Wednesday, March 31, 2010

David Cush: "A Bad Rule'

Come April 29, a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration rule will require airlines at domestic airports to allow passengers whose plane has been sitting on the tarmac for at least three hours awaiting takeoff to leave the plane. Airlines that don't comply with the forthcoming rule face fines of nearly $30,000 per passenger on affected flights.

Airlines hate this rule. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways have already applied to the FAA for a waiver at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where runway reconstruction is expected to lead to more delays at an already notoriously congested airport in the months ahead. In a recent speech, Continental Airlines' new CEO, Jeff Smisek, said his airline will simply and necessarily cancel flights rather than knuckle under to the new rule or pony up the money for large fines.

The latest voice condemning the rule comes from David Cush, the CEO at Virgin America. Cush told me in a wide-ranging interview this week that while Virgin America has not asked for a waiver at JFK, the pending rule is "a bad rule, with unintended consequences.''

Cush was in a senior position with American before taking the top job at Virgin America, a San Francisco start-up that began flying in August 2007. Speaking of the pending rule, he said that, at a minimum, "delaying the rule 30 or 60 days'' would be a good idea.

"We are a small player at JFK,'' Cush told me. "American, Delta and JetBlue are the elephants.'' Nevertheless, he added, "We're all going to have a huge problem the first time thunderstorms roll into JFK in July or August, and there are 60 or 70 airplanes tied up at JFK.'' At such times, he said, Virgin America will accept delays of up to 2 hours and 15 minutes and then decide - 45 minutes before the new limit kicks in - whether or not to scrub the delayed flight.

Virgin America - minority-owned by British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group - had a nightmarish experience on March 13, when VA flight 404 bound for JFK from Los Angeles International Airport was forced by bad weather on the East Coast to land 90 miles from New York and bus passengers to JFK. They got there at 3 a.m., 16 hours after departing LAX on a scheduled 5-hour flight. Cush wrote letters of apology to every passenger on the plane, and the airline refunded their fares and gave out $100 vouchers for future Virgin America flights.

"Flight 404 was unfortunate, but passengers had two opportunities to get off the plane,'' Cush averred. As for the new rule, "Taking away the discretion of the captain to make the decision is short-sighted. Ultimately, it is passengers who will decide'' if the rule will be effective, he said.

Asked if he expects consumer unhappiness about the new rule once flights are cancelled in compliance with it, Cush was blunt:

"Absolutely, and it won't take long.''

It's going to be an interesting spring and summer in the sky.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hotel Monaco, Seattle

SEATTLE - There's something endearing about a hotel that puts a speck-sized goldfish in a small bowl of water in your room complete with a sign that reads "Hello, my name is Titanic.''

Of course, you want a hotel to be more than whimiscal. A good bed is a good start. So is good service. And a good location - location, location, location, remember?

Fortunately, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants' Hotel Monaco has all those things. It also has an accomplished Southern U.S.-inspired restaurant called Sazerac (, an interesting menu of in-room spa treatments and welcoming touches like free coffee and tea in the lobby in the morning, and a decent free pour of Washington State wines in the lobby in the evening, when hotel guests gather to hang out, sip and chat. As for location, the hotel is on Fourth Avenue, in the heart of downtown, close to most things that visitors would want to see and do in Seattle, and catty-corner across Fourth from the Dutch 'starcitect' Rem Koolhaas's eye-catching, angular glass building for the main Seattle Public Library.

I stayed at this comfortable, busy boutique property on my most recent visit to the Emerald City. It wasn't perfect - and what is? - but I liked it. A good staff goes a long way to making a guest feel welcome; the Monaco's staff is hip but, happily, without too much attitude. They know when to offer their services and when to back off and leave you alone.

The hotel is installed in a relatively forbidding-looking concrete highrise. Things improve quickly once you go inside, where the high-ceilinged lobby and warmly, festively decorated guest rooms envelope you, in a good way. Downside? Inadequate sound-proofing lets in the central-city street noise. The bathrooms are on the small side. However, all of the essentials are there, and as I settled in for a two-night stay in a suite on an upper floor of the 11-story hotel, I had plenty of room.

