Thursday, June 30, 2011

San Francisco Tourism's Pep Rally

San Francisco is one of the world's favorite tourist towns - and the city has the numbers to go with it. A community of 750,000, it draws about 20 times that number of visitors every year, generating some $8 billion a year in visitors' spending. Travel and tourism is the city by the bay's number one business by revenue.

Players in the tourism biz get together at an annual luncheon organized by the San Francisco Travel Association ( to break out the latest stats, give out awards, watch jazzy videos and listen to speakers - all smartly and professionally scripted and choreographed. This year's luncheon, the 101st, had the throbbing spirit of a pep rally, complete with a cheering, hundreds-strong audience in Moscone Convention Center, a booming soundtrack, vibrant graphics and can-do message.

And why not? 2010 was a good year for the tourism biz in San Francisco. International visitors - who comprise one-third of arrivals - stayed strong. Overall visitors were up 3.1 percent to 15.92 million from 2009. The city got a shot of adrenaline from the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants, who won their first Major League Baseball crown since relocating from New York in 1958.

Accordingly, San Francisco - which competes with the Big Apple, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Diego and Los Angeles for convention, meeting and leisure tourism dollars - is trying to build on the momentum. This year, the city hosted International Pow Wow, the big annual travel show produced by the U.S. Travel Association, getting another shot of publicity from 400 international journalists who attended the event and toured San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. Also this year, San Francisco International Airport opened a long-closed, beautifully renovated terminal 2; I've flown several times out of the 'new' old terminal and it's a beauty. In May, SFO's arrivals jumped 5 percent over May 2009, the busiest May ever for one of the nation's leading airports.

If you're planning a visit in the next year or two, San Francisco will have some new offerings to go with its classic line-up of restaurants, cable cars climbing halfway to the stars, hills with panoramic views, street characters and superb weather. The city is spending $56 million to upgrade Moscone Center, a job expected to be finished in 2012. In 2013, SF will host the lucrative America's Cup sailboat competition. A long-promised new cruise ship terminal is, well, supposedly approaching, somewhere on the horizon.

All told, it's taken a decade to get back to the numbers the city enjoyed prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the unholy trifecta of SARS, avian flu and recession. In tourism, the Great Recession - reflecting the world's wider economic climate - appears to be waning, if at a painfully slow and uncertain pace.

Still, we'll call the glass half-full.

So - in the words of an old song, "If you're going to San Francisco, wear some flowers in your hair/You're going to meet some gentle people there.'' And every other kind.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kabul Clarification

Just to be clear: The Kabul Intercontinental Hotel attacked by terrorists this week is not connected to the global InterContinental Hotel Group, according to the London company, which has issued press releases explaining that it lost control of the Kabul property when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Since then, other operators - no great respectors of trademarks or intellectual property, evidently - have continued to run the now-unaffiliated hotel under the same name.

When it comes to globalized commerce, you just never know. Back in the 1990s, on my first trip to Asia, I booked a room in the Fairmont Hotel, in Tokyo, and got a really good - which is to say low - rate. When I arrived, I found a perfectly good old-school hotel built after World War II when Japan was reconstructing. It was not affiliated with the upmarket Fairmont chain, now based in Toronto; Fairmont didn't own the rights to the name in Japan. That hotel has since closed and was demolished.

Anyway, it's a very different Intercontinental in Kabul.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Welcome to Kabul

Travelers remain a target in politico-religious conflicts, as today's bloody attack on the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul shows. The latest unconscionable assault on civilians by suicide bombers and gunmen follows February's attack on the Kabul Safi Landmark Hotel and the horrific 2008 hotel attacks in Mumbai. The common thread in all these mass killings is that they were launched by Islamist terror cells based in Pakistan who see travelers as soft targets.

Early media reports vary, as they always do amidst the chaos, on the number of attackers and victims in Kabul. It will take time to sort out the final toll. The Taliban have claimed credit, if that is the word, for carrying out the latest outrage, which they will dignify by calling an "operation.'' Afghan government officials and foreigners were reportedly singled out.

