How to Avoid Merging Into Oblivion: Three Steps to Save Your Credit Union


By Robert McGarvey


For Cu2.0


Should you applaud, cry, or scream?

That’s my question as I read a Credit Union Times story headlined “NCUA Approves 14 Mergers in June”  — “Credit union consolidations for the first half of the year decline from last year.”

So far this year NCUA has approved 87 mergers which, CUTimes pointed out, is down from the 95 it had approved at this point last year.

Say 120 credit unions merge out of existence this year.  Where will that leave the credit union count?

According to CUNA in March there were 5644 credit unions.  That’s down from 6680 five years ago.

Do the math. In 2028, there probably will be under 4500 credit unions. Maybe fewer than 4000.

That kind of musing recently led marketer Bo McDonald to post a column at CUInsight headlined “The last credit union in America is….”  

He recalled Blockbuster – once ubiquitous in America, now largely forgotten. Are credit unions headed that way, he asked.

Good question.

It doesn’t have to end there but if credit unions don’t embrace the bleakness of their futures, the industry may well wind up as a footnote in business history books.

Big banks keep getting bigger. Chase, Wells Fargo, Cit, Bank of America are growing. They  long ago began measuring their bulk in trillions of dollars

And community banks and credit unions keep faltering. Add all credit union assets together and they about equal the holdings of one big bank.  Just one.

A sliver of good news in the CUNA data is that credit union assets and membership both are up.  

But you have to be worried about the question of when do credit unions become statistically unimportant.

And when does NCUA seem as needed as, say, an agency to regulate farriers and another to oversee typewriters.

It’s not that bad? Not yet. But the trends are plain.

There is a path to a brighter tomorrow. Technology, in its essence, is a great leveler. Smart, hungry credit unions can and are riding the digital transformation rails and are building institutions that will thrive for years to come.  Digital transformation has emerged as a must do for credit unions that want to survive and thrive.

Know that a healthy future is digital and that gets you moving in the right direction.

And then there is still more that needs doing.  Such as? Just three steps will help credit unions move into that brighter future and, you bet, this is all about rocking the boat. But when the boat is sinking, what does a little rocking matter?

Here are your three to-do’s:

Make big data your life blood.  Increasingly, data is the plasma that produces business health and credit unions have the ability to create big data insights that will rival what Chase and Citi produce. Communal data lakes are within reach and very probably will be up and running in 2019.

No, a credit union does not have enough data on its own – but when 1000 join together to share data, they collectively have what they need.

Make your mobile world class. Increasingly, too, mobile is the contact point that will matter to members (definitely not branches!) – but smart credit unions recognize that reality and at least some are busy developing their own mobile apps.

That’s a tough order for smaller credit unions – really any institution below $500 million in assets, which is around 90% of credit unions.  My advice to those institutions is to lean on your vendors, hard, and demand a mobile app that is as good as Chase’s and also Venmo and if they can’t produce, find a vendor who can.

Make your core system work for you, not the other way around. It’s ridiculous: many credit unions let their core systems, often 20+ years old, set their technology limits.  The limitations of their cores shape what online banking provider they will use, what mobile provider, often what payments processor.

That has to stop.  It makes as much sense as creating a shrine for an old Burroughs adding machine and saying daily prayers to it.

Start now to lessen the dominance of the core in your institution’s technology decisionmaking and, sure, I know that won’t be easy.

But going out of business isn’t easy either.

Think on it.


Bleisure and Your Travels

By Robert McGarvey


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

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

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

The Egencia research throws light on this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The choices did

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

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




Why Are We Still Waiting for Biometric Authorization to Fly?


By Robert McGarvey

The other day I realized I can sign into checking accounts at two different credit unions with a fingerprint.  I can also buy just about anything with Apple Pay on an iPhone and a fingerprint.

So why can’t I get on a plane and fly to anyplace based upon a biometric measure?

If you are enrolled in TSA Pre, the government already has your fingerprints on file.  That data is there.