Sazerac, the eatery, is big, busy and popular, with a full bar. The Happy Hour is one of the longest I have discovered anywhere on the road: 4 hours, to be precise, running from 4 to 8 p.m., when drinks and snacks are discounted. Sitting at the counter and watching the orchestrated movements of the kitchen staff, I ordered off the Happy Hour menu, with a 10-inch, thin-crust pizza (good, too big to finish, $7) and two pulled-pig sliders (incredibly flavorful, I didn't leave a morsel, $4). There were other appealing New Orleans-flavored items on the regular menu I would have ordered had I had a bigger appetite: gumbo, for one, catfish for another.

The Monaco doesn't have a dedicated, on-site spa, but it does offer a wide range of in-room spa treatments. An Aroma Journey Massage with a choice of four aromatherapy essential oils ($135 for 50 minutes, $180 for 80 minutes), for one. Revitalizing Hot Stone Massage with smooth, polished river rocks and body oil with essences of rosemary, juniper and grapefruit, for another ($160 for 50 minutes, $240 for 80 minutes). There are about a dozen options, some pitched to women, some to men, most equally appealing to anyone.

In short, the Monaco Seattle is a good hotel, a place I'd stay again. Business travelers: There is free Internet in guest rooms, provided you join Kimpton In-Touch, the company's loyalty program. You have to fill out a form, natch, but it's free. (

Saturday, March 27, 2010

New and Good in Seattle

SEATTLE - The Emerald City, as locals and travelers alike call this caffeinated city tucked away in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, has rolled out some new attractions in the last year or so, making it even more attractive and easy to move about than it was the last time I was here.

I am a fan of public transport, when it works. Which is why I am favorably impressed with Sound Transit Link Light Rail, the new (since January) electrified train service that joins downtown Seattle to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA-TAC). The service runs three- or four-car trains, which come equipped with elevated and floor-level seats, several times an hour at peak travel times. The ride - smooth, quiet, clean, safe, cheap - costs $2.50 one-way from downtown stations such as University Street, where I caught the train to catch my flight out of town. Seniors 65 and up pay half price: $1.25. The train winds its way through suburbs and satellite towns, taking about 35 minutes between the airport and downtown.

On arrival at Airport Station, you must hoof it to the terminal along a covered walkway that skirts a parking garage; that takes from 5 to 8 minutes, depending on your speed. No biggie for me, but families with small children, disabled persons or people with more luggage than I take - I make it a point to carry it all on the plane - could find the walk more problematic.

Another nice new thing: The Belltown outpost of the Seattle Art Museum (closed, alas, at its main downtown location on the two days I visited Seattle this week). A concrete and glass structure on a hilltop, flanked by big - and I mean big - public sculptures, it is paired with the Olympic Sculpture Park, which is about a year old. Also on the museum grounds: A terraced hillside (the Bill and Melinda Gates Ampitheatre, if you please) graced with places to sit and relax out of doors. All told, the museum and the sculpture park are fine additions to the tres-trendy Belltown district, an attitude-driven redoubt of hipster cafes, bars and lounges, and hotels like the Ace, a boutique property I stayed at on a previous visit. This time, I stayed downtown at the likeable and busy Hotel Monaco (which I will write about in a separate post).

The biggest, most ambitious and eye-catching addition to downtown Seattle - and another feature that has sprouted since my last visit - is the main Seattle Public Library, desigtned by the Dutch-born starcitect Rem Koolhaas. It is an impressively angular glass and struts building (also on a hillside, as downtown is rather hilly in general), 11 stories high, with views of the city from the top-floor Seattle Room, lots of free PCs, a coffee bar (this is, after all, Seattle) and, of course, many, many shelves of books. Maybe one in four people when I popped in on a bright but chilly March morning were down-and-outers taking refuge from life on the streets.

That's one thing about the Puget Sound metropolis that hasn't changed: Seattle is rivaled perhaps only by San Francisco among major U.S. cities for the size of its street population, which spills out of Pioneer Square, home to beautifully restored vintage redbrick and stone buildings, into all parts of downtown. Unlike in San Francisco, where sidewalk bellicosity long ago calcified into a way of life, the street population in Seattle seems relatively calm and not especially inclined to confront the larger community. Maybe it's because they're in Seattle, which seems busy but calm in general.

In any case, Seattle has once again shown itself to be a good town. And with its recent tweaking, it just got better.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

NYC Cabbies Cheat? Who Knew?

