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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Friday, January 31, 2014

"Sometimes it's the little things, isn't it!"

"It's the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen."

                                                                                          --John Wooden

The title of this week's entry was suggested by a tweet I received from US Airways after sending them a thank you note for a small courtesy from one of their flight attendants. It wasn't a whole lot in the vast scheme of things, but it was a nicety which was greatly appreciated by six people on a particularly full flight. 

(If you have to know -- and I'd want to if I were reading this -- the attendant simply ensured that the overhead bins above the bulkhead seats were not used by passengers other than those seated there. Unlike most other seats on a plane there are no underseat storage areas at the bulkhead. If you don't get your overhead bin, you're essentially screwed. A lot of people flying these days just pop their luggage in the overhead as soon as they can, rather than using a bin near their seat. In most cases this is merely inconsiderate...but upon occasion it creates a major inconvenience for another passenger.)

I'm making note of this not to curry favor with any particular provider -- my dollars and frequent flyer status take care of that -- but to recognize the humanity behind the big corporations. All too often we fail to consider that the people we're dealing with are people. On a rough day, travelers can become just a blur of faceless luggage -- and service people are just obstacles to getting what the traveler may want. It's not a good situation, and anyone who read my recent 10 Rules for Pinhead Travelers knows that they get to me too.
Let me get that for you...

I try, as often as possible, to offer compliments for good service. Either directly, or sometimes even better doing it indirectly so the person's superiors know they are doing a good job. I've found that not only is such feedback appreciated, it also buys you credibility when, well, things don't go as smoothly as we'd like. If an employee demonstrates a cheerfulness and willingness to take a small extra step...such as the overhead bins...that deserves reinforcement every bit as much a problem deserves recognition.

So it's often the little things, isn't it. Those courtesies offered in both directions that let people know you value them as a partner in travel.

Little things such as the pleasant response I received from US Airways when I complimented their employee. It's what prompted the topic for this entry, in fact.

@USAirways: @stevebarber_tt Sometimes it's the little things, isn't it! We're glad you noticed and appreciated that.

Yes, guys, it is. And kudos to you for recognizing it. It's one of the major reasons I fly and continue to fly US Air. Thank you.

And it's the little things elsewhere as well. Little services or actions or considerations which show the person at the other end is working to earn and keep your business.

Little things.

Long Beach Municipal Airport is my favorite airport. Yes, convenience has a lot to do with it. It's ten minutes from my house. But above and beyond, it's a well-designed and effective airport which has earned my business. It's a medium-sized facility -- ten gates. Size does matter in many cases, but given a choice between the mass chaos of LAX's TSA checkpoints and the efficiency of Long Beach's, there's no contest. Between the crowded and noisy terminals at LAX and the local and friendly lounges at Long Beach, again no contest. 
Deep Breath...

Between the ability to sit in a crowded recycled-air gate at LAX, or the luxury of an outdoor patio space with Palm trees and fresh air...nope. (And when LGB gains a customs desk, LAX loses all advantages in my opinion.)

But those aren't the things that really keyed me on the extent of Long Beach Airport's thinking. It has, and this is unique in Southern California as well as many other cities, an outdoor passenger greeting space just yards from most of the gates. Not the cold, impersonal long walks down dark corridors to the cold metal steel and crowds of baggage claim, where if you're lucky your greeters can find you. A gentle, welcoming oasis for a warm hello and exchange of greetings before grabbing the luggage. It's a nice touch. Conversely, the chaos (there's that word again) of LAX's Departure level is nothing less than overwhelming for some. The White Zone is for loading and unloading only...

(Apologies if I seem to be picking on LAX. I've traveled through dozens of airports in the last few years. LAX is simply an up-the-freeway example at the other end of the experiential spectrum.)

I fly through and to dozens of airports every year. Some large (LAX, JFK, PHX), some medium-sized (Oakland, Albuquerque, Reno) and some small (Fargo, Kona, Tucson). You get a feel for an airport, for the convenience and modernity of their operations, and for the way they reflect the city in which they are located.

