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

By Robert McGarvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you want to scream about first?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The solution? Stay elsewhere.

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

Problem solved.

2020 Meetings Trendwatching: Vegans Hopping? Teetotalers Stomping?

By Robert McGarvey

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

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

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

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

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

Ready to eat and drink different?

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

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

Brace yourself for the first 2020 trend: veganism.  

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

Agree or disagree?  

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

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

Are you ready to join the Sober Curious movement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Color me on trend.

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

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

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

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

Talking Centurion Blues in Phoenix

By Robert McGarvey

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

I had nowhere to go.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

It all depends on the Centurion Lounge at PHX.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Airplane Wi-Fi Rip Off

by Robert MGarvey

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

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

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

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

Got that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet the service is seriously flawed.

Even though it has been around for a generation.

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

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

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

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

Absolutely no good at all.

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

Sustainability vs Hotel Housekeepers, Taking Sides

by Robert McGarvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not exactly persuasive bribes, are they?

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

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

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

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

Can Business Travel Make You Nuts?

by Robert McGarvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe you too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Airline Loyalty Programs Cause Global Warming?

by Robert McGarvey

Frequent flyer programs now are in the crosshairs of climate activists who insist the programs contribute to global warming, the melting of polar ice caps and are greasing our slide into an environmental armageddon. Is it time to cash in your miles?

What’s fueling this fire is a report by Richard Carmichael of Imperial College London that explored how to change behaviors that contribute to too frequent flying, at least as judged by Dr. Carmichael.

Among his recommendations is this: “Introduce a ban on air miles and frequent flyer loyalty schemes that incentivise excessive flying.”

Carmichael’s argument is that the airline loyalty schemes encourage us to fly more, in order to collect the perks associated with accumulating miles, everything from status through, of course, more trips that become “free” because they are paid for with miles.

Eliminate the programs and that eliminates the incentives that fuel behaviors he wants to minimize (namely, flying more).

Of course that suggestion caused the frequent flyer internet to erupt in an angry holler – but here’s the real deal: maybe this missed the point entirely. The purpose of frequent flyer programs is not to reward passengers, it’s to make money, lots of it, for airlines.

There is no way the carriers will go along with significant changes in how their frequency program work, mainly because these programs are their golden geese. Passengers are forced to deal with ever higher miles totals to cash in for free trips – and more seem to settle on trading miles for merchandise such as fitness watches and computers and also gift cards.

But never forget: airlines are profiting immensely from these programs.

In a recent half year, American Airlines alone made over $1 billion peddling airline miles wholesale to partners. Per Skift: “While American reported the most marketing revenue for the year’s first half, other airlines showed larger year-over-year gains. None had a bigger increase than Hawaiian Airlines, which reported a 52 percent increase, though at just $34 million in marketing revenue, it was last among the airlines…. JetBlue also showed a major gain, raising its marketing revenue 23 percent year-over-year to $80 million.”

The LA Times headline neatly sums up the reality: “Frequent flier programs generate profits for airlines and frustration for travelers.

Meatime, airlines increasingly award miles not for travel but for spending on credit cards that offer miles rewards. Per the Travel Weekly story: “Airlines’ credit cards in ‘arms race’ to profits.”

According to Travel Weekly, “airlines have much to fight over in the lucrative credit card market. The carriers earn income from the co-branded cards by selling reward miles or points to the issuing bank. So, for example, Citibank will purchase American AAdvantage points to award to new holders of the companies’ co-branded credit card. Similarly, banks purchase the airline loyalty points that they award cardholders for making purchases. “

A twisted irony emerges. Today’s email brought a warning from American Airlines that I had miles that would expire soon – but I know I need only take my AA card to Starbucks and buy a latte to win a reprieve because that brings me a miles reward and the clock resets.

Millions of miles are earned by people who never set foot on a plane. But their credit card gives them “miles” because they buy stuff and the airlines make money because they sell those miles.

Does it matter if nobody flies?

What business are the airlines in? Transportation – or financial services?

Personally, I wrestle with the environmental impacts of flying and I ponder how to reduce my carbon contribution – but I am pretty sure that frequency loyalty schemes are not a significant contribution to the planet’s environmental problems, certainly not on my part. Do we fly too much? Yep. Do we fly when we should get there another way? Yep. Do we fly places we shouldn’t go to any way? Yep.

But each us us deals with such issues in our own ways. A crackdown on loyalty programs by governments isn’t the way forward – and it isn’t going to happen because airlines and Wall Street will howl that the primary business is becoming not flights but selling miles. It may not be quite there yet. But it’s getting there.

There is much for us to gnash our teeth over. A looming end to loyalty programs and miles isn’t on the list.

Meetings WiFi Sucks – So What?

by Robert McGarvey

The question isn’t does meetings and events wifi suck – of course it does – the real question is why and maybe, honestly, the realer question is so what?

Let’s unravel this. For at least a decade event attendees have kvetched about wifi – mainly its slowness, sometimes its plain unavailability. I still recall, with a crooked smile on my lips, a travel tech conference I attended around 10 years ago at a plush Scottsdale meetings hotel where even the press table lacked wifi. Picture a half dozen travel tech reporters cursing and, well, you have the picture. Personally I giggled because I knew what I was witnessing was a lot better story than what I would have filed had the press table been equipped with functioning wifi.

