The Death of the Hotel Business Center, RIP

By Robert McGarvey

rjmcgarvey01

I come not to praise the hotel business center but to bury it.

I don’t even come to eulogize it.

Whenever I see one – and I still see way too many – I wince. Does this hotel think it is 1990?

But business centers aren’t just anachronistic, they are hazardous.

Understand this: business centers, many of them, are radically dangerous to your data security.  They can be every bit as bad as public WiFi.

They also radiate the cluelessness of whoever thinks they are necessary to keep. That’s especially so when the business center is tucked away in a forgotten space – I have seen them in the basement – and often the computing equipment honestly is so old it is valueless.  

When Travo, an event based planning tool, surveyed some 32,000 hotels, it found that 71% claimed business centers as an amenity.

But is anybody using them?

First, tho, here is why a hotel business center is bad for your data security. When it is tucked in a forgotten part of the hotel, a crook can easily gain access and install keylogging software or other malware.  Exactly that is known to have happened and on a scale large enough to trigger a warning from the federal government.  

Could it happen again? You bet. Many hotels are known to have slim to no security precautions in their business centers so you must use them at your own risk.  

Business centers ask customers to assume the best – that they can use these resources with confidence.  But that objective undermines a proper security education position where you try to tell users to be skeptical,” said Scott Petry, co-founder and CEO of Authentic8, developer of a secure browser.

Petry’s strong advice: just don’t use a hotel business center.

It’s not just a matter of keylogging.  There’s also the possibility that a criminal can go in as you leave, sit at the machine, and – with a little bit of computing skill – retrieve much of what you worked on.  Trace images stay on computers and can be retrieved and criminals know the how to.

Petry acknowledged that at many hotels – especially ones with newer computers – they have installed software that automatically resets the device and wipes out trace info at the end of a session.

But how will you know that software is installed and operating? You won’t.

Said Petry: “When I’m done and ready to walk away, how long before the machine re-images?  Should I wait for it or should I try to restart the device.  When the machine is re-imaged, is that document that I needed to download in order to print really deleted?  Or just moved from the trash when the session ends?”

There is no end to the security worries raised by hotel business centers. They may even be more dangerous than public WiFi.

The good news: really, we do not need a business center.  I always travel with a computing device – an iPad at the least – and a cellphone or two.  Pretty much everybody else I know does likewise.

What about printing? Uh…I don’t do much of that anymore. Email a file instead.

Some hotels get this – they are pulling out business centers, said hotel technology consultant Adam Gillespie, because they want to monetize the space.  

Gillespie added that a trend at some hotels is closing the business center, then installing a sleek kiosk – or two – usually a flat screen monitor and keyboard – off the lobby, where traffic is high.

A plus is that configuration – in a high traffic, public space – is inherently more secure than a computer in a forgotten basement room is. Those kiosks, said Gillespie, usually also are good at reimaging when a user finishes and that is comforting news.

Some users sing praises of new set-ups.  Business travel expert Carol Margolis, who blogs at SmartWomenTravelers, said in an email: “As a very frequent traveler, I love hotels that have the shared workspace vs a business center. When a hotel has a working space, whether it be off of the lobby or restaurant, I always bring my laptop and get work done. It feels so much less lonely than sitting at a often not-very-comfortable desk in my room. As a solo female, this feels safe to me as well as there are often many of us solo-travelers working in this type of space.”

She continued: “Hotel business centers, usually a small room with two computers and printers are great for printing documents but that is about all — at least to me. They’re even lonelier than my hotel room!”

The list of obsolete hotel design/technology thinking keeps growing.  Yank the in-room phone, sure. Ditto the TV. And definitely shutter the oldfashioned business center.    

Said travel researcher Craig “Buzz” Conroy, “Traditional hotel business centers are not a growth industry and much as the traditional payphone was a mainstay of every hotel lobby from the 5 star to the no tell hotel they are approaching extinction.”

 

 

When Was Your Last Real Vacation?

When Was Your Last Real Vacation?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

rjmcgarvey01

 

Research from Funding Circle tells us what we already know: entrepreneurs don’t take much time off. The specific number in their poll is that 17% of entrepreneurs don’t plan any time off this year.  33% plan five days off.

That’s 50% with minimal vacations.