I was shocked - shocked - to hear the other day that New York City taxi drivers stand accused by none other than Gotham's Taxi and Limousine Commission of cheating passengers out of $8.3 million over a 26-month period by overcharging their customers.

New York cabbies cheat? Who knew?

Actually, everyone knew; it's just now there are some numbers to go with this widely disseminated knowledge. Spokespeople for the drivers were quoted in media reports saying there are problems with technology: their meters, specifically, just seem to be on the blink. Moreover, they said, a few bad apples are spoiling the reputation of taxi drivers in the Big Apple.

Excuse me - a few? According to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, 35,558 of New York's estimated 48,000 cabbies overcharged customers during the 26 months in question. That's three out of four drivers.

The most common scam, according to the commission - which sets rates for taxi fares and licenses cab drivers in the five boroughs of New York - was by charging a higher out-of-city rate for carrying passengers who were actually inside the city. The out-of-city rate - for taking riders to suburban Westchester County, say - happens to be twice the in-city rate.

Everyone who visits New York will have trouble with taxi drivers sooner or later. Me, I encountered a cabbie at John F. Kennedy International Airport last year who told me once he had pulled away from the airport taxi stand to take me to my Manhattan hotel, that his credit card reader was broken. It is illegal to operate a Yellow Cab in New York without a working credit card reader; I made him take me back to the airport and he, grumbling, complied.

The same thing happened again on a later visit last year. This time, I was heading from Manhattan out to JFK airport. Silly me; I forgot to ask about the state of the credit card reader before I got in the cab. Upon arrival, I had to dig deep for cash, in lieu of running to an ATM inside the terminal while trying to make a flight. I wasn't overcharged, but I was still scammed; this way, the cabbie doesn't have to pay a credit card fee, and I was left short of cash.

So, it's established that many, if not most, New York taxi drivers cheat. Even New Yorkers quoted in news accounts seem resigned to this. Now, what? Who is going to protect travelers and other passengers? How, and when?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bright Intervals

If you've traveled in Britain you may have checked out forecasts for always-variable British weather. You know, the ones that call for "bright intervals of sunshine'' - forecasters' lingo for saying they don't quite know what to expect but figure some of it is bound to be be good.

I was reminded of this delightul expression by the travel-biz forecast at the recent San Francisco Convention and Visitor Bureau's Outlook conference, an annual event put on for and by industry-figures. The SFCVB and invited presenters crunch numbers globally, nationally, regionally and locally, to get a fix on what the year ahead will bring in travel and tourism.

Why should you care? Well, looking closely at the world of travel from one of the world's most popular urban destinations gives hints of prices to come in air travel, cruise ship packages, and hotels and resorts, as well as previews conditions travelers can expect to encounter when it comes to new rules and regulations, security matters, and other issues.

How popular is San Francisco? One pretty good indication: The California city has been voted most popular U.S. city in Conde Nast Traveler magazine's readers' survey 17 years in a row. Tourism is the city by the bay's largest source of revenue, and its travel business generates 70,000 jobs. Even in San Francisco, however, 2009 was a terrible year: the $7.8 billion USD spent by visitors fell 8.2 percent from 2008, not an especially strong year. The 15.4 million visitors dropped 6 percent from 2008. That's down 9 percent from the peak year 2000.

The hotel analysts, aviation-watchers, airport executives and travel-biz consultants who spoke at the 5-hour Outlook conference came to a rough consensus: 2010 will be better than 2009, but the recovery will continue to be gradual, even sluggish, especially for hotels. Airlines and airports will be more crowded than last year and thus their revenue should rise. But the global economic travails that began with the Wall Street meltdown in September 2008 have resulted in what American Express executive James Keen called "a new cost-conscious culture.'' For perhaps the next 25 years, pennny-pinching will be "the new normal,'' Keen said.

Of course, what is bad for travel providers can be good for travelers, chiefly in the form of lower prices. Mid-range U.S. hotels will drop their room rates from 1 to 3 percent this year, according to Keen. High-end hotels will slash their rates even more - 2 to 4 percent - to lure guests.

Good news for road warriors, right? Yes, kind of. We all like to save money. Then, too, hotels need to make money in order to stay in business. The owners of the hard-hit Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco nearly defaulted recently, thanks to the grim business climate, and that's a good hotel. There is always a trade-off between buyer and seller, supply and demand; tip too far for too long in either direction, and the resulting imbalance spells trouble.