Protecting hotel guests is an especially difficult proposition. Hoteliers I have talked to say they want to have effective security consistent with hospitality; they don't want their hotels to look like fortresses. In some parts of the world, they already do. Hotels I have visited in and around Cairo, Egypt - where attacks on tourists are manifold and tourist sites and hotels are often staffed by uniformed Tourist Police - station conspicuously armed guards at the main lobby and have X-ray screening machines like those at airports. Alternate exits and entrances are often blocked off. In Mumbai, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, one of the hotels attacked in 2008, was flanked outside by an armored car, paddywagon and concrete street barriers when I stayed there in 2009, almost exactly a year after the attack.

Not every hotel wants to go to those lengths, but every hotel has to have a flexible and constantly updated emergency plan, just in case. Without question, organized violence against travelers makes traveling less pleasant and at times downright dangerous. So, welcome to Kabul, and welcome to the new normal. It will be like this for the foreseeable future.

Monday, June 27, 2011

It's Weird Up There

You know it's the silly season when media reports - in the United States, where I live, anyway - are filled with reports about a man dressing in exposed women's underwear while flying, a college student with trousers hanging below his waist being taken into custody and escorted off a plane, and the Internet buzzing about a pilot who inadvertently complained into a radio frequency about the unattractiveness of female flight attendants and preponderence of gays at his airline.

Is there nothing better to talk about? Apparently not, at least not in the slow old summertime.

Critics charge - they're always charging something, have you noticed? - that the aforementioend pilot, an employee of Southwest Airlines, was inappropriate in his choice of comments. No doubt he was, though he didn't know anyone except his co-pilot was listening to remarks made in the cockpit that were in fact disseminated through parts of the U.S. aviation communications system. Said critics are now demanding the pilot undergo sensitivity training. Good luck with that. The opinions, which veer on the knuckle-dragging side, are nonetheless this fellow's personal opinions. As long as they don't interfere with safe and efficient operation of an aircraft, it's hard to image they constitute a truly serious offense.

The guy who flew in women's undies? A 65-year-old white guy with white hair, photographed on a smart phone in purple halter and bare midrift, a choker, long black stockings and tight purple underwear. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he flies like this a lot, doesn't mean to offend anyone and does it for fun. He is apparently an elite level frequent flier on US Airways and describes himself as a business consultant.

As it happens, US Airways is the same airline that tossed the college student, an African American football player, off a flight before take-off after he allegedly refused to hitch up his pants when the flight crew asked him to, and then - in the airline's account - grew belligerent. The student says, no, he was cooperative and was sitting in his seat when approached and his underwear - described as skintight by several fellow passengers - couldn't be seen. The NAACP has gotten involved, claiming this is a clear case of racial profiling. The young man has a lawyer. In America, where racial animus has been boiling over for generations, playing the race card is always a possibility, as is litigation.

US Air compounds its public relations and customer relations problem by saying the airline has no dress code; people are free to fly as long as their private parts are concealed, according to the Phoenix-based carrier.

That still leaves a lot of territory for debate and disagreement. In the usual venting and rage-o-rama, common sense, whether by airline or passengers, seems to have gone missing. Yet, having some regard for the sensitivites of others, whether enforced by rule or not, doesn't seem like such a bad idea. Is keeping one's snarky opinions of fellow employees to oneself really that hard? How about covering up one's body? Hard? Really hard? We don't have to start issing burkas for passengers to put on in transit, just exercise a minimum amount of courtesy.

And so the battle rages, along with ongoing media coverage - and media commentary, like this post. And just think, it's only June. Wait till the really slow news months roll around. July and August should be doozies.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pan Pacific's Shopping List

Todd Wynne-Parry is on a shopping spree. But if he finds what he's looking for, he won't be able to fit it into a shopping bag.

