Upgrading the Airport Experience: A Fool’s Errand?

by Robert McGarvey

Delta has figured out that our airport experience genuinely sucks – and it says it wants to fix it. Are you optimistic?

Delta’s CFO, Paul Jacobson, is the bearer of these glad tidings. At a recent CNBC conference, Jacobson said, “I think the next area of competition in air travel is in the airport.”

He added: “How do you continue to streamline the on-the-ground experience. It is a big part of how passengers rate the experience.”

So true. Even with Priority Pass, Amex Platinum, Global Entry, and Diner’s Club along with a couple airline credit cards, I dread the airport experience. Where I live, Phoenix, it’s actually not that bad. I live 30 minutes away from PHX via lightrail, the security lines are predictable (and usually short), and it’s an airport where little seems to go awry. When a Centurion Lounge opens in 2020, life will indeed be good.

Delta, incidentally, already has a lounge at PHX. It’s gotten good ink – but count me a Centurion loyalist.

The problem is that I go to PHX to fly elsewhere and the other airports – such as EWR, JFK, DFW – are circles in Dante’s Inferno.

Enter Delta with a $12 billion war chest earmarked for airport upgrades – specifically at LaGuardia, LAX, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Atlanta.

Airlines nowadays are flush with cash and the big carriers seem persuaded they have upgraded the inflight experience as far as they can go, so what’s next on the fix it list? Airports are definitely a mess and indeed we do blame the carrier for our woeful airport experiences.

But is this fixable? By an airline?

Honestly, even clubs, the frequent traveler’s cure for airport misery, are rapidly deteriorating. Journalist Chris McGinnis recently filed a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that was headlined, Crowding pushes airport lounges to raise prices, limit access. The subhead was even gloomier: Finding respite from airport mobs getting tougher.

Wrote McGinnis, “due to their popularity, lounges are getting as crowded as airport terminals.” Club operators are deploying various strategies to better manage, indeed limit, access – but still the complaints grow that at many airports the clubs no longer count as sanctuaries.

I’ve even heard complaints that there was no place to sit in a Centurion, and no place to recharge a phone. Reports of overcrowding at Centurions are plentiful.

Of course club woes are just a symptom of what ails airports today. The short answer is just about everything.

The problem is known: the US just hasn’t opened a new airport in decades (Denver, 1995) and it hasn’t expanded airports to meet demand. Around a billion passengers clog US airports each year and that infrastructure was built to handle maybe half that passenger load. In boom times, like now, the limitations of the infrastructure become painfully obvious.

As far back as 2013, the Washington Post ran a story headlined: Reports say U.S. airports are dangerously close to capacity. Per the story: “Failure to invest in airports and the aviation system will ­result in a steady increase in airport congestion.”

Five US airports rank among the world’s busiest: Atlanta, LAX, DFW, Denver, Chicago O’Hare.

J. D. Power even ranks the country’s most hated airports. LaGuardia wins the prize, nosing out Newark.

What’s the solution? A massive airport instructure renewal plan is just about the only way out. According to the U.S. Travel Association, $130 billion is needed over the next four years for infrastructure involving airports.

Just about everything here is broken. We need more terminals, more runways, more parking spaces, more and better roads leading to the airports, more public transit to and from the airports.

China, by way of contrast, has 236 airports it will build by 2035. That will essentially double the nation’s airport capacity. China also is furiously building roads, bridges, and the rest.

The US, meantime, has made no progress in addressing an airport issue that most experts believe started perhaps thirty years ago. The problems aren’t new, they are years in the making, and what’s needed to do fixes is political will and investment dollars.

Which brings us back to Delta and its $12 billion upgrade fund. The carrier deserves applause – the other big carriers ought to pony up as well – but I just don’t see these efforts having the clout and the cash needed to make fundamental changes in our airports. Of course it’s all nice but nice won’t result in the changes we need.

We need a bold plan that aims to provide an airport infrastructure that will work at least through 2050. Call it a 30 year plan. Anything less just won’t do what we need.

Are any significant politicians showing support for bold air transportation initiatives? Not that I am aware of. That’s a shame.

The future of flying in the US is heading towards more gloom, more crowding, more hectic hours at airports. It doesn’t have to be that way. But until we mount a coherent, sweeping program that’s what we are likely to get.

Is This the End of Ripoff Hotel Resort Fees?

By Robert McGarvey

Washington, D.C. district attorney Karl A. Racine just dropped a bomb on Marriott International – and we all should applaud him.

The target of Racine’s ire: resort fees, charged by increasing numbers of hotels who have decided it is so easy to pick our pockets, they would be fools if they didn’t. So $20, maybe as much as $50 is slapped on our hotel room rates but those numbers don’t show up when we search in Expedia, Trivago, etc.

Resort fees can make a huge difference. Just this a.m. I looked at an Arizona hotel that had a summer special for Arizona residents only. The nightly rate: $224. In the fine print however I’m told there’s a $41 resort fee. That’s a nearly 20% bump.

