly more comfortable seats to Europe is in jeopardy.

Look at the seat map for the AA 757-200.

The 767-300at least has the rows of two seats on the aisles. But picking that aisle seat does not give me an empty seat next to me which is what I want.

Worse: on domestic flights a growing number of corporate travel policies have nudged employees into buying basic economy -or upgrading on their own nickel.  Expect to see similar on flights overseas. Some companies are blocking basic economy but know that others are embracing the perceived savings.

That means there’s a probability that you may find yourself steered into basic economy on an international flight.

What a horror show.

Honestly, I never much missed flying upfront on flights to Europe because when you picked the right seat, on the right flight, there was a high chance of a lot of personal privacy in the back, maybe even more than in business class upfront.

I think those days are just about over however and what we are looking at is the high probability of planes with every seat filled even in coach on international flights.

Know too that upgrades are not possible, regardless of your elite status, when you fly basic economy internationally.

And you board in the 8th group – after everybody else. (Exceptions are made for those with elite status and who bought tickets with certain AA credit cards.)

Basic economy of course also is a scam.  Yes, ticket prices are a little lower – but the evidence is plain that the carriers are making that up with a raft of fees.  In a recent quarter passengers paid $1.2 billion in baggage fees alone – a new record. Delta even has yanked the free checked bag and now wants $60 for that luggage to accompany you to Europe when you fly basic economy.

The worst news is that there really is no alternative to flying when it comes to Europe. From my Phoenix base, I can – and probably will – drive to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. But I sure am not going to drive to Paris.

What should business travelers do about basic economy in international travel? Start by flatly refusing to fly it when an employer asks – and point out that the “economy” often is a false promise.

And begin agitating for employers to pay for upgraded seating because, really, the days of gaming the system to nab a better economy seat on international flights is coming to a close.

The game is over, the carriers have won.

 

 

 

 

A Different Kind of Hotel Loyalty Program – and I Like It

 

How many hotel loyalty programs do you belong to?  Probably lots. Personally I have no idea because I take none of them very seriously.  I join because I usually get free (bad) WiFi and maybe a complimentary drink (which I just about never drink).  It takes a couple minutes to sign up and, once I’ve done that, I usually forget I’ve joined. I know I do belong because I get many emails from Hilton, Hyatt, et. al. and although I don’t open them, they do serve as reminders that I belong.

Maybe I am so casual about hotel loyalty because, at least in recent years, the majority of my hotel stays have been booked by clients who are using their preferred provider deals to score the best prices.  Or I am attending big meetings where the organizer made its deal. I don’t usually have much choice and, frankly, I haven’t much cared either. Hotel rooms are fungible in my calculus. The upshot is that I stay at lots of places and have no real loyalty points cache anywhere.

And I haven’t cared.

But the new Fans of M. O. – via Mandarin Oriental – has won my favorable interest.  And its rewards do not include free hotel rooms.

Repeat: no free stays.

That’s fine by me.  When I am traveling enough to win free stays in a loyalty program usually the last thing I want is another hotel stay – and, yeah, I know most conventional programs let members swap points for stuff like fitness trackers, tablet computers, and phones but I already have the gear I want.

What else you don’t get in the M.O. program is status. At least for now, there are no silver, gold, platinum type levels. At least not in the program. But you can bet that Mandarin’s data system tracks its best spenders and already knows who has the status that matters even if there’s no formal declaration. That’s obvious. Talk to any GM in a large group and he will tell you he gets regular updates of arrivals of heavy hitters and he is expected to act accordingly.

Mandarin, I’d bet, does likewise.

What do certified Mandarin fans get? It starts with free WiFi and an “amenity.” Nothing to applaud there. Nothing unusual. Table stakes really.

What is fun about Fans of M.O. is that members get to pick two amenities from a list of 8: Early check in (as early as noon); Late check out (as late as 4 p.m.); daily breakfast; dining or spa credit; room upgrade; streaming WiFi; celebratory treat; or pressing services.

Knowing me, I’d just about always go for the fast WFi and the free breakfast – but if my packing had failed, the free pressing definitely could be a winner and of course, depending upon circumstances, late checkout or early check in might thrill me.  That is, I like the idea of tailoring my choices to the particular trip.  You don’t have to pick two and live by them forever.

Your trousers got soaked in a storm and now you want to swap out a free breakfast for pressing? Maybe you in fact can: “To change your benefits after booking, please contact the hotel to confirm availability,” advised Mandarin.

The only hitch: bookings have to be online.  But that’s no big deal for most of us. I can’t remember the last time I booked a hotel room anywhere except online.

Mandarin also notes there may be some variation in available amenities depending upon the specific property and dates: “Benefits vary according to hotel and date, but we assure you will always have a selection of benefits to choose from.”

