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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.

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