At LGB the designers clearly thought about the airport's desire for a passenger-friendly environment and the resort-like "feel" of what they wanted to convey for the city of Long Beach. And while no big deal is made about it, having a special spot for families or friends or business associates meet their charges is just one little thing that no one likely thinks too much about, but enhances the travelers' experiences greatly. At LGB you deplane onto the Tarmac rather than through a boarding tube. After a short pass through the gates you come out again into the central patio area and through a TSA door into the outdoor greeting area with sitting area for those waiting, amid palm trees and an open-air freshness.

Again, it's the little things. Flying can be a stressful adventure, for a variety of reasons. Having a destination which let's you take a deep breath and relax, rather than plunging you into a new and entirely different brand of crazy, is a little thing, but so important.

This sort of experience and attention to the little things aren't restricted to air travel. National Car Rental has almost entirely dispensed with counter service, allowing its customers to proceed directly to the car lot. This eliminates at least one line, which is itself a tremendous relief. I did not properly appreciate the importance of that one little thing until a vacation trip in which we selected (sorry National) a less expensive provider. 

The open road beckons, once we finish the paperwork...
Yes. In this case, you get what you paid for. (There ya go, National, right?) The lower cost provider kept us waiting for nearly a half hour as they helped the people in line before us, then had to go through several steps with us to finally bring our car around. The value of that half hour was immeasurable on a vacation, when the last thing anyone wants to do is follow a long flight (no matter how pleasant or accommodating an airline, a long flight is taxing) with a stand in yet another line waiting to hit the road. (Disneyland -- famous for its long and winding queues for rides -- would be proud of modern air travel's lines. There's check-in, TSA, queuing to get into the aircraft, queuing to leave the aircraft, and standing an a mob to collect luggage. This doesn't include a line at the car rental agency, or a line for check-in at the hotel if you're going someplace popular like Las Vegas.)

On the other hand, when a problem developed with the vehicle (nothing the rental agency could have foreseen or prevented, they responded immediately and without hesitation to take care of the problem. The little things. 

So the little things, such as going directly to a car and driving off or getting a direct and rapid response when there's a problem, count.

Windstar Cruises rightly pride themselves for the fact their crew quickly learn passenger names, and in turn greet each passenger by name. It's a small touch, but immediately let's the customer know they're someplace different. Yes, they have beautiful cabins and go to exotic ports, but it's the little touch of knowing your name that sets the Windstar mood.

Many years ago, my wife and I were fortunate to stay at the five star Halekulani Hotel on Waikiki Beach. For our honeymoon. A five star resort, they go that extra mile, quickly demonstrated as we entered the open-air lobby and were unexpectedly greeted by name at the counter. How they do this I still have no idea, but it's a wonderful way to show appreciation. That personal touch. 
Parc your head here

(To this day our go-to hotel in Honolulu is the Waikiki Parc, the sister property to the still-fabulous Halekulani. The advantage of the Parc is it more of a boutique style hotel, which we have grown to prefer to over resort properties. For attention to detail, check out the pattern on the orange pillow -- subtle but still very romantic.)

Chains also know the value. Within a half hour of checking in at the Homewood Suites in Beaverton, Oregon, I received a call from the front desk checking to make sure the room was good and to let them know if I needed anything. Maybe a thirty second conversation, with an immeasurable impact on my future hotel selections.

Courtesy -- doing the little things, as US Airways noted in their reply to my note -- goes a long way towards creating that long term customer loyalty. The relationship that both provider and traveler come to appreciate. As I commented above, it also served to smooth over those times when things don't quite go as well. The at-some-point inevitable lost luggage, the delayed flight/ missed connection, the missing hotel reservation, the car you reserved becoming unavailable at the last minute.

These things happen. Any seasoned traveler knows that when they do you need to trust in people to make it right, but also make note when they do those little things, those largely uncommented-upon niceties that make the day go a little bit smoother, a little bit more pleasant.

Yeah, we all have complaints. Nothing is ever perfect. But noting when things go well will not only make your day brighter, but recognizing them will make someone else's day better too.

And it's the little things, like that, that add up.

Where Everybody knows your name.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Brands We Love

"When I go on Japanese Airlines, I really love it because I like Japanese food."
                                   - Phil Collins   

You're driving along. It's dark and raining. Night. The highway ahead an endless black pit with a solitary divided yellow line down the center of the darkness. To either side a blind expanse of black. The tempo of the windshield wipers beats itself along, mindless of the sleep-inducing rhythm as it brushes the water from your view. You've been driving for hours in unfamiliar territory, with little more than mile markers for the last forty-five minutes. It's 2am and you're exhausted.

