Count Me a Global Entry Fan

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Maybe it is Phoenix where I live.

But I had read about long waits for Global Entry interviews and when I applied for preliminary approval – on June 4th – I braced myself for a lengthy wait.

I knew I had an international trip coming up in early autumn and my hope was that I’d have the card by then.

A few days after applying I checked online, saw a preliminary approval, indicated I wanted to see the next available appointments – and on the morning of June 19, two weeks after applying, I walked into an office in Sky Harbor Airport and five minutes later, walked out fully approved.

I’ll have the card before July.

Count me a fan also of the Chase Mileageplus Explorer Card which, as of June 1, reimburses for the $100 Global Entry fee.  The annual fee on the card is $95, so it already paid for itself (plus they throw in a couple United Club passes annually, also worth around $100).

I am on record as liking airline credit cards – particularly since I no longer have elite status on any carrier and see no compulsion to do so in Phoenix. When I lived in Jersey City, a few miles from EWR, I thought not flying Continental (later United) was clinically insane.  In Phoenix, I let scheduling and prices pick a carrier and flights I remember were on Southwest, American, Delta, and an Air Canada outing is coming up. Zero loyalty on my part but there’s no penalty in Phoenix for playing the field.

Between the United card and an American Airlines card, I have the perks I want from elite status. Without the hassle of scrambling for miles.

And now I also have Global Entry.

Of course what’s cool about Global Entry is that it ditches the long lines at Immigration at port of entry airports. Who doesn’t remember waiting an hour at JFK or LAX – and that’s after a long international flight.

Global Entry lets cardholders use a special kiosk. Swipe the card, offer your fingerprints, complete a Customs declaration and off you go. What had sometimes been an hour at some airports is sliced to a few minutes.

Literally dozens of airports are equipped to handle Global Entry.  I don’t see any that I have used domestically in the last 10 years as entry points from international trips that aren’t on the list.

Is the in-person interview invasive? Nope. I produced my Passport, the agent asked why I wanted Global Entry (I have an international trip coming up and Global Entry is free on a credit card), she said great. She snapped my photo, I offered my fingerprints and that was about that. I don’t think it took more than 5 minutes.

Also, I was there early for the interview. An agent came out, called a few names of people who weren’t there, turned to me and asked if I  had an appointment. When I said yes, he ushered me in – and I was out of Sky Harbor before my scheduled interview time.

There also now are many interview locations.  When I signed up for TSA Pre some years ago I did so because Global Entry wasn’t doing interviews at Sky Harbor. That changed about a year ago and that’s when I began to want it.

There’s also a new Global Entry on Arrival option that allows those with preliminary approval to complete the process when arriving from an international trip. This is available at a long list of airports.

The Chase United reimbursement pushed me over the finish line.

Bottomline: just about all the negatives I had heard about Global Entry – long waits, invasive interviews, not enough airports – just are no longer true.

It also now smoothly substitutes for TSA PreCheck.  If you will travel at all internationally, Global Entry is the way to go.

That’s all the truer because lots of companies will reimburse traveling employees for Global Entry – I’ve heard from many employees that they get their boss to cover the fee.

Plus, an expanding list of credit cards reimburse the Global Entry fee if your employer is a skinflint.  

Lines at airports just aren’t likely to get shorter. The legal way to reduce the waits is with Global Entry (and TSA Pre).

That makes it a must buy.

Five Steps to Better Wellness in Business Travel

By Robert McGarvey

 

Last week’s column hit us with the bad news: research in Harvard Business Review dramatically shows that because we travel, we are less healthy.  

Plainly, meeting and event organizers, hoteliers, air carriers, even our employers are letting us down.

A blunt reality: it’s up to us to seize control of our health. We can’t depend upon others to do it for us.  They haven’t and likely won’t. And we can do this ourselves. If we start by deciding to take control.

There’s much we need to do. Frequent business travelers weigh too much, have too much stress, don’t exercise and, often, are in rotten physical, mental, and emotional shape.

Note: that dire reality kicks in only for those traveling 14 or more nights a month.