Of course bookings also have to be via Mandarin, not third parties, which is a plus for Mandarin – it may actually have figured out with this program how to thwart the rise of OTAs – but again no big deal for me and probably not for you.  I sometimes have used OTAs to book hotel rooms but am not wedded to doing it that way. Directly with the hotel is fine by me, especially if there’s a perk (and a vague promise about “the lowest rates” really doesn’t do it – sorry Marriott, Hilton, et. al.). Mandarin actually is offering things I want.

Press coverage of the Fans of M.O. so far is largely positive.

Want to sign up? Go here.  It took me about two minutes to sign up. It’s fast and unintrusive.

If nothing else, I hope this program triggers a reinvention of the big hotel groups’ programs – which have always seemed plain vanilla, bland and thoughtless to me.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

 

Are You Wasting Money By Booking Your Hotel Room Too Early?

 

I know the feeling. When a trip looms usually it just seems simpler to make all required reservations in the same burst of activity, typically around two weeks out to get better airline fares. While I am at that, I’ll book a rental car (rarely nowadays in point of fact), make restaurant reservations, and of course book a hotel room.  But that last move may be a sure money loser.

That’s news from Concur, the travel management company, which said its analysis of data showed that a majority of hotel rooms are booked in the 15 – 30+ day window (a staggering 20% are booked more than 30 days out) – and yet, according to Phocuswire reporting, “during the 8-14 day period, most hotels start discounting heavily ahead of the stay date. This can often be to the tune of a 20% fall in the starting price for a property.”

Read that again. It says that waiting to book a room until shortly  before a trip can produce savings of perhaps 20% on the room rate.

Remember, at every hotel “revenue management” is the new Holy Grail but buttonhole most senior execs and off the record they will confide that their “competitors” suck at revenue management and that’s understandable because it’s a data science skill that requires serious analytical chops.  Airlines were the first to master revenue management, usually called yield in that trade. But they threw sophisticated computers and reasonably smart data scientists at a multi million dollar problem. They got results. Meaning they maximize the amount of money they pull out of every seat.

Few hotels have that sophisticated tech gear, or the brainy data scientists, and therefore revenue management in hotels is, shall we say, more informal.

Ten days out and there are way too many rooms empty and what do hotel managers do? Panic. And slash prices, obviously.

And so they do, said Concurs.

Note: these Concur data pertain to Europe, Middle East, and Africa – but you can be sure the same facts hold in the United States.

Book a hotel room for $250 20 days out and you wasted $50 plus room tax on the $50.

Booking early also leaves you more vulnerable to paying cancellation fee penalties – now in force at Marriott (Starwood), Hilton, Intercontinental and more properties.  To me, a traveler who came of age in the era of free same day cancellations (up until 4 p.m. at most hotels), the prospect of paying a night’s rate as a penalty for cancelling with less than 48 hours notice is horrifying.  So I have advised staying aware of the reality that very, very few hotels ever sell out and, therefore, book as late as your stomach allows you (the day before travel is about right, although I have booked on the morning of travel).  You’ll never pay an early cancellation fee.

This Concur rate data adds more fuel to the book a hotel room late position.

Particularly because you will save big money on the room rate.

Concur executive Chris Baker, in a blog post that is rich in data, showed especially dramatic savings for late bookers of high end hotels in Frankfurt and Paris.

Baker also noted that there are real differences in discounting from country to country.  “All three countries” – UK, France, Germany – “then experience a significant drop [in rates] between 0–3 days. However, prices in Germany are only 13 percent below the median whereas the U.K. sees a larger drop to -26 percent. Germany certainly holds truer when it comes to price fluctuation, but travellers and travel managers would do well to book later there in comparison to France and the UK.”

If you wait too long to book a room won’t you wind up sleeping on a park bench? Nope. Definitely unlikely.

Very few hotels ever are fully booked except during truly special events – the Super Bowl or the NCAA Final Four and a few blockbuster conventions.  Waiting until late to book is not that risky.

I am looking at 4:15 pm in Manhattan and tonight I see rooms at the five diamond Pierre ($338 on HotelTonight) and the Park Central near Central Park is $99. HotelTonight has many more Manhattan hotels to choose among.

In Washington DC – where there’s a large credit union convention this week  (GAC) – the Watergate is $299 and a one bedroom suite is $349.  The Kimpton Mason & Rook is $299.  The Washington Plaza, on Hotels.com, is asking $222 and that Thomas Circle place is my personal fave. Again, a lot more hotels are in HotelTonight. You would not sleep in Dupont Circle tonight if you were now arriving without a hotel reservation tonight. There is vast availability.

Bottomline: Book late. Very late. Save money on the room while ducking those hideous cancellation fees. It’s win-win for you.

 

 

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 date 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?