A sign looms out of the dark, indicating you're approaching an exit two miles ahead. It promises accommodations of some kind. You're not optimistic...the last place along the highway was a prototype for the Bates Motel. A flash of light from between the tress suggests it might have electricity at the very least. As you near the ramp you see a sign for a chain you're familiar with. Sighing with relief you pull off, finding the driveway and pulling into a familiar and well lit portico. There's a bed with your name on it...

MGM Hotels and Casinos
We all know the classic brands. There is a familiarity and a comfort in them. Whether you prefer the high end, or know the value you get at the low end, the brands we prefer are automatic go-to's when it comes to planning travel.

Hotels, airlines, car rental agencies, travel agents, cruise lines. You name it, you probably have a preferred brand or two. Websites, bloggers, magazines, tv shows. They're all brands of one kind or another, and each attract their own set of consumers.

Do you follow the luxurious indulgence of Samantha Brown, or the rugged adventurism of Todd Carmichael? Each has their own set of followers. When you fly, do you book American, AirTran or JetBlue?

We each have our favorites, and for our own reasons.

I use two sets of criteria: business traveler versus personal. The brands I prefer for one are not necessarily the ones I prefer for the other. Part of that is budget, of course. I will indulge myself on a personal trip that would be unacceptable on a business one. (It's always pleasant when things work out and those worlds collide, however.)

I am a member of several Frequent Customer programs. They are based, largely, on the brands I use most frequently, of course. There are the hotel mega-brands like Hilton and Starwood. These two offer a wide spectrum of properties, each with a readily identifiable style and expectation. I know that with Hilton I will get one experience with Embassy Suites and another entirely with Homewood Suites. Both are brands within a brand, and each give me a standard of expectation when I pull off that lonely highway. With Starwood I know Westin will be a certain quality, while Aloft will be entirely different. But I know what I am getting when I book.

It's the brand reinforcement which is so vital. In the same way you know what kind of burger to expect from McDonald's versus those at In-and-Out. And Fuddrucker's, and, well, you get the point. The importance of a brand isn't just saying what you'll get, it's following the words with actions.

If a cruise line bills itself as small and intimate, you'd better not pull up to a leviathan liner with facilities for three thousand passengers. Likewise a budget cruise better not break the bank with added fees and charges. It puts a lie to the advertising and virtually guarantees a one-time guest. The image that is projected needs to be the image that is observed.

U S Airways
As the Thumbnail Traveler -- yes, it's a brand...that's not my real name -- I have been working to establish an identity which is, at the very least, consistent. It needs to be adventurous. It needs to be perceived as an exploration of the world, not just a set of pretty pictures. In the same way AFAR and LONELY PLANET have created a brand style I've been working to create one for the TT.

Looking back over the last three years, hundred plus blog entries, thousands of tweets and a decent library of destination images on the Facebook page, we've been fairly successful. Not entirely, but I hope reasonably.

With my job transition of last year my own time on the road has hit overtime. Between business and personal travel I've logged thousands of miles, been to almost every major city in the US and quite a few internationally. Sometimes I think Phoenix Sky Harbor is a home away from home. (It's a primary hub for USAirways, my main air carrier.)

And this is what started me thinking about the entire concept of branding. Cities do it. Airlines do it. All travel companies do it. People do it. (Can anyone deny that Anthony Bourdain is as valid a brand name as The Travel Channel?)

It's all part of giving us, the consumers, an idea of what to expect, of what we can anticipate and know we will encounter when foot hits the pavement.

See you at the Sheraton!

It's a Carnival!!!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Suck It Up, TravelBoy!

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” 

                                                – Jack Kerouac

When you travel with any frequency there are times when it all seems to go awry. Nothing quite goes right, no matter the effort, no matter the planning, no matter the manpower employed to get it that way. There are those times when you have to close your eyes, count to ten and wait for the next martini to arrive.

This was one such time.

Anyone who has traveled more than a handful of times often has their share of horror stories related to a trip. It happens. Often there is little that can be done, and it might even happen on your first-ever trip, or may never happen to you at all (you lying, evil sod).