For those traveling 21 or more nights per month, the medical report is much worse. Wrote study author and Columbia Univ. professor Andrew Rundle, “The odds of being obese were 92% higher for those who traveled 21 or more nights per month compared to those who traveled only one to six nights per month, and this ultra-traveling group also had higher diastolic blood pressure and lower high density lipoprotein.”

What can we do about this?

Let me tell you. About eight years ago, in the midst of a heavy travel schedule, I realized I had, uh, gained weight. A lot of weight. The fault of the travel? Maybe. Maybe not. It didn’t matter because I had to keep traveling.

I went on the Atkins Diet and in maybe six months lost around 40 pounds.

Problem solved. Temporarily. I knew I had to make permanent changes in how I travel if I wanted to keep the weight loss.

How did I do? Eight years later the weight is still off.

Here are five rules I developed to travel but do it with greater wellness and health.

Breakfast is a minefield on the road. Have you eaten at the free breakfast buffets at value priced hotels? An explosion of sugary carbs. Saturated fats. Starting the day with a heap of (frozen!) waffles drowned in artificial syrup and imitation butter is a terrible idea.

Breakfast buffets are dangerous. Remember that. Plan ahead. What will you eat?

What I do is straightforward Atkins: eat a few eggs, maybe a strip of bacon and that will fill you up.

That’s not available? When necessity dictates I’ll grab a naked bagel from a breakfast bar (an Einstein everything bagel is 280 calories). No creamcheese, no butter, no jam. Some strawberries if available. Yes, I’m counting calories but I learned that not doing so is a fast track to obesity.

Have a breakfast plan.  And eat on the road more in line with what you eat in the morning at home.  Do I eat waffles at home? Nope. The same needs to be true on the road.

Pass the carbs at lunch. At a lunch at a recent conference I watched in horror as servers brought a parade of bad carbs to the table. Boring bread. A heap of rice on the entree plate. Sheet pan cake slices.

Sure, it’s easy to tuck in out of boredom or politeness.

I don’t, not anymore.

I eat the protein and any non starchy veg and call lunch done.

Don’t eat airplane food. It doesn’t matter what class you fly. Airplane food on domestic flights can and should be skipped. It is wasted calories.

I understand: often we eat on airplanes out of boredom, it’s something to do. I have done exactly that many hundreds of time. It’s as bad for our health as the food is bad as food.

Buy a salad in the food court before boarding if you know you’ll be hungry.

That will keep you on a healthy path.

Just never eat airline food.

Don’t drink alcohol. This is a tough one for many business travelers who associate being on the road with enjoying that third martini, or maybe it’s the fourth beer.

That was my habit for years.

And then I stopped when I realized I wanted to lose weight and wanted to keep it off.

It’s not hard not to drink on the road once you get into it.

Just say, and it’s often true for me, “I’d love to but I have work I have to get out and I need a clear head. Tomorrow maybe.”

Know how you will exercise. Maintain your regular exercise regimen whether it’s 15 minutes a day or two hours. Don’t allow it to slip.

And make it activity that’s in your control. If you need a gym on the road, belong to one at home that gives you privileges where you travel.

Or take up jogging or walking where all you need is a decent pair of shoes.

That’s it. Five steps to road wellness. It’s really this simple, at least for me. Actually doing it takes daily discipline. True. But the HBR article paints the gloomy picture of what happens when we don’t.

Better health is within our control.  When we decide it is.

Is Business Travel Killing You?

 

by Robert McGarvey

 

An article in Harvard Business Review has terrifying news for you: Your travel may be killing you. Literally.

Hotels and event organizers are failing us and, in fact, may be hastening our demise. Ditto our employers.

That’s how grim the HBR data is.

Author Andrew Rundle, an associate professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, wrote: “we found a strong correlation between the frequency of business travel and a wide range of physical and behavioral health risks. Compared to those who spent one to six nights a month away from home for business travel, those who spent 14 or more nights away from home per month had significantly higher body mass index scores and were significantly more likely to report the following: poor self-rated health; clinical symptoms of anxiety, depression and alcohol dependence; no physical activity or exercise; smoking; and trouble sleeping. The odds of being obese were 92% higher for those who traveled 21 or more nights per month compared to those who traveled only one to six nights per month, and this ultra-traveling group also had higher diastolic blood pressure and lower high density lipoprotein (the good cholesterol).”