The venue simply had underestimated demand for wifi and the demand crushed the inadequate signal that was provided.

How funny is that at a tech conference? Of course even I started to curse when I discovered my cellphone hotspot had no signal in the hotel basement where this event was held.

Incidentally, I don’t think that hotel was doing anything nefarious to block my hotspot – I believe it was just the location. But know that in the past some hotels in fact have blocked hotspots and had their wrists slapped by the FCC. Marriott even paid a $600,000 fine for such misdeeds.

Flashforward to now and I believe the usual wifi problem remains too many devices accessing too anemic a signal. Why? Usually it’s an unwillingness to spend what would be required to provide an adequate signal. That was true in 2009 and it is true today. In fact not much has changed over the past decade. Ask event planners and some 58% of meeting planners say weak or unavailable wifi has negatively impacted their events, according to data via EventMB.

This is an occasion for much teeth gnashing – vide the recent Skift article, Why Is Wi-Fi at Events Still So Bad? Reported Skift; “Sluggish internet speeds, a network that suddenly cuts out, and odd corners of the room that somehow have adequate service as long as you hold your phone at a specific angle. These are the problems that nearly every conference attendee, trying in vain to use the provided Wi-Fi, has faced at least once, especially at a large event.

“In fact, providing good Wi-Fi is one of the top challenges meeting planners face, with over half reporting ongoing issues with it.”

But maybe it is for the better entirely.

How so? There’s a long history of fake and malicious event wifi that usually aim at harvesting user log in data, sometimes have loftier aims such as downloading malware to users’ computers. It’s easy enough. Under $1000 in gear, usually put in a cheap travel bag, will create the wifi network, then name it, Free Event WiFi or [Hotel] Meetings WiFi.

If you build it, and say it is free, they will log in.

There’s also no real guarantee of safety when using genuine event wifi. Public wifi networks – especially at hotels (airports too) – have a long history of hacker eavesdropping. Public wifi just is not safe. Is it fine for checking scores on ESPN and the front page at WAPO? Probably. How about your checking account? Nope.

What about company email? Nope.

Here’s the deal: I don’t whine about feeble event wifi because, very probably, I won’t use it. I prefer to use a cellphone hotspot. Sure, I pay a few cents in data use – but to me that is a small price to pay for enhanced security.

When the cellphone hotspot isn’t powerful enough, lately I’ve used the built in VPN on my Google Fi phone to add protection to wifi access. Sure, I know VPN isn’t the security fix-all – but when public wifi is all I have on my cellphone I will use VPN to add at least a little security. And I will still mind what sites I access. My rule of thumb: if you don’t mind if a cyber criminal is looking over your shoulder as you surf, the sites are fine for access via public wifi with a VPN.

Bottomline: event wifi sucks. But that is okay by me. I don’t trust it, I urge you to similarly approach it with suspicion, and that is how to stay safe. If use it you must, use a VPN – even better use a secure browser such as Silo.

But stop complaining. Accept that wifi at your next event will suck, and be thankful. When you don’t use it you are safe.

Can Air Travel Make You Sick?

by Robert McGarvey

It’s that time of year: wherever I fly to it’s as though the plane is a sick ward or so it seems amid the coughs and sneezes that fill the air. The question is: can flying make you sick?

I ask the same question in church, at theaters, wherever I will sit for an hour or three amid people who are coughing. But I especially ask it on planes because the quarters are snug, the air is recirculated, and at one point I kept track of diseases and my flying and it honestly seemed that about half the time I in fact came down with a cold or flu after flights in the prime cold and flu season. Was this in my mind? Or do we in fact expose ourselves to disease when we fly?

Understand, airlines can and sometimes do refuse to board an ill passenger. According to the World Health Organization, the judgment hinges on whether the passenger “is fit to travel, needs medical attention or presents a danger to other passengers and crew or to the safety of the aircraft.” The decision rests with the captain. And of course we all remember flying with obviously ill people so enforcement of this right to exclude is not consistent. I do not personally know anybody who has been denied boarding due to illness, at least nobody has told me they have been and people tell me all manner of airline horror stories, just not one about exclusion due to illness.

Also know that airplanes are filthy in many instances. Travelmath sent a microbiologist to collect samples from five airports and four flights and it reported “airports and airplanes are dirtier than your home .”

It elaborated: “Surprisingly, it is the one surface that our food rests on – the tray table – that was the dirtiest of all the locations and surfaces tested. Since this could provide bacteria direct transmission to your mouth, a clear takeaway from this is to eliminate any direct contact your food has with the tray table.”

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in a broader study, concluded similar. But it found that the headrest is the most contaminated item on a plane.

It added: “the most concerning finding…was E. coli bacteria detected on both the seat pocket and the headrest. The presence of E. coli indicates fecal contamination, and the bacteria can cause intestinal infections, with symptoms that can include diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain.”