Clear, meantime, has rolled out entry – via a fingerprint or eye print – at a number of airports.  That’s a private service that the company says will get you through security in five minutes – and I like the idea of not fumbling for a driver’s license. So I may enroll.

But I may not just because I am cranky that the government and airlines are both dragging feet about deploying biometrics which, to my eyes, are potentially a lot more secure than photo IDs such as driver’s licenses and passports.

So why aren’t biometrics in greater use in US airports?

That’s hard to answer.  

There are tiny signs of progress. Right now, JetBlue is experimenting with facial scans for boarding.

Homeland Security is saying it wants to use facial scans of all passengers who hold visas on international flights.  

But there is no big push to speed up widespread biometrics adoption at airports, definitely not for domestic flights.

Is it because the technology isn’t there yet?

Nope. Financial services prove that biometrics are reliable. Big banks wouldn’t use them if they weren’t. Many, many organizations – including government agencies – also use biometrics for entry into certain buildings.  

Security – of our bank accounts and many companies and government agencies – rests on biometrics already.

The CIA – ironically perhaps – has been grumbling that increased use of biometrics , especially in foreign airports, may lead to blowing the covers of its spies.

This is technology that works – except when it’s not deployed.

Boil it down and there are two issues holding up adoption at US airports. For one there are grumbles about privacy lost – but personally if I had any privacy I lost it over the past 15 years.  Believing in privacy is as sensible as believing in the tooth fairy.

Reason two is that a kind of stinginess still prevails in airport security. The federal government does not want to pay for stepped up airport biometrics and neither, so far, do the airlines.

That might paint a pessimistic picture. But I am increasingly optimistic.

My hunch is that biometrics will come to airports sooner than many think, because they work and also because we the passengers will begin to demand them. Biometrics work and, in our everyday lives, we see that.  We trust them, we use them.

And the technology just seems to keep getting better.

Which should airports deploy?

I talked with the president of a large biometrics company and asked him a simple question: which biometric did he see gaining supremacy in the US?

Right now, in banking, there are many competing biometrics: fingerprints, face scans (selfies), voice prints, iris scans, retinal scans are all scrapping for attention.

Which will reign supreme?

He told me that was no longer the question. He claimed that more institutions are now offering multiple biometrics so individuals can choose the one that best suits them in the moment.  A case in point is the big bank USAA which now lets its customers choose among fingerprint, voice, or face.

The reality is that – probably – many of us will use all three, just at different times.  You might like a selfie, except when you are driving, for instance, in which moments voice might be the way to go.

At airports, to, it easy to see several biometrics put into place – maybe selfies without our active participation, possibly voice and/or fingerprint with our participation.

If the result is a surer identification of me – and I believe it would be – I am all in.

What about the people who are upset about privacy lost?  I hear that complaint but, honestly, since 9/11 there has been a steady erosion in our privacy. I do not applaud that but I acknowledge it and I am not going to pretend we have something we no longer do.

And remember the goal here is both more secure and faster movement at airports.

Biometrics will get us there.


How to Dodge Hotel Cancellation Fees


by Robert McGarvey


You read it here first. Last week, Joe Brancatelli dropped the bomb that Marriott (and Starwood) were switching to what appears o be a chainwide 48 hour cancellation policy.  Cancel after that deadline and you pay a penalty of one night’s rate.

In a statement, Marriott said: “Guests will now be required to cancel their room reservation by midnight 48 hours prior to arrival in order to avoid a fee.”

Marriott explained it was making the change because of more lax current policies -generally allowing cancellations up to 24 hours before – there have been “a significant number of unsold rooms.”

I admit, I started business travel when free same day cancellations were the norm. Usually up to 6 p.m. the day of arrival.  Some homes  might have nudged it up to 4 p.m.  Either way, hotels – at least the ones that catered to business travelers – understood that plans change, often at the last minute, and we need flexibility in our hotel bookings.