Read that again. Rundle is saying that heavy business travelers – 14 or more nights away from home monthly – weigh too much, self-diagnose anxiety, and don’t exercise. Only 12% of employees screened fall into this bucket of frequent travel.

Hardcore road warriors – with 21+ nights monthly on the road – are probably obese and have strong signs of cardiovascular disease.

Ouch.

Rundle arrived at that conclusion by crunching mountains of de-identified data provided by EHE, which offers preventative exams and wellness screening for tens of thousands of US corporate employees.  Data on frequency of business travel is part of the EHE screening exam.

Rundle’s results make sense.  No, I did not expect the picture to be this bad. But I know when I am traveling my daily walk is usually forgotten (Las Vegas is an exception – cavernous meeting spaces actually create lots of walking in Sin City), breakfast is a carb fest (a bagel grabbed from a coffee break at the meeting), lunch is whatever is on the venue (again, usually, lots of carbs), and dinner, for me, often is a sandwich over my keyboard in my hotel room as I write up the day’s information. It’s a hectic schedule. Too much coffee, too many carbs, little or no exercise, too few fresh veg, a radical departure from my at home routine.

Rundle pointed to studies of World Bank employees that found similar bad health among heavy travelers.  One study found that “Overall, rates of insurance claims were 80% higher for men and 18% higher for women travellers than their non-travelling counterparts.”

A second World Bank study found that 75% of road warriors reported “high or very high” stress related to business travel.

What can be done about this? Rundle urged more employer education for frequent travelers aimed at getting out the message about good food choices and good health practices.  To me that sounds good but – really – do you learn anything you don’t know in wellness sessions? Our problem isn’t our ignorance, it’s our lack of backbone when we travel and our apparently chronic willingness to discard our habits of healthy eating and exercise when at home for a life of no exercise and burgers and fries and a couple beers when on the road.  We know what we should eat. We just don’t care.  Me too.

Rundle also pointed to hotel gyms as a possible savior. He wrote: “One fairly simple thing employers can do is to ensure that their preferred accommodations have well-equipped gyms.”  He added: “hotel gyms can be minimalist and a bit depressing, but an alliance of sorts between employers and business hotel chains could work together to improve the hotel gym experience.”

I am no fan of hotel gyms – I never use them –  but maybe I should re-think that and, definitely, I should always bring walking shoes when I travel and make a point to get out for five or six miles daily.

But I believe that hotels and meeting venues that see the HBR study have got to take the findings seriously and that means really upping the health/wellness choices for road warriors and also upgrading exercise options to make them appealing to frequent travelers.

More advice from Rundle is always ask, is this trip necessary?  A lot of my travel now is getting replaced with video calls. Yours?

That just may be the surest way to protect our health: Travel less.

 

 

 

Google Assistant Wants to Book Your Travel Reservations

By Robert McGarvey

 

Take that, Alexa.  Amazon definitely has made a move with its voice controlled Alexa into travel – but now Google has struck back and just maybe with a  much, much bigger play.

For some time Google has sifted through your GMail and added travel reservations it finds into Google Calendar, and Google Trips.  Count me as a fan. Google saves me steps by automating this process for me.

Now Google wants more.  It has not necessarily made loud announcements. What Google does is roll out features – that its fans find – and it apparently has been busy with travel related tools.  Android Police explain what they have found Google now is doing with your travel planning: “Now it seems that these reservations are, rightfully, showing in Assistant’s settings. Whether you access them through the Google app or the Home app, you will see a new Reservations item under the list of different Account settings, right below Purchases and Payments.”

Keep in mind a few differences between Alexa and what Google is doing. To use Alexa you need to buy a device.  I have three. A tiny Alexa Dot will do. But you need an Alexa to get Amazon to help you out with travel.

With Google, the barrier to entry is minuscule.  There are free apps – Google Trips, Google Home, Google Assistant.  An Android phone helps and 55% of us have one.  (Many apps of course work in a limited mode on iPhone when it comes to purchases and that will matter in travel.)

But just a browser and a computer will do.  Then just use Google for a search.

Google also has extended its ability to actually book travel – flights, hotels, even attractions – from within Google search which most of use already.  There’s a full page of instructions about using Google search to book travel, but, as is usually so with Google, much of this is intuitive and easy to follow.