It’s not just entrepreneurs either. Polls say 56% of Americans have not taken a real vacation in the past year.

Many, many employees confess they do not take all the days off we are owed.

We are a vacation deprived people.

Even when we are off duty we are not. Said Funding Circle: “almost 40 percent confess to checking their email multiple times a day when they’re supposed to be checked out.”

I am glad to have Funding Circle’s numbers – even though I loudly disagree with their suggestions about how to deal with this. More on that later.

First, before I throw stones at anyone else I have to confess I have not been on a real vacation since a week in Rome in late 2013. I had a few days at a college reunion in April 2015.  A night in Prescott AZ last winter. A day at a college reunion this year.

That’s about it and that is sad.

I know many others in the same boat.

Partly it’s just that most of us are still struggling to get our finances up to where they were before the Great Recession visited devastation on us.

Partly also it’s that how we work has fundamentally changed and there is no going back,  

I don’t know about you but I am glad to be able to check email anywhere, and also to receive calls just about anywhere.  Twenty years ago when I traveled there always was an unease  that stuff was going on and I did not know what.  There was always an element of dread involved in the return home – what horrors would I discover?

I cannot say I ever found any real horrors – oh, a few unhappy clients and a few opportunities lost because by the time I responded they were gone.

But I much prefer the control – and knowledge – that today’s technology gives me and, if anything, I’d say I now feel much more able to vacation, anywhere, than I did before the Internet and cell phones and WiFi.

That’s why I shiver as I read Funding Circle’s advice to the vacation deprived.  The first suggestion: “Leave your smartphone at home” when you go on vacation.

Absolutely not. I want to be able to see who is calling and to answer those I wish.  In Rome I believe I answered one call and ignored the others. But I was glad for the control the phone gave me (and in fact I carry two phones).

I am on record, by the way, as saying I would not stay at a hotel that had no cellular service.  Yes, there are still some, even in the US. Shiver. If you check into a hotel and find out it has no cellular, check out and refuse to pay any cancellation fees. No cellular is tantamount to no running water or no electricity and, sadly, there remain hotels (resorts mainly) that refuse to spend on signal boosting and leave their guests in a dead zone.

Funding Circle’s second prescription: Travel somewhere without WiFi.

That is just as silly an idea as leaving the smartphone home.  WiFi lets me read news at no real cost, ditto for email, and it is invaluable for mapping, especially in new to me locations. A reason I am a T-Mobile customer is the great deal on data abroad.  

The third piece of advice is: Reserve designated work times.

That is, know how much and when you will work when on vacation. I am behind this completely. And my other advice is: only do what urgently needs doing. If something can be deferred when you are on vacation do so.

Bottomline: technology now will let me comfortably and confidently vacation, more often and to more remote places than ever before. It’s up to me to embrace that opportunity.

So now I’m off to see if there are good Brexit deals on holidays in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

 

Say Goodnight Gogo

Say Goodnight Gogo

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

rjmcgarvey01

 

The news is what I did not do on my last three flights: I did not connect to Gogo, did not go online, and did not regret that I didn’t. In fact I exited the planes feeling better and smarter than if I had been online.

 

I have been compulsively going online inflight essentially since the service debuted. But I have been online with the Internet since 1985 (and had the 300 baud modem to prove it, even owned an acoustic coupler).  I won’t stay at hotels with bad Internet – and yes there are still some – this is just part of my expectations wherever I go.

 

My inflight Internet addiction was abetted by a stack of free passes, acquired with the purchase of various Chromebooks.  I rarely – maybe never – paid for inflight Internet access.  

 

But now I am out of free Gogo passes and, faced with shelling out my own cash (as little as $16 for a day pass), I am keeping my wallet in my pocket and not signing in.

 

It’s not about the money. It’s about the speed, or lack thereof, of inflight Internet. I love this WIRED headline: “American Airlines Sues Gogo Over God-Awful Inflight Internet.”

 

Yep.  

 

Message boards are overrun with laments about Gogo.  That just is fact.

 

American withdrew its suit but only after Gogo told the airline it could sign with a faster, better provider if it found one.

 

I am still waiting.

 

As are you, I’m sure.

