Bonvoy, Mergers & Corporate Culture

One thing I’ve experienced in the course of my business travels is the massive impact to customer service when two large corporations merge. It hit me first when Northwest and Delta merged. I was a Delta Platinum at the time, and the mess that resulted prompted me to do a status match over to United… a change I haven’t regretted once. (not that United is perfect, I’ve seen the unbelievable customer disservice stories, but if you have some priority level with them it’s a pretty good airline… not to mention the United lounge in Tokyo is absolutely amazing). The next time it hit was when I was pulling a regular commute from Palm Springs to San Francisco on Alaska. Then Alaska and Virgin America merged and the nightmare began. It took them close to 2 years to merge that most fundamental of databases… their frequent fliers. So even though (in theory) you were flying “Alaska/Virgin” Virgin treated Alaska’s frequent travelers like ordinary travelers, and vice versa… a fact that pissed off a lot of us who have suffered through too many flights and expected to be treated like the vital Bread & Butter customers we are. At that point, even though I was an MVP with Alaska, I started booking United flights on a smaller regional jet (something I try to avoid), just to be sure I’d get decent customer service. Plus Alaska and Virgin had two separate agreements with the SFO airport, so I literally never knew which terminal I was going to land in or fly out of. It was a trying time.

I finally bypassed that bit of annoyance by moving up to Northern California just outside of the Bay Area. It was a 2-4 hour drive into the office, but still better than all the hassles of air travel. Until, of course, I got laid off – which is just one of the really interesting things that has happened to me this year, in addition to 3 weeks in Spain, 10 days in Chile, a broken ankle, a smash & grab at home, and eye surgery during which I woke up (completely).

What we discovered in our trip to Spain, is that the merger between the hotel giants Marriott and Ritz Carlton (and all their many associated brands), is no different than any other large travel company merger. It’s a mess.

Until staying at a Hotel Hospes (a pre-merger Ritz Carlton brand) and an Aloft (another Ritz Carlton brand) in Seville Spain I hadn’t realized how different the internal cultures of Marriott and Ritz actually are.

You see, Marriott’s culture is built around relationships, especially with people who will stay frequently. The design of the lobbies, the Concierge Lounge privileges, the room layouts, and the general amenities are all designed to make business travelers feel comfortable and special while they’re (frequently) away from home. In this culture, the frequent travelers represent revenue they can rely on regardless of the season and economic conditions. A frequent traveler who is used to being given special treatment when away on business, will also choose the same hotel when traveling for leisure. Why not? They get extra perks and considerations that often translate into savings and fun experiences on their personal trips.

Ritz Carlton’s and its suite of brands were designed to make the occasional pleasure trip feel luxurious. Where Marriott focuses on business amenities and soothing the weary road warrior when they stumble across the threshold, Ritz’s customer base wants to walk in and be wowed. They want every meal eaten at a Ritz property to feel fabulous, and they spend a lot of their time away from the hotel.

While a business traveler wants to be able to get a quick bite to eat from early morning (before heading out to a local meeting or company location) through noon (because… time zones), the leisure traveler wants to sleep in, then go out to explore and find some wonderful brunch place with photo-worthy quiche and lattes with small landscapes done in foam.

While a business traveler wants immediate onsite access to a reasonably priced drink and a decent bite to eat after a long day of planes, trains, Ubers, etc… the leisure traveler wants a quick nap and directions to the best sight seeing destinations, or to head out for some chill time with friends or family in exotic locations. An introvert on a business trip will sit in their room and read a book or work on the latest report. An introvert on a leisure trip will go out for a stroll. This matters when it comes to room sizes and amenities like arm chairs and desks.

These are not just different types of customers, catering to them is inherently a different business model and corporate culture. And this is why Marriott and Ritz are stumbling as they figure out the essential steps of their joint adventure.

Accustomed to squeezing every customer for the maximum dollars per square foot of hotel room, and to handing out maps to local attractions and recommending the most expensive restaurant around, Ritz culture is just not prepared to provide a stiff drink to someone checking in at 2pm or a basic breakfast at 6am. Alcohol is served during what the local staff considers to be “reasonable” hours, as is breakfast and dinner. Lunch isn’t even really a consideration because every tourist is going to want to go out and have new culinary experiences at that hour, or be saving money for a big dinner splurge.

And this is the big takeaway, for now at least. When a Marriott Platinum or Titanium member walks into a Ritz culture, they’re going to be disappointed.