Wynne-Parry is shopping for hotels. Not to book them - to buy them.

Vice President Development, North America for Pan Pacific Hotels Group, Wynne-Parry has been based in San Francisco for about a year. His mission: to acquire and rebrand hotels in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco for his employer, a Singapore-based hospitality company known for its sleek, business-oriented hotels and refined, discreet Asian hospitality.

I met over coffee with the Michigan-born executive, who has worked in the Asia Pacific region for InterContinental Hotels Group, Starwood Worldwide Hotels and Resorts and Marriott Corp., among others, before he returned to the United States for Pan Pacific (

Wynne-Parry tells me his company nearly landed and reflagged a JW Marriott in San Francisco, but that deal didn't come together.

The company is keen to get back into the San Francisco market. There was a Pan Pacific Hotel not far from the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market streets but the group lost the hotel a few years ago; it is now Parc 55. Somewhere near Union Square or South of Market (San Francisco's trendy SOMA district) would be right, he says. Those areas are both close to the city's Moscone Convention Center.

Pan Pacific - a corporate sister of ParkRoyal Hotels - also wants to be in New York because, well, it's New York; Chicago, because it's a major business and leisure destination, and Los Angeles, due to its market-size, marquee name and presence on the Pacific Rim. "Somewhere in the West L.A. corridor'' that runs between downtown L.A. and Santa Monica would be best there, he says.

Generally, the company prefers management contracts to outright ownership, but will look at both options. "It depends on opportunity and if the pricing isn't ridiculous,'' he says. And they'd rather acquire "a hotel that has good bones,'' reflag it, change the reservations system and the staff uniforms and get busy. But they'll do an extensive renovation if the hotel needs one.

"It's on a case-by-case basis.''

Pan Pacific, a subsidiary of UOL Group Limited, a leading Asian property company, already has properties in Whistler, British Columbia (two of them, in fact), Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle. It is also growing in Australia and China. When I ask about the competition, Wynne-Parry cites Starwood's Westin brand, Marriott, InterContinental and Sofitel as key rivals.

Pan Pacific is a founding member of the Global Hotel Alliance, a joint marketing venture that includes Leela, Kempinski and Omni hotels. GHA Disovery is the group's shared customer loyality program.

Prime hotels are not exactly selling cheap in the U.S. at present, but if Wynne-Parry succeeds in his four target markets, travelers - especially business travelers - can expect to see Pan Pacific hotels in more U.S. cities. "Our secondary circle would include Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, Boston and San Diego,'' he says.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Can't Get No Satisfaction

It's not exactly a Stop the Presses moment, but a new survey of American consumers shows that U.S. commercial airlines are among the least-liked businesses in the United States. Business travelers, who spend a lot of time in the sky - and often have to pay high walk-up fares to go with added fees that airlines have tacked on to try to make a profit in a time of sky-high jet fuel - are especially disgruntled.

Every year, the American Customer Satisfaction Index records the results of a survey of selected U.S. consumers, and every year the section on air travel makes melancholy reading. Only 65 percent of fliers describe themselves as very satisfied or fairly satisfied.

Southwest Airlines, the perennial leader, ranks highest for the 18th consecutive year. It may not be entirely coincidental that Southwest is the major holdout in not charging fees for checked bags - a pet peeve of passengers. Continental Airlines, which merged with United Airlines - also known as Misery Air among regulars - saw its customer satisfaction score drop 10 points from last year.

Any good news? Yes. Most U.S. travelers are satisfied with U.S. hotels, giving the indstry as a whole a respectable score of 77 points.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tokyo Three Months After

Japan's maximum metropolis, Tokyo, was little damaged by the frightening trifecta of earthquake, tsunami and radiation that struck several hundred miles away in northeastern Japan in March. But the world's most populous city - and one of its most vibrant - has suffered along with the rest of that normally very safe country by sustaining severe damage to its reputation as a safe place to visit.