A guess is that industrywide resort fees now put $2.7 billion, or more, in hoteliers’ pockets yearly.

Enter AG Racine.  “Marriott reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profit by deceiving consumers about the true price of its hotel rooms. Bait-and-switch advertising and deceptive pricing practices are illegal. With this lawsuit, we are seeking monetary relief for tens of thousands of District consumers who paid hidden resort fees and to force Marriott to be fully transparent about their prices so consumers can make informed decisions when booking hotel rooms.”

The lawsuit elaborated: “One key effect of this price deception is that consumers shopping for a hotel room on either Marriott’s website, or an online travel agency site (OTA) like Priceline or Expedia, are misled into believing a Marriott hotel room is cheaper than it actually is.”

Marriott of course has a different take.  In an interview on LinkedIn, CEO Arne Sorenson vigorously defended the fees.  He said: “You’ve got resort fees in hotels, baggage fees in airlines. None of us as consumers necessarily love it. What we’ve tried to do is be very transparent with disclosure.”

What absolute nonsense.  

Everytime we fly we have a choice – do we pay to check a bag or don’t we?  Personally I have never paid to check a bag. As in not once.

At many resorts the resort fee is inescapable.  Go ahead, try. Say: I don’t plan to swim in the pool, use your idiot gym, don’t want the junk newspaper, and am perfectly happy to be denied all that you bundle in it.

And I definitely don’t want the hotel WiFi which is dangerous to use.

Used to be a loud consumer could talk his/her way out of a resort fee at the check in desk. It has gotten much, much harder. Hotels are digging in their heels.

The greed multiplies. Now more hotels in urban areas are imposing “urban fees.”  According to the New York Times the Sofitel in Washington DC slaps guests with a $25 daily fee to cover “premium” Internet access, bottled water, yoga classes, and access to a bike share program. Many, many others are doing likewise.

Is there anything on that list you actually want? Or would use? Maybe the bottled water.

Some 55 hotels in San Francisco are reported to charge a resort or urban fee, for instance.

Back up a step. Is there real reason to believe now is a moment when resort and urban fees may in fact vanish?

I have written about resort fees for some years. Nothing changed except the fees got bigger and more resorts and hotels charged them.

Now things look different however.

According to Skift, “’The real takeaway from this lawsuit is to have an important jurisdiction file against a big company,’ said [NYU’s Bjorn] Hanson. ‘Other hotels will have to wait and see what happens, but other states and jurisdictions will feel that now is the time to go after them.’”

Hospitality lawyer Jim Butler notes this: “We have cautioned that consumer frustration over this issue is very high, and government agencies have periodically shown significant interest in jumping on a populist bandwagon. But today, it looks like the situation may have finally reached a turning point.”

What’s an individual hotel guest to do?  Act on what Hanson said. Write your state attorney general and urge him/her to follow in Washington, D.C.’s lead.  Handy list here.  Another list here.  

For an ambitious AG in a Democratic state, it’s an easy and sure way to grab headlines, win better name recognition, and get known as a consumer advocate. Goodby AG, hello governor.

Yes, hoteliers don’t like what they see coming. But it’s hard to have sympathy for folks who have been picking our pockets since perhaps 1997

Sign Off That Hotel WiFi Right Now!

by Robert McGarvey

If you are reading this on hotel WiFi, sign off now.  A new Bloomberg report underlines how porous hotel WiFi networks are. This is a long look at the problem and that’s good because it is a grim reality that savvy travelers need to know about.

Do you care if hackers have your credit card numbers, maybe passport info, possibly driver’s license details, hotel loyalty program log in and password, and probably more? Because they do. Because hotels do not care about your privacy. They just don’t.

Of course this week’s news is about airlines and breaches – specifically BA – and they have a sorry history of poor defense against hackers. Don’t get distracted however. Airlines are bad at this. But hotels are simply the worst.

Forgive me a Cassandra moment. I have been writing about how much hotel WiFi sucks for at least a decade. The stories are manifold and they always say the same: hackers long ago figured out that hotels have essentially no protections on their wifi networks so it is very much a wild west where an Internet caveat emptor prevails.

Except the odds are stacked against you: the hackers are very good at their work, which is stealing salable data.  Hotels are very bad at protecting our data. Hotel group after hotel group has fallen victim to hackers. TrumpHard Rock. Hilton. Marriott

Information security blogger Brian Krebs has reported that the Marriott (Starwood) breach involved 500 million of us.  