Spurred in part by relatively low fares, air travel has begun to recover, with surging passenger demand felt most strongly right now in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, according to the Geneva-based airline trade organization the International Air Transport Association. In line with that, air fares are expected to keep rising this year. For example, Keen expects international, long-haul fares to rise 1 to 6 percent, while international economy-class fares should nudge up 1 to 3 percent.

Of course, travel, for leisure or business, won't strongly recover until world economic conditions get a whole lot more robust. New crises, like the debt and deficit squeeze in Greece, don't help.

But one economist at the Outlook conference was bullish. Tapan Munroe, former chief economist for the big California utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co., said he expects real growth in U.S. gross domestic product to rise 2.8 percent in 2010 - meaning the world's largest national economy could help lead a recovery from the Great Recession. He puts part of this down to U.S. innovation and entrepreneurship: "Silicon Valley is still the dominant innovation economy in the world,'' Munroe asserted.

So, what we have here is a good news, bad news situation. In short: bright intervals.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Up in the Air' Flies into Thin Air

''Up in the Air'' - writer/director Jason Reitman's smart, funny, flawed, thoroughly entertaining feature film about a high-flying corporate downsizer - was nominated for six Academy Awards. But, as we saw the other night, it won not a one, making one of the most engaging travel-themed movies of recent years an also-ran.

Ah, well, that's show-biz, you might say. And it is. Overwhelmed by the box office success of "Avatar' and undercut by the edgy drama of "The Hurt Locker,'' "Up in the Air'' was strictly earth-bound at the Oscars. There were no "I'd like to thank the Academy'' acceptance speeches for Reitman, his star George Clooney or his superb co-stars, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.

Too bad, really, because the movie is good. True, it veers from the flight plan and bogs down in convention toward the end, with its surge of misty family values. But Reitman's script captures perfectly the anonymity and loneliness of a life spent on airplanes - even a life softened by the multitude of travel perks acquired through nonstop work by Ryan Bingham, the character brought to life in Clooney's pitch-perfect portrayal. I don't know if anyone in real life has ever rolled up 10 million frequent flier miles, as Bingham does, but it's a clever storytelling device in reel-life.

"Up in the Air,'' released late last year, started 2010 as one of the most talked-about, popular movies. But as the weeks rolled by, something of a backlash developed: The film is too slick, just a Hollywood star vehicle for Clooney, just an apology for heartless corporate America. (A good accounting of the critical backlash - and an effective rebuttal to many of the criticisms - was posted today on by Ross Douthat in his blog.) Like Douthat, I don't find the casting of actual, laid-off workers in the movie exploitive; their presence prompts Bingham to examine his own life, and find it as empty as his road-warrior suitcase.

When I was a movie critic at California's San Francisco Examiner, I was paid for going to the movies. For some of them, I had to be paid, or I wouldn't have been there. Not to mention that some studio screenings for critics started as early as 9 a.m. and, as reviewers, we were honor-bound to stay to the bitter end of even the worst, most formulaic flicks. Had I seen it back in the day, "Up in the Air'' would have been a breath of fresh air - as it is now.

Watching the Academy Awards show, it was disappointing to see "Up in the Air'' lose altitude. But there was at least one writer/director who felt more pain than Reitman on Oscar night.

That would be James Cameron, who made the highest-grossing movie of all time in "Avatar'' and still failed to win any of the big Academy Awards. "The Hurt Locker'' gave Academy voters the ideal opportunity to stick it to Cameron - who is unpopular in Hollywood for - get this - alleged arrogance and egotism - by selecting a movie directed by his ex-wife, Katherine Bigelow, as best picture, look pro-woman by picking the talented Bigelow as best director, and appear to support U.S. troops by honoring a war movie - even though Hollywood furiously opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Politically correct and vengeful at the same time! Perfect!

As for "Up in the Air,'' it just came out on DVD. Time for a second look and, I hope, a second chance for this ultimately overlooked movie.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Welcome to the USA! Now, Pay Up.

U.S. President Barack Obama yesterday signed the Travel Promotion Act into law. This was a cherished goal for much of the country's travel industry, which had been advocating the creation of a national board to promote international travel to the United States. Most other countries have national tourism boards. Why not us, is the thinking.

Sounds good. But there's a catch.