 

But, meantime, I surrendered to the reality that the Gogo service sucks and so on a roundtrip to Las Vegas (short flights from Phoenix), I read the delightful The Millionaire and the Bard, about Henry Folger’s obsessive – but so important – collection of Shakespeare first folios and his later construction of a library to house his vast collection of Shakespeare related materials.

 

Yesterday on a flight from Phoenix to Newark, I read Get Carter, the noir British novel that spawned the Michael Caine film.

 

Call this throwback.  Before I had Gogo – and the river of the emails it brought me inflight – I always packed good reading matter for a flight.  And then I stopped. I began handling dozens of emails. I even responded – probably because I had the time – to emails I never would have answered had I been at my desk.  

 

On the flight back to Phoenix I am considering my options for reading – and, fortunately, I have hundreds of unread books on my Kindle app on a Nexus tablet.

 

I don’t think I am alone.  On the flight to Newark I looked at what other passengers were doing. Some were playing games on tablets or phones. Others were watching movies on tablets or laptops.  Some were reading, on Kindles or tablets.

 

I did not seeing anyone connected to the Internet.  

 

I’m sure some were – but just maybe the novelty has worn off and the thrill is gone. Five years ago it was fun to think, I am at 30,000 feet and sending this email.  Now that seems so, well, compulsive.

 

When I land I find I am more relaxed and – at least after reading the Folger book – more thoughtful, than if I had waded through so many emails, most of which I honestly don’t need to read, no less respond to.  But inflight I do both when I am connected. Snip the cord and I don’t miss it.

 

Will we pick up Internet usage if speeds improve? No question about that.  When inflight speed rivals that of the typical home or office, we will flock back to it (or to it for those who have managed to ignore Gogo so far). Already, Virgin America has announced inflight WiFi speeds that rival home Internet.  

 

Of course that is tempting.

 

Except maybe we shouldn’t succumb.

 

There may be other – compelling – reasons to avoid inflight connectivity besides slow speeds. Read this reporter’s chilling account of getting hacked while using Gogo.  Is this possible? You bet. Any public WiFi – the kind found in hotels and also, apparently, inflight – is a hacker’s playground and Gogo, it turns out, recommends that if accessing sensitive stuff, always use a VPN, which may well impose even slower access speeds when connecting inflight.

 

Or maybe the simpler thing is, don’t go online inflight, not until both speed and security improve.

 

Will You Swap a Seat Upgrade or Free Flight for…a Free Drink in Economy?

rjmcgarvey01

 

 

Will You Swap a Seat Upgrade for…a Free Drink in Economy?

 

by Robert McGarvey

Call it the latest slap in the face to airline elites. In a sign that seat upgrades and free flights are ever more unattainable – just look at how full every flight you take is — United and American have announced that they will begin giving free drinks and food to elites exiled to cheap seats in economy.

Happy now?

Sure, before you got free upgrades to business class just because of your elite status or, worse guess, you spent some miles and bought the upgrade. Now you don’t get either.

Enjoy the free drink.

United said this in unveiling the program: “One new way that we’re enhancing the inflight experience for our most frequent flyers is by offering MileagePlus members with Premier® 1K® status free alcoholic beverages and snacks in United Economy®. If you’re a member with Premier 1K status, you’ll receive one free alcoholic beverage and one free Choice Menu food item when traveling in United Economy on United- or United Express®-operated flights within North America and between Guam and Honolulu.”

A Sam Adams or a glass of red is $7.99 on United.  A wrap and salad combo goes for $9.49.

American Airlines does similar. Said AA: “AAdvantage® Executive Platinum and ConciergeKeySM members traveling in the Main Cabin on board American Airlines and American Eagle® can enjoy a complimentary beverage from our standard alcoholic beverage selections as well as one snack. The snack includes any food item on our menu.”

Glass half full people are applauding all this as signs of a new airline generosity – but, really, how can they not be generous? Fuel has plummeted to prices not seen in years and capacity is at a stuffed like sardines into a can level.

So they throw us a bone and expect us not to yelp.

I have said before that airline miles are nearing null value.  The food and drink freebies underline that the airlines are trying to distract us from the uselessness of miles by giving us a few overpriced and blah items.

Items that I don’t want. Do you?