In a mea culpa, Marriott said: “The company has not finished identifying duplicate information in the database, but believes it contains information on up to approximately 500 million guests who made a reservation at a Starwood property.  For approximately 327 million of these guests, the information includes some combination of name, mailing address, phone number, email address, passport number, Starwood Preferred Guest (“SPG”) account information, date of birth, gender, arrival and departure information, reservation date, and communication preferences.  For some, the information also includes payment card numbers and payment card expiration dates, but the payment card numbers were encrypted using Advanced Encryption Standard encryption (AES-128). There are two components needed to decrypt the payment card numbers, and at this point, Marriott has not been able to rule out the possibility that both were taken.  For the remaining guests, the information was limited to name and sometimes other data such as mailing address, email address, or other information.”

As for who hacked these hotels, nobody knows.  In many cases it doubtless is ordinary, common criminals.  In other cases, something else may be afoot. Noted Bloomberg: “Marriott hasn’t found any evidence of customer data showing up on dark-web marketplaces, CEO Arne Sorenson told a Senate committee hearing in March. That sounds like good news but may actually be bad. The lack of commercial intent indicated to security experts that the hack was carried out by a government, which might use the data to extrapolate information about politicians, intelligence assets, and business leaders.”

Yep.  The Chinese are believed to be voluminous acquirers of data. But the Russian aren’t slouches. Several European governments are in the game too.  And the US government increasingly is active. In that last case it is difficult to see a hack on a domestic company. But impossible? Not really.

Understand this: hotels are truly bad at protecting data. It’s an industrywide malady.  And hotels are lots worse than most other industries. Bloomberg posits a theory: “Hospitality companies long saw technology as antithetical to the human touch that represented good service. The industry’s admirable habit of promoting from the bottom up means it’s not uncommon to find IT executives who started their careers toting luggage. Former bellboys might understand how a hotel works better than a software engineer, but that doesn’t mean they understand network architecture.”

That rings true to me.

Bloomberg went on: “There’s also a structural issue. Companies such as Marriott and Hilton are responsible for securing brand-wide databases that store reservations and loyalty program information. But the task of protecting the electronic locks or guest Wi-Fi at an individual property falls on the investors who own the hotels. Many of them operate on thin margins and would rather spend money on things their customers actually see, such as new carpeting or state-of-the-art televisions.”

In the big chains the vast majority of hotels are owned by “asset holders” – everything from pension funds and big insurance companies to wealthy individuals.  They have to be persuaded to fund big ticket campaigns. And often they haven’t been.

The result in the hotel business is a patchwork of old, cruddy, unreliable technology.

But you do not have to be a victim. There is nothing we can do to strengthen the defenses around a hotel’s property management system, etc. But we can take steps to protect ourselves when it involves WiFi.

You have three options.  Definitely use them in hotels, but also in airports, coffee shops, and airport lounges. I don’t guarantee your safety but I promise you will be much, much safer than if you don’t take such steps.

O Create a personal hotspot with your cellphone and log in via it.  Cellular data is much, much more secure than is hotel network data. Not perfect. But good enough for most of us. This has been my go to for some years.

O Use VPN, a virtual private network.  There are known limitations to the security delivered by VPNs.  I personally no longer use one. But I know many companies require their traveling execs use a vpn and if that’s policy, it is much, much better than logging on naked to a hotel network.  

O Use Silo or a similar secure browser. The secure browser processes all web data inside a secure container so even if a user accesses malware it’s no harm, because the data won’t reach the user’s computer. Silo also encrypts traffic to shield it from prying eyes. A tool such as Silo offers more robust protection than do VPNs.  (Note: I have been paid by Silo’s developer for past work. That company had no involvement in this column and did not pay me for this.)

That’s three choices.  On your next hotel stay when you log into the Internet use one of the three and know that you will be a lot safer than the guests who log into the hotel’s computer. There is no excuse for not protecting yourself.  Not when you know just how perilous hotel networks are and will almost certainly remain.

Hotels, Bedbugs and You

by Robert McGarvey

A nasty secret about hotels is that a lot have bedbugs. I am talking five star hotels and hostels, dives and ultra luxury digs. Guests bring them. And they often leave them behind. To bite the next guest, suck some blood, and very probably crawl into a suitcase and come home with you. That last is a real threat. Most of us don’t notice a bedbug bite or two, or we think we nicked ourselves with something in the hotel bathroom.

Wrong. Sleep with bedbugs in a hotel and they are coming home with you.

If you like scary reading, click here for a roundup of TripAdvisor user complaints about bedbugs in hotels. You’ll get a sense of how global the issue is, both geographically but also economically. Staying only in luxe properties is no protection.

I have lived through a bedbug infestation in my home. It sucks. It cost $600 in exterminator fees to clear up. Plus a lot of sheets and blanket cleaning and washing. Along the way, there were many bites, some of which leave horrendous marks. The bites also are itchy and you just feel disgusting knowing you are an edible blood bank for who knows how many insects.

The cause of that infestation probably was a neighbor, not a hotel, but as our knowledge of bedbugs grew in that incident so did the realization that we had in fact been bitten by bedbugs in hotels in the past.

No surprise there. Hotels are fighting against what amount to a bedbug epidemic. It is not clear who is winning.