For instance: to book a flight, start with a search for flights in Google.  See a flight you want, look for a “Book on Google” button. Click it. Enter passenger details and payment info. You may also see a Select Seats button. (You can also book seats on the airline’s website.) Then click Book.

You just bought yourself an airline ticket.

For the hotel, search for the location in Google – then pick a date, input personal info, then pay (via Google Pay if you are signed up).

Google will also help with restaurant reservations. And it’s at work on artificial intelligence that will make a voice call to book a table at restaurants that don’t offer online booking – that technology supposedly will roll out to us before year end.

Google has its eye on other travel related activities such as ground transportation too.  Soon, just about every part of a trip will be bookable in Google and savable to it.

It all gets better because now Google Home can give you travel reminders. Just ask the device (small ones start at $49) – “Hey Google, when’s my next flight?”

The voice driven box will tell you, and can also tell you about hotel and restaurant bookings.

Much the same info is yours via the Google Assistant app on a smartphone, and also via Google Trips.  

What I really like about all this is the ease of access and also the redundancy of sources.  This means that, with Google, I will always be able to access my upcoming trip info.

I have been a big fan of Amazon’s Alexa for some time but have to admit that, little by little, I find myself edging into the Google universe, particularly for travel, mainly because I carry a Pixel phone and spend most of the workday in various Google apps.  

Of course what Google is doing is coaxing us into booking directly on the smartphone – and I am getting won over.  

While you’re at this, do look at Google Trips.  Create an itinerary and you are greeted with many tabs – Discounts, Food And Drink, Things To Do, Day plans.  The entire week, or longer, takes easy shape on the phone as Google serves up the information you need.

I like it.  You?

 

Why Are We Still Meeting 2008 Style?

 

by Robert McGarvey

 

Reading Meeting Planners International’s (MPI) spring 2018 Outlook a loud question echoed in my brain: why are today’s meetings essentially just retreads of meetings 2008 style, maybe even 1998 style?

So much has changed in the past decade. Steve Jobs/Apple drove the smartphone into ubiquity.  Super-fast broadband is everywhere. Video calls – often via Skype, at no cost – are business staples and that’s displacing a lot of face to face contacts.

Before just about every trip today I question if I have to do it. Can’t I accomplish the goal without the travel?

My life today is very different from what it was in 2008, especially in that I am always connected, always have high quality videos at my fingertips.

My attention span today is a lot shorter, too.  And that’s true for most of us.

Meetings I have been to don’t really get that. Sure, they pay lipservice to the concept, as does MPI, but there’s no real commitment.

They also don’t get that we are hip deep into a generational shift where a lot of meeting attendees are Millennials who are filling seats once occupied by Baby Boomers, who are retiring in droves (about 10,000 retire every day).  

And Millennials are true “digital natives,” this stuff has been part of their lives for as long as they have been on earth.

Yet meetings don’t seem to be that much different – not really.

Maybe it’s because the dirty secret about meetings – which I first heard 40 years ago when I complained to a boss about how boring the well-paid speakers were – is that nobody goes for the meeting as such.  “The real action is in the breaks, at lunch, at the 5 p.m. cocktail hour,” said my boss. “Use that time well and you’ll get whatever you need to get out of any meeting we send you to.”

Yes, that was carte blanche to skip any sessions headlined by an out work state governor or a motivational speaker, although candidly I sometimes very much like the latter.  It was also a free pass to ignore the many breakouts that supposedly dig deeper into a specific topic.

But it was an exhortation to work the halls, the meal tables, the cocktail hours. That’s where people talk one with another and, yes, I’m still in touch with people I met at conference lunches many years ago.

The MPI document proceeds in blithe ignorance of that reality.

The secret sauce that makes many meetings very special for many attendees is the stuff that in lots of ways falls out of the control of the planners. It’s the face to face, tete a tetes where attendees connect.

And the related reality that what happens on the mainstage maybe doesn’t matter that much to the satisfaction, or lack, of conference attendees.

Maybe that explains why there has been – to my eyes – very little effort to remake meetings to suit a 2018 reality.

Sure, MPI said that today’s attendees want to be “active and engaged.”  