I don’t recall the last time I paid for a drink on a plane. I may never have bought food and I’d stopped eating it back when it was still free.  

I do like free flights, tho, and I am fond of spending miles for seat upgrades too.

It simply seems that now that is ever less likely to happen.

Add in program changes where ticket price paid – not miles flown – determines a ticket’s awards value and you have to know that the chances of redeeming miles for air travel get ever slimmer.

That is a reason why the airlines bombard us with offers to sell us stuff – merchandise – for miles. It also is why they are now throwing freebies at elites in economy – hoping those elites forget that just a very few years ago they almost always got upgraded to business class where drinks are free and plentiful and food too is free.

Some may call me cynical. They will point to breathless stories such as this one from Travel and Leisure that touts how miles and $5.60 bought a business class roundtrip to Ghana.   I applaud the wise mileage game player who managed this.

But it reminds me of George Orwell’s prescient comments on lotteries in 1984.  Wrote Orwell: ““The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made their living simply by selling systems, forecasts, and lucky amulets. Winston had nothing to do with the Lottery, which was managed by the Ministry of Plenty, but he was aware (indeed everyone in the party was aware) that the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being nonexistent persons.”

I am not saying nobody ever actually redeems miles for flights.

It happens.

Just a lot less often than it used to.
And you have to wonder if now is the time to stop playing the game.

Just Say No to Resort Fees: the FTC Now May Have Your Back

Just Say No to Resort Fees: the FTC Now Is Back on the Attack

by Robert McGarvey

 

rjmcgarvey01

$2.04 billion. That is how much advocacy group Travelers United said was collected in resort fees in 2015. That is up 35% from 2014.

The breaking news: the FTC apparently has decided to renew its attack on resort fees. More on that below.

For now, feast on more bad news: 1,671 hotels and lodging sites in the U.S. charged resort fees, said Travelers United.

Said Travelers United, “The average mandatory resort fee reached $24.93 in October 2015 hotel listings online, a 30 percent increase over the $19.20 average resort fee of online listings in December 2014. Resort fees in Florida were highest, with an average of $28.63 across 549 hotel listings.”

Resort fees are also high in Hawaii, Las Vegas, and San Diego. But they show up in small towns, big cities, and where we may least expect them.

How in an era of minimal inflation can resort fees nudge up 30%? Because they can. Because no one is watching.

You know what you get for a resort fee: bupkis mainly. A newspaper you don’t want. Bad and insecure inhouse WiFi. Maybe local calling. Pool towels. A lot of stuff that, well, is what you might expect to see at a resort anyway or that you don’t likely want. (Do you ever use an inroom phone?)

Usually too free parking is in the package – but only if it’s parking nobody would happily pay for. That is, hotels in Manhattan and San Francisco won’t throw in parking – not when they can nick guests $50, sometimes higher, for it. But if it’s a suburban resort with a vast parking lot, sure, they will throw it in under the resort fee.

Guided hikes – not in the package usually. Ditto for classes led by experts (surcharged on a case by case basis). Cooking classes – forget about it.

A rule of thumb: the good stuff comes with a price tag. The rest is covered by the resort fee.

The only bright news here: the Federal Trade Commission is going after resorts that hide their resort fees. That’s a position flip flop. Last summer the FTC seemed to shrug and accept resort fees. Now it is back on the warpath and it is prodding Congress to consider legislation regarding resort fees.

Personally, we are not for or against resort fees. What we are against is hiding the fees and springing them on consumers as they check in (sometimes not until check out).

That is the real irritant. A hotel can charge whatever it feels the market will bear. That is the system.

But hotels cheat when they have a room rate and on top of that is a resort fee – usually upwards of $25 – that is presented as a kind of footnote. Go ahead, see if you can find it when making a reservation via mobile. Ditto with reservations via Online Travel Agencies (OTAs).

Hiding fees is just sneaky.

Hoteliers, as a group, present delusions when justifying resort fees. They will tell you everybody does it and they would be at a competitive disadvantage if they in fact built those charges into the room rate.

But everybody does not do it. The American Hotel and Lodging Association said that only about 7% of hotels charged resort fees, meaning 93% do not.

Some greedy hoteliers do it because it is a fast way to goose the black ink. Resort fees mean profits.