According to the New York Times, “A 2016 survey of 100 hotels in the United States, conducted by Orkin, a pest control company, found that 82 percent of them had been treated for bedbugs in the previous year. “

Personally I’m not troubled that 82% had been treated for bedbugs in the past year. I’m more troubled by the 18% that hadn’t been.

Conde Nast Traveler shouts: Bed bugs in hotels are on the rise.

Travelpulse says, Hotels are spending big money on bed bugs.

Exactly three states have laws that explicitly obligate a hotel to remove a bedbug ridden room from occupancy. That’s Kansas, West Virginia, and Nevada.

That means the onus is on you to protect yourself from bedbugs.

Having been through a bedbug infestation once, I am determined not to bring back bugs from the hotels I stay in.

Consumer Reports outlines a self-defense program to take when entering a hotel room.

Step 1: Put your luggage in the bathroom or on a luggage rack. Probably they are free of bedbugs.

Step 2: Pull back the sheets and check the mattress and box spring for signs of bedbugs – they are visible to the naked eye. Keep your eyes peeled for “exoskeletons (casings that the bugs leave behind when they molt) and dark, rust-colored spots.” Those spots probably are dried blood, by the way.

Says CR: “If you see any telltale signs, tell hotel staff and ask for a new room, preferably in another part of the building.”

Personally, I would check out and decline to pay. But there’s no guarantee the hotel down the block doesn’t also have a bedbug problem so maybe I am spinning my own wheels.

You want a more meticulous inspection? Hotel Business content sponsored by ActiveGuard offers a multi-step program for hotel housekeeping to implement in a hunt for bedbugs. It’s detailed. And you’ll want to have a flashlight in hand. But if you want high confidence that your room is bedbug free, go with this six step program that looks at everything from the underside of the box spring to the edges of the headboard. The steps are here.

If you check out from a hotel after just one night you might not notice bug bites until you are on your way home. Often it’s an itch that first gets your attention. Then you notice the bites and you know you’ve been dinner for a bug. All’s not lost. You still can save yourself a home infestation. Put your clothes in the dryer for at least 30 minutes. Wash them if you wish but bedbugs can usually survive water. It’s the heat that kills them.

Should you complain to your hotel? Maybe, maybe not. There are many places to encounter bedbugs. Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix for instance. Also Kansas City International Airport. On airplanes too – Air India passengers have complained. They also show up in buses. And movie theaters often are said to be infested with bed bugs.

They even are said to show up on cruise ships.

If you are beginning to think they are everywhere, they are. And there are more infestations reported in summer, per the National Pest Management Association: “More than half of pest control professionals noted that they receive the most bed bug complaints during the summer, as increased travel during this time of the year may help spread bed bugs from vacation destinations to homes or even college lodgings to homes as students go on summer break.”

Inspect hotel rooms, always. Inspect your luggage when you get home. Ditto when cruising. Be wary of seating in airports, movie theaters, etc. Stay vigilant and bedbugs can be beaten.

Is This Room Service RIP?

By Robert McGarvey

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I come not to praise room service but to bury it. And maybe gleefully dance on its grave.

The Phocuswire headline said it plainly: Will food delivery apps eliminate the need for hotel room service?

I can only hope.

I am no fan of room service. As I write this I remember a room service breakfast for two at an Upper Eastside hotel that involved egg platters – cold and maybe $35 each; with cold toast; cold bacon stippled with congealed fat; coffee – $14 apiece for lukewarm java; plus tax and a mandatory room service charge. Around $150 total.

Did I mention the 40 minute wait?  That of course probably explains the tepid temperatures of the food and drink.

But the staggering thing is that a self described ultra luxury hotel would deliver such dreck to a guest’s room. And have the nerve to charge exorbitant prices.

Yeah, I should have gone to Starbucks, maybe a block away but I was lazy and – obviously – I was dumb.

And now Phocuswire tells me that just maybe I can forget about calling room service ever again.

Phocuswright, along with iSeatz, did a consumer survey – involving 800 of us – along with f & b pros to explore the pros and cons of room service and also third party delivery services.  It concluded: “The study found that travelers perceive both traditional room service and third-party food delivery platforms as providing ease and convenience, and overall satisfaction is similar with both options.

“But for room service, a notable issue for travelers is the perceived value – or lack thereof – in relation to the product received.”

You got that right about value, or lack thereof.

Yes, I’ve talked with senior hotel execs who tell me I don’t get it, that I don’t recognize that with room service every tray is in effect delivered twice – to the room, then back to the kitchen.  That adds expense, they tell me, and it also explains why often the food arrives cold.

In that vein, the report noted that many hotel executives want to stop room service. “Most hotels claim that they would prefer to eliminate the provision of room service if given the choice. However, most are currently obliged to maintain it, either because of guest expectations (particularly in luxury and, to a lesser degree, upmarket-properties), or because of brand requirements.”