But word of reality: publishing a meeting app and putting some little games on it does not in actual fact create meaningful engagement.  

Giving attendees a hashtag and asking them to Tweet also isn’t engagement.

MPI also said the #1 meetings trend today is “more virtual/hybrid streaming” – and that, I’ll agree, may help more people who can’t attend a meeting to absorb parts of it, at least the mainstage parts that are most likely to win a remote audience. But they will miss out on the tete a tetes and that’s the pity.

Other top trends noted by MPI include: “more interactive/hands on (23.3 percent), new experiences/more experiential (23.3 percent), more “outside the box” (23.3 percent), more apps (20 percent) and more local flair inside the venue (16.7 percent).”

All these trends are fine – but, tell me, at meetings you attend are they more than window dressing?  Sure, there will be a pass at gamification in the app, maybe there will be a “local” cocktail at an event (prickly pear margaritas in Scottsdale anyone?), possibly there will be a little push for experiences.

But I ask again: have meetings fundamentally changed in 10 years?

It’s a sclerotic industry and that is not a healthy state.

One problem, pointed out by MPI, is that organizations are increasing meeting budgets – but not even enough to keep pace with inflation.   The estimated increase in budget for next year is up 1.8%, and there just is no way that will cover increases in airfares, hotel fees, and the rest.  Organizations need to be spending more money – on technology in particular – but they are pulling their purse strings tighter.

That’s a big fail.

But maybe it’s just the reality that when it comes to meetings, companies get what they pay for…and nothing more.

Just maybe.

A Nation of Wimps? The State of Corporate Travel Policies

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

When the travel masters at your organization issue pages of rules and restrictions is your only question: how high should I jump?

Now we know the answer. American Express has dumped piles of data on us in its latest Traveler 360, a 20+  page overview of who we are, what we care about, and, yes, how compliant we are with corporate policies.

What shocks me in the Amex data is how docile we are.  We really, really are.

Me, too. I’m generally compliant, except when the policies are asinine – like one company that capped hotel rates at $300/night and the closest I could find in Manhattan during UN General Assembly week was north of $400. I just ignored that pennypinching, booked the pricier hotel, and don’t recall hearing boo in protest.

But on the big stuff – such as flying coach (but never basic economy) – I am generally on board.

71% of US travelers, by the way, told Amex their company has a business travel policy.  That is pretty much true around the globe. In India, 90% say their company does. In German, 67% do.  

Where big differences arise is in employee understanding of the policy. In France, 59% say their company does not have a clear policy on travel and expense reporting.  In Germany it’s 58%. In the UK it’s 53%,

Guess what it is in the US and know you will almost certainly be wrong.

It’s a piddly 21% who say their company policy is not clear.

Why is the US so different? Amex takes a stab at an explanation: “One potential explanation is necessity, as 3 out of 4 of US travelers also report that their companies strictly enforce said policies.”

The US also is a laggard in the number of travelers who admit to “going rogue” in business travel. Just 40% of us admit to doing so.  In Australia it’s 52%. Stunningly, in Germany, a country well known for its rules compliance, 67% say they go rogue.

The usual reason for ignoring organizational policies: to stay closer to an event or meeting. And, yeah, I’ve challenged hotel bookings on the grounds of inconvenience and can’t recall a time when the organization didn’t let me stay where I chose.  (It probably helps that I have scant interest in hotel loyalty programs and can’t be accused of staying at a preferred place just to accumulate points.)  

Amex also said that we ignore policy when booking a hotel to stay in a safer location, and that is especially true of Americans and French.

Have you ever done that? I did it once when I was booked into the Europa Hotel in Belfast – known during the  “troubles” as the world’s most bombed hotel – and I declined.  I booked myself into the family owned Wellington Park Hotel – never bombed and my personal go-to on visits to Belfast in the violent years. Oddly enough, the event organizer followed up and rebooked some attendees into the Wellington Park as well.  

We in the US differ from our international compatriots on a number of reasons for booking hotels out of policy.  Just 49% of us will do so to have better business lounge access. 87% of Brits will do it.

Just 52% of us say we book out of policy because we prefer the hotels.  84% of Brits will do it.

55% of us say we will fly another airline – not in the policy – because we like it better.  87% of Brits say they will ignore policy to book a preferred carrier.