But my favorite is when hoteliers say that we – the consumers – like resort fees because it bundles in a lot of charges that otherwise we would have to pay for a la carte. Except some 87% of consumers have said they would be “less willing” to stay at a hotel that charges a resort fee. That does not sound like a whole lot of loving, does it?

Hoteliers also tell us resort fees represent real “value” because, if bought a la carte, the various things thrown into resort fees would cost more.

The fallacy there of course is that just about nobody would buy all the stuff covered by resort fees. Some might buy none at all – and those guests still are stuck with paying a fee for “amenities” they don’t want.

Can you dodge resort fees? Road warriors tell us they often do, simply by saying at check out that the fee had not been adequately disclosed. If there’s resistance, say you will complain to the FTC which already had begun investigating complaints about hidden resort fees….and actually file that complaint.

Does that always work? Nope. But all we can do is lift our voices in protest – and hope our complaints fall on sane ears.

Road Trips: Driven by the Airlines to Drive

 

rjmcgarvey01

Blame it on the airlines. Maybe the TSA too.  However it stacks up, lately I find myself doing a calculation I never thought I would do: is it just easier to drive?

In a few weeks I’m in Los Angeles and, from my Phoenix base. Google tells me that is 385 miles, maybe 5.5 hours driving.

Of course I could fly – about an hour.  Add in 90 minutes waiting at the airport. Plus 30 minutes to get there on the lightrail. Oh, and at least 30 minutes – more likely 60 – to get from LAX to my destination.  Call it four hours.

Yes, flying is faster (it may even be a little cheaper) but the sheer – monumental – unpleasantness of the flying experience in 2015 decides this.

In a few months I plan to go to Taos, NM – where I have some land and many personal ties – and I’ll drive that too, about 550 miles, 8 hours.  Of course getting to Taos involves flying into Albuquerque, then driving two and one-half hours (add in 30 minutes more, to rent a car).  Put in the flight, the airport time, the commute and that easily adds up to 5.5 hours  and that’s assuming best case scenarios.

But I have my limits. Obviously I have no plan to drive to San Francisco – 11 hours, 750 miles – or Dallas, 1050 miles, 15 hours. That’s out of my driving comfort zone except under duress.

But Las Vegas?  300 miles, 4.5 hours. You bet.

Ditto San Diego or Orange County.

My new rule of thumb: if I can easily and comfortable drive to a destination in one day (8 hours) I am behind the wheel.

If it’s longer – if need to put in a night in a highway motel (much as I like them) – probably I’ll fly.

The deciding factor: comfort.  

Years ago, maybe I calculated around money and if driving was cheaper I’d do it. Now it is simply about comfort, or lack thereof.

I just do not like much of anything about the flying experience these days.  I personally know and like a few TSAs, I have no gripe with them – but I do not like the probing and prying that’s involved in checking into a flight. That’s just the first on a list of gripes.

I fit fine in airplane seats, thank you very much, Dr. Atkins, but I still feel something approaching claustrophobia when I am crammed into a snug seat on a plane stuffed to capacity.

I dislike logging minutes in airports – except where there is a Centurion Lounge – and Phoenix Sky Harbor just is not on my like list.

I could go on but you know the drill because you fly too.

This drift away from flying is not all new.

I detected a shift in my sentiments as far back as five years ago when I found myself booking, first, a train trip from Newark NJ to Baltimore, then another train trip from Newark to Washington DC – even tho flying would have been a little cheaper and a lot faster. But I climbed aboard Amtrak and will again if the opportunity presents itself. It just is a more comfortable trip.

Really, what has happened is that – in their tireless quest for profits – airline executives have squeezed all the fun out of flying, at least for those of us who fly in back.  Upfront is a different world, I know, and bring me clients with generous expense allowances (as I had in bygone times) and I will probably sing the praises of first class, maybe even business class.

But there really is nothing to like about coach.

So it becomes a calculus of inconvenience and discomfort. There is no comfortable way to get from Phoenix to New York except to fly, that is plain.  Really long drives – and I have driven x-country twice in the past decade – are exercises in endurance.  

On shorter trips, however, my new philosophy is anything but flying.  

Now, if enough of us begin to think that way, well, flying would of course become attractive again. But I am not counting on that anytime soon.