At a Ritz property, status is pretty much irrelevant. If you want to spend more money on a better room, GREAT! A free upgrade? Lips curl in disbelief. They’re thrilled to book you for their in-house “cultural experience”, but the food is mediocre if not outright terrible and the cultural experience can be had for a fraction of the price elsewhere. You can enjoy a $6 demitasse of coffee and the breakfast buffet will be $27. Because they don’t expect to see you again, your small dissatisfactions with the room or the food or the location, are pretty much irrelevant. Although this is changing, leisure travelers have better things to do than fill out surveys and write reviews. And the Ritz brand knows this… it’s a culture based on highlights, so the sexy lobby decor, the luxurious linens and the high end bath products are always going to overshadow the fact that the in-room refrigerator never worked properly.

And if you do provide feedback on what they could have done better, you can count on someone telling you, condescendingly, that you’re wrong and no hotel ever would have done it differently (because in their mind they are the experts in running a profitable hotel, and you’re an amateur). In my experience at a Ritz property, your business is less important than your check out date – you’re just a tourist after all, a head in a bed.

I am hoping that Marriott’s focus on constant quality improvement and customer relationships will catch on, but for now every Bonvoy property isn’t necessarily going to provide the same experience.

In short, mergers are consistently terrible for customer service. Let’s hope this one gets sorted out quickly.

The Great Baggage Fee Scam

Sometimes that airplane ticket price IS too good to be true. Depending on which airline you choose, the type of ticket you purchase (economy, economy plus, business class, etc…), and your destination – you can end up paying another $100+ to bring an ordinary 21″ roller bag along with you on your trip.

I believe the theory is that you should be able to live for a week out of a small backpack. To this I say, well… something rude. I’m all for discouraging people from packing a jumbo suitcase for a week. No one needs that much clothing unless they’re samples for your new line of product, or some such thing. But for a trip to visit family on the other coast, or sight see around Hollywood? Nope.

But I’m not talking about a big suitcase. I’m talking about a small suitcase with clothing that has been carefully curated to coordinate and layer. In addition I have a backpack for my camera, Chromebook, and eReader plus sundry charging solutions. A chunk of space is allocated to meds, which anyone over 50 will find consumes more and more space and attention.

But my Vueling ticket (economy) from Barcelona to Spain, does not permit me to carry on my roller bag. Same deal with my flight from the US to Europe on Lufthansa. I had to check my bag since I couldn’t afford to pay about FIVE THOUSAND dollars more for our two tickets. So I check my bag. $60 for the flight to Europe. eu50 (about $54) for the flight from Barcelona to Seville. And then of course, there is the fee for the trip back. So all told, I’m paying another $228… just to bring some clothing along on my 3 week vacation to the European Union. Multiply that by two for a couple. That’s a lot of sight-seeing tickets or massages… or a couple of deluxe meals. All to bring along your undies, some small electronics, basic toiletries, medications and enough clothing to be comfortable in various weather.

Raise your hand if this sounds reasonable to you. Please raise your hand if it sounds reasonable, and you own stock in one or more airlines. Now please raise your hand if it sounds reasonable, and you work for an airline.

Is anyone’s hand still not raised? I seriously doubt it. But this is today’s travel experience. Keep this in mind when you book airlines. Fortunately, Cheap Air tries to keep track of all these fees and baggage limitations across the airline industry. I prefer to be an educated consumer. Mind you, some of these so-called “free” first bags only apply to Business and First Class tickets. You have to go onto each airline’s particular baggage policy for the most current details.

You should also take advantage of any frequent traveler accounts and status you may have. You can save yourself a nice chunk of change just having (as in my case, a Silver status with United’s (Star Alliance) courtesy of my lifetime Titanium status with Marriott’s Bonvoy club. This means that we only had to pay the $60 fee to check my wife’s (small) suitcase. I caught this just in time and the Lufthansa service person had to check with her Supervisor to confirm. I’d like to believe that you could get a refund if you realize after the fact that your bag should have been checked for free. Somehow I doubt it, but it doesn’t hurt to call your Frequent Flier customer service line and ask.

This practice of charging additional fees for things that really should be included in the purchase price is an increasingly common snake-in-the-grass for travelers. It’s that 2.10 for a small bottle of water or eu30 for a seat closer to the front door of the airplane, or $125 for extra legroom. For a while Ryan Airlines charged a pound to use the bathroom during the flight, a practice initiated in 2010 that gained them a bad reputation with customers which sticks to this day.

What all this boils down to is that sometimes the low cost ticket you are considering, isn’t really as cheap as it looks on Expedia or Travelocity or some other online booking site. Take a moment to check each airline’s baggage and fees policies before making that purchase.

What about you? Encounter any egregious travel fees lately? What really got your ire? Share the experience in the Comments section below!

What Makes a Good AirBnB

This blog slips between the cracks of my usual blog categories. Business travel rarely involves AirBnB’s with their lack of corporate contracts and general independence, and while this advice might be useful to travelers who are planning a trip, it’s not specifically for that audience. My advice on AirBnB for travelers is read all the descriptions, twice… then read it again before you book. I’ve read so many BnB profiles by now, I’ve probably violated my own advice. I’m hoping not.