The other factor that is holding back many hotels from shutting down room service is that we like it. Color me surprised by how many of us still use room service. Per the report, “Traditional room service remains a popular option for in-room dining, and is used by over two thirds (67%) of travelers.”

Oh, by the way, look online for room service menus at the hotels that you’ll be staying at in the next month.  You probably won’t find any. If you do, they will have glorious photos but no prices. I can’t say I don’t understand why hotel execs hide the prices. I’d be ashamed too.

But there now is a way out, that should please hotel execs and guests alike.  Suddenly food delivery services are an Internet unicorn. And hungry guests can get the food they desire.

Some hotels are partnering with food delivery services but who cares? This is the Internet wild west. Buy the food you want, where you want it. Worst case you’ll be forced to go down to the lobby to pick it up.  Big whoop. How many morning have I been forced in Strip hotels to go to the lobby for morning coffee at Starbucks.

You’ll eat better with the delivery services.

Look at Doordash. I’m thinking about a couple of iHop breakfast samplers – eggs, bacon, ham,  sausage, hashbrowns, pancakes. Priced at $12.50 apiece.  Throw in coffees, a tip, tax, delivery fee ($5.99) and you are still under $45. Where I am in Phoenix, you’ll get your food in under 40 minutes probably.  

Don’t like iHop?  There are dozens – probably hundreds – more restaurants to choose from.

Don’t like Doordash? Use Uber Eats.

Or Amazon Restaurants.

There are still other delivery services.

Some hotels are in fact partnering with specific delivery services and some guests say they prefer that — “The study found that two out of five respondents would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ use a food delivery service directly from a hotel if it was available,” reported Phocuswire.

I have no preference in that regard. I’ve used services to deliver directly to my apartment and am comfortable using the apps.

But if you’re not, very probably the hotel front desk will help you out in interfacing with a delivery service.

Hotel room service probably is going away, sooner rather than later.  And nobody will play the bagpipes at its passing.  

Flygskam: Why You Are Grounded

Words we don’t know may still bite us.  Meet Flygskam.  What language is it?  Swedish. And it means “flight shame.”

In Sweden today increasing numbers are ditching planes in favor of trains – even 15 hour trips such as Gothenburg to Lulea (1-½ hours by air).

They cite flight shame as the explanation.

Are they crazy?

Nope. Swedes are throwing flight shame in the faces of flyers and the hot button is how polluting planes are. A New York Times headline spelled it out: Flying Is Bad for the Planet.

The Times’ lede smacks you in the head: “Take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year.”

Don’t even ask about the airlines’ plastics problem. It’s huge and not shrinking.

What happens in Sweden doesn’t stay there. Know this: Flygskam is heading at you. If you haven’t heard displeased snickers about your frequent flying yet, you will – at the office, at the fitness club, at your community meetings. What had been a badge of honor – platinum elite status – is getting transformed into a badge of shame.

Environmentalism has caught up with frequent flying and it will exact its price.

The driving force behind Flygskam: Greta Thunberg, a 16 year-old Swedish school girl.  Don’t scoff. She and the movement she has launched will change how we travel – certainly how often we travel.

According to the South China Morning Post, “A recent survey conducted by WWF found that 23 percent of Swedes were opting out of air travel to reduce their impact on the climate, and 18 percent of those polled had chosen to take a train rather than fly. ‘Flygskam’ (‘flight shame’) has taken off on social media across Europe, as has the inversely correlated ‘tagskryt’ (‘train bragging’), and the phenomenon is making a difference on the ground.”

The Morning Post continued; “According to a recent Bloomberg report, Swedavia AB, which operates 10 Swedish airports, has seen year-on-year passenger numbers drop for seven consecutive months, while state train operator SJ moved a record 32 million people around the country last year.”

Rick Steves, the PBS travel guru, has acknowledged that flyers are “contributing to the destruction of our environment.”

In Europe, flygskam has spread beyond Sweden. The United Kingdom is a hotbed,

And “the Finnish have invented the word ‘lentohapea’, the Dutch say ‘vliegschaamte’ and the Germans ‘flugscham’, all referring to a feeling of shame around flying.”

An Instagram account that exists to shame boastful travel influencers about their gallivanting – #StayOnTheGround — has over 60,000 followers

Certainly Donald Trump believes climate change is hokum but he probably also has doubts that the Earth in fact is not flat and that the Moon is not made of cheese.  Nobody with the slightest familiarity with climate science doubts that in fact climate change is real and a corollary is that air travel is highly polluting – and much air travel also is not exactly necessary.

Which brings us back to flygskam and us.  The money question is this: what will you do about this at your end?

Me, I’ve already decided to eliminate air travel that can be easily eliminated. I have not modified my position. If a trip can be replaced with a phone call, I’m all in.

And a lot of business trips can be eliminated.