But those of us who travel on the more frequent side understand the risks, particularly of air travel. There are things, often beyond the control of an airline or an airline employee, which can turn a simple trip into misery. Choppy air. Crying children. The seemingly willful ignorance of other passengers. Flight delays and missed connections. Things happen, and often the best course of action is to go with the flow, secure in the knowledge that, like a kidney stone, all things come to pass eventually.

But seasoned travelers will all speak in hushed tones about those most dreaded events. Those which, when they occur, make even a short duration flight miserable and difficult. It's something we have all experienced and something which, each time the wheels leave the Tarmac, we desperately hope will not occur. You board the plane, optimistic that maybe, just maybe, not this flight.

And 99% of the time it doesn't.

I am speaking, of course, of the dreaded "Perfect Storm" in which not one thing...not two things...not even three things go wrong. No. In this scenario you have Murphy's undivided attention, and he's pissed. Everything that can go wrong, does. In fact it seems Mr. Murphy went looking for extra stuff, just to pile on.

I am on such a flight now.

First, let me assure you if you're reading this, I survived. At least long enough to post it on my blog. Second, I insist that

you acknowledge that there was almost nothing the airline or it's in-flight employees could have done differently to improve the situation. Well, except for one aspect, which I will discuss below. But otherwise, it was simply the confluence of bad "cess" which dealt us the bad hand.

I am sitting, right this moment in a plane somewhere over El Paso, headed for Austin. The air, we are told, is about to get choppy enough for the flight crew to take their seats for the 1+ hour remainder of the flight.

Ah. There it goes. And so it begins.

On the brighter side, the plane is finally beginning to cool down after hovering something in the upper eighties. My guess

is that we're around 80F, upper twenties celcius. There are apparently mechanical issues with the AC, known to the airline on the ground in Phoenix, but the decision was made to fly anyway -- with the knowledge that once the plane hit altitude it would, as it has, begin cooling.

And lastly, three rows behind me is a child who is quite upset with the whole affair and has been crying for at least twenty
minutes, and who can blame them? Nothing the mother can do to console them, it's simply a matter of getting to the end.

The other passengers of this flight seem to be ignorant of the basic etiquette of flight in several ways. It's packed. Every seat occupied. During the load in each and every one of them huddled around the gate waiting for their section to be called. This, of course, led to the running of the gauntlet by those privileged to load first. And second, etc.

During the load in, several passengers carried bags clearly too large for the type of aircraft, and yet held up and the line to argue with the gate attendants regarding the status of their bags. One, having won the right to take his bag on the plane, spent a good portion of five minutes wrestling it into the overhead, finally relenting and allowing the attendant to have the bag loaded via the jetway. No apology was proffered to the twenty or so passengers kept waiting behind him to take their own seats.

I am sitting in the aisle seat and was clubbed a minimum of four times by large bags being dragged past my arm or head. Again, no proffered apology, despite the fact one woman looked back at me with an accusatory glance as if I had purposely leapt into the aisle and banged my head against her purse.

Oh good. The plane is doing an excellent interpretation of that scene in AIRPLANE 2 in which the flight attendant describes the situation as "those bumps you feel are asteroids hitting the hull". I was not aware the inflight entertainment would be vintage. A passenger seemingly ignorant of the fasten seatbelt light has just careened past me, bouncing off my right shoulder nicely. The flight attendant reminds us that the light is still on, but off he goes nonetheless. (Should he be injured I am certain he would want recompense.)

(I am thoughtful of the fact that flight attendants are in the cabin for our safety first, and service second. Their primary responsibility is to ensure our lack of injury upon landing, or mitigate it when something goes wrong.)

I will lay a little bit of blame on the airlines for this sort of behavior by rude, unthinking and insensitive passengers. For years, decades, airlines have been reducing services and creating, for all intents and purposes, a modern day Trailways of the sky. If you treat passengers like cattle, they will behave like cattle.

I write this, of course, as a therapy. It calms me down, keeping me from smacking a few of my surrounding passengers between the eyes they COULD have had a V8. It distracts me from the bangs and rolls in the plane's flight path.

If I sound like a complainer, I am not. I frequently commend the airlines and employees for terrific flights and enjoyable experiences. As with anything in life, stuff happens.

I just wish it wouldn't happen all at once.