I’m afraid this blog is simply some miscellaneous carping on a subject on which I have been forcibly educated in the course of plotting a trip for myself, my wife, and a good friend. We’re going to Europe. Yay! We had a loose idea of where we wanted to go, but the trip evolved from two weeks in Spain with a final stop in Lisbon… to a final week in Rome, all because of AirBnB costs and amenities. Why Rome? Well, why not? We considered Nice, but the Côte d’Azur is terribly thin on AirBnBs at any price… and the French hosts had a particularly annoying habit that got me searching further afield. More on that later.

This blog is chock full of unasked for advice for the many AirBnB hosts of Europe. (and elsewhere).. who clearly don’t “get” Americans, or haven’t grasped the main idea of selling a place for strangers to sleep, dress, and perform the usual bathroom rituals.

This may be, in your way of thinking, a good thing. I won’t contest that. Renting out a part of your home, or your second home, or an investment property is a matter of financial necessity, not fun. For AirBnB hosts in other countries, Americans with our diffident aesthetic, low power distance and low context culture and strangely arrogant politicians, must be a great puzzle, and our preferences impenetrable. Europe, with it’s small elegant spaces grafted onto ancient stone piles must find us particularly difficult to endure. I get that. So I’m going to spell out a few expectations, just in case anyone is looking for tips.

Mind you, as I searched there were a number of stunning AirBnBs that ticked all our boxes. I booked a few and am crossing my fingers that they’ll live up to the photos and descriptions. The good ones stand out. This blog explains why I scrolled right on past your lovely and lovingly (or not) furnished home.

First problem. You think of it as your home. In fact, you may even live there, so that makes sense. The problem is that for a period of time, you want someone else to feel at home there. The more “personal” and “cozy” your AirBnB room/home is, the less likely some random stranger is going to feel at ease there… because, you and they are strangers. However friendly you may be on the surface, they are in your space because of things they want to do outside your home. They are not there to make friends. I’m sure it happens, but if that’s your expectation, you’ve lost the plot. You are asking for money. They are asking for a comfortable place to stay. It’s a business exchange. Cluttering the room with family mementos, uncomfortable or ‘off limit’ furnishings, and failing to make sure all the electric sockets work, is just bad business. Walk into that room and look at it as if you were a stranger. Better yet, ask the next five people who stay there what you should remove from the room, or what it needs. Don’t rely on reviews. We’re all trying to be polite and we get that everyone is different, and we don’t want to make you feel bad… unless the situation is truly egregiously bad, in which case most of us will simply NOT leave a review. So if you’re not getting a lot of positive reviews, you are doing something wrong.

So that’s item #1. It’s not personal, it’s a transaction. You may think painting the kitchen red is festive. For someone who is already out of their comfort zone, in a strange place where they may not even speak the language? Loads of bright colors, particularly hot colors, are just disturbing. Guess what we want to do in the room or home we have rented after a long day of braving the ‘touristic’ crowds and walking 57 kilometers? Yes. We’d like to relax … somewhere pleasant, quiet, and soothing. No on the red. Likewise with orange, bright yellow, and anything resembling colored fluorescent lighting. We’re not there to disco.

It’s all about the beds. No, seriously. Bathrooms fall second because we’re sweaty, sore, and our digestive system has suffered a series of shocks. A great kitchen may snag a few more renters, but a lousy night’s sleep will override our happiness over the lovely living room, the dishwasher, and the snazzy shower pretty quickly. Even a great pool, spectacular views, and a nice garden can’t compensate for general exhaustion. Nice design and good photos are important, but they’re not what we really need. They get customers in the door, they won’t keep us happy.

One of the most annoying things I found in looking for a house or apartment to lease for a week for 3 older women were the number of places furnished with twin beds. Yeah, I know you have a lot of family hand-me-down beds that are twins, and the linens are cheaper.

In America children sleep in twin beds. Adults sleep in a full size, or even a queen. Couples generally sleep in a queen or a king-sized bed. These are very important distinctions. If you have furnished with a queen or king sized bed, make sure your AirBnB profile is correct. A full sized bed is quite a bit smaller than a queen and tiny compared to a king. It can make the difference between being considered, or skipped over. The FIRST thing I looked at on every profile I clicked on was the little bed diagram.

Twin beds may be all that fits into a room. Or you may be trying to attract a group of 10 college students who want a place to party. And if you want to attract a family with eight children, by all means furnish four of your five bedrooms with two twin beds, or (even less desirable) bunk beds. But children (especially drunken ones) are destructive. They don’t intend to be, but they’re children. They don’t know that things are not supposed to be scraped, jumped on, kicked, and generally stress-tested every time they’re used.

