Monday, November 28, 2016

The Sharing Economy Meets Travel

Repairing a Broken Travel Industry One App at a Time

The world of travel is experiencing a seismic shift. Quite simply the way we travel is changing rapidly and a bunch of huge travel industry players may soon find themselves staring into the abyss of irrelevancy.

They are the new Polaroid.

Why? Lets begin by assessing the state of the conventional travel industry.

Domestic Airlines
I speak as a 2 million mile flier with lifetime platinum status with over a million air miles banked in multiple airline FF accounts.

• America's domestic airlines view passengers as a materials handling problem.
  Airline's focus on finding more profitable ways to ticket and transport human cargo.

• Airlines openly disregard passenger expectations of decency, comfort and civility.
   American Airline ads recently blamed eroding service on their customers.
• Airline mergers have reduced competition & capacity and led to higher fares.

• Airlines are rewarded for adding fees like pollen in the spring.
  United's share price recently soared after announcing fees to use overhead bins.

• Domestic airlines go political in lieu of competing with superior airlines.
  They demand access to foreign markets and block foreign airlines from US markets.

• Airlines change rules on loyalty programs faster than I change socks.
  The changes never favor passengers.

• All of the above is 10 X's worse on Spirit or Allegiant Airlines.

Here I also speak as a lifetime platinum traveler with millions of hotel miles in various accounts.

• Mega mergers consolidate reservation networks and crush independent hotel chains.
  Marriott and Hilton have clearly taken a page from WalMart. 
  Move in and kill off local competition.
  Try some great local chains: Room Mate (Spain) / Citizen M (Paris, London, NYC).

• Reduced competition = rooms that cost $79 / nt. in 2008 now cost $150 / nt.
  Hotel rates skyrocketed during a period of near zero inflation.

• And, like airline bag fees - hotels keep dreaming up new fees.
  Resort fees, amenity fees, parking fees, early check-out fees, internet fees etc.

Rental Cars
My clients are taxpayers, so I am a car rental hoe. I have no loyalty. I rent from the agency that offers the best price coupled with a skip the counter program.

• Every novice rental car customer faces a shit storm of up selling at the counter.

• Rental agencies love hiding extras.
  Like the "emergency road service" fee added automatically at Thrifty SLC.
  Rental agencies play "Where's Waldo" and novice renters get fleeced.

• Rental agencies quietly dream up new zingers like the LDW (loss damage waiver).
  A renter damaging a car is liable for lost revenue during the repair of a damaged car. 
  That may sound fair....but....
  Renters have no way of determining how long it (should have taken) for repairs.

The Government
• State and local governments tax the crap out of rental car / hotel customers.
  Travelers pay for everything from convention centers to Cactus League baseball in AZ.
  Seattle frequently rack up more taxes & fees than the actual daily car rental rate.

• Despite rising traveler complaints, consumer watchdog protections are disappearing.
  Travelers are left to  fend for themselves. So learn your rights.

They're so icky!
• Taxi fares remain stupidly high in most major markets.

• In key markets (Vegas) taxi monopolies appear wired.
  Far be it for Roadboy to suggest that kickbacks might be the culprit.

• Expect "check engine" lights, smelly stained seats & broken credit card readers.

• Many cab drivers are lost.
  Try turning off their Google Maps or Waze and see where you wind up.

In sum, as the conventional travel / hospitality industry now offers frightening levels of ambivalence toward customers, so travelers have responded by seeking other options.

And by increasingly abandoning conventional travel offerings via new app based services they are frequently liking what they find.

So what is the future?

Long Distance Transport
Although most Americans have never heard of Europe's Bla Bla Car, more than 4,000,000 Europeans use this app each month to arrange long distance rides (averaging 200 miles). Put in perspective every month more travelers ride share on Bla Bla than use EuroStar and Jet Blue combined. We'll surely see something similar in key markets like the NE.

Despite all my banked hotel points I now frequently opt to save my points (for emergency trips) and opt for Airbnb accommodations.

Airbnb delivers me an entire home, located right where I want to be. I can get a full kitchen, wireless internet and a washer and dryer. And, frequently, they come with hosts that offer a "locals only" perspective on the cities and neighborhoods they love.

It becomes a trade: tiny overpriced hotel rooms with daily maid service vs. entire homes with a built-in concierge. All at prices that are typically far less than even moderately priced, limited service hotels. But be very careful. AirBNB cancellation policies for high demand areas can be onerous if you need to cancel in an emergency. Also don;t go looking for customer support from AirBNB.  There simply isn't any way to talk to a human being about key policies etc.