It is a very good idea to bring wipes on a flight and to wipe down the tray table, headrest, and the arm rests. Sure, you may look kooky to fellow passengers – but you are disinfecting and they probably aren’t. Who’s more likely to get sick?

And be meticulous about washing your hands.

The omnipresent airplane contamination sets the stage for the big question: if you fly on a plane with passengers suffering from infectious diseases (colds, flus, etc) are you likely to get sick? Researchers have looked at exactly that question. Their paper starts this way: “With over 3 billion airline passengers annually, the inflight transmission of infectious diseases is an important global health concern. Over a dozen cases of inflight transmission of serious infections have been documented, and air travel can serve as a conduit for the rapid spread of newly emerging infections and pandemics.”

The upshot, per the Telegraph, is that it’s not our imagination that we can get sick because we flew: “if you are seated within a row or two seats of an infected passenger you have an 80 per cent chance of catching a bug.”

Another take-away: “the study showed that a sick cabin crew member was likely to infect an average of 4.6 passengers per flight, and that those seated in the middle and aisle seats, due to their proximity to crew, were at the greatest risk.”

Remember that: it’s not just fellow passengers but also crew who may be infectious.

Bottomline: you are not imagining that you caught a cold on your last flight – not if you were seated next to a cougher.

Can you protect yourself? If you can, change seats. Get yourself at a remove from a person you believe to be ill and that is buying yourself some better health because just about all research indicates that proximity is key in spreading diseases inflight.

Put aside the scare headlines and, really, flights are not that risky for our health, not even in cold and flu season. Take a few precautions and probably you’ll be fine – especially if you can keep a distance from obviously ill passengers and crew.

Flight Shaming Takes Off

by Robert McGarvey

Just when you perhaps thought it safe to shrug off flygskam – aka flight shaming – a new investor note out of Citigroup is a slap in the face. The Citi bottomline: this stuff is serious and it will impact you.

Per Bloomberg, “The cost of offsetting planes’ carbon emissions could become as much as 10 times higher than the airline industry currently estimates, Citi analysts including Mark Manduca said in a note on Wednesday. For economy seats alone, the cost could balloon to $3.8 billion a year by 2025, hurting airlines’ earnings, they said.”

Germany, meantime, is boosting carbon taxes on air travel by as much as 75% in 2020.

Sweden has had a tax for over a year.

Other nations will follow.

At least some men apparently have a problem accepting Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen who has become the poster person for the flygskam movement, but face up to the fact that we have significant environmental issues that need dealing with. And air travel is part of the problem.

Yes, I know there are political figures who don’t see matters this way and, no, I don’t care what they think anymore than I care what flat earthers or anti-vaxxers think.

Besides, the Citi note changes the equation. What it says is that flygskam is no longer a fringe issue, that in fact it will impact all of us who climb on airplanes.

The Bloomberg piece continued: “‘The so-called winners of this generational shift will likely be the rail operators, governments, forest owners and carbon schemes,’ the Citi analysts said.”

Meantime, at least some researchers are saying airlines should be coerced into ending frequent flier mile awards mainly because this causes bad behaviors. Suggested one report on its list of recommended actions: “Introduce regulation to ban frequent flyer reward schemes that stimulate demand. “

Do I think we will soon see a drop in business travel via air? I see companies trimming the number of trips – and making contributions to carbon offset funds. I also see companies nudging more of us to climb behind the wheel of our cars or, even better, hopping on a train (read this Chris Barnett column on the glory of train travel in Canada).

Mainly, though, I see business travel carrying on – there will be reductions in the number of flights, very possibly some private plane shaming (said to produce 10x more carbon per passenger than commercial planes), and many companies will mount PR campaigns to highlight the good they will tell us they do for the environment.

Frequent business flyers – who log 6+ trips per year – individually produce a staggering 3.1 tons of carbon annually. There will be pressure to reduce that number and there will be public shaming. When everytime you say you are off on a trip, a child or grandchild sends you a photo of a starving polar bear, at some point you will cut back.

But that will be small changes to what I think may soon become a cataclysmic impact on leisure travel.

With business travel there are rationales – it is good for the economy, creates jobs, spreads the wealth, etc.

With leisure travel, good luck with the hunt for defenses.

Reported the New York Times: “Our climate just can’t tolerate widespread frequent flying,” said Dan Rutherford, a director at the International Council on Clean Transportation . “At some level we need to figure out, collectively, which flights are necessary, and which are luxuries.”

Leisure fights, they are talking about you.

Have you ever whimsically hopped on a plane from Newark to Madrid, mainly because the price was so low and it’d been a while since you toured the Prado? I have (it’s one of my personal favorite trips of all time) and I have impulsively flown across the Atlantic to Dublin, also to Berlin, many times to both in fact.

How cool was it when you are asked how was your weekend and the answer is, ah, the Guinness was grander on the banks of the River Liffey.

And now you just may get booed or mocked, maybe bombarded with skinny polar bear pix.

The days of impulsively flying 3000 miles to start a four day weekend are over.

Face reality: when the Wall Street guys go bearish on air travel because of carbon concerns, it’s time for a rethink. And the real question now has to be: Do I need to go? The other question: Do I have to fly? And in 2019 expect to hear as many no’s as yesses.