Three months after the massive disaster, Japan is trying to relaunch its important travel and tourism industry; the industry accounted for 5.3 percent of Japan's gross domestic product in 2008 and generated 4.3 million jobs, according to Japanese government officials. As Japan's capital and largest city, Tokyo contributes a lion's share to both.

According to a story published June 15 in the Washington Post (, the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan in April plummeted 62.5 percent from the same month last year. Figures for May were expected to be equally dismal, or nearly so, as lingering fears of earthquakes and/or radiation are causing many travelers to stay away.

Those numbers have prompted an unusual letter from the Governor of Tokyo, Mr. Shintaro Ishihara, asking travel journalists and others to help get out the word that things have returned to normal in Tokyo and the city is actually perfectly fine as a destination. I received the letter today, dated June 15 and sent on paper by post from Japan to my home.

Of course, it is part of Ishihara's job to promote tourism and the economy in general, but his words seem heartfelt, and as far as anyone can know now, largely factual.

His language is also notably more temperate than his initial reaction to the disaster three months ago, when he suggested it was "devine intervention'' and punishment for the Japanese people's "egoism.'' The American TV and radio commentator Glenn Beck said something similar about the disaster, asserting it could be "a message from God.'' The controversial Ishihara, a former writer and frequent source of critical remarks about foreigners, apologized under pressure.

Anyway, so that you can evaluate Ishihara's appeal for yourself, here are excerpts from his June 15 letter to foreign writers:

"I ... felt very proud as a Japanese to learn that the calm response of our citizens in such trying times has been highly lauded by the people of the world. The nation is now working as one for the recovery of the stricken regions, and Tokyo is also doing everything in its power to support such efforts.

"Tokyo suffered very little direct damage from this diaster,'' he writes. "With regard to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident, this is unlike the accident at Chernobyl, which resulted in widespread damages; we are not detecting levels of radioactive materials that will impact health, and the lives of the inhabitants of Tokyo are currently unaffected by this incident. It's business as usual here in Tokyo. Please dispel any concerns you may have about visiting and staying in our city, as there are no problems with the water, air, food, public transport and other urban functions, and public safety here remains as high as it has ever been.

"You can thoroughly enjoy the charms of Tokyo again, as well,'' he continues. "Tourist attractions such as Tokyo Disney Resort and the Edo-Tokyo Museum have resumed operations, and events such as the gala summer Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival will be held ...''

"I hope you will visit Tokyo and Japan,'' the governor concludes, "and experience the Tokyo of today - a Tokyo that is no different from what it was like before. Please also see with your own eyes how Japan is taking the path to recovery, united in its efforts to overcome this tragedy. I would also be very grateful if you could then return home and inform others about the strength and vibrancy you found in our city and our nation.

"The people of Tokyo await you with our established spirit of warm hospitality. Feel safe about visiting Tokyo and Japan. We look forward to welcoming you.''

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Oh No, Canada

Oh, Canada - rioting again? It's just a game.

Try telling Canadians that ice-hockey - the national sport in The Great White North - is anything other than life and death, though, and you might be pitched into one of the street fires set in last night's riot in Vancouver, B.C. The reason? The city's National Hockey League team, the Canucks, lost to the Boston Bruins in the penultimate game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, dashing hopes for the first Stanley Cup win for a Canada-based NHL franchise since the 1990s. The riot prompted some belated and already outdated travel advisories; it's over, though the fires, looting, overturned cars, thrown beer bottles and other bad behavior did pose a hazard of sorts to visitors and locals should they be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Canadians are caricatured as really, really nice, reserved people - people so polite, they say thank you at ATMS. I have lived in Canada twice and traveled there many times and I can assure you Canadians are just as ornery as their neighbors to the south, if more lightly armed. Of course, the thought that this could be true sends them into spasms of denial. The fact that the Canucks blew the series, after leading three games to two, makes it all the more imperative to run amok. The Canucks lost game 6, 5-2, on home ice and then got their butts kicked in game 7 by a 4-0 score.