Rental Cars / Taxis
Nowadays, I rigorously avoid renting cars for business whenever I can. Instead I opt for light rail, Uber and / or Lyft. No more fighting for parking spots, mad dashes to refill gas, watching for local speed / radar traps and toll roads.

And, so far nearly every Uber I've experienced provided a clean car with a friendly, competent driver. And (I contend) everyone is far safer when travel transactions are cashless.

When I rent a car for pleasure trips I first check to see if my destination has Silvercar. Silvercar only rents Audi A4's at $69 / day or less. There is no counter, you go straight to the car and check-in using your app.

So as fast buck private equity owned hospitality providers feed shareholder greed, the sharing economy is expanding to provide new opportunities to exploit the void the travel dinosaurs so willingly create. And, frequently adventurous travelers emerge as big winners.

Roadboy is selling his retirement funds if they contain conventional hospitality industry players.

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Hospital St. Pau - Barcelona's Other Architectural Masterpiece

Cycling Dali's Landscapes in Spain - Day 11

Well I've been meaning to write the last installment of my trip to Spain for a long time. So today seemed like a good time to do it.

The final day of the main tour was spent by the sea. And, there is nothing more wonderful than a full nights sleep by the sea to leave you feeling good about life. And having the chance to sleep in made it even better.

At 11:00 we gathered together for final transport back to Barcelona where we'd enjoy one more day and night before returning home.

To an architect Barcelona is a visual candy store. During the turn of the century when the world's major cities were choking themselves with the unsanitary by-products of the industrial revolution, Barcelona was embracing the implementation of Ildefons Cerda's visionary city plan entitled L'Eixample.

The L'Eixample plan stressed a grid filled with mid-rise superblocks served by wide streets and boulevards. At every intersection of streets you find vuilding corners tapered (chamfered) back at 45° angles to offer light and visibility.

The concept encouraged natural ventilation, smooth traffic flow while allowing natural light to flood public spaces. Although (sadly) many have been filled, each superblock was initially configured to contain a quiet green space in the center.

The plan delivered the sweet spot of urban density sufficient to support mass transit, yet is very walkable and lacks the claustrophobia inducing high rises of many major world cities.  

Aerial View of Barcelona's L'Eixample District

This short trip back to Barcelona allowed me almost a full afternoon to make a final architectural pilgrimage to visit architect Lluis Domenich i Montaner's Art Nouveau masterpiece Hospital St. Pau. i Montaner is the architect that designed the magical Palace of Catalan Music and supervised the 1888 Barcelona World Exhibition.

Hospital St. Pau
Although the origins of this hospital can be traced back to 1401, the hospital we see today began with a legacy from Catalan banker Pau Gil upon his death in Paris in 1898. Construction on the hospital began in 1902 and continued for a period of 28 years.

An integral part of L'Eixample, Luis Domenech i Montaner designed Sant Pau at a 45° angle using 9 L'Eixample blocks. The initial plan included 48 buildings and occupies a prominent location at the end of one of L'Eixample's few boulevards set at an angle to the grid. At the other end of the diagonal boulevard is Gaudi's Masterpiece the Sagrada Famillia. The site is on a hillside, so each building is gently embedded into the hillside.

The completed hospital has 27 buildings, 16 of which are Modernista. Of the 16, 12 were designed by Domenech i Montaner prior to his death in 1928. The remaining 4 were completed by his son Pere Domenech i Roura.

Sant Pau was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997 and reopened to tours after a remarkable restoration in 2014.

Sant Pau was designed as a monumental city within a city. The hospital is organized as a campus arrayed along a linear spine. The multi-building design was conceived to assure there would be restful, healing green spaces providing views and furnishing fresh air to each of the patient wings.Each wing devoted to treatment of a specific medical specialty.

Each wing is connected by over a kilometre of tunnels where patients could be moved out of the weather along with supplies, laundry, medication and meals.

A Section of St. Pau's Tunnels

At the center of the campus is The Operations House. The building is oriented to maximize glare-free northern light in its three operating rooms. There is a main operating theater flanked by two small theaters (one exclusively for men, the other for women). 

The Operations House included modern sterilization, radiology and photography equipment and was the central storehouse for all the doctor's various instruments and tools.

The Main Operating Theater Today

 The Main Operating When it Was in Use
(Note original window sill heights)

Each of the spacious patient wings features high arched ceilings and each filled with natural light.

A Patient Ward

Patients in Each Ward Had Access to Circular Reading / Sitting Rooms

Sculpture is Integrated Throughout Sant Pau's Design 

As a center for research and training the main administrative building is a showpiece of art infused architecture. Every detail from structural columns, lighting and ceiling tracery down to its window handles are exquisitely designed and crafted. Much like his Palau, Sant Pau demonstrates the architect's mastery of glass, ceramic mosaic, metals and brick.