71% of us say will book in a hotel not in the policy because it’s better quality.  90% of Brits will.

What can organizations do to get more compliance with travel policies? Amex said: “Since having a strict policy enforcement approach does not work for all countries or companies, offering incentives could be a way to change traveler behavior. Travelers responded favorably to things like having a percentage of the money they saved by booking within policy put into their paycheck and receiving bonus vacation days or paid time off.”

Amex also insisted: “The more travelers understand their company travel policy and the benefits that are in it for them, the more they will comply.”

If you were bribed, would you be even more compliant?  Personally I don’t think it would make a whit of difference to me.  But exactly what bribe is on offer?

 

Hyatt Thinks It Knows Business Travelers – Does It?

 

by Robert McGarvey

 

The more I learn from hotels about what they say they know about business travelers, the more I am skeptical, indeed the more I think they know bupkis.

A proof comes via Hyatt which, working with Harris Poll which conducted an online survey of 1300 adults who have traveled for business in the last year, has dug deep into what makes business travelers tick – so now does it really know you?  The focus was on what motivates business travelers and what we learn during our travels.  The hotel company that really gets that will have an edge. Does Hyatt?

You be the judge.

Among the findings:

  • 77% of US business travelers say business travel has helped them communicate more successfully with different types of people. The number varies by nationality. 95% of Indians, for instance, say similar.  Is this true for you? For me, sure, but I don’t see this as a rocket science insight. Anything that gets us out and about and interacting with a range of other people helps our communication skills, I think.
  • 68% of business travelers say business travel inclines them to be more empathetic with others, says Hyatt. As for me, nah, I don’t believe it. I see so much astounding rudeness on the road (mea culpa, sometimes it’s me who is rude).  I don’t see increased empathy. Look at the scrum for overhead storage space in coach. Are the combatants – many of whom are business travelers – more empathetic?
  • 59% of international business travelers see challenges as opportunities to grow.  OK, sure, but that mindset is standard for anybody who wants to get ahead.  Get handed lemons and the successful person thinks lemonade.  I’m actually surprised this percentage is only 59%. And just because we see something as an opportunity to grow doesn’t mean we applaud it. Or that we grow.
  • 92% of employed US business travelers are inclined to advance their careers.  Duh? You thought people went on the road because they like too small coach seats, lumpy and strange mattresses, and gallons of bad coffee?  Almost everybody I’ve known who travels a lot for business does it to advance. They suffer the hotels they stay in as a means to an end.
  • More business travelers, says Hyatt, are driven by creating a better life for their families (48%) than by receiving praise or recognition at work (33%). No real surprise here.
  • 77% of US business travelers believe they have learned skills that can help them in their personal life. Agreed. I have learned everything from how to more intelligently order in a posh sushi bar to how to calm an angry colleague.  It all adds up and business skills blur with personal. I am glad for the business travel I’ve had, very glad, even if there were many moments when I was miserable and other moments when I was enraged.  And I do keep working on skills to help me better cope with road stresses.

The survey also dug a bit into our on the road habits – somewhat randomly – and here Hyatt and I go in very different directions.

  • 22% think wearing pajamas on conference calls made from a hotel room is a major perk.  Really? Do you bring pj’s in your travel bag? I cannot recall ever doing it.  I have worn hotel robes of course and made phone calls wearing them but a perk that isn’t.  Not to me. It’s just a convenience. And I don’t think I have ever packed pj’s for a business trip.
  • 27% say they binge watch TV shows in hotel rooms.  I never have. As in never. I have at home, occasionally (most recently: Good Girls Revolt on Amazon).  But other than watching news shows, I don’t recall watching any TV in hotel rooms. None. Nor anything on my iPad. Trips just have very busy to-do lists.
  • 26% of business travelers indulge with a stiff drink at the hotel bar. In my case: guilty as charged in decades past, not so much now, not because I am older but because trips just seem busier.  Now at night I go back to my room and write up what happened that day, typically because clients who are paying for the travel want to know what I’m learning and they want to know now.

Add it up and I’m not impressed with the Hyatt findings. Are you? They could have gotten equally potent insights with a few Tarot card readings.