The truth is, Canadians are likely to riot not only when they lose but also when they win - witness the ugly riots along Montreal's St. Catherine Street last year after the Quebec city's beloved Canadiens won a post-season series. Or, the 1993 Montreal riots when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. Or way back in 1955, when Montrealers rioted when Canadiens star Maurice Richard was suspended. Well, you'd run riot, too, after saying thank you to ATMS your whole life, eh?

It's safe to go back now. Although Boston won the Cup, with the help of Canada-born-and-bred pros, in Vancouver, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, it's wait till next year.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On Duty and On Amtrak

I just took a ride between New York City's Pennsylvania Station and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on always beleaguered Amtrak, the U.S. national passenger railroad system, and saw some notable changes since my last time on the rails a year ago.

Most of those changes have to do with security - namely, there is a lot more of it, especfially those aspects of security that are designed to be visible. While I waited for the evening departure of my train below the low roof of busy Penn Station, I saw a number of Amtrak Police on duty as well as fatigue-clad regular soldiers with sidearms strapped to their thighs. Mounted video screens played a repeating loop of interviews with dog handlers whose charges sniff out possible explosives on the trains and in the stations. Travelers are now told they must carry photo identification and be prepared to show it, though no one in the station or on the train asked to see mine. Travelers were also told to be ready to have their luggage inspected, though this didn't happen in my carriage, either.

All this, of course, has come about because of recovered documents in the Pakistan lair of the late Osama bin Laden that mentioned targeting U.S. trains for future terror attacks. The ramped-up security inches American train travel a little closer to the frustrating security maze of American airports, muting one of rail's advantages for consumers. But with the present air of menace, one can hardly blame Amtrak for heightening scrutiny.

Looking around at the fast-food joints and relatively murky environs of New York's major long-distance rail station - Grand Central Station handles significant commuter traffic - I grew nostalgic for something that hasn't happened yet, and may not happen: The conversion of the magnificent post office right nearby into the 'new' Penn Station, as proposed years ago by the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan. Even this wouldn't entirely make up for the destruction, in the early 1960s, of the original Penn Station, which rivaled Grand Central in grandeur. But it would bolster America's struggling rail system - once arguably the finest in the world.

A Taste of Graham Greene: On Travel

The late British world traveler, memoirist, screenwriter and novelist Graham Greene is my default author when I'm on a long-haul airplane or long-distance train. Greene was one of the best at blending literary quality and accessibility and his books are set in far-flung, often colorful locales.

In the midst of a smooth, six-hour flight on Virgin America ( from New York to California yesterday, I opened Greene's 1982 novel "Monsignor Quixote.'' A ruminative, often-funny entertainment, the book tracks a road trip around Spain by a communist mayor and a priest - who, in a nice fictional touch, is a direct descendant of Cervantes' Don Quixote. This modern Quixote isn't on horseback. Instead, the priest drives a broken-down old car he names Rocinante.

"Father Quixote was glad to have a room to himself, minute though it was,'' Greene writes in one road-wise passage. "It seemed to him that his journey had already extended across the whole breadth of Spain, though he knew he was not much more than 200 kilometers from La Mancha. The slowness of Rocinante made a nonsense of distance. Well, the farthest his ancestor had gone from La Mancha on all his journeys had been the city of Barcelona, and yet anyone who had read the true history would have thought that Don Quixote had covered the whole immense area of Spain. There is a virtue in slowness which we have lost. Rocinante was of more value for a true traveler than a jet plane. Jet planes were for businessmen.''

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Solution in Search of a Problem?

On May 25, former Best Western and Hyatt Hotels executive Jim Evans became the first CEO of the newly created Corporation for Travel Promotion. Evans marked his arrival in his new job by addressing International Pow Wow in San Francisco, outlining how the new entity plans to sell the United States as a red-hot travel destination.