If you want to attract adults – mature and responsible adults, you need to recognize that they’re going to spend more time in bed than they are dashing around restlessly and partying. Large, comfortable beds with good pillows and decent quality cotton bed linens are expected. These should be prominently displayed in your pictures. You should plan on providing a minimum of 2 good quality, nicely fluffy pillows per person – with extras for people who need support of a bad knee, a shoulder recovering from surgery, or general lumbar support. If the pillow is a foam or fiberfill that is less than 2 inches thick after being ‘fluffed’, you need to buy a new one. And don’t keep it in the closet as a back-up either. Donate it if you really feel guilty. But get it out of guest circulation. (feather pillows are an exception here because even an older one can be fluffed up to serve as a good resting place for an arm or to cradle an arthritic neck) I know some people can’t handle feather pillows because of respiratory issues, but for my money, there’s nothing longer lasting or more comfortable.

Also, while 2 twin beds set side by side do actually equal a king sized bed, there is nothing sexy, romantic, or cozy about sleeping around the gap. No. Just no. If you have space for a king sized bed, for goodness sake, use a king size bed. Or consider using a queen to provide more room to move around.

Crowded bedrooms lead to people bruising themselves, tripping and breaking decorative items, or suffering incontinence as they shuffle around trying to locate the bathroom. None of these experiences will lead to positive reviews. My wife and I once stayed in a room so claustrophobic we left at 4am because neither of us could sleep in the airless closet that served as our bedroom.

Make sure the bedroom(s) get decent ventilation and can either be maintained at a comfortable temperature, or other accommodations have been made. If you can’t offer air conditioning for a space that gets hot, install a ceiling fan with a remote and make sure the windows open easily. If you don’t have heat in a home (or room) that gets cold at night, make sure you have warm comforters or extra blankets. Consideration of your guests’ needs will go a long way to getting you positive reviews.

Which brings me to specifics. Lisbon Portugal is a coastal city. It’s vibrant, full of history and crammed with amazing food, art, and creative activities. It also gets cold at night well into late spring. Cold and damp. I don’t care if you’re used to it. Imagine that your guest comes from somewhere hot and is used to having AC and heat. If your apartment doesn’t have heat, don’t have them discover this when they’re THERE to stay. Make sure you mention it in the description, along with the fact that you have lovely feather comforters for every bed and a space heater for the bathroom. Better yet, show this in pictures. And PLEASE, for the love of all that is likely to get your place booked, make the beds up before you take pictures. A photo of a naked mattress with a stack of folded sheets and towels sitting on it is Not Enticing Marketing. It looks more like you’re inviting people to stay in an army barracks than a comfortable AirBnB. Are we also expected to make up our beds and strip them when we’re done? Do we get a discount on our cleaning fee for performing this housekeeping chore?

Another practice I encountered in my recent education on all things AirBnB is the addition of fees for basics. I’m not talking about 15EU for a parking spot. That’s money well spent for folks who have a car. I’m talking about charging for things that should be included if you actually care about your guest’s comfort.

If you want to charge extra for the use of electricity, water, gas for cooking, or heating fuel… increase your rate. Guests are paying to stay someplace with the kind of amenities they enjoy at home. This practice brings to mind an Americanism known as “nickel and diming”. Tacking on a bunch of extra fees for features that should be part of the basic package is not going to go over well with your guests, especially if it was buried deep in the small print at the very bottom of your description. If you MUST charge extra fees, include it early in the description. Otherwise it seems sneaky and dishonest, which is not going to lead to a good relationship and most certainly not a great review.

And finally, my largest pet peeve of the whole adventure. Charging for sheets. Seriously? Is this 1689? A tuppence for a sheet sir, or you can share the straw tick with the last guest’s fleas. Sheets are actually as much for the landlord’s benefit as the guest’s. Do you really want someone to sleep on the bed without sheets? All their sweat and skin grease and hair products oozing into the mattress? BED LINENS are not something a traveler should have to pack along. This actually is a practice of some places along the Cote d’Azur… which just made me sniff and think, amateurs… and which is really why we wound up in Rome. 40EU for a set of sheets per person is highway robbery. You’re here now, pay up or go someplace else… and by the way, we already have your entire payment and you don’t get a refund. That’s a highly suspect business practice and guaranteed to get you an unpleasant review. I’m rather surprised AirBnB even allows it, but that’s not my job.

My job is to offer some helpful advice to folks just starting to look for an AirBnB and some insight into what your guests need to all those AirBnB hosts who may be wondering how to make sure their place is booked solid during peak season. What about you? Any pet peeves you have on the AirBnB circuit? Any really cool things a host did for you? Tell us all about it in the comments below.