The Hospital Administration Building

 Rich Mosaics Adorn Stair Lights

The Graceful Ceiling of the Admin Building 
Features Stained Glass Skylights

 Typical Window Handles

Similar to many of Barcelona's buildings of the era, the wrought iron fencing and gates are also works of art.

 Angels at Each Gate

The restored site is now being re-purposed as a center of knowledge devoted healthcare, sustainability and education.

Each visit Barcelona affords me another opportunity to peel back additional layers of this wonderful cities rich architectural heritage.

The particulars:
An architectural tour de force, Hospital Sant Pau is still undergoing vigorous restoration and re-purposing so not all buildings are available to tour.

While Gaudi's buildings are overrun with tourists Sant Pau offers a blissful place. Staff on hand are very helpful and the site is easily accessed having its very own Metro stop. There is an admission charge for its self guided tour. Guided tours are also available as well. Check online here for times and current admission charges.

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Price Paid for Freedom

Roadboy visits the Arizona Memorial

Most days I wake up pretty proud of the country of my birth.

As a nation we've made lots of errors in judgement over our history. Most we've come to admit, some we continue to avert from our gaze.

But on balance, no nation has stood as a force for good over evil more than the United States.

And when tested, either during staggering economic depressions or when confronted in war, our leaders have proven an uncanny ability to do the right thing.

Winston Churchill opined that we always do the right thing "once we have exhausted all other options".

Saturday, nearly three decades after my first visit, I returned to the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. 

And after 30 years it is still deeply moving.

The USS Arizona Memorial

A Surprise Attack
On Sunday December 7, 1941, at 7:55 am, Oahu was attacked without warning by the Japanese. The meticulously planned attack resulted in the death of more than 2,400 and the near complete destruction of America's entire fleet of battleships.

1,177 of the casualties were the sailors and marines aboard the fully fueled and armed battleship USS Arizona. When hit by a Japanese torpedo it exploded and burned for days.

A Fitting Memorial
In 1962 The USS Arizona Memorial was consecrated directly above the remains of the sunken battleship. It is white for purity. It sags in the center as the ship did signifying the damage from attack. It then rises at each end celebrating eventual victory.

The Memorial "Floats" Above the Wreckage

This memorial provides a place of remembrance of the 1,102 servicemen that perished and whose bodies still remain aboard the Arizona.

National Park Service rangers at the memorial point out that a father and son and 37 pairs (or trios) of brothers were assigned to the ship at the time of the attack. Of those 77 brothers, 62 (23 full sets of brothers) perished. 

 During My Visit This Group Came, Offered a Solemn Prayer for Peace 
Placing Flower Leis Upon the Rail

Now a sacred cemetery, as survivors die many choose to have their remains returned to the Arizona to rejoin their mates forever.

NPS Divers Continue to Inter Remains Into the Arizona

In just a few weeks, on December 7, 2016, the 5 living survivors of the Arizona are all expected to return to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary of the attack.

The Memorial's Architect
The USS Arizona portion of the "Valor in the Pacific" Pearl Harbor Memorial itself was designed by architect Alfred Preis. 

 A Singular Flag Flies Above the Memorial

The Tree of Life
A Universal Symbol of Renewal

The story of Mr. Preis bears telling.  

Preis arrived in Honolulu in 1939 as an Austrian political refugee escaping Hitler's Third Reich.

I found a sad irony with today's headlines that Preis was initially welcomed and then immediately taken into custody and incarcerated in an internment camp after the attack. 

Yet, after the war Preis emerged destined to create this iconic and enduring symbol; a tangible demonstration of his love for a nation in which he found sanctuary.

Black Tears
After 75 years, the Arizona still releases about 9 quarts of oil a day (which are referred to as the "Black Tears of the Arizona").

The Tears of the Arizona
Viewed From the Decks of the USS Missouri 
On Whose Decks Japan Surrendered to the US 

Integrity and Honor
It is still customary for the sailors of all ships entering Pearl Harbor to approach the rail, stand at attention and salute the Arizona as they pass.

As for me, I left Pearl harbor with two messages I will never forget.

It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded, who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. 
War is hell.
     William T. Sherman

And this poem

Dear Lord, 
Lest I continue my complacent way. 
Help me to remember somehow out there a man died for me today.  
As long as there be war I must ask and answer 
Am I worth dying for?
     The Poem Eleanor Roosevelt kept in her wallet during all of World War II  

Both seem important as our Nation's leadership now passes to individuals that have never faced hunger, oppression or shouldered weapons in war.

To all of America's veterans - thank you. 

Roadboy's Travels © 2016