The very next day - May 26 - 400 miles down the Pacific coast in Los Angeles, some 2,000 elderly British cruise ship passengers were detained and searched for up to seven hours by U.S. Immigration officers as the travelers arrived in port for a short visit to L.A.

The L.A. incident, which sparked widespread media coverage in the United Kingdom, is one example of just how tough a challenge Evans and the CTP have ahead of them. Actually, the U.S. is already a hot travel destination: business and leisure travelers venture to the U.S. by the millions, generating jobs and pumping money into the still-anemic economy. However, since the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, the country has lost market share to other popular international travel destinations, such as China, France, Spain, Italy and the UK.

Restoring and expanding market share is Evans's job. Funded by a $10 fee paid by every international visitor from visa-waiver countries - to be matched by hoped-for private donations from the business community - the CTP plans to launch a major marketing inititive in traditional sources of travel to the U.S. such as Britain, Germany and Japan and emerging markets.

Good luck with that. Americans have an almost mystical faith in the power of marketing - we believe we're a nation of super-salesmen - matched only by our faith in technology and gadgets to solve problems. But here we may be barking up the wrong tree. National organizations such as the U.S. Travel Association, major hotels and resorts, states, cities and industry players such as airlines and tour operators already market the U.S. hard. Adding one more voice could only add to the noise. The new public-private CTP may be a solution in search of a problem.

The cause of softening travel demand to the U.S. isn't poor marketing, it's poor policy. It's the tight visa restrictions on people from countries such as the aforementioned China, India and Brazil. It's the understandably crucial and necessary airport security in the U.S. - the only country attacked on a large scale with hijacked aircraft - that while necessary, is often not done smartly or kindly. The seven-hour search of British pensioners in L.A. is just one example. The long lines, harsh voices of security screeners and seemingly arbitrary decisions in the security queue go a long way to negate pretty photographs, snappy tag lines and the travel industry's eager embrace of social-media campaigns.

In short, it isn't the marketing. To tweak on old line from the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign: It's the policy, stupid.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Putting the Wow in International Pow Wow

International Pow Wow is a big travel show held annually with the intention of sparking more leisure and business travel to and all around the United States. Every year the gathering - which brings international and U.S. media together with tourist boards, tour operators, hoteliers, airlines and the like - is held in a different U.S. city. This year, it rolled out over five days in San Francisco, the first time Pow Wow has been in the city by the Bay since 1992.

It takes a real city - diverse, dynamic, with layers of culture, entertainment and history - to put the wow in Pow Wow; a mere convention center surrounded by tract homes or desert sands won't do it. San Francisco did it. Although San Francisco, in all candor, can be smugly self-regarding, it delivers on most of its promises to travelers. In fact, San Francisco courts travelers. And no wonder - travel and tourism generates $8 billion in annual revenue, making it the biggest business in the city by revenue. The San Francisco Travel Association - the renamed former convention and visitors bureau - says the travel biz accounts for about 67,000 jobs in the city, directly or indirectly. That includes hotel workers, airline employees, cabbies, bartenders, staff at the city's esteemed restaurants and others.

Like all conventions, Pow Wow is mostly about speeches and meetings. Organizers claimed that the 5,000 attendees - mostly from Europe, Asia and the U.S., itself - held some 70,000 meetings, including a good many one-on-ones. I was in a few of them. Typically, journalists drift over to tables staffed in a big ballroom in the convention center - Moscone Center, in San Francisco's case - for short conversations and the exchange of business cards, as media explain to travel vendors what they are interested in covering, and vendors tout what they have to offer. If you've ever wondered how the seemingly bottomless demand for content is generated in newspapers, magazines, Web sites and elsewhere, this is how: It comes out of structured and unstructured networking.