The catch is funding, specifically the ripple-effect from the funding mechanism. Creating an 11-member tourism promotion board and crafting the global marketing campaigns authorized by the law have got to be paid for - and in the present recessionary economic climate and fervent anti-tax political climate, it simply can't cost U.S. taxpayers one red cent.

So, the program will be funded by having every visitor to the United States from a visa-waiver nation - that is, travelers who don't already spend the hefty $131 fee for a U.S.-issued visa - to pay a $10 fee to enter the country, and match that with $100 million in funds raised in the private sector.

Thus, the law is as much a product of domestic political squabbling as it is a kinder, gentler outreach program and savvy marketing move.

Will it work? No one can say until it's been in place for a while. But I think there is a good chance the new policy will send a mixed message - hospitality mixed with penalty - to international visitors, and end up backfiring.

Moreover, consider the following: The 50 U.S. states and many cities already have tourism promotion boards. U.S. landmarks (Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge) and other tourist attractions (Hollywood, New York restaurants) are very well-known abroad. The American 'brand' is very high-profile. It's not like no one knows what or where the United States is.

It is unclear what creating a national tourist board and slapping on a new entry fee will do to lift international visitor numbers that have fallen 9 percent since 2000. That's shortly before the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, when tighter - often illogical and sometimes insulting - security at U.S. airports and land border crossings was put in place.

It is also unclear how charging visitors more money - even just a little bit more money - will help offset the second major reason for falling visitor numbers: The worldwide Great Recession, and the subsequent reduction in spending by cash-strapped travelers and other consumers.

Another way that domestic politics comes into play is the way the Travel Promotion Act was sold to Congress, and to President Obama: i.e., as a welcome economic stimulus, a badly needed job creation program, even a deficit reduction measure.

U.S. Travel, the private, nonprofit trade group that represents travel industry stakeholders in the United States, strongly backs the new law. Citing numbers crunched by UK consulting firm Oxford Economics, U.S. Travel's president and CEO, the seasoned and smart Roger Dow, said "This is a historic victory for the U.S. economy and the one in eight American workers whose jobs depend on travel.''

According to Oxford Economics, the new law should generate $4 billion in additional consumer spending per year, $321 million in federal tax revenue per year and 40,000 new U.S. jobs, plus reduce the federal deficit by $425 million over the next 10 years. Of course, those numbers are estimates taken from an optimistic forecast.

Not everyone in the travel biz is happy. Steve Lott, the U.S. spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which has 230 airline-members worldwide, told that better ways to lure international visitors would be to reduce long visa waiting-times and making the customs and immigration experience more streamlined and more welcoming.

In short, this may well be a situation in which better policy - not better marketing, and not a new de facto tax on travelers - would make the U.S. a more attractive place to visit.

Based on how the situation looks today, that is my view. I'm very willing to be proven wrong.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

PALing Around

It's very much up in the air as to whether global air travel - borne aloft, or not, by the global economy - is recovering from the Great Recession. But Philippine Airlines, for one, seems to be wagering that a recovery is indeed underway.

That is the conclusion I draw from PAL's latest news, announced just as the Philippines' national flag carrier begins its 70th year of operation. To wit: PAL has purchased two state of the art Boeing B777-300ER jetliners, and is using them to update its service between Manila and Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, and between Manila and Hong Kong.

The arrival of the triple-7s, in turn, allows PAL to redeploy other aircraft and use them to revive two long-haul routes it abandoned some years ago. Those routes are (as of March 28) Manila-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Manila-Brisbane, PAL's third destination in Australia, which resumes March 17.

This gives travelers in the Asia-Pacific region a wider choice of airlines. That is the very region that is reviving fastest when it comes to business and leisure air travel, according to the numbers-crunchers at the International Air Transport Association, in Geneva. The region that comes second in air travel growth by IATA's count is - you guessed it - the Middle East.

PAL, citing a poor market following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, stopped flying to Brisbane back in 1998. Now, encouraged by signs of revival, PAL's service will resume to Brisbane twice a week on an Airbus A330-300.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, PAL spokespeople say the presence of 2.2 million expatriate Filipino workers justifies the return of a service that was suspended in 2006 for unspecified "commercial reasons.'' PAL is evidently counting on winning back Filipinos flying to and from the Middle East, as well as other travelers. It will fly a Boeing 747-400 on this route.