What about vacation travel?  This year I find myself planning vacation trips from where I live in Phoenix to San Francisco, Texas, northern New Mexico – and, yep, I see all happening in a car.

Can I go the next six months without once boarding a plane?  I’m not prepared to promise that. A family emergency could trigger a flight.  So could the right business proposition. I am not for hurting myself.

But I am for doing what I can do to save the environment and part of that is indeed eliminating superfluous air travel.

Are you down for likewise?

Or are you pinning on a “smygflyga” button?

That’s flying in secret of course.

And isn’t that a change? A generation ago we might have lied that we’d flown from LA to Vegas because driving seemed so lame.  But now we lie and say we drove.

Climates change. So do customs.  

For the environment let’s hope this change sticks.

Show Us Your Tweets Before Entering the US

By Robert McGarvey

The US government now has announced a policy where applicants for US visas are asked to disclose their social media handles. Apparently about 15 million foreign visitors will be impacted annually.

Would you disclose your Twitter, Facebook, and other accounts to a foreign government?

My Twitter account is @rjmcgarvey, ditto on Facebook, and I have never posted on Instagram, Snapchat, et. al. I have nothing to hide. But I do have questions about this new US information grab.

Is the US overreaching in its paranoia? Should what you post on social media figure into your ability to travel the world? And remember that others will follow the US policy – that is, many nations will start asking for social media handles on visa applications.

So US citizens too will be impacted.

Which brings us to the question: why did the US make this change?

According to TIME, the US explained this thusly: “National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening. We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect U.S. citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”

The free speech advocate inside me recoils at yet another government act that may stifle speech.

Even so, I have assumed for some years that the big governments – especially the US, China, possibly Russia – routinely sift through all social media postings.  I would also assume that many who post inflammatory stuff do so under pseudonyms. So a visa applicant might have a humdrum account on Twitter in his/her real name – and another account full of hideous nonsense under a fake name.  Which account would you guess he’d disclose on his visa application?

Is there any point to this new government intrusion?  Will demanding social media handles deliver anything of value?

Then, too, many millions of foreigners enter the US under a visa waiver program that allows passport holders from countries such as Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom to enter without a visa.  

In FY 2015, about 22 million came in under the visa waiver program (Japan was the leader with 3.7 million).  That’s half again more than will come in with a visa but that makes sense because most developed countries are in the waiver program (and in most cases US citizens do not need visas to enter these countries).

As for the new US demands, civil liberties folks are up in arms.  Per the New York Times, “This seems to be part and parcel of the same effort to have an extraordinary broad surveillance of citizens and noncitizens,” Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said of the latest development. “Given the scope of the surveillance efforts, it is hard to find a rational basis for the broad surveillance the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security have been doing for almost two years.”

Probably, too, this search won’t actually prevent any terrorism. A Washington Post story from a few years ago took up exactly this question and said, naw, it won’t work.  Why? The vast majority of posts are about the same old stuff – “Almost all were about traffic, celebrities or the weather. Discovering whether a visa applicant has ever voiced suspect opinions will require searching through acres of haystacks in the hopes of finding a few needles,” said the Post as it reviewed Ukrainian posts after Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Note that timing. Even tho war was breaking out, the overwhelming majority of social posts were about the same old trivialities of everyday life.

Then, too, added the Post, the Internet is awash with hate speech – vide Trump’s Twitter account.  There’s a lot of bluster, a lot of ranting, and a lot of plain hate. That means “identifying suspicious social media activity cannot be conclusive without additional labor. Whittling hundreds of thousands of flagged accounts down to a manageable watchlist will be an expensive and time-consuming human effort, not the work of algorithms.”

So probably this is actually just a Washington DC witch hunt not worth the time and effort.

Taking the Measure of Your Meetings: Pass/Fail?

By Robert McGarvey

By now it’s cliche: meeting attendees are ever younger (think Millennials – born 1981 through 1996 – and a sprinkling of still younger Gen Z) and, therefore, meetings have to evolve to satisfy new expectations.

But have they evolved? Really?

Are they that much different from what they were in 2009, 1999, or even 1989?

Reading an interview in Meetings Today with Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC (International Association of Conference Centers), I was struck by how often I agreed with him – but also how often it seemed to me that meetings I attend fall very short of what Cooper put out as necessities of a well run 2019 meeting.

For instance: Cooper said, “Today’s delegate seeks an enriching and memorable experience from all aspects of the venue, from design to features.”

He then ticked off some essential features and he started with WiFi. I am so with Cooper on this – good WiFi is a sine qua non for me at a meeting.

But often we are talking non because the WiFi isn’t there.

Question: when was the last time you had adequate WiFi at a large meeting?  I cannot think of any time which is why, typically, I create my own hotspot and connect via my phone. Partly I do that because I am wary of public WiFi – remember the fake free WiFi network erected at the 2016 Republican National Convention.  