San Francisco has been a popular destination for years, but not even popular places can stand still. Some of the wow factor is always there, but some is built and newly introduced, such as the beautiful, extensively renovated terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport (, which reopened in April after being closed for 10 years. Other travel-themed attractions are in the pipeline, including:

* A $56 million USD touch-up of Moscone Center, set for next year.
* The 34th America's Cup finals, in 2013 (
* The relocation of the innovative, hands-on childrens' science museum the Exploratorium ( to Embarcadero Piers 15-17, also in 2013.
* A long-promised new cruiseship terminal, scheduled to open at Pier 27 in 2014 (

Also coming:

* In 2016, the completely rebuilt downtown Transbay Transit Center opens, replacing a delapidated, recently demolished facility built in the 1930s.
* In 2016, the downtown San Francisco Museum of Modern Art plans to triple its gallery space (
* The long-term renovation of Treasure Island, a big, manmade island in San Francisco Bay in the shadow of the Bay Bridge is scheduled to be completed, with new hotels, restaurants, housing and a marina, also in the busy, busy year 2016.

Finally, in 2018, a new central subway will connect San Francisco's long-struggling southeastern neighborhoods with a direct light-rail connection to mainstays such as Chinatown, Moscone Center and Union Square.

Thanks to San Francisco Travel for the information.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Tale of Two Terminals

So, I left Las Vegas for San Francisco and the next big travel show: Pow Wow, the annual international marketplace for travel vendors and media organized by the U.S. Travel Association. This entailed a short flight from the desert's neon oasis to the city by the bay.

I got to Vegas's McCarron International Airport ( early after a short taxi ride, so I thought I'd just settle in and wait for my flight. This was a mistake. The food was standardized fast-food grub, the lights and noises of the one-armed bandits - there are, of course, slot machines in the airport, this being Vegas - were non-stop and distracting and 'ere long, I was thoroughly tired of the place. To be fair, Las Vegas airport authorities have big plans to upgrade the busy facility. Right now, they are reopening gates in Concourse C that serve Southwest Airlines that were closed for nearly a year while work went on.

Anxious to move on, I wandered over to the Virgin America boarding gate and asked if I could get on an earlier flight. Turns out, I could. Bliss! The flight was fast and pleasant and almost before I knew it, I was deplaning at San Francisco International Airport's ( just remodeled and reopened terminal 2.

The only problem was I was so early that I wasn't able to leave the airport right away. I would still have to wait, it would just be at SFO instead of Sin City International. That turned out to be just fine.

I settled in with a back issue of The New Yorker, nestled in a Jetsons-style futuristic chair near long tables where passengers fired-up their laptops and just across the aisle from a charging station for electronic devices. I bought a coffee at Peet's, the first-rate, Bay Area-based coffee and tea chain, and proceeded to pass a pleasant hour and a half. The contrast with Las Vegas was striking. SFO's terminal 2- the former international terminal, closed in December 2000 and finally re-opened after an extensive re-do in April of this year - has an almost feline coolness and repose, whereas McCarron conveys the frenetic energy of its home city. SFO was so relaxing, I was in no hurry to leave. When I finally did head for the exits, I passed a museum-quality exhibition of silver jewelry, eyeballed one-of-a-kind food shops of near-artisan qualaity and pulled my wheelie under the natural light that poured in through the skylight overhead.

Like most people, I wouldn't deliberately choose to spend oodles of time in an airport. But if you're going to do that anywhere, SFO - at least the reborn terminal 2 and the handsome, 11-year-old international terminal - is one place to do it.

Friday, June 3, 2011


This year's Global Travel & Tourism Summit meeting of international travel-biz executives and government officials, which I recently attended in Las Vegas, was one part bombast and one part high seriousness. When speakers, delegates and media weren't gambling, eating, drinking, sightseeing, chattering or being subjected to high-decible recorded music and throbbing graphics, they wrestled with very important issues: Like how to make travel both convenient and secure and how to fully onleash travel's power to raise revenue and create jobs.

Inevitably, much of what was said was instantly forgotten. But occasionally someone broke through the noise with incisiveness and humor, wrapped in quotable remarks. Here are two quotables I liked, one serious, one funny.