Airlines of course in effect sell flexibility. Tickets that don’t allow for changes are much cheaper.  But I have long believed that I should fly with tickets I can change, easily and at no cost, and that’s my policy unless a client wants the cheaper fare and accepts the consequences.

For years, resorts have imposed onerous cancellation policies. I have seen some that require a week’s advance notice.  But, arguably, vacations are planned farther in advance and usually won’t be changed at the last minute.

Regular rooms at regular hotels booked by business travelers are a different matter.  With many clients, a Heraclitean flux is the norm. Hotels generally understood that.  Until recently.

It was back in 2014 that Marriott instituted the 24 hour cancellation policy.

Now it is upping the ante.  It got away with the switch to 24 hours, now it is banking on acceptance of 48 hours.

Watch other hotel operators do likewise.

But you don’t have to take it.

I won’t.

Understand this: in a number of key business travel cities, hotel occupancies are running high. The most recent figures I saw for Manhattan pegged average occupancy at78%.  Numbers are similar for Boston and Washington DC.

In San Francisco occupancy averages over 80%.

On some nights just about every month at least some hotels will sell out.

That’s why you are seeing hotel trade magazine articles like “How to Walk Guests” – and, by the way, what that means is that you may have a reservation you cannot cancel without penalty but the hotel may still not have a room for you.

Know that there are services – Johnny Jet in a recent piece fingered Roomer and Cancelon as such services — that, for a fee, will help you unload hotel reservations you cannot use. That’s an option for some.

Personally, what I plan to do is to not make reservations until the last minute.

The math is on our side.  Yes, there are those rare sell out nights but mainly we will have lots of choice.  When it comes to flying from Phoenix to Atlanta I have a handful of palatable choices so the power is with the airlines.

Not so with hotels.  The numbers favor us.

I am looking at Hotel Tonight and in Phoenix tonight I can book the FOUND:RE ($123), the Hyatt Regency ($149), or the Kimpton Palomar ($172).  There are many more hotels with availability.

Maybe Phoenix is an unfair example. It will be 116F today and 120F tomorrow and, yes, the city is empty.

In San Francisco tonight, I can sleep at my standby, the Hotel Carlton, for $149. Or I could try the Petite Auberge for $155 on Nob Hill. There are at least six more acceptable options in Hotel Tonight.

In Manhattan, the picking are slimmer but I would not sleep on a plastic chair in Port Authority.  I’d book into 6 Columbus for $155 or maybe Yotel, where I have planned to stay for some years but never quite have, for $119.  The options are acceptable.

In Washington D,C, four Kimptons have availability in Hotel Tonight. Stay in the neighborhood you prefer.  Dupont Circle, downtown, and more.

In Boston, Hotel Tonight splashes many choices on my screen. Personally I’d go for The Verb at $184. How can I resist an active part of speech?

Yes, I understand that for some trips we want to be in a specific hotel.  In those cases, if the reasons are good enough, I will suck it up and reserve in advance. Usually that’s for a meeting or for proximity to a specific executive.

But in most of my travel usually I only am looking for a specific neighborhood – and judging by what I see on Hotel Tonight I will do fine with same day booking.

What if – shudder – everything is sold out and I need a room in Manhattan? I’d book in Jersey City or Brooklyn.

Bottomline: we don’t have to be pushed around by aggressive hotel cancellation policies. We can resist.

I know what I will do.




The Sabre Breach Ups Your Travel Insecurities


by Robert McGarvey


What now in terms of hotel guest insecurities?  Now that Sabre has disclosed a breach that may have impacted some 32,000 hotels that use the company’s data services.

This is bad. Potentially a lot worse than the many, many hotel breaches we have learned about over the past few years, at Trump through Mandarin.  That’s because those hotel breaches largely were confined to systems used in bars, restaurants and gift shops.  The prevention was simple: don’t used plastic at those establishments, in fact just don’t use those places at all and if you must, pay cash or sign the charges over to your room. Room-related systems, we had always heard, had not been compromised.