In line with all this, PAL - which was founded amidst the storm clouds of World War II, on March 15, 1941 - has upgraded its business class, called Mabuhay, and its economy class, called Fiesta, with new food, new on-demand in-flight entertainment systems and new seats. The carrier does not have a first class.

I haven't flown with PAL, so I can't personally vouch for the airline. But as I discovered in November, on my first visit to the Philippines, Filipino hospitality is very real and warm, musical and social. If the airline is good at transfering that culture from the ground to the air, it has a better chance to make these new moves - which are not without risk - pay off. It's a welcome sign of confidence during turbulent times.

Santiago Still Stands Tall

One of the things that delighted me when I visited Santiago, Chile, a few years ago was the forest of highrise buildings that adorns parts of the city, many of them strikingly original and interesting to look at. Happily, nearly all still stand, despite the magnitude 8.8-point earthquake that shook the city of 6 million on Feb. 27. That panorama of skyscrapers against the backdrop of the Andes Mountains gives Santiago one of the most impressive appearances of any city, especially any inland city.

Highrise condos, apartments and office buildings have been put up since the 1970s, when Chile's military forcibly ousted the country's elected leftist president, Salvador Allende. The military - now seen handing out supplies and restoring order in ruined towns across the South American nation - imposed an often-bloody regime until democracy returned about 20 years ago, in conjunction with capitalist free-market economics.

Although critics have spoken out in recent days, charging that Chile's progressive building codes were unenforced under the dictatorship and free-market surge, most highrises escaped serious damage. Damage was widespread in Conception, near the epicenter, to be sure, but many buildings wiped out were older structures, according to media reports.

Chile has created a prosperous middle class in recent years, although it co-exists with deep poverty, easily glimpsed from major highways, in Santiago as elsewhere. In affluent areas such as Santiago's Las Condes district, the city looks like a developed first-world metropolis. Las Condes boasts broad boulevards lined with cafes, shops and restaurants and office buildings stocked with corporate headquarters. When my wife and I visited Santiago, early in the Southern spring, it was a pleasant place to stroll at leisure.

The Chilean earthquake was an estimated 500 times stronger than the 'quake that devastated Haiti a few weeks ago, yet there were far fewer casualties in Chile (the latest estimates say 800 people died, compared to tens of thousands in Haiti). Santiago native Eduardo Kausel, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, accounted for the difference this way in a brief interview posted on the MIT Web site,

"The most fundamental reason ... is that Chile has been taking into account the effect of earthquakes and designing for them since at least the beginning of the 20th century. Chile's building codes are comparable to those of the United States, Japan, Turkey or Mexico, and rank among the most stringent and demanding. They have to, because strong earthquakes are a fact of life in Chile. In Haiti, however, virtually no construction is earthquake-proof, not even government buildings or the houses of the affluent.''

Any number of cities around the world are stuffed with boxy highrises, lookalike structures unappealing and even oppressive to behold. Not Santiago. Leading Chilean and foreign architects have created imaginative tall buildings, pyramidal or spiral, glass and steel and marble, airy and washed with light. It's good to know, amidst the suffering and chaos of the first days, that Santiago still stands tall.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

High-Tech versus High-Touch

There's an interesting experiment going on right now at an Aloft Hotel in Lexington, Mass. Do its guests prefer high-tech stays or high-touch hospitality? That's what Aloft, a brand of behemoth Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, wants to find out. So, it's launched a pilot program at the Lexington property that allows guests to check in by using a keycard and skip the lobby reception desk entirely.

Is this a noble experiment or a small portent of a brave new world of travel that some of us would not easily warm up to? I'm not sure, but intuitively it feels a bit creepy - no, not creepy, exactly, but chilly - to cater to the notion that I as a guest am so darn busy and so self-absorbed, I want skip lobby check-in and just not deal with carbon-based lifeforms when I can embrace electronics instead.

In any case, the experiment, according to Aloft ( entails, first, signing up for the Starwood Preferred Guest program. Next, a text message using a RFID sent to your mobile device gives you your room number and the entry code for your room. Now that you've got the code - you receive it about 24 hours before arrival - you stride briskly through the lobby and go straight to your room, using the keycard to get in. You never have to have a transaction or a conversation with a person wearing a hotel name-tag.

Cool, huh? Aloft thinks so. This streamlining adds to the hotels' 24/7 Wi-Fi service and other high-tech touches at Aloft properties.