But I started doing it because in most hotels and meetings facilities I have used, the WiFi sucks.  It’s slow, the signal sometimes drops, sometimes I cannot connect at all (a problem that seems chronic with an iPad Air 2 I commonly bring to meetings).

For years I have whined about inadequate hotel wifi and, sure, they keep upping their capabilities – but we keep connecting more devices. And the hotels never really get ahead because they do not want to spend the money it would take to offer truly adequate WiFi. They are pinchpennies when it comes to broadband and we pay the price in woeful connections.

Next on Cooper’s must list is: “Inspiring and healthy food and beverages (including interesting alcohol-free options).

Agreed at my end.  

But I cannot say I typically see that at the meetings I attend.  The food is neither healthy nor inspiring. It is same old. A blah chicken breast with a few roasted potatoes and a handful of carrots and green beans or maybe it’s a blah salmon fillet on a bed of rice with some peas.

Hotels have talked about upping their meetings food game for as long as I can remember and that’s a commendable goal.  But this is aspiration. Not reality at most venues.

There are exceptions. I recall a lovely Beard House dinner or two with chefs from Benchmark’s conference centers.

But for most meeting venues tasty, smart food is all talk, no action.  

Cooper’s next point leapfrogs off the food grumbles because he said attendees “will also be watching the waste that comes from their event and will not tolerate full buffet tables of spent food being swept into the trash bag.”

Except, very typically, that’s precisely what happens to food waste at meetings: it goes to the dumpster and from there into the landfill.  

Two years ago I wrote a column headlined: “It’s up to you to stop food waste at conferences.”

It still is.

If you know you won’t be eating the meeting lunch – and there often is good conversation at those lunch tables but good food not so often – tell the meeting planner and ask that your lunch be donated to an organization that serves the needy. In many big cities such groups exist and they will accept the donation.  Most won’t take food that has been plated and put on a table – but if it has stayed in the kitchen they will be glad to have it and it will help fill a hungry belly.

A last point made by Cooper that interested me regards wellness at meetings. He said: “Personally, I think more can be done for delegates during break-out sessions and refreshment breaks, whether that’s hosting food demonstrations, yoga sessions or giving delegates the chance to enjoy a group meditation session to re-energize ahead of the afternoon agenda. I’d also like to see more events promoting walking meetings to help attendees get in their 10,000 steps a day.”

I definitely agree with him but I also agree that most venues are more talk, not much action, when it comes to building wellness into meetings.  And attendees know this.

Bottomline: I strongly agree with IACC’s Cooper. Meeting attendees want better WiFi, better food (and more vegan options!), they want reduced waste, and they want more and more convenient wellness activities available at meetings..

I just am not seeing many facilities that are delivering on these priorities. Do you?

How Typical Are You: The CWT Traveler Barometer

By Robert McGarvey

An infographic via Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) gives us a quick, easy way to measure just how typical we are.  Granted, frequent flyers, as a tribe, have shared idiosyncrasies – a strong fondness for lots of accessible plugs in a hotel room and, always, a desk in the room – but then there are datapoints where I have to scratch my head and wonder who are these people?

CWT starts out with a softball – 9 of 10 travelers are willing to share travel preferences. You have to wonder about the 10% who decline. Too busy to bother? OK, that makes a kind of sense to me.  But if it’s just preferring to be private, nah, that seems dumb to me. Whenever I have the time I provide travel preferences just to get what I want on the record and I will do this free of charge. If you want to know my preferences in banking, in mobile payments, in computing, bring a checkbook or at least an Amazon gift card. That’s info I charge for but when it comes to travel and the pains I feel, ask and I’ll tell because I am hoping for more comfort as payback.

Here are the salient CWT datapoints:

66% of travelers prefer a window seat.  Do you?

I do not. I strongly prefer an aisle seat and will grumble, loudly, if put in a window seat. Why? I have written often about deep vein thrombosis and air travel and swear by the advice to walk every hour.  Climbing over two fellow travelers to exit from a window seat is rude and, well, who does it except in an emergency?  Sitting on the aisle, tho, I get up pretty much every hour and walk up and back, maybe a couple times.

Perhaps I am paranoid about DVT.  Perhaps. But this is a better safe than sorry choice and for me, the aisle seat is the ticket.  And it is very good news in my mind that most of you want the window seat. Take it, it’s yours.

Per CWT, btw, “Window proponents like control of the window shade, a fuselage on which to rest their sleeping head and ample opportunity to fill their Instagram feed with obligatory shots of the plane wing in the clouds.”

64% of travelers prefer ground transportation vs. public transport.  

I do not. In San Francisco I’m on the BART.  In Phoenix, I light rail home. At Newark Airport, I usually catch a train and I am joyous about the PATH extension that’s probably coming to the airport.  At CDG in Paris, I’m on the Metro. For my money, public transit usually is not only cheaper but faster when it comes to exiting an airport.

52% would rather miss a flight than lose luggage.