After a speaker noted that international tourism arrivals soared worldwide to 806 million in 2005, up from just 25 million in 1950, Steve Ridgway, the chief executive of Virgin Atlantic Airways, took the stage. Those aren't idle statistics, he noted, and the transformation of travel happened for a reason, with implications that go well beyond travel and tourism.

"We would not have a global economy without the jet engine,'' Ridgway pointed out. "China and India would not be emerging without the jet engine.''

Sounds obvious but it's not something people give full weight to.

On the flip side of serious, there was Las Vegas's peppery, diminutive mayor, Oscar Goodman, who walked up on stage to the sounds of an Elvis Presley song, with a towering, costumed showgirl on each arm and a cocktail glass in his hand.

"I never go anywhere without my showgirls and my martini,'' Goodman wisecracked. "I have the most fun of any mayor in America.''

It's hard to argue with that.

The Global Travel and Tourism Summit

WTTC is one of those abbreviations you wouldn't know unless you are in the travel biz, but it's well-known within the industry and stands for World Travel & Tourism Council. Why is it important? The organization crunches numbers, follows trends in travel, advocates for improvements in the travel experience for consumers and once a year holds a big meeting that it calls the Global Travel & Tourism Summit.

The summit, which brings together CEOs from 100 big travel-business companies with journalists, tour operators, hoteliers, airline executives and members of local, state and national tourism boards, was held recently in Las Vegas. This was the first time it's been in the United States since 2006. Maybe it was the U.S. location, but this year's conference, which I attended, was preoccupied with two things: finding a balance between convenience and security in travel and gaining some respect from politicians for the job-creating prowess and revenue-generating power of travel and tourism.

Many were the complaints about how hard travel visas are to get for would-be travelers to the U.S., especially people from non-visa waiver countries like Brazil and Chile, and countries that Washington thinks may pose a threat to American national security, meaning not only - but especially - Muslim countries.

"If it takes 30 to 100 days to wait for a U.S. visa, maybe you're going elsewhere,'' observed U.S. Travel Assocation head Roger Dow. Dow suggested streamlining the process (which is analyzed online at the Web site

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano later said that streamlining may well be needed, but striking the right balance is tricky. "We obviously have a challenge, and we want to keep America safe at the same time,'' she told the audience in the convention center at Aria Resort and Casino.

All the more reason to finally implement oft-mooted, long-delayed trusted traveler programs for road warriors willing to submit to advance background checks, industry execs said. We're working on it, Napolitano replied, in so many words.

The WTTC also released a study at the global summit - its 11th annual meeting - that the organization said shows fully 9 percent of global GDP is derived, directly or indirectly, from tourism and travel, especially business travel. The study, conducted by the private firm Oxford Economics, concludes that travel and tourism is a major driver of world trade - hence the industry should get a good deal more respect from governments around the world. The study was commissioned by American Express, the Singapore Tourism Board, the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority and the U.S. Travel Association - organizations committed to the promotion of travel - so this should be taken into account when its conclusions are used to make the industry's case to officialdom.

Indeed, the travel-biz's characterization of itself makes it sound like the Rodney Dangerfield of global businesses. Why, the U.S. doesn't even have a minister of tourism, many attendees complained in apparent wonderment. They found a semi-sympathetic ear in Valerie Jarrett, a close confidant and senior advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama, who promised to carry their message to the White House from the summit, which she addressed. Also on hand was U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who reiterated Obama's commitment to restoring America's roads, bridges and airports and expanding its light-rail and high-speed rail options.

Problems are never solved - and can't be - at big meetings like this; all people can do is air their grievances, float their ideas and try to advance the conversation. This is basically what happened in Las Vegas, where attendees took time out from sightseeing and gaming to air the issues of the day. In short, it was a talkfest, but talk about the security conundrum and other issues may lead over time to progress that travelers, themselves, will notice in the air and on the road.