"All Aloft hotels feature CAT-6 high thru (sic) put wires, which means that all hotels are wired to accommodate future technologies,'' according to the Aloft Web site. "Guest rooms provide a calm oasis that is combined high-tech office and entertainment center, thanks to the plug & play, a one-stop connectivity solution that links multiple electronic gadgets at once, such as PDAs, cell phones, mp3 players and laptops, to a 42-inch flat-panel HDTV-ready television for optimal sound and viewing.''

The closest I've come to this fervent commitment to hotel technology was in London, when my wife and stayed just over a year ago in the first-ever Andaz property, owned by Hyatt Hotels (but not overtly branded by Hyatt). There was no check-in keycard, but no reservation desk either. We checked-in at the East End property, located hard by the Liverpool Street Underground station, by wandering about in the spacious lobby with our luggage till we found a staffer with a handheld device, who checked us in whilst wesat at a low table and sipped wine. I'm still not sure what the advantage of the Andaz London system is to the traveler, but, as noted, the Lexington Aloft takes things one step further.

Aloft will roll out this system more broadly if consumers like it, and may diversify it, using coded keycards for multiple purposes, not just check-in. The card, according to the Aloft site, "may eventually act as an all-access pass throughout the Aloft stay, allowing guests to purchase coctails and bites'' and load up on other offerings, as well.

Aloft operates about 40 properties inside the United States and outside the U.S., Starwood's home country. The Aloft brand is expanding fast, and will next adorn a hotel in Tulsa, Okla. Aloft is aimed chiefly at young business travelers. According to a report in the New York Times, room nights average $125 USD.

Me, I still prefer a well-trained, smartly attuned hotel staff. I don't find dealing with people who are good at what they do to be such a heinous chore. But that's just me. For more information: check out or, in the U.S., telephone 1 877 GO ALOFT.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Oh, Canada

I first visited Canada when I was 3 years old, traveling with my parents on a car trip from our home in the northeastern United States to visit with relatives in Ontario. I have been back to Canada many times since, written travel pieces about various parts of the country, crossed the enormous land on board a Canadian National train and lived in Canada's two greatest cities, Montreal and Toronto. At one point, I thought I might stay. I didn't stay, but I feel affection for Canada and have a history there. Count me as a fan.

Even given all that, I have to admit to a bit of ambivalence about Canada's performance in the just-completed Vancouver/Whistler Winter Olympic Games. Not the performance of Canadian athletes, who hauled in a record 14 gold medals, came third in the overall medal count -and won 'em fair and square; here's to them. I mean Canadian nationalists, who, while literally wrapping themselves in the flag, swaggered down city streets tanked up on beer, bragging and bellowing at the top of their lungs. At such times, Canadians resembled in their crude triumphalism the neighbors to the south they customarily deride for - right - crude triumphalism.

Of course, Canadians wanted a chance to cheer and be proud. And why not? They may not have owned the podium, but they did very well - hey, how about that men's hockey gold in OT? - and, as mentioned, won more golds than anyone. The last time Canada hosted the Winter Games, in Calgary, in 1988, the hosts won not a single gold. To be sure, there were just 46 events then, compared to 86 in Vancouver. The U.S. topped the overall medal count with 37, but the international winner on a per capita basis was neither the U.S. or Canada. It was Norway, population 4.7 million, which reaped 9 gold medals and 23 overall. Still, Canada came up big.

Hosting the Olympics and shining in competition against the world's best has got to mean something to a nation that is perennially unsure of its identity (not British, not French, not American), that seems on an eternal search for recognition, fears possible dissolution of confederation (the eternal Quebec question) and craves the world's respect. Canadians got recognition and respect from the Games, along with a dollop of self-respect.

So, what's not to like?

Just this: While Canadians' reputation for politeness (A typical joke: Canadians say thank-you to ATMS), was always exaggerated, it's not false. Civility is a fine quality, not to be scoffed at, as I am reminded whenever I visit Canada. Jingoism is just not attractive, no matter if it comes wrapped in the stars and stripes, the union jack, the tricolor, the rising sun or the maple leaf.

Bottom line: This may be a "Be careful what you wish for'' situation. Canadians wanted attention. They wanted woo-hoo, hands-in-the-air parties on Robson Street and Bay and Bloor. OK, done. In getting what they wanted, here's hoping Canadians don't lose what they had.