An exception was the recent Intercontinental Hotels breach where, it was acknowledged, reservations related data may have been hacked. IHC posted a widget for checking if hotels you have used were compromised.

That IHC breach is bad. The Sabre breach may be much worse.

Oddly, it’s gotten scant coverage in the consumer press and not a lot more in the trade press. Probably due to breach burnout.

But the Sabre breach has to be looked at closely.

Buried in Sabre’s recent 10-Q filing is this: “We are investigating an incident involving unauthorized access to payment information contained in a subset of hotel reservations processed through the Sabre Hospitality Solutions SynXis Central Reservation system. The unauthorized access has been shut off, and there is no evidence of continued unauthorized activity at this time. We have retained expert third-party advisors to assist in the investigation and are working with law enforcement. There is a risk that this investigation may reveal that PII, PCI (each as defined below), or other information may have been compromised. It is not possible at this time to determine whether we will incur, or to reasonably estimate the amount of, any liabilities in connection with this incident. We maintain insurance that covers certain aspects of our cyber risks, and we are working with our insurance carriers in this matter.”

PII data, btw, is “personally identifiable information,” meaning it potentially identifies you.

According to reporting by security blogger Brian Krebs, Sabre has said that the breach has been plugged and the situation is under control: “There is no reason to believe that any other Sabre systems beyond SynXis Central Reservations have been affected,” said Sabre in a note to its customers.

But here’s the rub: Sabre’s systems are used by literally thousands of hotels to manage guest reservations and payments. Airlines too use the systems.

Sabre has declined to share more details about the breach. Nobody knows exactly what data was lifted, for how long.

But a safe assumption is that if you have stayed in hotels and/or flown on commercial planes your payments data may now be in the hands of criminals. It may not be – because we know so few details of the hack – but caution and the hospitality industry’s track record suggests erring on the side of paranoia.

What should you do?

Start by monitoring charges, especially on the cards you use for travel expenses. Really read the monthly statements. Question anything that looks hinky.

Just stop using debit cards – ever – for travel related expenses. The protections just are not as good as they are for credit cards and, in most cases, getting wrongly used cash restored to your account can involve delays when a debit card is involved.  That can be a giant hassle when a mortgage or tax payment is due and the money just is not in your account yet.

Only use credit cards at hotels and with airlines.

More advice: it’s time to stop using hotel WiFi except for the most mundane tasks. If you want to check the Yankees’ score – and I’m with you on that – sure, use hotel WiFi for checking into ESPN.

But with anything that involves a password that matters to you, use your phone’s cellular data or use the phone to create a personal hotspot to power your laptop’s surfing.  Cellular data isn’t perfect but it is far, far safer than any public WiFi.

Also, use cash to pay at hotels wherever possible.  Hotels have shown their cybersecurity cannot be trusted – even if the hotel is doing its job, its vendors may not be.  Throwing a $10 bill on the bar for your draft beer won’t come back to haunt you.

Survey cybersecurity experts and many believe still more hotels will be breached.  Why?  Hard to say, except the obvious issue is that the industry has not invested in the systems and protections needed to keep guest data truly safe.

Just know this: you can’t trust hotels to keep your card data safe.  Act accordingly.

Stand Together to Fight Back Against Basic Economy Fares

By Robert McGarvey

More reports trickle in about employers that are requiring employees to purchase the so-called basic economy, barebones airfares that usually mean a middle seat, no overhead bin storage, and still less.  Word of advice: just say no.  Push back against that employer want and, honestly, it just is bad for business anyway.

I can’t see business travelers voluntarily opting for basic economy – right now I see the push coming from corporate bean counters and they know they won the fight to herd most of us into coach.

When I fly, it almost always is in coach. I don’t see clients that will spring for front of the plane seats and, although I initially grumbled, I have resigned myself to the inevitability of coach.  So did most other business travelers – which is why the bean counters triumphed.

But a line needs to be drawn against basic economy – even if the bean counters are eyeballing this as a new cost-cutting battleground.