Hyatt, incidentally, in the fine print at the bottom of its press release about the poll makes this comment: “These online surveys are not based on a probability sample, and therefore, no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.”

 

 

How Many Airline Credit Cards Are In Your Wallet?

By Robert McGarvey

 

The headline on Ron Lieber’s New York Times column grabbed me:  Why Airline Credit Cards Have an Enduring Appeal.  

That’s because – although I’ve consciously shed credit cards in recent years – I presently have two airline credit cards and often find myself eyeing a third.

The reason: as I move into a post loyalty world where I have status on no carrier, airline credit cards give me many things that I used to get when I had status.  With them in hand, I feel no pain at the loss of elite perks because I am buying what I need with the airline plastic.

Airlines, in their greedy rush to grab up non traditional revenues streams such as credit cards, have given us all a backdoor that lets us avoid scrambling for elite status but still enjoy all the perks.

Of course I at first balked at adding airline plastic to my wallet. Then a reasonable review of the perks persuaded me of my errors.

Lieber said that at first he too was skeptical about loud claims for successes of airline credit cards.  But then “I looked in my wallet. After years of fealty to my trusty Starwood Preferred Guest credit card, I, too, gave in last year and picked up cards from American Airlines and Delta.”

Me, when I lived in Jersey City I had only a Continental (United) card because at EWR that was plenty. In Phoenix, where I now live, no carrier has similar hegemony so I have the United card, supplemented by an American Airlines card, and I frequently eye the Southwestern card but have thus far resisted.

An irony in all this, and reported on by Lieber, is that we are in an era of skepticism about the value of airline miles.  When you can earn them doing just about anything and when carriers frequently make flight rewards seemingly forever out of reach, there are plenty of reasons to view miles with a jaundiced eye.

But the card issuers and airlines know that.  Yes, the cards accumulate miles on purchases.  But they do a lot more. Lieber quoted Brian Kelly, aka The Points Guy, on what really matters with airline cards: “As points [miles] become more confusing and devalued, people turn to perks — and they are easy to see and easy to value.”

Kelly continued: “The issuers are doubling down on perks, and it appears to be paying off.”

Talk about coincidence. This morning’s mail brought a thick envelope from United/Chase regarding changes in my card -the basic Explorer Card ($95 annual fee) – and there’s an avalanche of new perks, effective June 1.

Continuing benefits include: a free checked bag; 2 United Club passes annually; priority boarding; no foreign transaction fees; 2 miles per $1 spent on United purchases; 1 mile per $1 on other purchases.

I always buy United tickets on this card, which gives a mileage bonus. And I am in it because of the priority boarding which means that just about always overhead bin space is available.

New benefits include: 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants; 2 miles per $1 spent on hotel accommodations; 25% back as inflight purchases (food, beverage, WiFi) on United; and reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Pre.

Count me as loving the Global Entry reimbursement – I’ll sign up tout suite.  And I like the 25% refund on inflight purchases.

That $95 fee pays itself back lots of ways. Nope, I will not use the card anywhere except where there’s a direct United tie-in. But, in those cases, I now find it indispensable. 

Ditto for the $95  Barclays/American Airline Aviator card.  Its benefits aren’t quite as rich – no club passes, for instance, and no reimbursement for TSA Pre or Global Entry.

But the AA card offers priority boarding, free checked bag, 25% credit for inflight purchases, a 7500 miles discount on certain rewards trips, and trip cancellation/interruption coverage in at least some cases. There’s also a 2X mileage award for American Airlines purchases and 1X on other purchases.

I’ll be surprised if Barclays too doesn’t sweeten the pot with more perks for cardholders soon.  

Word of advice: if you have an airline card, check the perks. They may well have recently been upgraded (the reimbursement for Global Entry on the United card was news to me).

Do you need an airline card? My advice is – if you don’t have high level elite status with your primary airline – the $95 a basic card costs could well be money well spent. Check the benefits for your airline – the differences between the Chase and Barclays cards are big enough to matter for some travelers. All airline cards are not created equal.

And if you see $95 in benefits for the card you want, take the plunge.

Most cards also waive the first year fee and throw a basket of free miles at new cardholders (typically 40,000 or a little more).

To me, this is a no brainer.

But your math may well differ.

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?