Not me.  But maybe I cheat here. I don’t check bags and therefore find the concept of lost luggage to be alien.  And I don’t recall ever missing a flight in decades of flying. Flights were cancelled, sometimes abruptly, but I never missed one on my own doing.

Baggage of mine has gone astray, and that indeed is annoying. But on the three or so occasions this happened, it always found its way to me within a day or so. I don’t fret much about baggage.

65% would rather fly international than domestic.

Not me.  I suppose I prefer domestic because the flights are shorter.  And, sure, the inflight service is better on international flights. But short still trumps better service.

CWT, incidentally, pointed out that there are regional differences in traveler preferences. In Asia, for instance, 71% want the window. In the Americas it’s just 59%.

Regional differences are especially sharp when the question is taxi vs rideshare. 54% in the CWT poll plunk down for taxis. But in the Americas that number plummets to 37%.

Don’t ask me about that one. You’ll find me in public transit.  

How typical are you regarding the CWT questions?

I’m an outlier but I knew that at the get go.

What about you?

Is It Time to Trust TripAdvisor Again?

By Robert McGarvey

Finally TripAdvisor is back in the news for doing something that looks to be right. The Detroit Free Press, which had investigated TripAdvisor’s apparent burying of reviews that alleged sexual assaults – sometimes by resort and hotel employees – tells the story that TripAdvisor now vows it’s mapped a different course. The Freep headline shouts: TripAdvisor will now flag sexual assault warnings on travel reviews.

The promise: a simple click of a filter will bring up reviews that claim sexual assaults and other safety related complaints.

According to the Freep, TripAdvisor admitted that an internal investigation had found 1100 reviews that claimed sexual assault had been posted on the site in the past year. But it wasn’t always easy to find them

Indeed,a 2017 investigation by the Milwaukee Sentinel found that TipAdvisor had a pattern of deleting posts alleging rape or assault.  

Along the way I had personally declared TripAdvisor to no longer be trustworthy.  Once I had seen it as the go to site for hotel reviews but I stopped.

Now TripAdvisor screams: trust us, we’re changed, we’re different!

Color me skeptical.

Probably the real driver for TripAdvisor is that it had found itself playing catch up – and failing – in surveys of hotel review sites.  Google had in fact galloped into a huge lead over TripAdvisor and probably TripAdvisor saw only darkness at the end of its tunnel.  

Flashforward and now TripAdvisor says it has had an epiphany.  It told the Freep: “When your article hit, we started re-evaluating our policies,” said TripAdvisor spokesman Brian Hoyt, noting the 1,100 reviews citing sexual assault raised eyebrows. “One incident is horrible — 1,100 is horrific. Having read through many of these accounts, it really motivated us at TripAdvisor to make sure we do right by these survivors and help them find a way to share this information with others.”

Here’s what visitors to TripAdvisor will now find, per the Freep: “Rather than have to dig through tens of millions of hotel reviews in search of rape complaints, TripAdvisor users will now be able to click through a filter on each property to see if there are any reviews with safety warnings involving rapes, robberies or druggings.”

TripAdvisor pointed some media to the Palm Beach Hotel in Vietnam as a case in point of its get tough policies. In my clicking it indeed was easy to see there were safety concerns and it was also easy to pull up two very tough reviews.

TripAdvisor itself explains what changes it has made here.

There’s a lot to like about what TripAdvisor says it is doing.

The money question of course is do you now trust TripAdvisor?  With its history of burying and simply deleting reviews alleging crimes at hotels?

Remember, in 2017, Senator Tammy Baldwin asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate TripAdvisor. Per the NY Times, “This may be a case of putting profits over providing an open, honest forum for traveler reviews on TripAdvisor,” Ms. Baldwin said in a tweet on Nov. 26. “I called on the F.T.C. to look into this and they should get to the bottom of it.”

And yet the beat went on at TripAdvisor: there persisted an unwillingness to wrestle with the reality that some resorts, in some parts of the world, seem to have persistent issues involved a failure to provide for the safety of guests.

I absolutely understand the difficulties in accepting as true unproven allegations about a hotel employee and the hotel itself.

But, remember, TripAdvisor won fans because it published negative reviews about bad dinner service, clogged toilets, stained bedding, and other unpleasantries. It won our trust because it let travelers dish about the bad and the ugly at hotels and not just the good.

And then to find out that apparently many, many reviews that claimed rape were deleted because they weren’t “family friendly,” where are we to put our trust?

As recently as this year, the Guardian ran a piece that said some women still had loud complaints about the fairness of TripAdvisor’s handling of rape allegations.

So now we are supposed to believe TripAdvisor has gotten religion about helping travelers stay safer?

My advice is to remain skeptical of TripAdvisor. The NY Times too has reservations. I want to trust the site – I truly do – but the history tells me to go slow here. It has to re-earn our trust. I for one hope it does.