Don’t say you can’t win this fight. You can.  Business travelers have won fights before, notably – in most cases – the right to keep rewards miles and spend them on personal travel.  As far back as the 1980s, some organizations tried to seize those miles . In 1990, the New York Times even ran a story headlined, “Most Employers Covet Frequent Flier Bonus Miles.”    

The dust up continues  today.but, frankly, most employers beat a retreat from this demand in the face of strong employee pushback. Acting as one just about all of us fought to keep the miles – and employers heard us.

Solidarity made the difference.

That same resistance can be harnessed to fight back against basic economy. I know many organizations require their people to use the cheapest available fare, or something very close to the cheapest.  That’s fine, in my mind, particularly when the employer tempers the requirement with common sense, mainly rooted in travel time.  It just is dumb to force an employee to buy a one stop flight from EWR to PHX even if the fare is $100 cheaper, possibly as much as one third less.

But that cheap flight also often is two or three hours longer.

It’s bad business to require business travelers to book flights with stops because they are cheaper.

It’s also bad business to require business travelers to fly basic economy.

I’m not the only naysayer. business travel blogger Joe Brancatelli recently said: “Basic Economy is not a new, cheaper fare that the three remaining legacy carriers have introduced. All they’re doing is taking their existing cheapest fare in a market, stripping out functionality and rebranding it.

You’re not saving any money if you buy Basic Economy. You’re just getting less than ever.”

Brancatelli is right.

Although the big carriers basic economy fares differ in nuances – Delta for instance allows an overhead bag, United doesn’t; American also bans overhead bin use, except for elites and holders of some AA credit cards – the bottomline is that there is no advance seat selection.

And you can’t upgrade seats, even with reward miles.

To me, what that does is eliminate the possibility of doing inflight work and – pretty much always – I work inflight.  I often use the time to write a blog, I frequently catch up on business reading, and I may, if I have splurged on WiFi, do email.  But comfortably doing such tasks requires – in my mind – an aisle seat,

I can’t imagine working from a middle seat.

I also can’t imagine not getting access to the overhead bin because it has been some years since I checked a bag and doing that adds maybe 30 minutes to a trip, time typically spent at a baggage carousel. Those are minutes I do not need to lose.

There also will be a bag check fee for many passengers and that naturally eats away at the savings that basic economy is supposed to deliver.

Tickets typically cannot be changed either and, for a business traveler, that may be a deal killer. Of course I have grumbled about change fees – who hasn’t, aside from Southwest passengers? But these basic economy fares often allow no change. Period.

There are more take-aways involved with basic economy. Some carriers – United for instance – don’t allow basic economy flights to count towards elite status.  American counts Basic Economy flights towards elite status, but elite qualifying miles are earned “at a reduced rate of 0.5 per mile/flight segment flown.”

For me, the elite status issues are no big deal – I have sworn off status for 2017 – but for many others this will be another deal killer.  

Add up the plusses – supposedly a cheaper fare – and the negatives and obviously the carriers have stacked basic economy to appeal no to business travelers but to leisure travelers who are determined to pay the least possible to fly.  

Just say no if orders come down to book basic economy to save the company a tiny amount of money money.  

And urge other business travelers to do likewise.

We have nothing to lose but the middle seats.

Hotel Tech Worth Applauding: Bunking with Alexa


By Robert McGarvey

Finally a hotel technology push – a big one – that is worth applauding. Wynn Las Vegas has announced that its 4748 rooms will be equipped with Amazon Echo, the voice driven answer machine, aka Alexa.

Much – most – hotel tech “innovation” leaves me bored or cranky.  It’s an industry that generally is at the rear of the curve when it comes to technology adoption and I point you to the silly in-room phones that hoteliers continue to talk about. No, I haven’t used one in a decade and can’t say I miss this.

Hoteliers also babble about robots which, I suppose, are okay but I have not personally seen one yet and can’t say I care. Ditto for beacons, which are the buzz in some quarters.

Alexa is a different matter. I have owned an Alexa since January 2015, and just recently installed a second, the diminutive Dot – in another room in my house. I don’t go a day without talking with the Echoes I own. Alexa has dramatically simplified my life and is a poster child for technology that works.

Here is why I am excited about what Wynn is doing: Let me take you back maybe five years when I checked into a Strip hotel.  I don’t name it not to protect the guilty but because I don’t remember which one. In Las Vegas I have no brand loyalty and generally stay close to whatever meeting brings me to town.

But Wynn may be winning me over to the Wynn brand with Echo because this solves a big problem for me.

Back in Las Vegas some years ago – I come back to the room late one night, the window’s drapes are to the sides, the lights of the Strip cascade into my darkened room. I have to close the drapes to sleep.  Honestly, it took me 10 minutes to figure out how to use the electronic system to close the things so that I could go to sleep.

In some rooms, too, in-room lighting is a mystery to me. Occasionally so is the thermostat.

Wynn Hotels plan to solve exactly that pain with its Echo installation.  The device will roll out with a limited range of skills but they are exactly what I want in a Strip hotel.  In a press release Steve Wynn said, “The ability to talk to your room is effortlessly convenient. In partnership with Amazon, becoming the first resort in the world in which guests can verbally control every aspect of lighting, temperature and the audio-visual components of a hotel room is yet another example of our leadership in the world of technology for the benefit of all of our guests.”

That’s a helluva tangled sentence but as I parse it, Wynn is saying you can ask his Echoes to close the drapes, turn lights on or off, raise or lower the temperature, probably control the TV.

And exactly those are the things that too often confuse me in Las Vegas rooms.

Wynn’s Alexa should also be able to handle the questions and tasks I throw at mine daily: What’s the weather? What time is it? Set an alarm for 6 a.m.. Give me a news update. Etc.

You can do the latter – much of it – with Siri, certainly with Google’s voice recognition tools. But neither of them can handle your in-room comfort and what matters more than opening/closing the drapes, setting the temperature and the limited range of Wynn specific skills enabled on his Echoes.

If I had to predict a hospitality tech trend for 2017 and beyond it is that we will see more voice activated devices in hotel rooms, at least those with somewhat sophisticated in-room equipment.  And probably the winner will be Dot, mainly because of the price point.  Amazon sticker s $50 – but I got mine for $25 (net), by combining various Amazon offers.

The big brother Echo costs $140. That’s what Wynn is installing.

Google Home costs $129. It’s doubtless a good device – Google voice rec works superbly on my Pixel phone, vastly better than Siri on an iPhone. But Amazon already has a vast user base and that’s a plus for any hotelier. Guests need no instruction with Echo.

Watch, too, as Wynn enables more skills – that’s my bet. Soon guests will be able to make restaurant reservations, book spa treatments, buy show tickets just by talking with their in-room assistant.  Program the device to know the room it is in, that connects to a credit card and right there commerce is enabled. Send the guest a confirming email and there’s some verification.  I’d use it.

Now if only hotels would finally eliminate the front desk check in routine, a process that is honestly unchanged in my 40 years of checking into hotels.  Okay, way back when, accounts were usually settled with cash, not credit cards, but really nothing else has changed.  For many years hoteliers have talked of eliminating the front desk check in.  I’m still waiting.

And you know what? Alexa already is Expedia enabled and, probably with some minor tweaks, Expedia could handle check-in, even issue an electronic key to my phone.

I’m ready. Are you?


Can You Hear Me Now at 30,000 Ft?

By Robert McGarvey

Voice calls are coming to airplanes – rather they are coming back.

Loud – protesting – voices are getting raised but, really, this is progress, baby, and it won’t be derailed by people with no memory of history.

First: here’s why I am convinced we will soon be permitted to make voice calls inflight.  The US Department of Transportation has issued a proposed rule to protect passengers “from being unwillingly exposed to voice calls on aircraft.”

DoT is not seeking a ban on such calls. Quite the contrary.  What DoT is seeking is “to require airlines and ticket agents to disclose in advance to consumers if the carrier operating their flight allows passengers to make voice calls using mobile wireless devices.”

The Federal Communications Commission, by the way, has sway over cellphones’ cellular radios and the FCC continues to ban voice calls inflight.

DoT is looking instead at WiFi calling – available via Skype, Google Voice, What’s App, many more apps, also T-Mobile and at least some other cellular carriers.  Said DoT: “As technologies advance, the cost of making voice calls may decrease and the quality of voice call service may increase.”

Meantime, the big air carriers have been pushing WiFi providers – mainly GoGo – to up their game.  There is every indication that will happen and, truth is, WiFi calling with What’s App, Skype, et. al. is not bandwidth intensive anyway.  Skype, for instance, says the minimum bandwidth for voice calling is 30kbps. It recommends 100kbps.  That is not a high hurdle.

DoT admitted that the last time it raised the topic of inflight voice calls – in 2014 – the people spoke and they weren’t happy.  “In February 2014, the Department had issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) regarding the use of mobile wireless devices for voice calls on commercial aircraft.  In response to the ANPRM, a substantial majority of individual commenters expressed opposition to voice calls on the grounds that they are disturbing, particularly in the confined space of an aircraft cabin.”

This ire puzzles me.  I recall getting a call from a business associate who was inflight in the mid 1980s.  He was using Airfone – the inflight system birthed by John Goeken, founder of MCI. It debuted in the early 1980s and was still in at least some planes until 2006.

Airfone never enjoyed much use.  We all saw the phones – usually in the seatback of the middle seat in coach; in every seatback up front. But high prices – in 2006 calls cost $3.99 plus $4.99 per minute – seemed to stall usage.

Publicist Richard Laermer in fact said the price of an Airfone call was why the service triggered few complaints. “With Airfone, it was so expensive you made it and hung up.”

He’s right. Airfone calls generally were minimalist.

Laermer said that won’t be so with WiFi calling.  “The Wifi calls are going to be ‘Hey. Hi. Just calling to see how you are.’ And that’s going to eat people up inside. It’s bad enough listening to someone drone on and on with their seatmate, but to listen to half a conversation will start a revolution in the air. I think this is a very bad idea. Coming from someone who travels every week…it’s going to cause people to start knocking phones out of people’s hands.”

San Diego PR executive Antoinette Kuritz said similar: “For many of us, plane time is time to read, relax, disconnect.  Others are prepping for the meetings to come when they land.  Then there are those who nap.  The chatter rampant cell phone use will allow makes all of that impossible.  We will be subjected to the often inane one-sided conversations of those who need to display their connectivity to others.”

I can’t disagree with those who wish phones would stay off planes.

But here’s the deal: Satellite phone calling already is available on at least some flights

Then, too, WiFi calling already is happening inflight. Yes, the air carriers and their WiFi providers seek to block access to the known WiFi calling services such as Skype. But the Internet is ever inventive and new services multiply like cockroaches in a New York tenement.  A whispered reality is that calling already is happening, maybe mainly in hushed tones inside a locked bathroom.

My belief: inflight calling will come to airplanes, probably by 2020, very possibly via captive services and with high tariffs involved.  It’s unlikely that carriers – who seek to shake a dime out of every passenger interaction – would let this opportunity pass.

Couldn’t it still be an annoyance? You bet. That’s why frequent flyer Andy Abramson has said for this to work, there will have to be guidelines monitoring when calls can be made and more. His list – which includes a ban on profanity – is here.

Abramson also wants no calling rows so those who want silence can find it.

Read Abramson’s suggestions because – bet on this – calling is coming to planes.

There might even be a plus in this for all of us, whether we personally make and receive calls at 30,000 ft. or not.  If enough revenue comes in from calling, the carriers just may – really – seek real upgrades in inflight WiFi.  And that is something I can applaud.